Defending Freedom of Speech - conversation between Svetlana Alexievich & Johan Öberg
“ Can you work in Minsk these days? ” Johan Öberg asks Svetlana Alexievich. He is in Gothenburg, she is in Minsk, and they are speaking in a live interview - the finale of this year ’ s digital Gothenburg Book Fair. PEN/Opp here publishes this interview in a transcribed and edited version, translated into several languages. Like her dedicated readers I wonder the same: Can you work, Svetlana Alexievich? When will we see your next book?
“ It is hard to work in Minsk now, ” she answers. A while later, after being targeted by the government for being a member of the Board of the Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power, she has had to leave the country. I regard these developments with alarm, but also feel like an impatient child. When will this chaos have ended so that Svetlana Alexievich can continue to write?
Then I realize that her place is of course in the midst of the chaos. The stature that her work represents — the listening, the dialogue, and the unflinching demand for truth that does not shirk complexity — these elements are more important than ever. Not only in Belarus, all over the world. I am eagerly waiting for your next book Svetlana Alexievich. And I will wait as long as it takes.
Marit Kapla—journalist, author, and member of the Board of Swedish PEN.
Gothenburg Book Fair, Sweden, 27.09.2020
JÖ: Welcome to the virtual Gothenburg Book Fair! The topic for our conversation is freedom of speech. We hope that the world will open up again sooner or later and it will be possible to meet for real and to meet more often. But since the possibility is not here yet, I cannot avoid asking you the following questions: How are you? Is it possible for you to work in Minsk during these days?
SA: It is difficult to work in Minsk today, because of what is taking place in the streets and what you see from the window. Today, for example, we had this popular inauguration, an enormous march, there were more than a hundred thousand people, despite the rain… and people were walking in the demonstration, and one could see how they tried to hide from the security forces, and how they were beaten up. We didn't sleep the night before, we listened to the military vehicles entering the city. The impressions are so awfully stark, so unexpected, since we've been living in little Belarus, we've lived in the “quiet pleasures” of this dictatorship, and now suddenly it has become a crisis situation and we are on the brink of a civil war.
And it is difficult to write, because you are thinking, watching, trying to understand, trying to read the Telegram channels. Nowadays, thanks to bloggers, everything is immediately visible on the internet. That is a big thing because we have found out completely unexpected things about our people. I am always saying that I have fallen in love with my people. I love them even more because they have turned out to be creative and courageous. We did not imagine it possible, but a civil society has risen up and it is quite strong - a nation is taking shape before our eyes. And since we are a young nation, peoplehood is taking shape. These are, of course, very historical days. It's a rare thing to be part of such events, even with our harsh and intense history.
JÖ: People from all over the world have admired the demonstrations in Minsk over the last 50 days. Because, these were not just demonstrations, these were expressions of love and care, of irony and humor, with public expressions showing a kind of absolute, internal freedom in people. How was this made possible?
SA: Yes, this is a question we keep asking ourselves. We did not expect this from ourselves. It was completely unexpected... There is a famous photo, which has been spread all around the world, you have probably seen it in Sweden too, it shows a couple of girls, small in stature, standing near a dense crowd of protesters with cyborgs in black surrounding them. The girls want to see what is going on in front of them so they get up on a bench, but before doing so they take off their trainers, which is of course amazing.When people are marching, there are volunteers walking around asking “does anybody need water?” while someone else is picking up the garbage.
And not a single shop window was smashed here, the only window that was smashed was a provocation - a chief of police personally smashed a shop window. This is a proven fact.
This has been a beautiful revolution, a revolution of dignity, I could even say a moral and an ethical revolution. Our conviction, my conviction as a member of the Coordinating Council, is that we must not shed any blood. We must create concord in the society, to help the concord of society - and that is why we gather. We must save society from a civil war. These are our tasks. But in addition to these political tasks, we have solved a large number of human, psychological, and moral tasks. We have succeded in doing so, because we have long wanted to live in a new and different way. Everyone was repeating these thoughts inside, in the soul, and in conversations with like-minded people. And so people literally broke free, out into the streets and they turned out to be people of high moral standards.
JÖ: What was the role of literature, arts, and music when it comes to the formation of this process? Naturally, we are particularly interested in your thoughts regarding the role of literature in this process of liberation, your books, obviously, but also other authors and genres.
SA: When I received the Nobel Prize, one of my ideas was to create a club, where we could invite interesting people from all over the world, mostly writers, perhaps since they are closer to me, but maybe also because we are such a literary country, for us the word is the most important thing of all …
JÖ: Is this Svetlana Alexievich’s intellectual club?
