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Svetlana Alexievitch and Me

Svetlana AlexievitchSvetlana Alexievitch and Me

I am delighted that Svetlana Alexievitch has won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. This is one of those rare occasions when I can boast of actually having read the work of someone who subsequently won the Nobel Prize. Some years ago, while living in France, I read La guerre n’a pas un visage de femme, which I believe is translated as War’s Unwomanly Face in English editions of the book.

La guerre details seven years of research by Svetlana, during which she interviewed women who had fought in the Red Army against the Nazi invaders of the Second World War (the Great Patriotic War, as it was known in the Soviet Union). Many of these women were in fact teenagers when first sent to the Front as medical personnel, drivers, snipers, secretaries, radio operators, artillery gunners and a whole host of other roles. They witnessed and endured incredible hardship, lost their friends and families, fell in love, demonstrated immense bravery, saw their comrades die, were wounded themselves. The stories and anecdotes elicited by Svetlana are exceptionally poignant and deeply moving. One comes to love, admire and respect these women, whose wartime experiences had, until that time, been lost in silence.

La guerre is a wonderful book that brings a lump to the throat and tears to the eyes. I don’t believe I shall ever forget it.

Victor Serge

Books can sometimes enter one’s life in mysterious ways and lead one to other discoveries. It was thanks to Svetlana’s remarkable work that I came across Victor Serge, a Russian Revolutionary who swiftly saw the menace of Stalin and fled the Soviet Union to live a life of exile. He was a prolific author who brought to bear his formidable intellect on the ruthless persecution and labyrinthine machinations of Stalin’s brutal dictatorship. Serge’s greatest novel is The Case of Comrade Tulayev, an enthralling account of the investigation and paranoia unleashed by the killing of the eponymous government official. I count this book among my most memorable literary experiences.

Vainer brothersIt was a short step from Victor Serge to the unique writing partnership of the brothers Arkadi and Gueorgui Vaïner. Their work does not seem to have been translated into English, which is a great shame. Their L’Évangile du bourreau was written in secret from 1976 to 1980. It is a searing account of how Pavel Egorovitch Khvatkine, who believes he has escaped his past as a KGB officer involved in torture and murder, is finally brought to account for his crimes. The book became a sensation when it was published in Russia. The Vaïner brothers went on to explore other aspects of Soviet life in their equally tremendous novels 38, rue Petrovka (the TV adaptation for which kept Russians riveted in front of their televisions) and La corde et la pierre, which is a kind of cousin to Serge’s Comrade Tulayev.

The First Circle

I first read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle many years ago, when few people realized that the book had been heavily edited and rewritten to pass the Soviet censors. In recent years the magnificent complete version of the novel resurfaced just as the author intended. It has been described as the greatest Russian novel of the twentieth century. It shows how a dreadful chain of events is unleashed by one anonymous phone call. Much of the story is set in a special labour camp for scientists and technicians. As with all of the books I have mentioned so far, you might think the subject matter unutterably depressing, but I assure you it is not. Quite the contrary. It uplifts the spirit and becomes a part of you, so that you return to it many times over your life.

Generations of Winter

Vassilli Axionov’s Generations of Winter is a great saga of the Gradov family in Moscow and how its various members escape or perish under Stalinism and the Great Patriotic War. Stalin himself is a character, and a memorable one. He is revealed to be an incompetent military tactician, who is forced to release from long-term incarceration all those officers he had imprisoned years before and to reinstate them at the head of the Red Army. It is only then that the invading Nazis are eventually pushed back, in what was undoubtedly the most destructive theatre of the entire Second World War.

Thank you Svetlana

Looking over this brief list of amazing novels that have enriched my life immeasurably, I realize I am deeply indebted to Svetlana for her own book and how it led me to other wonderful expressions of the human spirit. Thanks to her, I became fascinated with literary treatments of Stalinism and how ordinary and extraordinary people behave under totalitarianism. And, of course, one comes to know and understand how dictatorship and terror function the world over.

Literature of or about a given time and place can come to exercise a magnetic attraction for us in this way. Russian literature of the twentieth century holds a special place in my heart. There are many other Russian authors whose work I admire, but there’s no room here for a complete list (how I dare omit Vasily Grossman, especially his Life and Fate, is beyond me).

Do you have something similar in your reading life – a fascination with a particular era or milieu? Are there books to which you return again and again? Do your experiences of the same book change over time?

I’d be pleased to hear from you.


  1. The literature and history of Russia under communism can also be severely shocking to people who are unfamiliar with the stark barbarity that these people survived, especially during WWII. It’s difficult to grasp, for example, that a single battle, Stalingrad, could have estimates of 2 million dead!

    Nice post, Jack.

    • Thank you, Jay. You’re absolutely right. The staggeringly colossal number of casualties, the long drawn-out battles, the cold, the hunger, the evil regimes – all these things individually are shocking enough, but in combination they are almost too monolithic to comprehend. One feels very fortunate not to have endured such suffering. It’s no wonder that the war marked people’s lives forever.

  2. Thank you for this slice of Russian literature. I too was once introduced to Russian literature and history in a special way–by the esteemed Vassily Aksyonov (American spelling?) himself. He was my literature professor at George Mason University in Virginia for an entire wonderful year! He held us spellbound with tales of his life intertwined with politics of the period: his parents had been separated and sent to camps in Siberia and elsewhere, he narrowly escaped being called an orphan and adopted by strangers in order to give him an acceptable Stalinist era identity. His course and his own books made me realize how little my schooling had taught me about the world and how united we all are by the human spirit. I will never forget the twinkle in his amiable eye as he told about those harrowing escapes and decades of familial separation. The Russians are a great people, optimistic and full of heart.

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