The Swedish Academy announced on Thursday that Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature.
The academy honoured the 67-year-old “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.
Alexievich, who was one of the front runners for the award, has drawn international acclaim with her emotional accounts of the Chernobyl disaster and Second World War witness accounts.
Chronicling such horrors in the first person through the words of witnesses, Alexievich, who lived in Sweden in the early 2000s, has seen her works translated into numerous languages and scooped international awards.
How does this international honour impact Belarusians in Sweden today? SI News asked students Maryia Rusak and Nadzya Charapan, both studying on scholarship with the Visy Programme.
I was thinking about those questions a lot in the past few hours,” Mariya Rusak, who is studying Sustainable Urban Planning and Design in Stockholm, said on Thursday night.
“I think immediately when we realized what was happening my whole circle of friends was going crazy.”
Mariya said her hands were shaking and she couldn't help but smile. “We are so proud that I don't evevn know what else can compare to this feeling,” she exclaimed. “I don't think my country has ever caused this kind of emotion in me in my entire lifetime.”
Nadzeya Charapan, who is completing a PhD programme in Uppsala, had a similar experience.
“When professors from my department at Uppsala University shared this breaking news with me and congratulated me, I felt very proud and emotional about Belarus,” she says.
“Being here in Sweden at that moment, among intellectuals and academics, was very unique and special experience.”
Both women are familiar with Alexievich's work and think she deserved the prize.
“I personally have read most of Svetlana Alexievich ‘big’ books,” said Maryia. “They leave you with a very complex set of emotions.”
Maryia expressed hope that the decision was based on merit and not politics, and Nadzeya agreed that there may be other complicated factors involved.
“Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian writer, but she was born in Ukraine, and was raised in Russian culture, but what is more important – she considers herself as cosmopolite,” Nadzeya explains.
“She has a very complex narrative and relationship to the belarusian language and culture,” Maryia agreed. “Writing in Russian, Alexievich has acquired a broader audience, but this also did not contribute to forming her identity as a Belarusian writer, but rather a writer from the post-soviet space, reflecting on the paradigm of the post-Soviet era.”
In one interview, Maryia pointed out, Alexievich allegedly said that the Belarusian language was not “suitable” for classical literature – disappointing many of her colleagues and fans.
“Even though we are so immensely proud, it is still the ‘other’ generation, and not a fully Belarusian writer,” Maryia noted.
Still, both students said that this was a very important moment and honour for Belarus, especially given the current political climate.
“It is so important for us as a community especially right now, before the next elections that would end up as usual, introducing a period of depression across country,” Maryia said.
Hopefully, Mariya aded, Svetlana Alexievich will be able to receive her prize in full, without the Belarusian government “ironically” witholding tax percentages on her works – works which strongly opposed Lukashenka's regime.
“What is really unfortunate though is that Belarus is specifically ‘that’ kind of country, where the honors would be taken, and she would be probably welcomed by Lukashenka and his administration, but the problem is that they themselves never did anything to contribute to her success besides stricter and stricter framework of action that restrained many artists and in turn have inspired some of Alexievich narratives,” Mariya said.
Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko, President of Belarus.
“Maybe to some extent Alexievich honor would even be addressed by Lukashenka in his election campaign, writing her success off to his administration. At the same time, her victory created a very peculiar situation for the current administration, as Svetlana was always in opposition to the regime and now by greeting her they would have to admit value to her revealing narratives and somewhat ‘validate’ them at the official level.”
The prize was also a step forward for women – Alexievich was only the 14th woman to receive the Nobel literature prize.
“It is especially important for Belarus, where the place of women is still strongly restricted by oppressive gender and cultural norms,” Mariya said. “It would be a great leap forward for the women empowerment in Belarus!”
“I believe that this event is very important in not only history of contemporary Belarus, but also in the history of the whole region of Eastern Europe,” Nadzeya agreed.
“With the help of talanted Svetlana Alexievich, Belarus and our literature got one of the highest intellectual recognitions in the world. Glory to Svetlana and thank you Sweden for this crucial historian event!”
Svetlana Alexievich after winning the Nobel Prize. Photo: AP Photo/Sergei Grits