SA: Yes, and it has been such a joy to see a lot of people whose faces I remember from our club in the streets. I remember these huge halls for our meetings. I believe there were about 800 people in the audience when the famous Russian director Alexander Sokurov was invited. We also had Lyudmila Ulitskaya, and Vladimir Sorokin and the poet Olga Sedakova. We were inviting people who could help to point us towards new meanings, new ideas. That is the task of literature in my opinion. And in the same manner, new Belarusian authors appeared, such as Alhierd Baharevich and Victor Martinovich. They have brought truly groundbreaking messages – with their words they have been able to explain both themselves and the wider society. So I believe this work of creating a new society inside the old one has been happening everywhere. What we're seeing today in our streets is the result of the work of many. It is the work of village teachers in remote small villages, as much as it is of our talented directors, and our writers. We have been dreaming of the future. And literature, I’d say, always helps us with that.
JÖ: What does it mean that a new nation is being created? What could it lead to?
SA: This includes a lot of things which have been done, but also it includes even more the danger of that which have not yet been done. We have shown that we were ready to transform and to become new people in our streets, but we have not yet become aware of what we are, when together. And I think that the particularly important work today is the work which goes on in our courtyards. In the evening people are getting together, when coming home from work people do not stay indoors, they go out and they sing, they talk, they talk about how they will attend a march. Our courtyards today have become the platform for our new Belarus, in opposition to some of the old forces in the society. There are now two Belarus: Belarus of Lukashenka and the new Belarus, the one we saw today in the streets.
These people in these courtyards, on these benches, are talking to each other, trying to understand one another. And when you start a conversation with someone, that person will tell you: I don’t want blood, I don’t want to shoot, if it’s an older person; I don’t want my son to shoot or my son to die.
The main issue for us, Belarusians, was the issue of self-identification. We struggled to understand who we are, failed Russians, or as Lukashenka used to say “The best Russians are the Belarusians”. Or are we instead Belarusians? What are Belarusians? And now, in my opinion, we have created this global awareness, and people have seen that Belarusians are not Russians, they are different people. I’m not saying that Russians are bad, as I’m often accused of Russophobia, no. I don’t like the Russia of Sergey Shoygu, but I love the great Russian literature and the modern thinking Russian people. And so now this work has begun. And while the marches are ongoing, people are not only shouting their political slogans, people are talking with each other, people are thinking about new possiblities.
I remember Masha Kolesnikava, member of the Coordinating Council. I remember her face as a huge crowd of about 300 000 people came up to Lukashenka’s residence and APC’s were there and water cannons and she shouted in despair, I vividly remember her face at that moment, and she shouted “Don’t do that, don’t do that! We have to win not by force, we have to win by wits, by dignity!”, I remember these words of hers, and this has truly been the constant epigraph of our revolution.
JÖ: When it comes to the women of Belarus… The witty Moscow poet Lev Rubinstein in his response to your call to the Russian intelligentsia wrote that “freedom has a womanly face” in Belarus today. What are your conclusions regarding the strong female presence in the movement against falsified elections in Belarus?
SA: We do indeed have both joint marches and there are separate women’s marches. And there are many women’s marches. Now it no longer surprises you when a woman is dragged along the pavement. And she gets up and tells the police officer: “Why are you dragging me? Let me take you by the hand and I'll follow you to the police wagon”. And it’s like a drawing: a tall, beautiful woman, young woman, and this cyborg with a covered face who is leading her to the police wagon. For me, as a writer, this is an image of female dignity, of a woman who knows herself, what she must do today, to find a way out of the given situation – a dignified way out. I hope I don’t offent you men , but I believe that women are stronger than men in our Belarusian society. I don't know about the rest of the world, I'm not that familiar with other countries.
JÖ: There are other examples of this.
SA: Yes, but the women here... today, for example, as those black cyborgs were brutally dragging a young man toward the police wagon, a group of women, there were about five of them, ran up to them, screaming and pulling, and finally they managed to get this young man back. And they were not young women. The woman who held the cyborg’s hand and walked to the paddy-wagon, she was young, but these women were well over fifty, around sixty, and they were marching together. You cannot say that our revolution is only a young one. You could meet a grandmother or a great grandmother – women of all different ages. And I'm thinking that, maybe this is due to the patriarchalism of our society, as strange as it may sound, as the women have managed all the affairs at home. But on all the political photos, when they show a political party or the parliament, there are a hundred to a hundred and twenty men and no more than ten women. And, moreover, men in this country – specifically the men in our parliament –say that the women are there for the sake of decoration. This is their way of thinking. At the start of the election, Lukashenka stated that he could not imagine a woman for president. "As she did not serve in the army, how could she be a president!? This was some kind of medieval logic, far away from the reality of today. This was while he was still talking with the people and did not yet claim that only drug addicts, murderers, and alcoholics were in the streets, but that it was the people that went out to meet and talk to him, he said then that he honestly could not picture a woman as the leader of the nation today. And literally two weeks later, the men were thrown in jail: Tsikhanousky, Tsapkalo and when they jailed Babarika, one of the presidential candidates, then it was his head of staff, Maria Kolesnikava, who united the women, and together they gathered more people than any president or any man has managed to do. Lukashenka was not able to draw such big audiences.
