Svetlana Alexievich

    is a Belarussian writer and journalist, recipient of the 2015 Nobel prize for literature “for her polyphonic writings, which are a monument to suffering and courage in our times.“ She has won numerous other awards such as the National Book Critics Circle Award, the 2013 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Prix Médicis essai, Leipziger Book Prize for European Understanding, the Andrei Sinyavsky Prize, Angelus, and twice the Ryszard Kapuściński Prize for literary reportage. She was born in Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine in 1948. After studying journalism at the University of Minsk, she worked as a reporter and a teacher. She interviewed people who survived World War II, the Soviet wars in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. She has lived in Paris, Göteborg and Berlin, returning in 2013 to Minsk where she currently lives. Her documentary prose has been translated into 28 languages, made into films and has inspired at least a dozen plays. The current state of the once enormous, now crumbling Soviet empire has been the subject of most of her publications. Her books include The Unwomanly Face of the War (1983), on the fate of the approximately one million women who fought in the Red Army during the Second World War and who were held in contempt after their return from the front; Boys of Zinc (1989), on the fallen soldiers who had returned home in zinc coffins from the Soviet-Afghan campaign of 1979 – 1985; Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997) and Second Hand Time – The Last of the Soviets (2013). The following excerpt comes from the English translation by Bela Shayevich (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016): “We’re paying our respects to the Soviet era. Cutting ties with our old life. I’m trying to honestly hear out all the participants of the socialist drama… Communism had an insane plan: to remake the ‘old breed of man’, ancient Adam. And it really worked … Perhaps it was communism’s only achievement.  Seventy-plus years in the Marxist-Leninist laboratory gave rise to a new man: Homo sovieticus. Some see him as a tragic figure, others call him a sovok. I feel like I know this person; we’re very familiar, we’ve lived side by side for a long time. I am this person. And so are my acquaintances, my closest friends, my parents. For a number of years, I travelled throughout the former Soviet Union – Homo sovieticus isn’t just Russian, he’s Belorussian, Turkmen, Ukrainian, Kazakh. Although we now all live in separate countries and speak different languages, you couldn’t mistake us for anyone else. We’re easy to spot! People who have come out of socialism are both like and unlike the rest of humanity – we have our own lexicon, our own conceptions of good and evil, our heroes and martyrs. We have a special relationship with death. The stories people tell me are full of jarring terms: ‘shoot’, ‘execute’, ‘liquidate’, ‘eliminate’, or typically Soviet varieties of disappearance such as ‘arrest’, ‘ten years without the right of correspondence’, and ‘emigration’. How much can we value human life when we know that not long ago, people died by the millions? We’re full of hatred and superstitions. All of us come from the land of the Gulag and harrowing war. Collectivization, dekulakization, mass deportations of various nationalities…
 This was socialism, but it was also just everyday life. Back then, we didn’t talk about it very much. Now that the world has transformed irreversibly, everyone is suddenly interested in that old life of ours – whatever it may have been like, it was our life. In writing, I’m piecing together the history of ‘domestic’, ‘interior’ socialism. As it existed in a person’s soul. I’ve always been drawn to this miniature expanse: one person, the individual. It’s where everything really happens. 
 From a conversation with a university professor: ‘At the end of the nineties, my students would laugh when I told them stories about the Soviet Union. They were positive that a new future awaited them. Now, it’s a different story… Today’s students have truly seen and felt capitalism: the inequality, the poverty, the shameless wealth. They’ve witnessed the lives of their parents, who never got anything out of the plundering of our country. And they’re oriented toward radicalism. They dream of their own revolution, they wear red T-shirts with pictures of Lenin and Che Guevara.’
