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Back To OverviewPrice Winner 2013

Svetlana Alexievich

The Board of Trustees of the Peace Prize of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association has chosen Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievitch to be the recipient of this year’s Peace Prize. The award ceremony has taken place during the Frankfurt Book Fair on Sunday, October 13, 2013, in the Church of St. Paul in Frankfurt, Germany. The ceremony will also be broadcast live on the German public TV channel ZDF.


Swetlana Alexijewitsch
© Margarita Kabakova

Statement of the Jury

The German Publishers and Booksellers Association awards the 2013 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to

Svetlana Alexievich.

In doing so, the association and its members have chosen to honor a Belarusian author who has consistently and effectively traced the lives and experiences of her fellow citizens in Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine by articulating their passions and sorrows in a humble and generous manner.  

Her tragic chronicles of the individual human fates involved in the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the unfulfilled longing for peace after the crumbling of the Soviet Empire give tangible expression to a fundamental undercurrent of existential disappointment that is difficult to disregard. 

The way in which Alexievich composes her interviews, which again form the basis of her latest book to be published in German ("Secondhand-Zeit"), has allowed her to create her own literary genre – one that resonates all over the world as a powerful choir of witnesses and testimonies. Working in the service of moral memory, she poses the key question as to whether peace, freedom and justice might in fact be the better alternatives.  

 

Biography

Svetlana Alexievich was born on May 31, 1948 in the West Ukrainian town of Stanislav (today's Ivano-Frankivsk) to a Ukrainian mother and Belarusian father, who was a soldier at the time. After her father completed his military service, Alexievich's family returned to a village in Belarus where her parents worked as teachers. While attending school, Alexievich contributed several poems and articles to the school newspaper. In 1965, she completed her two-year »proof of employment« – a certificate required in order to study at the university level in the USSR – by working as a caregiver at a boarding school, as a teacher in a rural school, and, starting in 1966, at a local newspaper in Narowl (Gomel). Following that, she began studies in journalism at the Belarusian State University in Minsk.

After finishing her studies in 1972, Alexievich worked at a local newspaper in Beresa (Brest) and as a teacher at a local school. The following year, after accepting a position at the regional newspaper in Minsk, Alexievich decided to focus entirely on a career in journalism. In 1976, she became a correspondent for the literary magazine »Neman,« where she was soon named head of journalism. She completed her first book »I was leaving the village« (Ya uezhal iz derevni) in that same year. It was prohibited from being published, however, due to its critique of the Soviet government's rigid passport policy, which ensured that village residents could not move to cities. Alexievich herself would later go on to reject publication of the book, considering it to be too »journalistic.«

In the following years, Alexievich tried her hand at other literary genres, including short stories, essays and reportages. At that time, the Belarusian author Ales Adamovich was in the process of developing a new literary path often referred to as the »collective novel.« Adamovich was crucial in supporting Alexievich's efforts to find her own literary method, one that she sought to enable »the closest portrayal possible of life as it truly is.« The ultimate objective of this method is to create a chorus of individual voices in the form of a collage of daily life. 

Svetlana Alexievich applied this method for the first time in her book »War’s Unwomanly Face« (U voyny ne zhenskoe litso) which she completed in 1983. In this book, the author uses a series of interviews to examine the fate of female Soviet soldiers – frontline combatants, partisans and civil servants – during and after the Second World War. In the course of her subsequent two-year battle with censors regarding the publication of this book, Alexievich was accused of »staining the honor of the Great Patriotic War.« She also eventually lost her job due to her supposed »anti-communist attitude.« Only with the advent of Perestroika in the Soviet Union was the book finally published simultaneously in Minsk and Moscow in 1985 (1987 in German, 1988 in English). »War’s Unwomanly Face« has sold more than 2 million copies in Russia alone and was received enthusiastically by readers and critics alike. At the same time, she also created a theater version of the book as well as a documentary film, the latter which received the »Silver Dove« prize at Leipzig's International Documentary Film Week.