I remember when these women came to Gomel, and the visibly astonished reporter was filming how the entire town was walking with flowers to greet them. They walked up to them with flowers. And when they started to believe in their strength, the women, initially, even tried to talk to the cyborgs, to these people who hide behind the balaclavas; during their marches, the women would approach them to give them flowers, to try and take them by the hand, but they just stood there like fools. No one accepted the flowers, as far as I remember, no one but one young man in a balaclava, besides him, they were just standing there, not accepting this gift, this womanly sacrifice. It never happened.
The longer the revolution has continued, since this is the time of revolution – today was the 50th day of the protest – the stronger the women have become, their numbers have increased, making them stronger. You could see that in their gait, their faces, their conversations, the interviews. All of this happened in front of our eyes, we were the witnesses.
JÖ: To be capable to create free public life, people have to be ready for freedom, they have to desire freedom specifically, and not only sausages and Mercedes. And to be able to own this freedom and to check the people in power, they have to be educated. They should probably be capable to bid farewell to the Red Man, which was described by you in your novel Secondhand time. Are the Belarusian citizens ready today to bid farewell to the Red Man?
SA: What I can say is that there is not one Belarus today, there are two. One Belarus is afraid of the changes and wants to remain in the old times, while second Belarus no longer wants to live like that and it is striving forward. One of the biggest losses of our time is that a lot of our best people are leaving [the country] today. The IT-experts, the businessmen, the strongest people are leaving, feeling powerless. Especially after Lukashenka started to sense the support from Putin, despite that Putin is surely playing a double game of some kind, and so does Lukashenka, probably. But when people found out that Putin promised to help with his reservists and he helped a lot with money, this was obviously a huge disappointment to a lot of people.
Despite all of that, I still do not agree with those, who think that our revolution is slowly abating, that the sails are getting quieter - I don't believe that. I believe that the revolution today needs new ideas and new forms of resistance. Once again, without any blood – that's our main principle. But obviously we still need to meet often and to talk, after each protest march, after each time we take to the streets. It might seem from the outside that the people are just walking, turning around once they reach the residence and then walking back, walking away, while they are seized like lambs and thrown into police wagons. This is not the case. As I've told you people are talking, people are thinking, there is an intense thought process at work within the enlightened part of the society, we are thinking about new forms of resistance, what they should be. This requires joint collective thinking since all of this is new. It is not enough simply to take to the barricades, raise the flag. An intellectual revolution is a revolution of completely new levels and new forms of resistance, which still have to be contemplated and argued over a lot, and talked and talked about, not just marched in the streets. We have to think a lot right now.
JÖ: But the writer, especially a writer of prose, is a person, who could look at the common matters through one fate and at his own fate through the prism of the society. A writer is a magician and a historian. And through your long and complex dialogues with your conversation partners, it seems like you are also helping the protagonists of your books to become authors, not of your novels, but their own fates and their personal stories. Is this understanding correct? The process of dialogue, which you masterfully command, is not that far from what is going on in the Minsk courtyards today, is it? Are these dialogues appearing there?
SA: Yes, and I try to overhear the conversations, to write them down. Because my novels are the novels of voices, the voices of the street itself. And these voices are particularly interesting today, around here, where the people are at the revolutionary pace in their thinking, in their understanding of certain things. Of course, even today, I, as usual try to listen to the people, to listen to how this work occurs inside of them. Because today, I would like to assure you, any person today is keen to talk, no matter if you are taking the cab, or you are sitting at a table in a café. And if we were walking down the street, and someone recognized me, they would immediately start talking, asking – not simply asking how one should live, as they used to ask Leo Tolstoy, they start talking about what they have in their hearts – that's interesting. One of the writers even noted, that people today argue much less in the buses and trolleybuses, where earlier there would be an atmosphere of hate. Now not at all. Today, it seems people have more love for one another, more interest in each other. If a person, for example, walks into the metro and sits down next to someone who is looking at his iPhone, the other would ask. "What's going on? Any news?". And they strike up a conversation immediately because all of them are thinking about the same things today. All of them are thinking about what Belarus will become, how can it become freer, who can do this and how can it be done?
JÖ: You, Svetlana, write about the past and the present, through the prism of people's memory. This individual and collective memory, is the structure, the fabric from which all of what happens with all of us today is created. But this passing moment of the present also affects our vision of the past "what it was really like". Therefore, will the ongoing protests in Minsk affect our recollections of what was taking place in the USSR in the 80s and 90s? Were the people really more prepared for freedom compared to what we, you, or they thought? Does it mean that there will be a second part of the Secondhand time?
