Svetlana Alexievich is the 2015 Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature and the 2018 Anna Politkovskaya Award winner.
Editor’s note: Leading Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the entryway of her Moscow apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006. Each year, on the anniversary of her murder, the winners of the Anna Politkovskaya Award write a letter to Anna. The award has been presented annually since 2007 by RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in War), to women human rights defenders from war and conflict zones.
I want to tell you about our lives without you. Where are we now? At what point in history? One thing is clear: not where we ever wanted to be. In the more than 10 years you have not been with us, we could have already been living in another country, having moved from the Gulag Empire to a normal European state, as many of our neighbors have done. But as Pyotr Stolypin famously put it: “In Russia, every 10 years everything changes, and nothing changes in 200 years.”
I am sick and tired of this quote, but it contains so much despair that is so familiar to us that I want to repeat it.
Do you remember the 1990s — that crazy, bloody, sacred time? Do you remember what romantics we were — criminally romantic, as we have to admit today. It was naive of us to believe that if books by Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov and Grossman appeared in our bookshops (books that had previously meant a prison sentence for those who read them), that if we had free newspapers and different parties (not just the Communist Party), this would be the beginning of a normal life. We would be like everyone else. We would join the rest of the world, stop scaring everyone with our Iskander missiles.
Rallies, hundreds of thousands strong, gathered in the squares, and we walked around and chanted: “Freedom! Freedom!” It seemed to us that this eternal Russian dream, this wonderful creature so lovingly nurtured in our kitchens, where we used to gather and dream, was about to become reality, that literally tomorrow we would be free. No one at the time could possibly know that a former convict who has spent his whole life in a prison camp cannot just come out of the camp gates and become free overnight. He cannot be free because all he knows is his prison camp.
How many illusions we had then! We naively believed that as soon as we removed that henchman Dzerzhinsky from his granite pedestal, that would be enough, and the whole country would breathe free. And so they published Solzhenitsyn and Rybakov, and everyone read everything. My friends and I — any intelligentsia household — often didn’t own a decent coat, but we all had large libraries. Now our children and grandchildren don’t know what to do with all these books and thick magazines. They don’t need them, so they throw them in the trash.
Yes, we ran around the squares and shouted, “Freedom! Freedom!” Yet no one knew what it meant. And then it began . . . . Plants, factories, research facilities, enterprises were shutting down, and what could we do with all that freedom? No one had imagined that we would be free but destitute. Everyone wanted to be a master, not a servant. Even today, if you walk into an expensive shop and ask for a little extra attention, it is taken as an offense, a sign of condescension. Everyone has only recently emerged from socialism, where everyone was poor but equal in their poverty.
I think, Anna, you must have already seen those TV images: “new Russians” eating black caviar, bragging about the gold urinals in their personal jets and the largest yachts in the world, while people somewhere in Ryazan or on the Sakhalin Island, without any work or money, looked on with hungry eyes. No one thought about the people. Ideas were cherished, not people. Now we are surprised that our people’s heads are filled with a confused mix of left- and right-wing ideas. Because no one had ever talked to them, no one took pains to explain anything to them from the TV screens.
Now it is Putin who talks to them; he’s learned from our mistakes. But it’s not about Putin alone; he’s just saying what the people want to hear. I would say that there’s a little bit of Putin in every Russian. I’m talking about the collective Putin: We thought that it was the Soviet power that was the problem, but it was all about the people.
The Soviet way of thinking lives on in our minds and our genes. How quickly has the Stalinist machine set to work again. With what skill and enthusiasm everyone is once again denouncing each other, catching spies, beating people up for being different . . . Stalin has risen! Throughout Russia they are building monuments to Stalin, putting up Stalin’s portraits, opening museums in Stalin’s memory.
You passed away, Anna, in the belief that we had triumphed over the coup. Yet the years that we have lived without you have clearly shown that the coup had only hidden for a while, taken other forms, only to come back victorious. If anyone were to put on a T-shirt with Stalin’s picture or with the words “USSR” in the 1990s, they would be mocked. Now it’s considered OK. There are dozens of books about Stalin lining our bookshops: books about Stalin’s women, about the great generalissimo during the war, about the wine he loved, about the cigarettes he liked to smoke. It’s quite incomprehensible how people at the same time grieve for their innocent loved ones murdered by Stalin and express their love for Stalin. Nostalgia for everything Soviet. Russians want to have a Schengen visa, a foreign car, even if it’s only a secondhand one, and hold on to their faith in Stalin.
The hardest thing you would find to accept is that Russians have learned to kill their brothers. They’ve learned to hate. I could tell you how a Moscow taxi driver kicked me out of the car when he found out that I was from Western Ukraine, that my mother was Ukrainian, and that I loved Ukrainians. “Crimea is ours!” he yelled at me. “No, it’s not yours, it’s Ukrainian.” “Donbass is ours!” “No, it’s Ukrainian.”
I am not sure if your heart, Anna, could endure this pain as well. Undoubtedly, you would have gone to the front line in Ukraine. Undoubtedly you would have written your honest reports from there.
But there is also a terrible difference. When I wrote my book, “Boys in Zinc”, about the war in Afghanistan, and would go to meet a mother waiting for a coffin with her son’s remains, she would greet me with the words: “I shall tell you everything! Write the truth.” Today, mothers are silent; they talk in whispers. One of them told a reporter: “I won’t tell you anything, because they won’t pay me compensation for my dead son. I want this money to buy an apartment for my daughter.”
Where did this happen? When? When did we turn back, sink back into the darkness of madness, fear and hatred of the Stalin years. We are still afraid to openly admit it to ourselves. But it is so. There is a war on. In the former Soviet Union, dozens of journalists have been killed; every year, new names appear on this black list. Life in Russia is still in limbo, between chaos and a prison camp. It’s no accident that I often hear people in my circle talk about reading books on 1930s Germany or the final years of the Russian Empire, on the eve of the Russian revolution. Ask yourself: why? Well, there are so many terrifying similarities with our life today. Some talk about the Third World War, others about the return of fascism.
Freedom is a long road: This is what we’ve learned since you left. We really need you, Anna! We’ve learned from you that there can be no compromises in a war; even the smallest compromise makes one an accomplice. It would be much harder for all of us without everything you had managed to say and do — without your belief that it is not hatred, but love for humanity that will save us. Thank you for having been here and still being here.