No literary wizard

Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich has described herself as 'an ear, not a pen'

As political as the choice of Svetlana Alexievich for the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature may be, it does not make her excellent work any less valuable. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the plight of the hundreds of millions who still live in the shadow of the Soviet Union.

Alexievich, the first Russian- speaking winner since Joseph Brodsky in 1987, has long been a favourite for the prize. That said, there is a clear logic to choosing her now. 

Born in western Ukraine to a Ukrainian mother and a Belarussian father, she is the closest thing to a strong Ukrainian author the Nobel committee could find, though she considers herself Belarussian. She is also among the fiercest critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Her books document the woeful legacy of the Soviet era, which Putin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko have tried to repaint in the gaudy colours of imperial glory.

Alexievich joins a small group of non-fiction writers who have won the prize. Another was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose victory told the communist leadership of the Soviet Union that the world knew the truth or would like to know it. Alexievich's selection sends a similar message to Putin's Kremlin.

She does not see herself as a literary wizard - she has described herself as "an ear, not a pen". Her works are essentially collections of interviews with hundreds of ordinary people.

Reached by the Swedish broadcaster SVT, she said that being honoured alongside such great Russian-language writers as Ivan Bunin and Boris Pasternak was "a bit disturbing". Her approach is more journalistic, a style that suits her Belarussian heritage as described in Chernobyl Prayer, her stark investigation of the human consequences of the world's worst nuclear disaster:

"We are people of the earth, not of the sky. Our monoculture is potatoes, we dig it, we plant it, and all the time we look down at the earth. Down! And if a person should raise his head, it will be to look no higher than a stork's nest. Even that is high for him, that is his sky.

There is no sky that they call cosmos in our culture. Then we take something from the Russian culture or the Polish one. Now when we get a Tolstoy, a Pushkin, we'll understand something about ourselves."

Instead, the Belarussians and all the post-Soviet Russian speakersgot Alexievich, who finds it hard to lift her eyes from an earth dotted with graves.

She made her name with War Doesn't Have A Woman's Face, a collection of women's stories from World War II. It squeaked by censorship in 1985 in part because the Soviet myth of victory allowed Belarussians, who barely survived the war as an ethnic group, a voice as authorities on the suffering that went with the glory.

It even won her the annual prize of the Communist Youth Union.

Her next effort, Zinc Boys, a harrowing study of what the Afghan war did to Soviet soldiers and those close to them, was nearly banned. Chernobyl Prayer, too, is about death. It contains one of the most heart-rending love stories I have ever read, told by the widow of a fireman who died of radiation sickness after responding to the explosion at the nuclear plant.

Her 1993 book Bewitched By Death is one of her two attempts to understand the effect of the Soviet Union's collapse on the minds and souls of its people.  Alexievich's depiction of suffering casts a big shadow that makes her books disturbing. Her 2013's Second Hand Time is a more mature book than Bewitched By Death .

A month after Putin annexed Crimea, Alexievich condemned the move in an angry column for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In it, she noted glumly that "normal Russia" - the one that did not celebrate the land grab - remained silent because it was no longer safe to protest. So the abnormal, Soviet Russia was on a rampage. "Will the West accept this Russia or push it away?" she wondered.

Her Nobel offers an answer. The West has rejected Putin's Russia, but not Russians. Her voice is one from the fringes of the former empire, which Moscow is again beginning to see as its own. It is a pessimistic but truthful voice. If the Nobel committee wants to tell the Russian-speaking world that it will survive Putinism as it survived communism, I get the message and I appreciate it. So, I hope, will Western readers.


• Voices From Chernobyl : The Oral History Of A Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich translated by Keith Gessen is retailing at Books Kinokuniya for $27.04

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 11, 2015, with the headline 'No literary wizard'. Print Edition | Subscribe