History is told in kitchens

Team Tell History greatly enjoyed reading Rachel Donadio’s delightful profile of Belarusian oral historian and last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize of Literature, Svetlana Alexievich.

The work of 68-year old Alexievich is remarkable because of the personality and drive of its author, but also because she focuses on the everyman, venturing into territory traditionally overlooked by historians and other media. Donadio sums it up nicely:

Alexievich would return to interview the same people over and over again through the years, lending her talks with them an intimacy and familiarity that can be missing in more ‘official’ interviews.

Reading her work is a refreshing change from the way we normally think about history–namely that we consider it to be made by big names, progressing forward across a timeline. Alexievich explained her ‘small-picture’ approach in her Nobel Prize speech.

Becoming an oral historian

Although Alexievich studied journalism at university, the path to her future career as a writer did not come easily or intuitively. Many books were off limits, and her passion for oral history was born when her grandmother told war stories.

Her career was defined by a persistent defiance of censorship. Perhaps her best known work, “Voices from Chernobyl,” a 1997 work collecting the stories of victims of the nuclear disaster, was banned in authoritarian Belarus despite the fact that the country had suffered some of the worst effects of radiation. More than 2 million people are still affected — one in five people in Belarus live on contaminated land today.

This is a country that continues to be plagued by a dark history, but whose politics prevents this history from being acknowledged. “Voices…” is only available there if it is smuggled in from Russia, which means it is only available to the handful lucky enough to find it and pay the vastly inflated price.

After many years traveling throughout Europe in exile, Alexievich will try to stay in her native Belarus, trusting that the international attention provided by the Nobel Prize will offer her exceptional freedom of expression. But the sad reality is that there are countless precious stories in kitchens around Belarus that Alexievich will never record, if simply because she is one person in a country of millions. While she may be afforded special treatment, think of all those who don’t have the immunity of fame to highlight the country’s silenced voices. 

For a sample of Svetlana Alexievich’s writing, read an excerpt from her Voices from Chernobyl here.