Essay / 26 May 2016

Words End with Blood or Babbling

Free Flowing Thoughts of Nobel Laureate, Svetlana Alexievich

This is an excerpt from a discussion about Srebrenica organized by Heinrich Böll Stiftung (July 15, 2010, at the Center za kulturno dekontaminacijo in Belgrade). You can read the whole conversation at:

Illustrated by Branko Djukic.
Probably I could say that I am - just like everybody in my time, country, even era and culture – fascinated by violent death. I've grown up in a postwar Belarussian village, where death was discussed frequently. The village was inhabited by women mostly, because almost a quarter of the male population was dead, and talking about death was a form of our existence. I believe that was the period when, as a topic, death fascinated me, and has since remained one of the main mysteries. I didn't like to read war novels, because books didn't include what people around me were talking about. People know much more about violent death and the things we can do to each other than books do. I wrote a lot of books about war that are translated into different languages and, in my life, two streams of thought are prevailing.

On the one hand I want to understand death very much. Violent death always connects two worlds, the world of victim and the world of the perpetrator. Even if the murderers who are to blame for it all, disappear without a trace, so we can't really claim that we don't know who they are. These people aren't unusual people, they're human, like everybody else. Killers are humans, as well, but when their moment finishes, they simply disappear. It turns out that what we know about history, we only know through the words of the victims. After 30 or 40 years, even murderers become other people. I remember how, after 40 years, certain people who burned down houses and their inhabitants – it was part of Hitler's plan to destroy all Slavs - were convicted. We all had the impression that some other people were being convicted, that those were not the same people who burned others and deserved a fair punishment. It wasn't clear who we were punishing. It seems that, with time, evil diminishes.

As a writer, and not as a victim, I am a person who writes down victims' testimonies. I am a mediator in that story. But from the very beginning, I lacked the tools to write their stories. I just didn't have the knowledge, the insight into the warfare culture, which worships Mars. I wanted to find the words which would explain the human who engages in evil. In general, how that kind of human can live after what he or she has done.

On the other hand, I wanted to view everything from the perspective of an artist and a historian. From the indifferent viewpoint of art, both the murderer and the victim are equal. Which is stupid. And it is not accurate neither, since no word can be adequate, when we speak about evil on that scale. If you want to understand both positions, if you want to understand why someone became a murderer and why someone else is a victim, or why somebody is both at the same time, you can easily realize that certain individuals are just lucky, certain circumstances enable a miracle, so those people don't enter war, they stay watching by the side, or they enter some other war.

Then again, I wanted to emancipate myself from all that and take a look at the problem from a distanced perspective. You can't exit culture, which is interesting in itself, but I also wanted to answer the question of how a person stays alone with that madness, with the insane thought that he or she has the right to kill another human, that he or she plays God. I remember hearing a story about how one old man didn't bring his medals to a historical museum, after he found out he had cancer, but brought them to a church. He said: “But I've killed.”

After the majority of my life has passed, I am completely convinced that we have to achieve that kind of freedom, because human life is above all, and can't be compared to anything else. Of course, we are all led by passions, but I believe that we need to write books in which war killings are compared to cannibalism.

My first book contained war stories of women. I found a mode of an art novel that speaks in voices. It's made up of around 300 stories, some take 10 pages, others only two or three sentences, or a couple of excerpts. You take a piece which shows that a person managed to find some meaning, managed to formulate something that he or she realized about life, something that was not to be found in art, even if it was it wasn't told or seen in that way. The book is entitled War's Unwomanly Face. Woman offered me a special way to look at war, they've opened up a perspective – woman bear life and understand its price.

Poet of the Week

Valentina Neri


Vanishing one evening

without a trace.

Without  forgotten clues

on the threshold of my room

and no arrow

to show me the way.

Wherever I could have gone

Would be of no relevance:

Laid at the bottom of the sea

Buried in the darkness of the woods

In China devoid of memory

Looking for a pitiful story

Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.

Everything is fine

As long as nobody ever knows.

Sublime fantasy

Vanishing without a certificate of death

So that one day they will understand

What is baffling me now.

