Nadezhda Azhgikhina: Svetlana, in August 1991, a lot of people in the USSR believed that positive change was coming soon. After the failure of the August putsch [an attempt by Communist Party hard-liners to oust Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev], we all thought that the changes were irreversible and that we would live in a free, just, democratic, and happy land where the law was obeyed, and human rights were highly valued. Why were we mistaken? Where did we go wrong?
Svetlana Alexievich: We were idealists and romantics then. We had a romantic picture of freedom and the kind of people that were needed for it. It turned out that while we were running around to demonstrations, we did not fully understand what freedom was. We were helpless in the face of reality; in the USSR we had never dealt with reality, we lived in a world of utopian ideas of humanity and the world. In the early 1990s, a civil war almost broke out before our eyes, with everything collapsing, closed factories, empty stores, lines for bread and milk, the necessities. I remember how people sold pieces of meat laid out on newspapers on the streets of central Moscow.… Everything collapsed, and no one knew what to do next.… You can’t live in a concentration camp for decades and be a free person. We lived under the Soviet regime for 70 years, in a closed society, we were not truly free people, even we democrats. We liked to talk in the kitchen, criticize the authorities, and declaim poetry. We imagined some elements of reality, which we found mostly in literature, about Russia, socialism, everything was mixed up in our minds, and of course, we did not know how to build a free life. Then came the petrodollars, which made life easier, but income from oil could not replace the absence of democratic traditions and the culture of democracy. Money is just money. Oligarchs and politicians started using it. Freedom needs time, the accumulation of and training in new human qualities that we had not known. We thought freedom is here, that’s it, we’ll win, and we’ll have everything. Houses, wonderful factories, an ideal legal system, and so on. The result is what we have today: Public opinion is turning back toward the values of a totalitarian regime, to autocratic values.
NA: “The red man,” the Soviet phenomenon that all your books are about, did not vanish in the waves of history. He lives on and rules the party—in Russia, Belarus, in the entire post-Soviet space? And supports the more archaic and nondemocratic tendencies and regimes?
SA: New human qualities have not had time to form. The “red man” has not had time to reformat himself and develop new priorities, and is now angry and aggressive. The Putin regime in Russia and the Lukashenko regime in Belarus are most to blame for this. Gorbachev had been an idealist. Yeltsin at least tried to do something. But today’s leaders are fully to blame for the situation now. They turned out to be “red men.” They accuse the romantic democrats of the 1990s and blame them for all the woes. They try to say that the Wild Nineties were the result of democratic ideas. Our generation of democrats is blamed.… Everything painful has to blamed on somebody else. Our generation was made responsible for the fact that real democracy and its flourishing did not occur, for the fact that the historical process moved slowly. That is, we live with a sense of our own defeat.