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.
NA: I see a clear desire to deny that the idea of democracy is important for Russia, and deny the idea that people need to participate in a mass movement for change—which was the basic tenet of August 1991. Nowadays, the official Russian media interpret the August events as a mistake, and sometimes even as treason and counterrevolution—a desire to destroy the country.
SA: If you ask in Belarus today about 1991, probably no one will remember a thing. Maybe a few people of our generation. This subject does not exist in official history. It’s been erased, and the Lukashenko propaganda never talks about it. I’m seeing the same thing in Russia. The year 1991 is valued by a small circle of aged democrats, while young people know almost nothing about it and are not interested. A forgotten revolution. Which, nevertheless, still brought its fruits and made a total return to the old way impossible. There are attempts to reanimate the Soviet system, to reanimate Stalin, as well as the old imperial idea, rehabilitate tsarism, promote Orthodoxy relentlessly—taken together it’s a very troubling mix. Building a free society requires serious and sustained effort. You have to understand yourself. You have to tell the truth about your past, for a start. The truth about the repressions, the Gulag, the people who took part in the repressions, the truth about the Great Patriotic War. Everything. During perestroika, these were the most important topics. But today in Belarus and Russia, this topic is practically banned. Propaganda cultivates a surrealistic image of the past and offers the imperial version to replace it. When I was gathering material for my book Secondhand Time, I asked people which they preferred: to live in a small, prosperous, comfortable, and peaceful state, or in an enormous, militant empire with all the concomitant problems. About 80 percent preferred to live in an empire.
NA: Recently, your talk in Odessa was canceled at the last minute. The reason given was that your name was in the black list of the Mirotvorets [literally: Peacemaker] website, which publishes names of so-called “enemies of Ukraine.” What is your feeling about this?
SA: The decision was made by the organizers. My name vanished from the list 40 minutes later. It might have been a provocation. I was ready to appear, I was ready to have guards. But that same theater had problems over Konstantin Raikin’s performance before that [Ukrainian nationalists burst into the theater and demanded that the Russian actor leave, citing his name on the same black list], and the organizers canceled my talk. I don’t blame Ukrainians for this completely. Things are very complicated in Ukraine. It’s a country at war, everything is exaggerated. A delightful elderly man showed me around Odessa, he was a marvelous guide. People stopped us sometimes, they recognized me and asked questions. We had wonderful conversations about everything. But it was hard to talk about Crimea or Donbass. It’s all too emotional. And it’s the same in Russia. I was talking with a cab driver in Moscow, we had a great talk until we touched on Ukraine. He was ready to throw me out of the car. If we have different opinions on an issue, isn’t it better to talk about it, rather than turning aggressive right away and wanting to kill someone? Let’s discuss it! But everything is too acute, too stressed, there’s too much aggression everywhere.
NA: There is hatred in the mass media, on the Internet—hatred and intolerance are a sign of the times all over the world. Can the intelligentsia propose something to prevent this?
SA: I’ve noticed that, unfortunately, the intelligentsia today is much more susceptible to hatred, stereotypes, propaganda, their own or someone else’s surrealistic ideas about life than ordinary people. Ordinary people in Russia, Belarus, everywhere are busy with their daily problems, their work. They don’t have time for anything else. They are much less affected by propaganda. They have more common sense. As for hatred, that is the malady of our day. It is a panicked reaction to not being able to offer a solution, a way out of our problems. Not just political ones. After Chernobyl, it became clear that completely new challenges were appearing, challenges to our existence. Radiation is invisible, it has no smell, but it can destroy every living thing. The technological breakthrough that replaces many human actions, the new robots, are also a threat that we have not fully comprehended. Global warming, global cataclysms. We are catastrophically unprepared for the future.
NA: You moved back to Belarus after living more than 10 years in Europe. You’ve started the Svetlana Alexievich club in Minsk, where you invite outstanding thinkers and artists from Russia and Europe. Do you believe that enlightenment and free conversation can help overcome the complexes of the “red man”? Can they bring up free people?
SA: It’s important to give people the chance to hear free people. We’ve had people like Alexander Sokurov, Ruta Vanagaite, Vladimir Sorokin, and Stanislav Belkovsky speak. It’s important for me that the world learns about Belarus, what kind of country it is. I returned to Belarus when I realized that nothing was going to change there in the near future. Until the people change. The most important thing was to create a space for free speech. Expanding it changes consciousness. I meet a lot of young people in Russia and in Belarus who think and feel differently than our generation. They are freer inside. I believe that people brought up in the humanities, in the basic human values, will eventually conquer the technocrat, the oligarch, and the robot.