Of course, I don't want to say that men are higher or lower than women, it's not about that. I think that each and every one of us carries a unique knowledge, of which we are not aware. For me, that is basic information. When books about the Holocaust are gathered, when numbers about deaths and victims are raised – all that is only data. But there is something that is beyond information. That which is transmitted with suffering and empathy. That is a new form of information which produces a possibility of a realization. My whole life, I've been searching for a new aspect of knowledge which will be transmitted through art, by selecting words which even the most ingenious writer can't give, because there is too much evil in the world. Evil has become very sharp, gross, shameless, and changes its image constantly. Not even war culture has the kind of knowledge that could explain anything about war, really.

When the book about women in war was translated, and when I visited Japan or China and, of course, Europe, I didn't care about how the translation was made, but about how readers understood the Russian war and Russian suffering. Something brought us together. For instance, the Russian army always welcomed women, which meant women entered into all male public spheres.

Woman as a biological being was not taken into account. I remember asking one of them what the most horrible thing about war was, and she laughed and answered: “Do you think the most horrid thing is to die? No, the most horrible thing is to spend 4 years without a bra, wearing a man's underwear and never getting the necessary sanitary material during your period. Every day, we’d walk 40 kilometers and the men walked behind us. There were 400 of us women, and men tried not to look at the ground, because we were leaving bloody traces behind.” The book waited three years to get published. When I was invited to the censor's office, he told me: “Firstly, the Soviet woman is not an animal, she is more than that. She couldn't have been through that. And secondly, what war are you writing about? A war needs to be heroic and beautiful, so others can continue doing the work which isn't easy.”

I've written books so other people wouldn't have to, so a kind of pacifistic energy would prevail, in which human life would be respected. That is my final task.

Everybody was suffering. Women opened up these depths to me. The contemporary man turns on the TV and watches catastrophes daily – what can really shake him while he's drinking his coffee and listening to music in a world where Srebrenica, Hatin and Belarus exist? How to speak about the horrors again? Does it make any sense to begin at all?

My second book dealt with the child's perspective of war. I thought that children decrease the pain threshold. The Germans had the idea that the sick should receive children's blood, in order to get better quicker. So for that, they took Russian, Belarussian and Ukranian children, who they had access to in children's homes which were not evacuated promptly. Those children were yelling: “Fathers are coming!” The children were happy and they embraced those men, because they thought of them as fathers. If adults are guilty to a certain degree, the children are always pure and innocent. I wanted to show that. It's not even a topic, it's more of a mystery. If a writer who writes about war and death doesn't treat these subjects as mysteries, it might be better that he doesn't write at all.

My next book focused on the war in Afghanistan, and I was different then. I had the opportunity to go there and witness everything. I have to stress that if you've experienced a shooting and seen somebody get shot, then of course you start writing differently. It's a good and a bad thing. On the one hand you know more, but on the other hand you're not completely free anymore. You become immersed in these passions. These are the passions of revenge, the passion of an eyewitness. The passion in seeing peace as unfair. I miss that freedom. I remember that, in a battle, a commander told me: “Take it, shoot, try. You will write better then.” I answered: “No. I have to remain pure.” Even if I would shoot, the possibility of actually shooting someone was low, but the mere fact that I would have decided to do that would have destroyed my purity. Of course, you can't remain pure in an unpure peace, but I still wanted to keep that purity. Why? To be able to reach some final, right words, I felt like I was talking about a catastrophe and experiencing the catastrophe of narration.

It always turns out that things are not as you've written them. The war was different once again, because horrid weapons were used – vacuum bombs and such. I remember an exhibition of weapons that Soviet troops confiscated from mujahedeens. I stopped in front of a beautifully-crafted land mine. What's depressing in contemporary war is the fact that a lot of energy is invested in producing weapons; weapons that are beautiful, colorful, mindfully formed. These weapons are better than the words I use to describe war’s horrors. The land mine was made in Italy, where people have a good sense of aesthetics, and I said out loud: “My God, it's so beautiful, it's like a toy!” The commander who was with me responded: “If you step on a land mine like this, you lose your leg. But if you step like this, then you lose your arm.” It's hard to find words that would speak of this, of this torn leg, of this pretty toy and of the fact that a new century has begun and we are still trapped under this reign…like cave people. Today, we have heroes who resemble prehistoric humans a lot. The only difference is that, in prehistoric times, the human wasn't able to kill in such numbers. How to find words that can speak of all this?