 There’s a new demand for everything Soviet. For the cult of Stalin. Half of the people between the ages of nineteen and thirty consider Stalin an ‘unrivalled political figure’. A new cult of Stalin, in a country where he murdered at least as many people as Hitler?! Everything Soviet is back in style. ‘Soviet-style cafés’ with Soviet names and Soviet dishes. ‘Soviet’ candy and ‘Soviet’ salami, their taste and smell all too familiar from childhood. And of course, ‘Soviet’ vodka. There are dozens of Soviet-themed TV shows, scores of websites devoted to Soviet nostalgia. You can visit Stalin’s camps – on Solovki, in Magadan – as a tourist. The adverts promise that for the full effect, they’ll give you a camp uniform and a pickaxe. They’ll show you the newly restored barracks. Afterwards, there will be fishing…
    Old-fashioned ideas are back in style: the great empire, the ‘iron hand’, the ‘special Russian path’. They brought back the Soviet national anthem; there’s a new Komsomol, only now it’s called Nashi; there’s a ruling party, and it runs the country by the Communist Party playbook; the Russian president is just as powerful as the general secretary used to be, which is to say he has absolute power. Instead of Marxism-Leninism, there’s Russian Orthodoxy…
    On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Alexander Grin wrote, ‘And the future seems to have stopped standing in its proper place.’ Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be. Our time comes to us second-hand.
    The barricades are a dangerous place for an artist. They’re a trap. They ruin your vision, narrow your pupils, drain the world of its true colours. On the barricades, everything is black and white. You can’t see individuals, all you see are black dots: targets. I’ve spent my entire life on the barricades, and I would like to leave them behind. I want to learn how to enjoy life. To get back my normal vision. But today, tens of thousands of people are once again taking to the streets. They’re taking each other by the hand and tying white ribbons onto their jackets – a symbol of rebirth and light. And I’m with them. I recently saw some young men in T-shirts with hammers and sickles and portraits of Lenin on them. Do they know what communism is?”
    PETER BALKO)(is a Slovak writer. He graduated in screenwriting from the Film and Television Faculty at Bratislava’s Academy of Performing Arts. In 2012 he won first prize in the short story competition Poviedka 2012 and his writing has appeared in the almanac PULZ V4, as well as in the literary journals Romboid, Dotyky, Revue Labyrint and Gömörország, and in English, Hungarian and Italian translation. He is the co-editor of the poetry collection Metrofóbia and of an anthology of contemporary Slovak prose aimed at young readers, Literatúra bodka sk (Literature dot.sk, 2016). He co-wrote and was assistant director of the feature film Kandidát (2013, The Candidate), and provided the script for the film Čiara (2017, The Line), set on the Slovak-Ukrainian border. Balko organises the annual interdisciplinary cultural festival Medzihmla in his home town of Lučenec, which inspired his debut novel, Vtedy v Lošonci (2015, Back then in Losonc), for which he received the Ján Johanides prize for authors under 35 and the Tatra Banka Foundation Prize in the Young Author category; the book was shortlisted for Slovakia’s most prestigious award, the Anasoft Litera, and voted readers’ favourite. He is currently working on his second novel. He divides his time between Bratislava and Lučenec. “You call yourselves ordinary people. Well, if it is ordinary to pose for family photos doing the Hitler salute, to toy with cynical numerology and send mustard-gas kisses to scroungers, Jews, Gypsies, the disabled, or café layabouts, you are indeed ordinary – ordinary fascists. My grandpa, Jano Krajči, remembers World War II. As a boy, he saw hanged deserters lining every road leading out of Lučenec. He saw mass graves lined with patterns of unmourned bodies. He saw cattle trucks packed with thousands of unfinished human stories, headed into the unknown on the wide railway tracks. He saw the end of the world: black-and-white folds of human evil fuelled by a neurotic with a toothbrush moustache and a double-chinned priest at whose grave you light candles. […] You are not an extended arm of truth or of Jesus Christ, at whose sleeve you tug whenever you run out of arguments. And when confronted about the stuff adorning your T-shirts, the posts you share with your social networks, or what you shout, inebriated, in station bars, you are surprised and offended. Yes, an error has crept into the programming of the app known as Slovakia. Over the past 25 years, oligarchic money launderers have turned this country into a tear-off calendar and wiped their bums with the social contract. I feel anxious every time a family member goes to hospital, since apart from their own toilet paper they have to bring a large helping of luck. Our potholed roads would be a laughing stock even in the Balkans and I feel like crying every time I pay my taxes. And it is the peripheries that are worst off, the parts of the country where both you and I come from. People are angry and disappointed, but you have exploited their anger as a living shield for your dangerously black-and-white worldview and presented yourselves as dubious prophets who will bring about order at last. However, anger is not a way but rather a wall: sooner or later you’ll crash into it.”