Alexievich's alleged »lack of ideological values« also caused delays in the publication of her next book »The Last Witnesses« (Poslednie svideteli), which appeared in 1985 in Belarus (and as »Die letzten Zeugen« in Germany in 1989). In this work, the author portrays not only the perspectives of women and children on the Second World War and the Stalin era, but also the painful experiences of her own family during this time. The Perestroika reform movement initiated by the government of Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Alexievich to work more freely. She was able to complete several radio and TV programs, to collaborate with film directors and to author screenplays and plays for the well-known Moscow-based theater director Anatoli Efros, among others.

As with each one of her projects, Alexievich worked on her subsequent book, »Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War« (Tsinkovye mal'chiki, 1989) for many years. She completed more than five hundred interviews with veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan as well as with the mothers of soldiers who died in that war – the so-called »zinky boys« whose remains were brought home in zinc coffins. This book helped to demythologize that 10-year war, and even though Alexievich was forced to appear several times before the court in Minsk starting in 1992, she was ultimately never convicted of any crime.  

In 1993, she completed her next work »Enchanted with Death« (Zaoèarovannye smert'ju), in which she examined the suicides and suicide attempts of individuals who were unable to accept the demise of the Soviet empire. After that, she began writing about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Ukraine: »Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster« (Tschernobylskaja molitwa, 1997) is a psychological portrait of those people directly affected by the catastrophe. Germany's Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper called it a »monstrous requiem of lament and indictment.« Indeed, the book's harrowing reports on the human impact of nuclear »accidents« immediately became a moving lesson for people worldwide in how to deal with the consequences of such catastrophes. Starting in 1994, the year in which Belarus' current president Alexander Lukaschenko seized power, Alexievich's books were no longer published in her native country. Her work was also removed from the school curriculum there. In 1998, after receiving the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding, Alexievich used her prize money to buy Russian editions of her Chernobyl book and smuggle them back to Belarus.

It was during this time that the Belarusian regime's attacks on Alexievich began to increase. Her telephone was bugged, she was banned from making public appearances and even accused of working with the CIA, among other things. In 2000, the »International Cities of Refuge Network« (ICORN) offered her sanctuary and she subsequently lived for several years in Paris. After that she received scholarships in Stockholm and Berlin. Here, as a guest of the »Berlin Artists-in-Residence programme« of the »German Academic Exchange Service« (DAAD), she finished her latest book. In 2011, in spite of her opposition to the dictatorial system in Belarus that continued to make it very difficult for her to live and work in freedom, Alexievich moved back to Minsk.  

From the very beginning, Svetlana Alexievich created and developed her own literary genre: the »novel of voices.« As a result, her entire oeuvre reads like an ongoing history of Russia since the Second World War. Her latest work to be published in German – »Secondhand-Zeit. Leben auf den Trümmern des Sozialismus« (scheduled for publication here in September 2013) – once again reflects the difficult search for a new identity during the social upheavals of the past several years. From out of the many interviews she does for each one of her books, Alexievich first composes an overall picture: then, as she herself says, she tries to work out »how much humanity can be found in each individual and, in turn, how I can protect that humanity in that person.« Alexievich's literary chronicles of emotional history have prompted many to refer to her as the »moral memory« of people living in the former Soviet states.

Svetlana Alexievich's works have been translated into 35 languages. They also serve as templates for a number of different plays, radio dramas and documentaries. She has received numerous awards, including the Polish Ryszard Kapuœciñski Prize for Literary Reporting (2011) and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (2013).

