Svetlana Alexievich’s stories of life, longing and suffering under Soviet rule

Watch a conversation between Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich and Jeffrey Brown.

Last year, as the holiday season approached, a few of us on staff at the NewsHour contributed to a list we called “10 books we loved in 2015.” The idea was to recommend a book that had come out that year. But I cheated a bit, writing:

The book I’d like to recommend didn’t come out in 2015, but many of us learned about it this year, when the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich. What do big prizes do? Honor and reward the author, yes, but also turn us on to or remind us of writers we must encounter, books we must read. I’d heard of Alexievich but not read her work until I picked up “Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.” It’s a stunner, a global tragedy captured in the most personal details, and a reminder of the power of the individual human voice. It’s also very artfully constructed — this is not merely turning on the recorder and letting it roll. “Voices of Chernobyl” is an act of literature and of witness.

Now there’s “Secondhand Time,” the first book by Alexievich to appear in English since she was awarded the Nobel. It continues her series of works exploring the long sweep of Soviet culture and politics, what she told me she thinks of as an “encyclopedia of Russian Communism.”

READ MORE: Svetlana Alexievich, investigative journalist from Belarus, wins Nobel Prize in Literature

This time — and this interested me greatly — she is writing from her own experience as a member of the generation that began life under Soviet rule and then watched it collapse. Once again she writes of big events, grand movements, through the most intimate voices of individuals. This is oral history, the actual words from hundreds of interviews she conducted over many years. But, as I noted above, it’s also artfully constructed and given narrative structure, an approach that Alexievich calls a “novel in voices.”

The Nobel Committee called Alexievich’s writing “a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” In this new book the suffering is (mostly) psychological, as hope and promise at the end of Soviet era turns to despair and a sense of betrayal under Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and into the current rule of Vladimir Putin.

There’s even, for some, a longing, a nostalgia for Soviet times, as terrible as they often were. Today, a variety of individuals tell Alexievich that money is everything. As one says: “There were new rules: If you have money, you count — no money, you’re nothing.”

Svetlana Alexievich came to our studio earlier this year, accompanied by a translator. She was warm and pleasant in person, though not, it seemed to me, completely comfortable in the more formal interview style of a television studio. She laughed at me, kindly, when I told her beforehand that in our interview I hoped to bring out some of the history she’d told, her ideas about writing a  “novel of voices,” and a bit about her own life — all in 10 minutes.

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