Then I wrote a book about Chernobyl, which also turned out to be a book about war. The title is Chernobyl Prayer. When Chernobyl happened, more than 100 villages were evacuated, people had to leave their land, because it was inhabitable. I remember how a very simple woman, one of the villagers, explained what Chernobyl was. I arrived at her village together with the army which was responsible for the evacuation. Everybody except this old lady was escorted to a bus. She was kneeling next to her old house and we walked up to her. She held an icon in her hand and prayed. When she saw me she immediately asked me – and I believe no philosopher ever managed to articulate the problem the way she did: “My little girl, is this war? Look, I've survived the war with Hitler, when everything was clear – foreign soldiers were bombing, shooting, killing and you had to run. But why do I have to leave this time? The sun is shining, I saw a little mouse this morning, the birds are flying, is this really war?” I'd already started to collect book material, because I realized that Chernobyl announced a new type of war. People will still kill each other with knives and rifles, but a new era of fear began, which we are not prepared for. The sun is shining, but we can’t go out because of radiation. We have water, but we can't drink it, because it's poisoned. If you drink that water, you will die. There you can't even sit on the ground, because the soil might kill you. You don't hear the radiation. You don't see it. You can't touch it. And that world is already killing you.

People have to go and leave their beloved behind. Suddenly, I was aware of the problem: how to explain to contemporary man that, in this new form of war, you are not a Bosnian, not a Serb, not even a Belarusian or Russian, but a representative of a certain form of life, only one of the living beings under threat of extinction. I wrote the book about Chernobyl because I grew up in Russia, in Belarus; for us, the question of the relationship between murderer and victim is a question without an answer. Then suddenly a new era explodes, which makes it clear that our understanding of our and foreign civilization is actually suicidal. What does “our” and “foreign” mean? If radioactive clouds have affected people in Africa, we have to ask ourselves, who those “our” and “foreign” are, what does “far” and “close” mean?

And then suddenly, somewhere a nuclear reactor explodes, and we breathe in the air. The moment of explosion was beautiful, it wasn't dark at all. The sky radiated in fair raspberry colors. People were carrying their children from their houses and told them: “Look how beautiful this is, remember it!” They thought that firemen would arrive in a couple of hours and extinguish the fire. Just think how unprepared we are for the future. And we depend so much on the past, in general we are stuck in it. Even though we live in contemporaneity, we don't belong to it. I try to write about this in all my books.

I’ve lived in Germany for a while now, so I have witnessed the path they took after the war. I started to envy these people because, in Russia and in the areas of ex-Soviet Union, the elites have not pursued their duties. When I spoke to a famous Polish writer, I asked him: “What was the most devastating thing about Russian intellectuals?” And he replied: “That they've run to the table to gather crumbs that the oligarchs let slip through.” We stopped doing our job. The Germans have walked the path of self-analysis and, in twenty years, you could already read articles and books about their crimes, and even the president started speaking about remorse. That was a state affair and it needed to be treated as very important state business. This cannot be done by one person. The point is that the elites came up with ideas for society and for politics, the task of the state came later.

By now, we have not resolved anything, not with communism, not with remorse, not even with convicting ideology and murderers for their crimes. These things began to happen first in Gorbachev's era, when there was an increase in suicides among these murderers, but then people started to adapt to this new situation… My last book is entitled Second Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets. The “red human” is in extinction, followed by a mutant. It's important that the possibility of creating an idea, which would surpass the past, is offered to the people. But that question has slipped to the margins of our society. The liberals are blaming each other for forming a “perestroika.” Ana Politkovska – who everyone knows well – is warning the world and, back home, she is treated like an insane person. But several thousand people have been through the same pain as she was. People who gained some freedom thought that others who would also gain freedom would start to think in the same way as we do. But you know the result, they haven't been given an idea.

