MINSK, Belarus — Svetlana Alexievich, the Russian-speaking Belarusian winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, lashed out at Russia and the president of Belarus hours after the prize, saying they belonged to a “Russian world” she rejected.
“I consider myself a person of the Belarusian world, a person of Russian culture, and a cosmopolitan of the world,” Alexievich said at a press conference on Thursday. “I love the good, humanitarian Russian world” of “literature, ballet, grand music. But I don’t love the world of Stalin, Beria, Putin, and Shoigu,” she added, naming the notorious architect of the Soviet Union’s labor camps and Russia’s current defense minister.
Speaking to reporters in the packed offices of the independent Nasha Niva newspaper, littered with her books and the white-and-red flag adopted by the country’s opposition, Alexievich slammed Belarus’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, ahead of elections Sunday and urged Belarusians to reject the “collaborationist culture that authoritarian leaders count on so much.”
“If we boycott the election, we give Lukashenko a chance to increase his percentage,” Alexievich said. Alexievich, 67, the first Belarusian to win a Nobel, said Lukashenko had not called to congratulate her, though Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, and a Russian minister had. “Belarus’s government pretends I don’t exist," she said. "They don’t publish me and I can’t speak in public anywhere."
Lukashenko is expected to win Sunday’s vote by a wide margin, in large part due to his near total control of Belarusian society and dissident groups’ failure to register a candidate. Alexievich’s works, which the Swedish Academy called a “monument to suffering and courage in our time,” have not been published in Belarus since 1994, the year Lukashenko took power.
Alexievich said she did not plan to vote, but offered a qualified endorsement of Tatiana Karatkevich, the nearest thing to an opposition candidate. Karatkevich has alienated most of Belarus’s dissidents with a campaign focused on everyday social problems rather than calls for democratic change.
Belarus’s opposition was thrilled with Alexievich’s victory. “I’m happy for all of us, for everyone who loves Belarus, regardless of the language he expresses that love in,” former presidential candidate and political prisoner Mikola Statkevich wrote on Facebook.
“I’m not a barricade person. I don’t like them. But time leads us to the barricades, because what’s happening is shameful,” Alexievich said, urging Belarusians to adopt non-violent protest. “I’m against revolutions. I don’t want one life to be lost. We need to find our Belarusian Gandhism."
Though Alexievich is the first Nobel laureate who writes in Russian since Joseph Brodsky won the prize in 1987, the award has drawn criticism in Russia, where supporters of Vladimir Putin consider her a Belarusian nationalist hostile to Russians. “They give Nobel Prizes for ideology in politics, and now literature too,” tweeted Alexei Pushkov, chair of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament. “Obama got it for words, not deeds. Alexievich got it for collecting ideological cliches.”
Alexeivich also voiced her opposition to the war in Ukraine, which she described as a “an occupation and an invasion by a foreign power,” and said she feared Putin would succeed in building a Russian airbase in Belarus, despite Lukashenko’s opposition. “Belarus could be saved if it turned towards the European Union, but nobody will ever let it go,” she said. Alexievich added that Russia’s airstrike campaign in Syria risked embroiling Moscow into a drawn-out, bloody conflict like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which she documented in her book The Boys in Zinc. “We had Afghan veterans,” she said, "we had Chechen veterans, and now we’ll have Syrian veterans."
Alexievich, whose debut book, War’s Unwomanly Face, chronicled the lives of Soviet women during World War II, said the nationalist wave in Russia reminded her of the early years of Nazi Germany. “At the start, when they told Germans: don’t go to that doctor, don’t go to that tailor, they went to see Jewish doctors anyway. But the machine was very powerful and pushed the most primitive buttons. That’s what we’re seeing today in Russia especially,” Alexievich said. “I think it’s always frightening and difficult to remain human. Even if they’re not jailing people en masse, like they did then. You can see they’re doing it already in Russia, and here. You need to have that courage."