18 November 2018, Sunday, 12:00
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Svetlana Alexievich: “Putin now lives inside every Russian”

Svetlana Alexievich

Belarus became a totalitarian state long ago, while Russia is only at the beginning of the process.

A meeting with famous Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich was held in Warsaw on May 13. Her new book Second Hand Time: The Demise of the Red (Wo)man was presented at the History Meeting House. Translator Jerzy Czech and writer Martin Pollack took part in the presentation.

The meeting attracted many people. Both Polish and Belarusian readers of Svetlana Alexievich's books wanted to ask her about her views on the recent events in the world, in particular, the war in Ukraine.

Journalists of charter97.org prepared a transcript of Svetlana Alexievich's answers.

About Russia's war against Ukraine

– How is it possible to deluge the country with blood, criminally annex Crimea and destroy this fragile after-war peace? There are no excuses.

I am just from Kyiv, and I was astonished by the people I saw. They want a new life, they are ready for a new life. And they will fight for it.

Hundreds of Russian tanks in Donbas is not a sort of a conversation; pitting fraternal nations against each other means death for a politician.

Ukrainian people cannot be defeated

– Those who speak in defence of separatists in Donbas should hear what say Ukrainian soldiers who were taken captive by the so called rebels or, what is most likely, Russian contract servicemen. They should hear how these soldiers were mocked.

How do the Russians transport their killed men back? They bury them in secrecy like criminals. I saw a documentary video on the internet: huge refrigerators deliver bodies of Ukrainian soldiers and officers in Ukraine and people stand on their knees along roads. When I saw it, I understood that these people cannot be defeated this time.

Putin is a KGB officer

– Putin is not a politician. Putin is a KGB officer. What he does is provocations, which are usually organised by the KGB. It is not a problem for any country to find such elements. If 100 tanks and servicemen are sent to Belarus today, what will happen to a quiet peaceful country? A part of people will want to Poland, a part will want to Russia, and there will be bloodshed again.

Why do Russian mothers stay silent?

– I think it is a mistake to think that Russian or Belarusian people are afraid of speaking. They probably can be afraid of speaking at a propaganda level. But it is strange to me that the Russian mothers whose sons died in Ukraine are afraid of talking to journalists about it.

I asked one of them, “Why do you stay silent? Your son was killed.” And she answered, “If I say, I won't receive a million, and I want to buy a flat for my daughter for that money.”

When I was writing a book about Afghanistan titled Zinky Boys, people were more honest, mothers were shouting and crying.

It cannot be called pure fear. It is a complex mixture. People are disappointed at the 20 years that have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was we, the “elite”, who wanted perestroika, but people stayed silent. It turns it now, when Putin began to speak their language, that people choose past instead of future. It is the most terrible discovery of the latest years.

Of course, Russian television perverts people. Journalists of Russian media should be tried for what they are saying. For what they are saying about Europe, Donbas and the Ukrainians. It's not just that people want to hear it. We can say today about a collective Putin that lives inside every Russian. We have faced the situation when the Red Empire disappeared, but people were left.

Svetlana Alexievich

We lived among victims and executioners

– It's horrible that people begin to shoot instead of talking to one another. But I wouldn't say it is a feature of only the Russians. We saw it in the 20th century in Yugoslavia, Transnistria, Afghanistan. It takes no time for a beast inside a human being to wake up.

I was at the war in Afghanistan. I wasn't allowed to take part in battles, but I saw the eyes of people after battles. These boys needed some time to recover. I can even say their faces were not normal.

The 21st century began with blood again, and literature must write that ideas should be “killed”, that we need to argue instead of killing people.

We must keep this fragile peace that established after the war. We deal with the Russians that have been fighting for almost 150 years during the past 200 years. They have never lived well. A human life costs nothing for them, and greatness in their understanding is not that people must live well but that the state must be very big and have plenty of missiles.

People who are very aggressive and dangerous for peace have grown up in the vast post-Soviet area, especially in Russia and Belarus, where people were being deceived for 70 years and then robbed for 20 years.

Any person who lived in the Soviet Union can confirm that we lived among victims and executioners. For example, I lived in the village where all knew that this man was a Nazi policeman during the war, and that one betrayed people during Stalin's purges and GULAG times. We were living among these people. A person living between these sides can turn either into a victim or into an executioner.

There's no chemically pure evil

– I have a striking story in my book, where a man says: “There's no chemically pure evil.” When he was little, he was in love with aunt Olia, who had a beautiful voice and long hair. During perestroika, people began to speak about what they used to remain silent. He learnt that aunt Olia informed on her brother in 1937, and he later died in camps. When aunt Olia was dying of cancer, he asked the question that was vexing him all the time: “Why did you betray your brother?” Aunt Olia answered: “Try to find an honest person in Stalin's times. There were no honest people.” He asked her, when leaving: “What do you remember about 1937?” She said: “It was the best year of my life. I loved, I was loved, and I was happy.”

