Svetlana Alexievich’s 2015 Nobel Prize

One the most questionable current topics in Belarusian society is the Nobel Prize awarded to Svetlana Alexievich. The position of the Belarusian authorities was clear from the beginning: for about four hours after the release of the news of Alexievich’s award, they kept silent. Only in the evening was an official short congratulatory letter from Lukashenko’s press service released. But Lukashenko personally spoke slightingly of this prize. The reason is Alexievich’s openly critical position towards him and Putin (and the Russian World, «русский мир», in general). That’s why her books are not published by Belarusian state publishing houses, and her name is absent from the educational program in Belarusian schools. She has not received any state prizes and information about her is not available in official media. But on the other hand, Lukashenko is angered by the fact that Alexievich managed to become a public hero in spite of him. Her success was also a complete loss for Belarussain state propaganda.

The position of the Belarusian authorities was clear from the beginning: for about four hours after the release of the news of Alexievich’s award, they kept silent.

Of course, the authorities felt compelled to somehow react to the news of the Nobel Prize. The Ministry of Education announced Alexievich’s novels will be included in the official educational program, but only as a part of Russian literature. Lukashenko has also occasionally mentioned her. Recently, he awarded the Skaryna medal to Russian pop singer Viktor Drobysh (note: Aleksievich has still not received any medals or prizes, and the state isn’t going to do it). After words of thanks for Drobysh’s activity – who is really very ordinary pop singer – Lukashenko focused on other un-patriotic persons, who make speeches in front of the global community against Belarusian authorities and him personally, and this way declare their non-patriotic position (he was, of course, referring to Alexievich). But, as Lukashenko said, for him it doesn’t mutter. And this strategy – it doesn’t matter to us – has been taken up as the official line. Thus, state publishing houses still haven’t published Alexievich’s books, no state TV channel broadcast Alexievich’s Nobel Prize lecture on 7 Decemeber, nor the award ceremony on 10 December. The official reason is “the number of organizational, technical, financial and legal issues and aspects”. Many non-official media sources interpreted the fact that the official media ignored these events as a sign of shame for the Belarusian authorities, there was even an online petition for TV channels to show the broadcast. But the strategy of it doesn’t matter continues.

As for Belarusian society, this news divided the public into three groups. One is completely happy; the second one (a part of the civil society sector) does not consider Alexievich part of Belarusian culture, because she writes in Russian. And for the third group, it simply doesn’t matter, they are not really aware of who Alexievich is. Because of the silence of the state media, people cannot understand the scale of the event. As German publicist Felix Ackermann mentioned on his Facebook page, “the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich just received the Nobel prize in Stockholm. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published today my piece on the twofold reactions in Minsk. When I asked yesterday in the new bar “Patriot” at Dom Oficerov in central Minsk if they would screen the ceremony, the 25-year old bar-keeper asked me: “Who is Svetlana Alexievich?”.

In any case, for civil society, this is major news. And while the state ignores the Nobel Prize award, the citizens celebrate it. The flashmob (on Facebook: #nobelrazam #нобельразам) celebrating Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize has united numerous Minsk bars. The photos show Bar Y and Xuligan, where people could watch online broadcasts of both events.

Svetlana Alexievich broadcast 2
Bar Y and Xuligan, where people could watch online broadcasts of both events.

After the ceremony, when it was clear that the state would not meet Alexievich at the Minsk-2 airport, some activists created a group on Facebook and proposed that citizens gather to meet her together. Thus, on December 15, about 200 people came to the airport and met Alexievich with flowers and posters that read, for example, Welcome! Congratulate to our Svetlana!, or Belarusians are proud of you, Svetlana. As the media wrote, there was a large police presence at the airport, but that did not prevent the meeting. The first words of Svetlana were: It’s good that there are so many people here and we are together! No official representatives and journalists from state media were present.

Svetlana Alexievich Nobel broadcast
Bar Y and Xuligan, where people could watch online broadcasts of both events.

The reasons for Alexievich’ rejection by a part of the civil society community can be traced to her words in some interviews about Belarusian culture and language, and also her frequent references to great Russian culture. In my opinion, her statements were mostly taken out of context and used instrumentally by certain people for their own aims. And the fact that after the Nobel Prize, Alexievich constantly repeated that she is from the Belarusian world shows her real position in relation to Belarusian culture. She ended her speech at the Nobel Banquet in Belarusian, because, as she said, she wanted the language of her nation to resound in that space. As for great Russian culture, this attitude is absolutely widespread amongst people of Alexievich’s generation, who was born in Ukraine, grew up and lived in Belarus, and was influenced by Russian culture due to the USSR’s politics towards national cultures, which turned Russian language and culture into a priority and example.
As for pARTisan and me personally, we are delighted by this Prize. It is a very significant gesture of the global community not only towards Belarusian literature. We hope that this event can counter some stereotypes about our country as well as deconstruct the invisible border that still separates us from the rest of the world. And we are grateful to Alexievich for understanding that at the moment, Belarus needs this attention so much, and that perhaps there is a chance to change something. Thus, the solidarity of the people with Alexievich – the collective watching of the online broadcasts and meeting her at the airport – showed how strongly Belarusians today need a cause for solidarity against the state. It’s a fact that Alexievich became a symbol of this solidarity, because she brought together people from different communities, not only from the civil society sector, but also those who may have never joined political demonstrations. This fact confirms the idea of pARTisan about the great potency of a Belarusian cultural hero. We believe that a Belarusian cultural hero can do more for future of Belarus than any politician.

From Svetlana Alexievich’s speech at the Nobel Banquet:

“I want to talk about my country – Belarus. Two young women approached me at Minsk airport when I was on my way to Warsaw. They were crying. ‘Thank you!’ they said. ‘You understand? Now we really exist! Now everyone knows where Belarus is!’ I want to convey this ‘thank you’ to all of you. Several generations have grown up since Belarus became independent after the August 1991 coup. Each of them has had its own revolution, has come out onto the Square to demonstrate, and each has wanted to live in a free country. They have all been beaten, sent to prison, driven out of universities, and fired from their jobs. Our revolution has not been victorious, but we do have our own revolutionary heroes. Freedom is not an instantaneous holiday, as we once dreamed. It is a road. A long road. We know this now.”



Tania Arcimovič
Art critic, curator, editor of pARTisan media project. Graduated from Belarusian State Academy of Arts (Minsk, 2013), studied in the laboratory of Experimental Stage by Anatoly Praudin (St. Petersburg, 2007/2008). 2014-2015 – fellowship of AIR program CCA Ujazdowski Castle (Poland) and Akademie Solitude (Germany). Has published in a range of Belarussian and international journals.