Russian Civilization of Tears, As Seen by One Woman

Author: Dimitry Paranyushkin (on 14 Aug 2009)

News and
photos from the Moscow

Svetlana Aleksievich’s books tell of Russia’s past and find their audience throughout the world. As a new edition of her novel The War’s Unwomanly Face hit bookstores, she shares her views on the world’s fascination with Russian history.

Your books have gone through more than 80 editions all over the world. What is it that a foreign reader finds appealing in your novels?

I asked the French publisher of The War’s Unwomanly Face why he decided to bring out a book about World War II. Russia is a civilization of tears, he

Svetlana Aleksievich - a Russian woman writer

Svetlana Aleksievich / Photo: V.Kochetkov

Moscow News Picture Agency

said. The
voices of Russian women that came through from the past not
only reopened World War II for him but also prompted him to
think about the strength of the human spirit. “Life in the West has become so comfortable,” my French interlocutor went on, “that a person living here has got out of the habit of asking himself the ’accursed questions’ while your books compel him to peer deep into the abyss of his soul, engage in soul searching.”

I was struck by the fact that Europeans seem to value Russia’s historical experience more than we value it ourselves. People there have great respect for our suffering, for the blood that we have shed, although they do not understand why we allow this to be done to ourselves for the umpteenth time. The fates of my heroines are to them a special kind of knowledge, the hard evidence of the danger of temptation and of the unbearable burden of making a choice between good and evil. The events of the past few years — New York, Madrid, or the bomb attacks on the Moscow underground — unfortunately have once again shown how thin the overlay of culture really is.

Fascination with the “accursed issues” has traditionally been seen as part of Russian mentality. What makes them so topical for Europe today?

I have been living abroad for several years now and I have
good cause to say that the accursed issues have never confronted
Western society as squarely as today. The whole world is
affected by a crisis of ideas. European intellectuals are
feeling the bitter taste of defeat. In a certain sense they
have lost the battle. They have failed to provide coherent
answers to questions raised by society, and the world slipped
into the rut of wars and dictatorships. After all, dictatorship
is not only about the Gulag archipelago — it uses more refined forms of violence.

You witnessed the collapse of the Soviet empire. Has the hero of your novels — the Humble Man of the Great Utopia era — managed to cope with the consequences of this catastrophe?

On the borderline of two eras, he worked hard to understand
this: “What is the rationale behind my suffering?” Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War has the following episode: When it is declared that the war in Afghanistan was a mistake, a disabled war veteran throws his crutches at the TV set, shouting: “Then give me back my legs!” My characters in Enchanted with Death, Voices from Chernobyl: Chronicle of the Future,
and Last Witnesses are doggedly looking for an answer
to this question: “What has happened to me, and to my country?”

People today are beginning to settle down in this shattered
world. They want to get out from under the debris of utopia
and into a different, happy life. They have returned to private
life, to the family, to their own selves. Today everyone,
from yard sweeper to academician, is going through a period
of loneliness. The country is deploying a lot of effort.
It may not be visible — what is happening on the surface is but an endless struggle for survival — but deep in people’s souls, myths are being dispelled.

I believe that our intellectuals are responsible for a good
deal of the Humble Man’s troubles: We betrayed him, too quickly ceding our place in society to generals, psychics, and politicians. We are doing nothing to assist the labor of the spirit, and unless the country, and every individual in particular, does this work, Russia will stay on the fringes of civilization.

Have you ever been told that your books are depressing, that it is hard to read about the horrors of war, and that people today want to be entertained and think about the good things?

I never tell horror stories for my own amusement: This is
all about life’s fundamen-

tals — love, self-respect, honor, mercy, courage. I am not calling for all variety theaters to be closed down. It is simply that there are questions that a person cannot help asking himself. Otherwise he should have been born a St. Bernard.

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