SA: You know, I am thinking about a second part… What I would like to say is that people today are more ready for freedom than we were. Yes, in the 90s we would walk in the squares, shouting “Freedom!”, “Freedom!”. But, as I have understood, we did not know what freedom was. Our notion of it came from books, mythical notions. The subsequent reality showed that we truly did not know because what started then was this carving-up of the huge country, it started and people, were expecting that freedom was around the next corner, that it was coming the day after. But they saw that no, what was around the next corner was a hard life, the destroyed hometown factory was around the corner, nothing to feed the children with. As a professor told me: "I could at least explain it to my sons, they were big boys, 14 years old, but I could not explain it to my small dog, I was ashamed to look it in the eyes".
There were so many different types of hardship. I remember these markets next to every metro station, in Moscow, where the food, the so-called "food",was laying on the ground, on the newspapers. And people were happy to buy it, they would say "I'm selling one kilogram of food". It was not clear what people were selling, but it was food, cheap. And people would quickly run to it, it was that horrible of a time.
We saw that freedom is a long and big journey, and this is something we have particularly realized today.Today, when I see the faces of the protesters, I can say that these people know more about freedom. They have been able to travel the world, they have access to other mass media, completely different technology, they have been thinking more about it, they have been discussing it with their peers who live in different countries. This means these people know more about it, they have the knowledge, while we, at the time, only had a dream.
JÖ: We believe, that morally, and I think so do you, you have already won. Yes, this is a great triumph of the Belarusian opposition. But, how will history develop in the coming days, weeks, and months?
SA: It is true, in any case, that the generation of today could enter into the records of the memory that surely, there was a time when they won. In what sense? We have a nation today, a people, we have all that, but we still do not have any freedom. It is this freedom we have to get, to gain, we also have to think it through, to understand, we still have a lot of work in front of us. I will not undertake, and I think no political scientist will either, to say what will happen, because a lot of forces have entered into this geopolitical game around Belarus, and in particular the Russian interests are very strong, and we are still a small country and to 60% we are tied in with Russia. We will not be able to make it without Russia, because it is impossible, all of us, even we in the Coordinating Council, understand that this is the case today. In the same manner, we understand that today's Russia is not one single country, there are also two Russias, one Russia wants changes, and then there is the old Russia. In other words: we have a Belarus which wants changes, and Russia has a Russia which wants changes. And we can only hope, that while these geopolitical games go on, the Russia which wants changes will become bigger, and the Belarus which wants changes will also become bigger. I think that victory is just a question of time, while the idea itself, well, we have made half of that journey. And I would like to add that we have many people who have been harmed, who have become invalids. There were stun grenades and gunshot wounds, a lot of things had to be endured, especially during the first half, when the demonstrations started. When not as many were taking to the streets. And these people should know, first and foremost, that they are heroes, although there’s still no victory: there’s no victory, but there are heroes!
JÖ: I have one last question. At the beginning of your novel Secondhand time you give a quote from the Russian émigré philosopher Fyodor Stepun from the 50s:
"In any case, we should remember that it is not the blind agents of the evil who are primarily responsible for its victory in the world, but the spiritually sighted acolytes of the good"
As I understand, this quote relates to Europe of the 30s. What is the responsibility of the “spiritually sighted acolytes of good”, if the Europeans can be called that, which is not evident, for the developments in Belarus?
SA: Yes, it is a very good question, a brilliant question. A question which hits the spot. This question also relates to our elites, which are not fully united, and to the Russian elites, the intelligentsia, which I addressed in my letter: “How come you are quiet?”. The voice of the Russian intelligentsia was always heard, it was always taking sides with the weak. And today we hear very few of these voices. And this also, of course, applies to our friends in the West.
I believe that we have got used to speaking about the Good, while the Good should be done every day. And sometimes it is uncomfortable. Sometimes even very unpleasant. But it must be done. You cannot just state that someone possesses some kind of truth when it comes to the Good. Nobody holds this truth, nobody holds the Good in his hand.
The Good should be done every day, it is like love, you must work on it every day, you must do it every day, otherwise it will simply disappear, fly away, and only words will remain.
JÖ: Well, this is probably like democracy and freedom of speech, they should also be done every day, right?
SA: Yes, I think, yes. I think it is not only the work of the word but also of the thought, which is really important, especially here today, while creating new forms of resistance. But this constant work with democracy is important to all of us in this world because democracy today is facing difficulties. And not only in the countries which have fallen behind in some respects and which are still settling their political and geopolitical issues. Therefore, one should not think that we have achieved what we wanted to, what we have dreamt of. No, we have still not done that. No one has achieved that.
JÖ: Thank you Svetlana. We hope to see you soon in Sweden
SA: I’d be happy to.
JÖ: And Žyvie Biełaruś! (Long live Belarus!)
SA: Žyvie (Long live!)