“To bear witness is an aggressive act. It is born out of refusal to bow to outside pressures to revise or repress experience, a decision to embrace conflict rather than conformity, to endure a lifetime of anger and pain rather than submit to the seductive pull of revision and repression. It’s goal is change. It’s survivors retain control over their trauma – and they can sometimes force a shift in social and political structures. (Kali Tal, World of Hurt, 1996)
“Not knowing doesn’t hurt anyone except those who get hurt because nobody knows”. (Eric Fried, Austrian poet)
“There are moments when you just have to walk away and cry”. (Lou Angeli)
This year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is Belorussian investigative journalist and non-fiction prose writer, Svetlana Alexievich (b.1948). The Swedish Academy cited the author for inventing “a new kind of literary genre”, described as polyphonic writings, a monument to courage and suffering in our time… “a history of emotions, – a history of the soul…an oral history by excavation”. Alexievich, a Russian language writer who has never lived in Russia, was born in Soviet Ukraine and grew up in Soviet Belarus and through her books and her life now offers the world’s most profound and eloquent understanding of the post-Soviet societies. (Philip Gourevitch, nytimes.com, October 8, 2015).
Her work has held a special significance for me since I began my social trauma education and recovery work in the former USSR in 1992. (St Just, Relative Balance in an Unstable World, 2006). I arrived in Russia just six years after a series of explosions destroyed Reactor Building Four, soon followed by a catastrophic meltdown on April 26, 1986, at Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, standing near the newly built city of Pripyat. According to the data published by Dr. Alexey Yablokov et.al, in Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment (New York Academy of Sciences, 2010), the death toll, mostly due to cancer, was in excess of 985,000. This does not include the unborn, stillborn and those who died shortly after birth; and it is expected to continue to rise, since this remains an ongoing global disaster now compounded by the triple meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactors. (St. Just, Trauma: Time, Space and Fractals, 2012).
Cynical,(bought and paid for) nuclear shills, who continue to insist that nuclear power is a clean, green, cheap, and a safe alternative to fossil fuels and “global warming”, and that “nobody died at Chernobyl” together with any and all who attempt to minimize the human and environmental consequences of this ongoing nuclear accident, should be required to read Alexievich’s, Voices from Chernobyl : An Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (2005). During her Nobel lecture she spoke of how in Chernobyl one couldn’t see, touch or smell the radiation; the world around was both familiar and unfamiliar. As soon as she arrived within the exclusion zone, the author was immediately instructed to not pick any flowers, warned to never sit on any grass nor drink water from any well. Death was everywhere and now posed a very different sort of death. Immersed within this nightmare, she added: “For me the world parted: inside this zone I didn’t feel Belorussian, or Russian or Ukrainian, but a representative of a biological species that could be destroyed”. And, while we are on the subject,I would also suggest that nuclear disaster deniers and disinformation agents be required to view the documentary film, “Children of Chernobyl”, filmed in Belarus, which is freely available to all through YouTube.com.
In this book focusing upon the Chernobyl disaster, composed of a collage of carefully constructed interviews, Alexievich opens with an account of a newly wed and newly pregnant woman, watching her beloved husband, a firefighter, physically disintegrate in his hastily arranged hospital bed. Doctors maintained that he and his gravely ill comrades had been poisoned by gas; no one said anything about radiation. He perished, 14 days after the nuclear explosions; she was evacuated, and their daughter Natashenka, riddled with multiple birth defects, died soon after birth. The childless widow was given a two room apartment in Kiev in a building known as Chernobylskaya, where people from the Chernobyl station are housed. Some are still working at the crippled power facility although most of the surviving residents are invalids and struggle with serious diseases, and are prone to suddenly, without warning, just drop dead.
“I am interested in the little people, Alexievich explains, the little great people,…because suffering expands people. “In my books”, she continues, “these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way”. (Alison Flood, theguardian.com, December 8, 2015). Another story from her Chernobyl book was adapted for film by Juanita Wilson as, The Door (2009) which won many awards including an Academy Award nomination. (YouTube.com).
While working on Voices from Chernobyl, Alexievich realized that she was actually engaged in writing a fourth volume in the cycle which she now calls, “The Red Man”; the Soviet person. This five volume series began with the Great Patriotic War (World War I), and ends with the collapse of the former USSR in 1991. Her fifth and final volume is about the loss of Soviet ideals and the aftermath of state sponsored terrorism, the gulags and multiple ethnic wars. “We are surrounded by victims”, she maintains, “and who did this to them?”
Now engaged in her latest projects involving old-age, dying and love; she has discovered a problem. During her inquiries, it seems that older Soviet generations have difficulty talking about themselves since they have had no experience in doing so. If asked about love, they would respond about how they built Minsk, while inquiries about old-age would bring forth stories of hardships during the war; as if they never really had a life of their own. (Masha Gessen,newyorker.com, October 26, 2015).