Svetlana Alexievich, Boris Pasternak and Noble Prize

“We excommunicated Tolstoy, we disowned Dostoevsky, and now we disown Pasternak. Everything that brings us glory we try to banish to the West…”

-Speaker at Boris Pasternak’s funeral



Boris Pasternak was Russian poet and novelist. Pasternak disliked restriction on freedom of expression in Russia. During his time no one could speak against the communist party and its leaders, anyone doing so was declared traitor and was sent to jail (usually ended up getting executed). Osip Mandelstam, friend of Pasternak was critical of communist regime and did not hesitate to criticise Stalin. Soon he was arrested and died in prison camp. After this episode Pasternak became cautious.

dr zhivago

Pasternak wrote novel called Doctor Zhivago, which describes period between 1905 and Russian revolution. Soviet government and writers association felt that novel criticised communist party and its leaders, so then did not allow novel to be published in Russia. Later an Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli who met Pasternak liked the novel and got it published in Italian language in 1957. Soon it became popular all over world and in 1958 Pasternak was awarded Nobel Prize for literature. Writers loyal to communist party did not like it and declared that accepting Nobel Prize would mean Pasternak was traitor. They started criticizing Pasternak even without reading his novel.

“I haven’t read Pasternak, but I condemn him”

-A Russian saying

Pasternak was forced to decline Noble Prize.


Yesterday another Russian (now Belarusian) got Nobel Prize for literature. Situation is not very different from what Pasternak faced. Svetlana Alexievich is critical of President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko forced her to leave Belarus in 2000 (she later came back to Belarus in 2011). State owned publishing houses of Belarus have refused to publish her books.

“If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath. An eternal dialog of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions – Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man.”

-Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Prize winner in Literature 2015

Popular books of Svetlana are War’s unwomanly face, Voices from Chernobyl and Zinky Boys.


War’s unwomanly face is about Russian women who took part in Second World War. For this book she interviewed nearly 200 women who took part in war and fought with Germans.

“At the age of nineteen I had a medal “For courage”. At the age of nineteen, my hair turned grey. At the age of nineteen in my last battle I was shot through both lungs, the bullet went in between two vertebrae. My legs were paralysed… They thought I was dead… At the age of nineteen… My granddaughter is this age now. I look at her in disbelief. Such a child!”

-War’s unwomanly face

Russian government did not like brutal honestly of Svetlana, they censored some parts of novel when they published it Russian. For example, the passage given below was not published in Russian edition.

“We walked forty kilometers… The women’s auto-battalion. A heat. Thirty degrees. Many girls has… That… Female… Flows down on legs… We got nothing, no hygienic… We reached the water, saw a river… And all the girls went there. And Germans began to shoot from another side. They adjusted fire very well… We should be washed, because it was a shame… We didn’t get out from the water, and one girl was lost…”

-War’s unwomanly face


Voices from Chernobyl is about people who suffered during accident in Chernobyl nuclear plant which resulted thousands getting exposed to radiation resulting in death or suffering from radiation related diseases. Accident and its effect on people were kept hidden from world with infamous Russian “iron curtain”.

“And Grandma — she couldn’t get used to the new place. She missed our old home. Just before she died she said, ‘I want some sorrel!’ We weren’t allowed to eat that for several years, it was the thing that absorbed the most radiation.”

-Voices from Chernobyl

Zinky Boys is about Russian soldiers who fought Afghan war. Bodies of Russian soldiers who were killed by Afghans were brought to Russia in zinc coffins, hence the name Zinky Boys.

zinky boys

Svetlana spoke to soldiers who came back from war and wrote down their experiences.

“…yet back home, what do I find? A friend can’t lend me a fiver because his wife wouldn’t like it. What kind of friend is that? I soon realised we were surplus to requirements … Life here is just one big swamp where all people care about is their dachas, their cars and where to find a bit of smoked sausage …”

-Zinky Boys

World of today is very different from world in which Pasternak lived. I am sure Svetlana will accept Nobel Prize.

Lukashenko has not congratulated Svetlana.






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