Pride, blank looks in Minsk on Nobel win

Svetlana Alexievich.
Svetlana Alexievich.

MINSK •In two of Minsk's largest bookstores on Thursday, local author Svetlana Alexievich's books were on prominent display after she won the Nobel prize - but only in an edition published in Russia.

While some customers and staff were hugely excited by her win, many said they had never even heard of her despite the fact that she lives in the Belarussian capital.

None of her books, written in Russian and dealing with sensitive issues around World War II, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, is published in the country, which President Alexander Lukashenko rules with an iron fist.

"I'm very happy," Alexievich, 67, had said in a statement. "And overwhelmed by a storm of complex feelings. Joy, of course. But alarm as well. The great shadows of Ivan Bunin, Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn have come alive. The greater part of my path has been travelled, but much work remains ahead of me and many new turns. Now I cannot let myself slide."

She often put herself at risk by taking on contentious elements of Soviet history and challenging the official narrative of how events had an impact on ordinary citizens.

In the Svetoch bookshop, sales assistant Anastasia pointed out Alexievich's works in the original Russian, which most people in ex-Soviet Belarus speak fluently.

While Alexievich's books are "fairly popular" and she is a Belarussian author, "not everyone knows her", Anastasia acknowledged. She said she was not aware of any hostility to Alexievich, however.

Alexei, a customer in his 20s, admitted: "That's the first time I've heard her name." A group of schoolgirls also looked blank when asked if they knew who she was.

But architect Zmitser Savelyeu rushed up to the shelves saying he had come specially to buy Alexievich's books to take to friends in Russia. He disappointedly eyed the books, available only in a Russian edition.

He attributed Alexievich's lack of recognition in her homeland to her prickly character and refusal to become part of the country's literary establishment. "It's probably because she's famous, but she hasn't won any literary prizes here, she's not appreciated enough here, maybe because of her principled stance in life. She's quite direct and harsh in her character."

In Minsk's Central bookstore, assistants said they had never read her books, but journalists had been seeking out her works on Thursday.

On state television channel Belarus 1, the Nobel win was mentioned briefly on the evening news summary, while Mr Lukashenko was shown handing out state awards.

One of the marginal candidates standing in presidential elections on Sunday, Ms Tatiana Korotkevich, 38, congratulated Alexievich, however. "We all believed and waited hopefully for this. I congratulate you and all of Belarus on this Nobel prize," she wrote on Facebook.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2015, with the headline 'Pride, blank looks in Minsk on Nobel win'. Print Edition | Subscribe