 

Awards (a selection)

2013    Peace Prize of the German Book Trade
2011    Ryszard Kapuœciñski Prize for Literary Reportage, Poland
2011    Angelus Central European Literary Award, Poland
2007    Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression
2005    National Book Critics Circle Award, USA
2002    Premio Sandro Onofri Per Il Reportage Narrativo, Italy
2001    Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize
2000    Robert Geisendorfer Prize (Radio Plays)
1999    Herder Prize of the Alfred Toepfer Foundation
1999    "Temoin du monde," France
1998    Leipziger Book Prize on European Understanding
1998    The Political Book, Friedrich Ebert Foundation Prize
1997    Andrei Sinyavsky Prize, Russia
1997    Triumph Prize, Russia
1996    Tucholsky Prize of Sweden's PEN
1986    Komsomol State Prize, USSR
1985    Fedin Literary Prize, USSR
1984    Ostrowski Literary Prize, USSR German-Language

 

Bibliography

»Secondhand-Zeit. Leben auf den Trümmern des Sozialismus«
Translated from Russian into German (Wremja second-hand. Konesz krasnogo tscheloweka, 2013) by Ganna-Maria Braungardt
Hanser Berlin im Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich 2013, scheduled for publication in September 2013

»Tschernobyl. Eine Chronik der Zukunft«
Translated from Russian into German (Tschernobylskaja molitwa, 1997) by Ingeborg Kolinko
Berliner Taschenbuch-Verlag, Berlin 2006
(New edition of the original German edition from 1997)

»Im Banne des Todes«
Translated from Russian into German (Zaoèarovannye smert'ju, 1993) by Ingeborg Kolinko
S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1994
As a paperback with the title »Seht mal, wie ihr lebt. Russische Schicksale nach dem Umbruch« published by Aufbau Taschenbuch-Verlag, Berlin 1999.
As an audio book with the title "Gespräche mit Lebenden und Toten"
published by Hörverlag, Munich 2011.

»Zinkjungen. Afghanistan und die Folgen«
Translated from Russian into German (Zinkowije maltschiki, 1989) by Ingeborg Kolinko
S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt 1992

»Die letzten Zeugen. Kinder im Zweiten Weltkrieg«
Translated from Russian into German (Poslednije swideteli, 1985) by Ganna-Maria Braungardt
Aufbau Taschenbuch-Verlag, Berlin 2005
(New translation of the original German edition [Translation: Gisela Frankenberg] from 1989)

»Der Krieg hat kein weibliches Gesicht«
Translated from Russian into German (U voiny - ne ženskoe lico, 1985) by Ganna-Maria Braungardt
Berliner Taschenbuch-Verlag, Berlin 2004
(New translation of the original German edition [Translation: Johann Warkentin] from 1987)German-Language

 

Articles and Other Texts (a selection)

»Tod des Roten Marschalls«
in: Lettre International LI 100, Spring 2013

»7 Rooms«
by Rafal Milach (photographs) and Svetlana Alexievich (texts)
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg 2011

»Maria Woyteyschonok«
in: »Worte in Ketten III: Belarus und das freie Wort«, Published by Nadine Englhart, Book on Demand 2010, p. 20-39.

»Milizionärin Olesja. Von der Unempfindlichkeit der Töten... und der Stummheit des Staubs«
in: Lettre International LI 088, Spring 2010

»Knüppel und Ikone. Die sowjetische Transformation und die Auflösung des Kommunismus«
in: Lettre International LI 086, Fall 2009

»Henker und Beil. Vom Ende des Roten Menschen. Sowjetische und russische Lebensläufe«
in: Lettre International LI 082, Fall 2008

»Letzte Zeugen. Kindheitserinnerungen an den Großen Vaterländischen Krieg«
in: Lettre International LI 064, Spring 2004

»Herrlicher Hirsch, gejagt. Katastrophe und Glück - Bekenntnisse zur Liebe in Rußland«
in: Lettre International LI 061, Summer 2003

»Radioaktives Feuer. Warum die Erfahrung von Tschernobyl unser Weltbild in Frage stellt«
Gespräch / Interview mit Paul Virilio
in: Lettre International LI 060, Spring 2003

»Tschernobyl - Gebet«
in: Sinn und Form, Issue 4/1997

»Berichte russischer Selbstmörder«
in: Sinn und Form, Issue 6/1993

»Der Krieg hat kein weibliches Gesicht«
in: Sinn und Form, Issue 3/1985 

 

English Editions

»Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster« 2005

»Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War« 1992

»War’s Unwomanly Face« 1988