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Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Prize and western media

by JJA

Western media have gone overboard in praising this year’s Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich.

The Guardian books editor, Claire Armitstead, whose profile states she read English at Oxford but makes no mention of any proficiency in Russian, boldly claims “Alexievich deserves her place alongside Pinter and Gordimer”.

No less complimentary is New Yorker journalist Philip Gourevich who, in a piece for Human Rights Watch, argues that her writing is “wonderfully free of any polemical or activist agenda. She serves no ideology, only an ideal”.

Like much of what we read in the media today, how much is fact and how much is propaganda?

The Nobel Prize in Literature is a big media story before, during and after the latest recipient is announced. As it is awarded by the Swedish Academy, coverage of every aspect is particularly intense in Sweden. The name Svetlana Alexievich has been bandied around as a potential winner for several years in Stockholm and this year, she was the clear favourite in the Swedish media.

Dagens Nyheter (DN) is the Swedish daily that corresponds most closely in stance and traditional profile to The Guardian. DN has similarly become increasingly belligerent in its Russophobia and anti-Putin hysteria. The editor is of Polish Jewish extraction and regularly writes opinion pieces on Russian aggression and the need for Sweden to join NATO that mirror the sort of pieces in The Guardian by Luke Harding and Shaun Walker.

Awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to Belarusian dissident Svetlana Alexievich was therefore a manna from heaven opportunity for DN to launch yet another attack against Putin.

DN foreign correspondent and former Washington correspondent Michael Winiarski was quick to file a piece initially headlined ‘Someone who probably won’t be happy about this year’s Nobel prize is Russian president Vladimir Putin’ and subsequently updated as ‘A sharp critic of totalitarian development’.

His intro gets straight to the point: “For Svetlana Alexievich, Belarus became a totalitarian state a long time ago, while Russia is still at the start of this process”.

He quotes Alexievich as saying at a book presentation in Warsaw in May “How is it possible to drown a country in blood, complete a criminal annexation of Crimea and destroy a fragile peace? You cannot justify this”.

Acknowledging that the Nobel Prize for Literature often has political connotations, especially when it goes to an author from an authoritarian state, Winiarski describes Alexievich as a fearless and sharp analyst of life in Belarus and Russia and a great explorer of Soviet mentality with its informants, mendacity and contempt for the value of human life.

Having set the scene, Winiarski aims for the Putin jugular by talking about Alexievich’s book “Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War”. He explains that the book addresses a taboo subject in Russia, namely that the bodies of dead teenagers were secretly shipped home in zinc coffins during the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989).
Winiarski then claims that even though those events lie three decades back in time, they remain frighteningly relevant today. He states (without further elucidation) that the recent war in East Ukraine has cost the lives of ‘probably hundreds’ of Russian soldiers whose bodies have been repatriated and buried in secret in various parts of Russia.

Naturally, there has been no mention of this in the ‘strictly controlled’ Russian state media. That, of course, is because in May Putin issued a decree that makes military losses during ‘special operations’ a state secret even in peacetime, and as such, disclosure a criminal act.

Winiarski reports that he interviewed Alexievich in Minsk in 1996, where they mostly discussed the situation in Belarus and post Soviet reality.

About Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Winiarski quotes Alexievich:

…Lukashenko was elected with 80 percent of the votes. A milkmaid on a collective farm can identify with him, a simple collective farm director. She believes him when he says the economic misery is the fault of democracy and due to the divorce from Russia. The intelligentsia are, as it were, strange and alien to most of the people. They are contemptuously dismissive of the illiterate collective farm director Lukashenko, but he does not elicit a similar response from the people.

Winiarski adds that Alexievich cannot resist extending this comparison to Putin’s Russia today. To her, Putin is not a politician, he is a KGB officer who organises provocations.
In the words of Alexievich, “He speaks in a language people understand, and they prefer the past to the future. We could say that there is a collective farm Putin inside every Russian today.”

Does this really sound as though she is “wonderfully free of any polemical or activist agenda” as western media would have us believe?


12 Comments

  1. I would like her to write a book about the horrible indignity of being deprived of fancy European cheese. With Mr. Walker as the co-author. Preferably through the eyes of the Milkmaid on a Collective Farm. Incidentally, I’m surprised (and delighted) that they (collective farms) still exist…

  2. Reblogged this on wgrovedotnet and commented:

    If you can write polemic anti-Russian and pro western ideological BS your in with a good crack at a Nobel Literary award. The Guardian must be ecstatic.

  3. Marc Krizack says

    “The editor is of Polish Jewish extraction and regularly writes opinion pieces on Russian aggression and the need for Sweden to join NATO …”

    I do not understand the significance of the above to the story. I think it would have been better left out.

    • I added that purely for background colour as his parents emigrated from Poland for political reasons due to religious persecution and that it is quite probable therefore that he grew up in a very anti-soviet household. He was educated at Harvard University that may also explain very pro US views.

      • Marc Krizack says

        I think it is a weak argument, in any case, as it is an ad hominem attack and does not go to the argument itself. If you could show his participation in anti-soviet organizations or personal relationships with others shown to be biased, it would have some value. But just throwing out that someone is of a certain “extraction” is not good. Was this person formerly a resident of Poland? Or were his parents Polish Jews or Polish and Jewish, or was it his grandparents? And though you meant the use of the term Jewish in an objective way, many people will not take it that way, which is why it should be used only where there is a clear connection. Just some friendly advice.

        • He emigrated to Sweden with his parents when he was aged about 10. They allegedly emigrated due to anti-semitism in Poland. In what way is that an ad hominem attack? It is purely factual information. As editor of Dagens Nyheter, (as I said the Swedish equivalent of the Guardian), he writes vehemently anti-Russian articles full of claims of Russian aggression, Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s propaganda war against the virtuous, truthful west. Very similar to the kind of stuff regularly filed by Walker and Harding. I have no idea of his motivations for this, but the comments below the line in his articles would indicate that a large proportion of his readers disagree with him.
          As I said, it purely provides background information, nothing more, nothing less. What right do you have to speak on behalf of ‘many people’ in how they interpret things? You sound to me a bit like Mary Whitehouse who regularly took offence at TV programmes and theatre productions with sex or nudity ‘on behalf of others’ even though she herself admitted not actually watching the programmes/productions she was complaining about.

          • Marc Krizack says

            I still feel that this background information is not related enough to the story to justify its inclusion and tries to discredit the person, not the arguments. If the person regularly writes anti-Russian articles, than that should be enough in itself to show where he is coming from. Also, there is no need to attack me personally. You can accept or not my suggestion. It does not matter to me. It was meant to be constructive.

    • I saw your comment there too.

      ” … And to think that Jorge Luís Borges never won the Nobel Prize for Literature! …”

      One possible reason that Borges never won was that he condoned the military junta that ruled Argentina from the late 1970s to early 1980s, or at least never spoke out against the generals and their rule publicly until the junta was on the skids after the Falklands War.

      The reason for that was the junta got rid of President Isabel Peron, the widow of former President Juan Peron who in the 1950s removed Borges from his position as director of the country’s national library in Buenos Aires and made him an inspector of chicken farms.

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