(When I was meticulously reading
Voices from Chernobyl:The Oral History of a Nucleur Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich, I grew interested in talking with her about certain aspects of her work. No sooner had the idea come to my mind than I collected the e-mail address of her literary agent, Galina Dursthoff. I wrote an e-mail to Dursthoff asking for permission to interview Alexievich. Dursthoff instantly agreed saying that I should send my questions -- no more than six -- by mid-March. She also informed that she would translate the questions into Russian from English for Alexievich and that it would be my responsibility to find a translator who would translate Alexievich’s answers into Bengali from Russian. I requested my elder brother Tushar Gayen, a poet, who studied architecture at a university in what was then Soviet Union. He kindly agreed.
On March 24 I received Alexievich’s answers, forwarded to me by Dursthoff. Tusher, who currently lives in Canada, worked hard till mid-April to prepare the Bengali translation with much help from Joydeep Barua, one of his friends. I myself have translated the Bengali version into English for readers of Dhaka Tribune. )
What urged you to interview a huge number of the Chernobyl disaster witnesses, and record and write Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster? Did you know that it would be such a huge success?
I had to work harder on this one than the rest of my books. I wrote it over a period of ten years. So, in many ways, it has become a part of my life.
Chernobyl was something like reaching a new form of reality through a sudden jump. The accident that had happened surpassed not only our boundaries of knowledge but also our imagination. Everything remained as it was but still the world got totally transformed. This new experience of Chernobyl was an addition to those of the Second World War for Soviet citizens. Flowers again blossomed and birds waved their wings in the air in Chernobyl but people could feel the presence of death within everything. This presence of death was invisible and silent. Death in a new disguise! The past remained incapable of offering us any help.
I went to the Chernobyl region. Everyone appeared restless, wearing insane looks. They watched as the radioactive soil was buried under special trenches. The earth was buried within the earth. The soldiers washed and cleaned the roads, houses, trees, and buried those under earth. They buried furniture, egg and milk; they shot all the radioactive animals and then buried them. Our system continued as it continues during any extreme situation – lots of ammunition and soldiers, but the soldiers with automatic weapons in their hands were really unfortunate. All a soldier could do there was to get contaminated with high level of radioactivity and then embrace death after returning home.
People had preparations to face nuclear bombs in times of war but they were not prepared to face the fallout from nuclear power during a time of peace. I recall how an entire village was evacuated. People got on buses to leave their parental homes and their pet dogs and cats began running all around. An old lady was standing beside her old home and she was not willing to ride on the bus. Seeing me close by, she walked up to me and said, “I have witnessed the war but here we can watch the sun, then why should I leave my home? Is there any war here?” “Yes, it’s a war. Probably the war of the future will begin this way, an unknown and different war,” I thought to myself.
An old man who reared bees mentioned how not a single bee got out of the hive for a whole week; a fisherman recalled that they could not find any earthworms even after digging deeply into the soil. Bees, earthworms and insects were feeling something which human beings were yet to predict.
Chernobyl changed our idea of time: A number of radioactive particles will live for the next hundred, two hundred or over a thousand years transforming the environment in the process. The radioactive cloud reached the sky of Africa, shattering the traditional concept of “our” and “their”. There is no conventional boundary of nation for radioactive emission.
Chernobyl is not a mere accident; it is rather the boundary of one world with another, a new philosophy and a new approach to the world. A new sort of knowledge! Nowadays the Belarussians call themselves the “Black Box.” Black Box preserves all the information of the route of an aeroplane. If the aeroplane crashes, everybody looks out for the black box. The Belarussians are conserving all the information pertaining to the Chernobyl disaster which is meant for everybody. For the entire humanity. This is why I write on this. I don’t write about the past, rather I write about the future. I write on the post-technological world.
You were brought up in the post-World War II Soviet Union. In Voices from Chernobyl, an interviewee mentions that when he began reading Samizdat and discovered writers such as Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn, he suddenly understood that the language of his childhood that he spent on the streets with other children, was like that of a prison camp. As if the entire system was an extension of the The Gulag Archipelago! So, how do you perceive and evaluate the history of Russia particularly after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the ascension of Russia in the world order under Vladimir Putin?
I have so far authored five books (War’s Unwomanly Face
, Zinky Boys
, Enchanted with Death
(interview of the last witnesses of the collapse of the former Soviet Union), Voices from Chernobyl
and Second-hand Time
), but actually I have been writing on one theme my whole life -- dictionary of the Red People, or the Red Utopia -- the life which we called here "socialism.”
Our Russian culture possesses an unprecedented desire to build heavens on earth, a huge human endeavour which ended in a huge cemetery. I have felt the importance of doing this work because this “Red Utopia” will allure human beings for many more days to come.
History ignores feelings and emotions of ordinary men and women, and keeps them well out of the boundaries. My task is to search and find them from the darkness of oblivion that they are buried in.
I have always felt depressed thinking why our pain does not transform itself into freedom. The practice of glorifying pain has been prevailing over us since the days of Dostoevsky and today’s magical pains too fall within its ambit. I think these pains and sufferings transform a human soul into stones, preventing it from growing. For a human to grow, s/he needs a happy, normal life. With reference to the debate about this between Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn, I’m still on the side of Shalamov. Lager (concentration camp of the Soviet regime) corrupts the soul of human beings; it corrupts both the punisher and the punished!
But when books of Solzhenitsyn got published, we thought that our lives would no longer remain the same. As soon as his books came out, everybody rushed to go shopping. Life went on. Probably it was better this way that our people preferred new washing machines to the Kalashnikov rifles and they were distracted by something other than weapons.
