Born in 1948 to a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother, Alexievich started work as a journalist before expanding the scope of her writing to books, all of which are built around first-person accounts by key – and often reluctant – participants in several of the major catastrophes in twentieth century Russia.
To help readers understand her books, Alexievich says, ‘Events related by one person make up his/her own life, but events related by many people make up history.’ A guide to her most important works:
The Unwomanly Face of the War
It wasn’t just Russian men but also women who took part in World War II. All of them young, between 15 and 30, they worked both in war zones and as part of medical teams. The book, which A* crafted in her trademark style around the personal stories of individuals, demonstrates that the war meant something quite different for women: fear. Ironically, many of them had to conceal their records after the war so that they could find husbands.
This passage from the book was restored in later editions:
“We walked forty kilometres… A woman’s auto-batallion. In the heat… Thirty degrees… Lots of the girls had their thing… Woman’s thing. It dripped down their legs. We hadn’t been given anything for it, no sanitary stuff… We got to some water. We saw a little stream… And the girls went in… And the Germans on the other side started shooting. They aimed well. But we had to wash because we were ashamed in front of the men. We didn’t get out of the water and one girl died.”
The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories
The books captures the war memories of children between seven and twelve. Says Alexievich about the book, “Dostoyevsky once said that the common good is not worth anything if it is obtained at the cost of one child’s tear.”
“What will they remember? What can they retell? They must retell! Because even today in some places bombs are exploding, bullets are whistling, missiles reduce houses to crumbs and dusat and children’s beds burn. Because even today someone wants widespread war, a universal Hiroshima, in whose atomic fire children would evaporate like drops of water, wither like terrible flowers.
We can ask what is heroic in five-ten-twelve-year olds going through war? What can children understand, see, remember?
Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War
The title refers to the dead soldiers – as well as political officers and members of the medical corps – who came home in zinc coffins from the ten-year-long “incomprehensible” war that Russia waged in Afghanistan.
Comprising over 100 interviews with those who fought and the widows and mothers of those who died, the book discovers the regression to an earlier century that the war represented. There is no political comment here, but the harrowing histories of individuals who were part of a war whose existence the collective Soviet consciousness denied for the longest time bring home the reality of the conflict in the most powerful way possible.
The Chernobyl Prayer: Chronicles of the Future
While the catastrophe at the Chernobyl reactor did take place, killing 31 people, we have not yet understood what it really means. This is Alexievich’s premise in this book – that people live in a post-Chernobyl future that exists, but that they have not yet comprehended.
In her usual style, she has crafted the book as a chorus of individual voices, all of them of people whose lives have been changed by the disaster in ways they themselves don’t understand. She explores how it has affected their relationships, their love life, their living, their emotional landscape.
Says Alexievich, “People I was interviewing were having to articulate everything, to put it into words, for the first time ever. Something had happened for which neither our eyes, nor our ears, nor our language are adapted. We are made for seeing, hearing, touching. In the world of Chernobyl none of that is possible. The feelings are quite new.”
The Wonderful Deer of the Eternal Hunt
What happens to a man or a woman who fails to fulfil their desires, who fails to find happiness? In an extraordinary feat of emotional chronicling, Alexievich captures the first-person accounts of one hundred such people. In the process she helps the reader discover, through these intensely personal stories, “…that the time in love which flows differently from the ordinary time of our lives. That people yearn for immortality. That human mysteries are fragile and merciless. That pain is an art.”
"Oh, those beach romances. Not for long. All too brief. A tiny maquette of life. You can begin beautifully and you can leave beautifully—what hasn't worked out for us in life, what we would have wanted. That's why we're so fond of trips. Look . . . I have two braids, a navy blue polka dot dress bought at Children's World a day before our departure. The sea. . . . I swim far from shore. More than anything in the world I love swimming. First thing in the morning I do my exercises under a white acacia. . . . A man is walking. A man, that's all, very ordinary-looking, not young, saw me and for some reason rejoiced. He's standing there and watching.
'Would you like me to recite some poetry to you tonight?'
'Maybe, but right now I'm going to swim far from shore.'
'And I'll be waiting for you.'"
This book is probably Alexievich’s deepest journey into the lives of people without a specific historical context, such as a war or a disaster. It represents a distillation of her technique, and, above all, of he unique ability to wield the tools of fiction while telling stories from real life.