We know that this aspect of solace is needed to crush in an apocalypse. People threw themselves into shopping, travelling – into life. Our main task is not fulfilled and now, suddenly, everybody is perplexed: why are we witnessing murders every day? That also is a descendent of the fact that we did not fulfill our task in society. I've realized we live defeated in our own house. If people in Serbia want to rely on Russia, I tell them they can't rely on anyone or anything. I've travelled through Russia a lot for my latest book, and realized there is no such thing as authentic Russia. There are no humanistic ideas. If anyone has a “drive” and ideas, of course those are second-hand ideas, nationalistic ideas. The nationalists still have that barbaric energy, which is very dangerous. The nationalist fundamentals are killing us right now… The partisans started killing as well. I think the elites are to blame for that, because they weren't ready for changes. There was no readiness for change. I don't know if that is this Slavic line, I had always thought this is only true about Russians or Belarussians, that this is only their unique characteristic – of course we always claim that politicians are to blame for the situation, but I believe the intellectual elites still carry major responsibility. Slavic civilizations are civilizations of words. With us, literature is just a little bit more than mere literature. A Russian writer can't afford to do what a German writer can afford to do – just sit and play with words. With us, words end with blood or babbling. Which is even more terrifying.

To speak of Stalinism as an ideology would require a legal argument, but there isn't anybody in Russia who would start that debate. I've actually asked myself if the state has that power. Germany has found it in the intellectuals, Russia doesn't have that. Not even a “memorial,” which is collecting testimonies, can perform the task of the state, because it doesn't have the right intellectual potential. It simply doesn't have the authority to do that. That's why I claim that there aren't any adequate people here in enormous Russia – that's an even bigger problem than here in Serbia. Whereas in Belarus, where I live, they still have socialism. It's the last dictatorship in Europe, a real time machine. It's hard to say farewell to your past.

When Gorbachev came to power, there were a lot of intellectuals. We were so happy to see each other! People are very attractive when a state putsch happens! How beautifully they've spoken! Such pretty faces! They were prepared to die for their ideas – but today you can't find such people anymore. You can't hear such declarations nor witness new ideas emerging. I feel defeated in that respect. As a human, you have to nurture your talent, if God has given it to you – I am not religious, but if you hear those voices, and I hear them, I feel that pain, then you just have to keep on pushing. My Ukrainian grandmother knew a proverb: “First cats throw themselves in the water.” Senseless behavior, right, but as apostle Paul said: “There will come a time when some will not be able to take a healthy teaching, but will search for many teachers to suit their needs… You remain sober in everything, suffer all turmoil, perform your mission, do your job.” There is no other way.


Questions from the Audience

You’ve lived in Germany for the past few years, so you probably know Berthold Brecht well. He once said that an environment which bore Hitler and Nazism is able to repeat it's scenario under specific circumstances. Your comment, please.

If this only regards Germany, then I don't know it well enough to know that. But when there were exhibitions about the crimes of Wehrmacht, 10-15 years ago in the East, everybody thought it was the work of the SS. Everybody agreed that the SS were the ones who torched villages and killed people. But it was proved that this was done by the regular army, as well. But after all the work of truth-seeking was done, the children of the Wehrmacht officers came and said: “No, these weren't our parents.” These children only wanted to have regular fathers. It was horrid and, as a writer, I realized it was actually pretty hard to make a man out of a man. Especially from an average person. I am not speaking about the small human, who despairs in his everyday. The head of this small Russian, German, American can very easily be filled with whatever you want, because culture doesn't protect him, and he can't defend himself with it.

Speaking about Srebrenica – these are probably questions of culture. We have to nurture a human who will not only work, love and make money, but also a humanist human. Germany has its contradictions, but it is still a very organized machine in which a human is protected, and where a lot of questions are articulated at a highly-intellectual level. For me personally, that was an important experience.

Firstly, do you think it is possible that, in the territory of the ex-Soviet Union, a democratic country of the Western European type could emerge? Do the Soviets even have a desire for such a state, for such a society? Secondly, can you escape historical heritage by not fleeing your country, by staying where you were born?

