‘Only love can save those who are infected with anger.’ Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich speaks to Staffan Julén

A feeling grew on me that people didn’t talk about the things that really matter in human lives

First posted January 26, 2018

Belarusian journalist and author Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for her work documenting the lives of Soviet and post-Soviet citizens. Her latest project, about love, is the subject of a documentary film by Swedish filmmaker Staffan Julén. Here, Alexievich discusses with Julén why she chose the subject, and what drives her work.


Life itself gives birth to all my themes. At first, as you know, it turned into several books. A history of that period of time, the Red time, when the idea mattered most of all. Everyone was infected with the idea, to a greater or lesser extent. Or, at least, they were curbed by it. But everyone depended on it and many believed sincerely in it. In the end, many lost faith. But the idea remained, like an unyielding inner core, a reinforcing steel bar. During this lifetime, the time when the idea ruled, various things happened. I selected the most overpowering, most dramatic events, ones that could shed a light on what kind of people we were. What we had been through. How we had been deceived by that utopian vision. And how, at first, we hadn’t understood but eventually began to understand. How we wouldn’t have been able to endure living in any other way than we did. It wouldn’t have worked for us. As I moved on, from one book to the next, something struck me. People talk about the war or about Chernobyl. But only rarely do people talk about happiness.

A feeling grew on me that people didn’t talk about the things that really matter in human lives. And I’d look back over my own life. My childhood, for instance. My parents never spoke about happiness. About how you ought to be happy and grow up. How beautiful life is, how joyful it is when love comes to you. How you will have children but not only that, you will also find love. And that it is something so enigmatic, so interesting. But … all the talks we had were about death and the mother country. Talks about what is important about being human simply never happened. Later in life, it was just more of the same. Of course, people did fall in love and led their lives. But there never seemed to be … a philosophy of life. It was up to the individual to try every day to push ahead, and reach for the meaning of it all. This was neither seen as a philosophy for individuals nor for communities.

Always, there was something that mattered more. That towered above human beings. A striving of some kind, a sacrifice of some kind. Which you must be prepared for, always. And when I had come to the end of that series of books – when utopia had been defeated, when we were all caught up in the rubble it left behind – I began to think that I wanted to write an account of who we are, in ourselves, but from a different point of view. I wondered: what would be the core of a narrative like that? If, earlier on, the core had been Afghanistan or the war or Chernobyl – where would you find it now? I thought that it would probably be found among the things we never used to think about. Never, that is, until now, when private life has finally been resurrected. When, finally, money has taken on meaning, significance. Before, everyone was just as broke as everyone else. Money hadn’t meant anything in particular. Now, though, people had started to travel, to see the world. For them, a lot of questions had surfaced, they had found desires. If they wanted to, they could dive into a kind of vast ocean that was completely unknown to them. That’s to say, into private life.

It offered another form of human meaningfulness than to go off and die somewhere. As it turned out, literature – Russian literature – was unable to help them because it has always been preoccupied with quite different things. With loftier and high-order ideas, that is. It always contains something ready to squash human life. Whatever higher order idea it is. And then I thought, of course, love is the most important, essential aspect of us; it, and the time when we are about to slip away. When we prepare ourselves for disappearing from this world.

So, I thought, as a preliminary idea: Love and Death. Then I decided to go for that idea and began questioning people and asking them to tell me about their lives. Most importantly, to speak about love, whether it had been there or had not been found. It seems true that people are in one group or the other: either, they know what love is or they don’t know what love is. They may have had children or not, that doesn’t affect anything. So, for quite a long time … since five, six, seven years ago, thereabouts, I have been actively thinking about this. Meanwhile I record people as they talk. That is the time when you somehow get the hang of the material, and gradually get a feel for the book, a foretaste of the theme… 

read more: http://www.eurozine.com/only-love-can-save-those-who-are-infected-with-anger/

More posts on Svetlana Alexievich