You understand, evil is diffused, dispersed in our life, it is not an ingot. Hundreds of guards worked at Auschwitz camp, but how many Germans did support and carry this banal little evil? This is the main problem. It repeats today.

It is important for to understand where we come from. It must explain much of how we live today. We have reflected on neither GULAG camps nor the war. We haven't discussed it sincerely. We have faced criminal liability today. Stalin's version is again considered to be the main one.

Russia's only museum of GULAG victims is situated in Perm. All staff members have recently been fired, and a museum of GULAG staff will be opened on that place. It will be a museum of executioners, not victims. The state's main idea – that it was great Russia that was lost in the 1990s and needs to be restored – infected all people, like an epidemic.

… My book is not hopeless. It describes the strength of the human spirit. But I cannot find an answer to one question. Why do our sufferings, our grandfathers' sufferings not convert into freedom? It is a big question. At the same time, more than 50 Bolotnaya demonstrators are in jail, and they didn't break down. The place where Boris Nemtsov was killed, the authorities remove flowers at night, but people bring them again and again next day.

Belarus is a mixture of mafia-style and Soviet state

– I met censorship in Soviet times. People became braver after perestroika. They began to write to me, and I had to return and print an additional edition of my books.

Belarus now has a creeping censorship. It is like a swamp. Belarus became a totalitarian state long ago, while Russia is only at the beginning of the process. It is harder for Russia to impose such totalitarian control that Belarus has. My books are published in Russia, but not in Belarus. Guys from the opposition recently published my book in Belarusian, but they managed to print it only in Lithuania.

We have absolute totalitarian control in Belarus. Former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov is here in this room now. He was jailed for his participation in the elections, and he experienced the Belarusian totalitarian regime.

It is a mixture of a mafia-style and Soviet state. It is the cocktail that the science of history cannot call and define.

I am a Belarusian writer

– I have been researching the Soviet civilisation for 40 years. Socialism and fascism are two ideas of the 20th century. They are very insidious and beguiling. I have always wanted to know why this moment of blindness in society, like in today's Russia, happens.

Expelling all communists and removing their portraits is one thing, but cutting it from one's soul is something different. My father died lately, and his will was that his communist party card must be buried with him. He believed in communism. I am trying to understand and research how it happened in the vast area, in 15 former Soviet republics.

I would call myself a Belarusian writer, but with a feeling of the Soviet background. I am a Belarusian writer, because I was raised in this mentality, geography and history. I have it in me.

Yes, I write in Russian, but people in many countries write in another language, for example in German, or writers in Ireland use English. I think these processes don't have clear borders as you in Belarus want – either you are Belarusian or you are Russian. It is especially true for the modern world.

When I was writing my book about Chernobyl, it expanded my worldview. When I understood that people began to fear water and ground, I felt my unity with every living creature, with a butterfly or a hedgehog... The Chernobyl disaster placed us in an entirely new process, though we haven't realised it yet.

I returned home because I missed it

– I had lived in different European countries for 11 years. There's strong support and solidarity among writers around the world. I returned because as a writer, I need to breathe this air, talk to these people, see them.

The authorities behave as if I didn't exist. I am not published in state-run press, not allowed to appear on TV and the radio. Only the opposition media publish me.

Of course, taking into account my certain popularity in the world, it is not so easy for the authorities to organise something against me, though, as the example of Andrei Sannikov shows, they can do everything. They don't respect one's status.

I returned home because I missed it. I wanted to watch my granddaughter Yanka growing, I wanted to see our people and landscapes. However, it's difficult to live here. It is an enclosed space.

Don't sink into despair

Andrei Sannikov recalled the feat of tens of thousands of Belarusians who took to Minsk streets on 19 December 2010, protesting against rigged results of the presidential elections.

The politician asked the author of the book The Demise of the Red (Wo)man what man, in her view, came after the red one had gone.

– A person who has just recovered after a serious illness lives in a vulgar period, and I don't know if I can accuse him of that. He wants to try different food, travel to Egypt. He lives in the material world yet. What always surprised me is that when you travel across Lithuania and stop to talk to people, they immediately switch to political themes and speak about freedom and intellectual things. When you travel in our villages, people say: “What freedom do you mean? We have plenty of everything, we have a variety of sausages and a variety of vodkas.” When you try to involve them into a conversation, they look at you as if you were an alien.

But I tell myself and my friends – don't sink in despair. You should enlighten people and work hard. This is our people, and we don't have others.