Hope dies last, we say in Russia. Lately, a new proverb was formed: You can't predict the future in Russia, nor can you predict the past. At the moment, that's a huge melting pot and we don't know what's cooking. I want to be optimistic, although we are further from that model than we were, for instance, in Gorbachev's time. But hope remains, because the new generation did not participate in the fight. They work, make money, travel. They like it that life keeps moving. They enjoy life and have developed a philosophy of enjoyment, after so many years of Soviet asceticism. But they're not interested in politics. They keep to themselves and don't attend elections. Everything is happening without them.

I'd be interested to hear what your youth have to say about Srebrenica, and about the near past. In Russia, that is not important. Unfortunately, lately we can witness the rise of nationalistic ideas. Probably this all derives from Putin, but it has also become trendy to be a politician, it became clear that we can't live as Europe – we have to have everything our own way: democracy, our freedom, our own handling of state administration. This is proof that society is a hostage of political opportunists. The nationalist leaders are the only strong political figures. Nobody is involved in the public debate. It is apparent we are passing through a stage of totalitarianism. Who would have thought that Čubais, one of the leaders of the perestroika, would speak of needing a Russian Empire? Twenty years ago, that would have been completely inappropriate.

We got a person who is a scarecrow of Russian intellectuals, an everyman, a liberal and a leader of perestroika.

The youth is still here, and we have to believe that they will change. I don't know how it is in the places you live, but Moscow is not poor, you only experience poverty when you leave the capital. In comparison to socialism, a lot has been lost. Before, everybody had access to healthcare. Now they don't. Kids are growing up alone with their lonesome mothers who bare drunken husbands who then raise their boys into small wolves. Nobody knows what will happen to them. We are facing the fact that we have around 2 million homeless children – is that a serious state? What will happen to them? To these delinquents. And then there's all this talk about the Great Russia…that is a criminal act today.

We need to find out how to organize society so it suits everybody, not only a part of the elite. Apparently, Medvedev speaks of these things, he is smarter than Gorbachev, but there is nobody who would listen. The people ceased to believe. They live for themselves.

I visited 20 towns for my book, and I wouldn't want to return to any of them. We just don't know how our reform will end. How romantic were we, the delinquents! The Russian Orthodox Church wants to fill this void, which is scary, as well. The orthodox taxi became a regular thing. You sit in a taxi and the driver asks you: “Are you orthodox?” And then I answer: “Of course, my grandma baptized me.” I joked around a bit, but he says: “If you aren't orthodox, you can't sit in my taxi.” Here you can pray and read sermons. And then I stumble across an ad: “I am subletting an apartment, but only for an orthodox family.” That's the backside of totalitarianism. It's all a huge melting pot, but I have no idea what's cooking in it.

Today, you can't foresee the future, because it doesn't remind us of the past at all – although we remain hostages of the past. As a writer, I find it hard to separate from my own time, from my superstitions, habits, mythology. This way you can become a little freer.

Is there such a thing as a general model of democracy? Can you simply wear this dress? Democracy, of course, exists or it doesn't. There is no such thing as Belarussian democracy. But I believe the defeat in Russia is connected to the fact that we've been working with an average man and not a concrete Russian, who doesn't know or understand something. He used the words of the West, but understood them in a completely different way. Lukashenko claims that Belarus is the freest country, but nobody knows what he means by that. Not until something happens to our elites will we be listening to one of the oligarchs speak on television about owning a golden toilet seat in his personal jet.

You can see Lexus cars in Moscow, but not ordinary ones, they're all golden. And no writer, no philosopher, no person in Russia ever says: “People, that is not appropriate. You can't do this.” On the other hand, we hear about a case of a mother who killed her five daughters, because she couldn't feed them anymore, and killed herself after that. I don't know what needs to happen in order for change to arrive. Maybe this vulgar period needs to pass first, so we can then speak about serious and important things. There is no such thing as authentic Russia anymore. I don't know who can speak in the name of Russia today. It's a symptom, society has fallen apart to atoms.

Translated by Rok Bozovičar and Ana Schnabl


Svetlana Alexievich