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Saken Aymurzaev: Svetlana, since 2014 you have clearly referred to what was happening in the Eastern Ukraine region of Donbass as a war, you spoke about it as already being a tragedy. Did you expect it would ultimately spread and lead to the full-scale invasion that took place on 24 February 2022?
Svetlana Alexievich: You know, I always viewed what was happening in Donbass with caution and, to be honest, fear, and when tanks were already beginning to mass in such numbers on the Ukrainian border I of course recalled the books I had written and the people with whom I had spoken. I realised that we are people of war. This is what our culture is.
People talk of the great culture of Russia, but the main thing in this “great Russian culture” is the culture of war.
I remember my generation, even the generation of my granddaughter who is now 17. They are taught to kill and to die. Nothing else. That is our main experience.
That’s why I watched what was happening on the border with such horror. Even though I was phoned a lot by foreign correspondents and asked if there was going to be a war, I used to reply with the naivete of a person who had never been in an actual war (true, I had been in the Afghan war, but that was thousands of kilometres away), who thought that war was impossible, it’s too insane for the 21st century – it’s something medieval. But, as you can see, here we are living in a war. And you are living in a war too.
Is it really possible that this interval, a period without war, achieved nothing? Why did no one draw any conclusions from this period?
You know, I think that the political and humanitarian elites are to blame. They were unprepared for this new life. We demonstrated in squares, we shouted “freedom, freedom”, but no one understood what freedom actually means, or that it requires a different type of human being, a free person with different concepts. They juggled with the words of the West, but this was in fact a total misunderstanding of what was going on. And, of course, the element of society that grew stronger did so precisely because it used its military experience, its experience of violence, to control day-to-day life. I could have felt all this, but I somehow still clung on to the hope, as a naïve representative of the arts, that this wouldn’t happen.
Whenever I spoke with people, I was constantly struck by their aggressiveness. It was the aggressiveness of the humiliated and the unhappy, of people who have been deceived for the last thirty years.
I don’t know…the Kremlin has probably been able – in a quite cunning way – to divert this blow away from itself. As always, an external enemy is necessary for the preservation of personal power. It’s a common story in Russian culture.
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Now that war has begun, I am, of course, more than anything struck by the incomprehensible cruelty.
I first encountered this cruelty when I started writing a book about our Belarusian 2020 revolution. Right from the earliest days there were individuals who chased and caught their fellow citizens and beat them to a pulp; among the victims there could well have been former school mates or university friends. When I was shown photographs of people the ambulances had brought in, I realised that all the thousands, even millions, of books had done nothing to change humanity.
Even now, when you look at videos of Bakhmut [a city in Eastern Ukraine where the fighting between the Ukrainian defenders and the Russian army is particularly fierce at times of writing, Note from the Editor], you can see so many dead bodies that the thought occurs to me – people on both sides of the fighting must surely go mad. It was like this only during the Second World War. I was told by a woman – an army cook – that you’d boil up a vat of porridge, and there’s no one to eat it: just two men turn up. Something similar is happening right now. I have no idea how people at the front can cope with all this psychologically. What’s going on is simply unthinkable.
We are of course, I would say, now living in a war. When the day begins, you look to see what’s going on over there, in the daytime your eyes are drawn in that direction the whole time, in the evening you look that way once again.
What is most surprising is our…well, it isn’t quite helplessness, but most people are helpless. I left my country. There was nothing I could do there. Here you pace up and down, you feel that you can’t do anything. I feel ashamed before you, Ukrainians, that you are dying there. And there are no answers.
In answer to the question “How did you survive, why did you survive?” one of your characters replies: “I was loved dearly in my childhood”. This phrase affected me deeply. With it in mind I am now trying to understand why there are people who support the war and fail to realise the bestial cruelty in which they have engulfed themselves. Can it perhaps be because they were not loved enough?
I do not doubt it. It was important for me too. There is nothing in our culture that is founded on love. And we can see it. Violence isn’t just a military operation. We have domestic violence, violence between neighbours. There are many varieties of violence, and it is in this culture I believe we have grown up. Even parents are probably not fully aware of this.
I do not know how many people these days actually read books. We used to boast that we were such a spiritual country. I have often been in the West, and I would now never say now that we are the “most spiritual country”.
That is because here [in Germany, Editor’s note] I can see people who place more value on their own lives, and on life in general. There are young people here who go off to save the penguins or rare species of birds. A completely different philosophy of life is taking shape. And with us there is nothing of the kind happening. It’s as if we’re still living in the Middle Ages. We’ve dragged the tanks out of storage and started shooting.
When the events of 2020 were taking place in Belarus, there were many in Ukraine who hoped that if the Belarusians were successful, a full-scale war could be avoided. Why did Belarus not wake up at that time, why did they not succeed?
I rather doubt that there would not have been a war. In my opinion Belarus would have been dealt with first. I do not believe that Russia would have simply given up Belarus, even to the Belarusian people.
No, Belarus was prepared for what is now happening in Ukraine. [Aleksandr Lukashenka’s regime] managed to defeat us – or rather, we were not able to beat them: it would be unfair to call what they did to us a victory. The fact that we were unable to beat them is what in some way saved us. Plus, of course, Lukashenka’s manly cunning; he wanted so much to cling on to power. To do that he needed a country. After all, he has to have something to rule over.
Then there was just one enemy left – Ukraine, of course. It has always been Russia’s enemy. That’s how things have turned out historically, probably something to do with rivalry and jealousy.
As a writer I tend to see things in images. Here comes Poroshenko, Lukashenka is also in the picture, and here comes Zelensky.
It’s as if I can see two separate times at once – the new time and that old time. And I have the terrible feeling that the old time is more powerful, there is still so much of it around.
We in Ukraine think every day about how we can expect a new invasion from the Belarusian side of the border, rockets are launched against us from Belarus, planes take off from there to bomb us. The longer this continues, the sooner the amazement the Ukrainians once felt towards the Belarusians will be replaced by anger. For the moment this anger is not as strong as it is towards the Russians, but it is there. What can be done with this anger, and how do you in general view the fact that rockets are launched against us from your country, and troops may soon be ordered into Ukraine?
How do I view it? I am ashamed, very much ashamed. But I do realise that Belarus is a country under occupation. It is not a separate country, that country no longer exists, it is part of Russia. Who is the president there? It is not Lukashenka. The president is Vladimir Putin.
The revolution was crushed with such cruelty and humiliation that the people of course retreated into their shells. A part of the population went totally silent or joined Lukashenka. That’s why there’s nothing we can do. What could I do if I were there? I would be like our Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Ales Bialiatski, I would also be in the Akreścina prison, and at my age and with my poor health I would not last long. And that would be of no good to anyone. I do more by writing a book.