#100PENMembers No. 39: Svetlana Alexievich

A Belarusian investigative journalist, essayist and oral historian, Svetlana Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize in recognition of her ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to the suffering and courage of our time.’

Her first book The Unwomanly Face of the War (1983) depicted the fate of the approximately one million women who fought in the Red Army during the Second World War and were outcasts when they returned home. The book was controversial and led to the loss of her job at Neman magazine and criminal prosecution.

Undeterred, Alexievich remained determined to expose the failings and hardships of the crumbling Soviet Regime, publishing in 1989 Boys in Zinc, documenting the thousands of soldiers returned in Zinc coffins from the Soviet-Afghan war. The book was taken off the market and the play was banned.

Since the rise to power of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus in 1994, most of her books cannot be published in her home country and she faces persecution and censorship in Russia too, forcing her into exile for most of her working life. As a result, she has been a long-term participant in the PEN Writers in Exile programme from April 2008-March 2010.

Alexievich’s books are often described as collages of interviews, amplifying voices of silenced under the Soviet regime. The most successful of these was Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of the Nuclear Disaster (1997).

Photograph: Archive of Svetlana Alexievich

In 2017, she quit the Russian PEN Centre very publicly and alongside 30 other writers including poet Lev Rubenstein and writer Boris Akunin, in protest at the expulsion from the organisation of journalist and activist Sergey Parkhomenko. 

She wrote in a statement: ‘My comment on Parkhomenko’s exclusion [from PEN] can only be my application to leave the Russian PEN, whose founding ideals were cravenly violated. In the perestroika years we took pride in our PEN but now we are ashamed of it. Russian writers acted as subserviently and outrageously only during the Stalinist period. But Putin will go, whereas this shameful page from the history of PEN will stay. And the names will stay, too. We now live through times when we cannot win over evil, we are powerless before the ‘red man’. But he cannot stop time. I believe in that.’

The Russian PEN Centre responded by bizarrely claiming that Alexievich had never been a member of the Centre, prompting Alexievich to produce photographic evidence of her membership.

She delivered English PEN and RAW in WAR’s inaugural Anna Politkovskaya Memorial Lecture in 2019, paying tribute to the Russian campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya, known for her fearless reporting of the brutal treatment of civilians during the war in Chechnya, despite acts of intimidation and persecution to silence her. 

She also wrote to Lydia Cacho, the Mexican journalist, feminist and human right’s advocate for Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2019. Cacho was imprisoned and tortured and continues to suffer death threats for her work exposing paedophilia and child sexual exploitation among politicians and officials.

Alexievich wrote: ‘When you have been fighting those who are seemingly all-powerful it is easy to believe that the battle will never be won. I know this feeling, my dear Lydia, because I have felt it too. When your culture has been forged in war and barricades, as mine has been, words like freedom and love can feel like they belong in fairy tales only.’

Svetlana Alexievich has been President of the PEN Belarus Centre since 2019.