This is no more the Russia we used to know, the former Soviet Union where I had grown up, or heroic soldiers had. Today there is no country named the Soviet Union but we remain. The democratic endeavour for reconstructing life, which we named Perestroika
, has failed. Today we are threatening the entire world with our rockets again. Now the Fourth World War is about to begin, if we consider the “cold war” as the Third World War. More often than not I see Russian tanks or Russian warplanes on TV. Putin is warning others that Russia is the strongest nation on earth and that he will defeat Russia's enemies. In all this rhetoric, the word “war” is being repeated umpteen times.
How could Putin restore the Stalinist system so quickly and in which manner? Now again the FSB (former KGB) can break into any house by force, put a blogger in the docks for writing in support of Ukraine. The FSB now searches through the entire country for secret agents among scientists, teachers and soldiers
What is most frightening is that people no longer feel scared upon hearing the word “war.” Instead of opening ourselves to the world, we have kept ourselves aloof from other countries. Now we are frightening others saying the Russian soldiers are tremendous and they never sell out their integrity. To earn respect from others, we basically instil fear in others. So, Vladimir Putin has come to power and the world fears us again. How could Putin restore the Stalinist system so quickly and in which manner? Now again the FSB (former KGB) can break into any house by force, put a blogger in the docks for writing in support of Ukraine. The FSB now searches through the entire country for secret agents among scientists, teachers and soldiers. Gulag Archipaelego
is again becoming the book of the day.
It is told that your books owe much to the ideas of Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich who felt that the best way to describe the horrors of the 20th century was not by creating fiction but through recording testimonies of witnesses. Is it your conscious decision to write nonfiction?
Yes, the first book of Adamovich, I Have Come From a Fiery Village
, which he co-authored with two other Belarusian writers named Brill and Kalesnik, influenced me a lot. I read the book as a student. I did instantly realise: Yes, that’s how I see and hear the world around me.
I go to people as a friend of theirs, not as an interviewer, and start some sort of discussion about life, about everything: About a new Kaftochka (a special sort of blouse of women), about love and pain, about what s/he has witnessed. Our human life is basically made up of small, petty things. Apparently petty details can reveal both facts and deeper philosophy. Another aspect is also of great importance to me: Profound concentration to the subject I’m dealing with. Collect small details but look at a deeper philosophy through them. That’s how an ordinary affair or thinking might appear to be of utmost importance.
For me witnesses are the major characters of literature. I am often told that memoirs are neither history nor literature. It is mere life which is full of dust and not refined with the touch of an artist’s hands. But I beg to differ. I believe in the voices of ordinary men and women are hidden all the mystery of our existence, its anarchy and madness, which remains beyond our comprehension.
History ignores feelings and emotions of ordinary men and women, and keeps them well out of the boundaries. My task is to search and find them from the darkness of oblivion that they are buried in. The important thing is not to imagine anything and instead, listen properly to others with an alertness of time -- when these things happened to them and also, in which time I’m retrieving them. My work exposes mainly two kinds of lies: The lies of collectivism and the lies of history which, together, drain history of the emotions and thoughts of ordinary people. My main intention is to humanise history.
I have named my writing style as "Voice of the Novel". I have written about the “red dictionary” for more than 30 years, the history of utopia. I never take on the responsibility of judging others or convicting anyone. I try to comprehend my subject.
Your first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, came out in 1985. Made up of monologues of women in the WWII, it was reprinted many times over and sold more than two million copies. When did you begin interviewing the women survivors of WWII? How many women did you interview in total and how much time did you take to complete this work?
War’s Unwomanly Face
is the history of war narrated by women -- their eye witness accounts. War is always there at the centre of our lives! We are a war-mongering nation. Either we are fighting in the war or taking preparations for a war. But everything we know about war is told by voices of male narrators, or warriors. The war accounts are shockingly male and you see war through their eyes. The vocabulary with which they are described is also predominantly male.
My work as a journalist took me to many women who had fought in the war. As I started talking to them about their experience, what they said was markedly different from men’s accounts. Men talk about exploits and heroic feats of killing enemy soldiers, whereas women seldom refer to such brutalities and focus more on strategy, or the generals they fought under.
I have collected thousands of details and statistics. Sometimes it so happened that I could collect only a single sentence that is worth recording. But then, at the end of a conversation, one lady recalled, “After the war, we were walking in the war field, looking up for the living ones. Suddenly we found a living soldier. The corpses were lying scattered like potatoes over a trampled wheat field: Soldiers of Germany and ours. All were young and handsome. It was a heart-wrenching sight for both us and them.”
Women’s accounts are far more humane and liberating. They see war as merely a killing or slaughtering event.
War’s Unwomanly Face
was published in 1985 but in a fragmented and distorted way. The criticism it garnered was directed towards an incident in which a battalion of female soldiers were advancing forward with their male counterparts marching behind them. Male soldiers tried not to look at the ground as there were blood stains left by the women. Female soldiers were not provided with anything to absorb the blood during menstruation and they felt ashamed. When they reached the ferry, bombing began upon them. Men responded by hiding but the women jumped in the river to wash themselves. Almost all of them were shot from the sky. “Why have you dealt with the discipline of biology? We need tales of our heroes!” shouted one critic. I tried to tell him this event was relevant. In fact, I am interested in viewing the human body as a connection between nature and history. But nothing could deter them and this page was not included in the first edition of the book. I could add it ten years after its first publication. A whole passage was removed in which I asked a woman (who was a sniper), “What did you take with yourself when you went to war?” She replied, “A box full of chocolate. I have purchased chocolates with all the money from my last salary.”
“Is it any history? These chocolates … ” the critic said so when he shook the manuscript.
“History is all those small and humane things which shake us even after many decades,” I said in reply to him.
Audity Falguni is a fiction writer, translator and freelance journalist.