Conversation — October 3, 2016, 11:00 am

Unofficial Stories

“The suffering cannot disappear without a trace, we need to understand how and why,” says Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel laureate in literature and author of Secondhand Time.

Svetlana Alexievich is someone who often answers a question with a story about other people. She has no lack of these stories, having spent more than three decades interviewing citizens of the U.S.S.R. and ex-Soviet states about their daily lived experience. In her books, each of which revolves around a central event—the Soviet-Afghan War in Zinky Boys; the aftermath of nuclear catastrophe in Voices from Chernobyl; the end of communism in Secondhand Time—history is presented as a chorus of voices, carefully arranged monologues distilled from thousands of interviews conducted over several years (in the case of Secondhand Time, from 1991 to 2012). Alexievich is continually surprised by her characters—by their willingness to talk, by their fortitude, by the depths of their love, by the immensity of their suffering. Her outlook is no less bleak for the vast range of humanity she has been witness to; evil, she says with conviction, is always present in our lives. I spoke with her via an interpreter about her acts of witness.

Each of your books covers such an immense thematic topic. How do you begin such a project?

This is really one large project. For the past thirty years I have been writing a history of the red epoch, the red era of Communism. I chose the main points of that story, the pivotal junctures: war, Chernobyl, disintegration of the empire. We can perhaps talk about how this larger project came about. When I was working as a journalist I was traveling quite a bit, I was on the road, and people talked a lot about the war. But they talked about the war in a very different way from official state-sanctioned memory—especially the women. Women offered another version of the war, and it became clear to me that we lived in a very different world. I realized I had been hearing these stories from early childhood—I grew up in a village—and they were stories about death, while the official story of the war is a story of victory. The unofficial story: War is a story about loss. Meaning that there was nothing beautiful that people saw in it.

And where do these stories end? After you’ve conducted hundreds of interviews, at what point do you say, “that’s enough”?

When I understand that I cannot ask anything new.

You’ve spoken about the superiority of the document to fiction, saying that “art has failed to understand many things about people.” What dissatisfies you about fictional representation?

Those are not exactly my words; those are the words of Dostoevsky. He writes about the fact that art does not expect an awful lot in a man. I agree with him completely. After a book you return to life, and you find more variance, more options. A storyline is eternal: it’s good, evil, death, love, but in life you have nuances. The point is to not repeat something that is already known—one wants to learn something new, something more about a person, about their humanity.

I notice that your interview subjects often protest your involvement; for example, in Secondhand Time, a man says, “What do you care, what do you need a stranger’s grief for?” A mother of a soldier that you interviewed for Zinky Boys told you, “I don’t need your scary truth.” How do you convince people to open up to you, to trust you with experiences that are traumatic or painful?

When people decline to talk it is because they do not want to relive their nightmare. And a person who comes back from war is in a way very lonely because he feels that he cannot share this experience completely, he cannot tell everything. Here I’m very honestly telling them why I need this. I tell them that the suffering cannot disappear without a trace, we need to understand how and why. And in order for people to open up you need to be an interesting person for them as well; they need to imagine that in the course of the conversation something will happen that will help them, that they will learn something. For example, if somebody is tied up in love and they’re torn by this feeling, they do want to share with somebody, they do want to make sense of it. And especially when you are not there out of curiosity, you are not there to poke in somebody’s wound, but you genuinely want to try to understand, then this is a way for people to gain that understanding.

So do you see your own role as a facilitator, as someone who empathizes, or do you sometimes feel like an intruder, like a voyeur?

You know, there is also a dark side of art. In order to write something you need to kind of peek at what is happening. A good example of that was Leo Tolstoy. When he was writing The Death of Ivan Ilyich, he would go to his acquaintances’ houses when he heard that somebody was nearing death, and he would try to look and try to learn, and at some point one of the men told him, “Get away from here you evil old man, I want to be alone, this is my time.” When Tolstoy was writing Anna Karenina he asked his female cousins to tell him how a woman would react to this and feel that, and he asked them to share their letters and their diaries, and then they later were upset when they recognized themselves in his writing. Similar things happened to Chekhov. I think this is a part of art where you sometimes do need to intrude. Unfortunately, it’s a fact of, if you will, a certain absence of morality of art. You know, in my book Voices from Chernobyl I write about a woman who was taking care of her dying husband. He was literally disintegrating—she had to scoop out his insides—but at night for one hour they made love and that was the only hour that he did not cry and he did not scream—he screamed continuously—and when I finished the book, I changed the name of this woman to protect her privacy, and she called me up and said, “No, I want you to include my name because of how much he suffered.” I don’t think that a document is something that should have any prohibited topics. I think all topics are open, but I do not want to hurt people—I would change names, I would do things to avoid making people suffer or feel bad. On one hand, I need a last name for it to be documentary, to be evidentiary, but on the other hand, when we talk about the truth of feeling, the name doesn’t really matter.

So much of your work is about suffering—we view these lives, even everyday life, through the lens of suffering. But is suffering really the most important human experience? There is also joy, and love, in your work.

Unfortunately, we now have more suffering than oil.

In Secondhand Time, your interviews are mostly with people of your generation, people who have lived through perestroika, the fall of the U.S.S.R., and emerging capitalism. But I get the sense that the book is for the younger generation, that you wrote this with the youth in mind.

When I was selecting my characters, the principle was that these should be people who have had the Soviet experience, who were formed there, and who could talk about that life. But there are also young people, and those who are just entering life.

What defines their daily experience, their psychology? What are the events of their generation?

They are perhaps more capable, even with just the biological difference, they are more prepared. But outside of Moscow, there is a phenomenon of nostalgia for the past among the young that is more and more prevalent. Not even nostalgia—it’s the desire not to live in a small country that is put down. That was a perpetual refrain: We do not like this, we are put down, our parents let the country go, they lost the country. I was asking them a question that I thought was very important: “Which country do you want to live in, a great country or a normal country?” and about 80 percent would answer, “A great one.” That is Putin’s electorate and that is the soil that he appeared on. There is no Putin, really, there is a collective Putin, because he united the desires of these people.

To me your work demonstrates the power of documentation, and if there’s a quality that defines young people today, I think it’s a comfort with documentation, with self-publishing, with self-confession, with documenting everyday banalities on social media. Do you think that the younger generation is poised to be more engaged with their fellow citizens because of this? Maybe more thoughtful, maybe more questioning of themselves, more attuned to their personal, emotional landscapes?

I think it’s very difficult to say what this will lead to, because on the one hand we do have the emergence of, for example, volunteerism, and people are very happy about it. But this idea that Putin is offering them, their idea of a great Russia, their idea of a Russia that is listened to, that is respected, is important to them. It is something that fills their lives. Russian culture is always in search and in need of a superidea, a national idea. The value of human life, the value of a normal life, those are not the values in this militarized culture.

So what is the way forward for Russia today?

I’m not an astrologist—I can’t really predict! Today it’s impossible to predict America’s future, much less the future of Russia. My friends and I are reading books about 1930s Germany and books about the years that preceded the Russian Revolution. Everybody is afraid of fascism or civil war, and when a national leader is introducing words into the everyday lexicon such as “national traitors,” that is troublesome. There is also an obsession with spying, people are again sort of looking after you and over you, and people being put in jail for spying. I’d like to imagine what would happen in the United States if Obama at one point would proclaim, “Those who do not agree with our course are national traitors.”

Well, Trump, unfortunately, has approached some of these statements.

Then it’s on you to predict the future of the United States. What is being now boiled in the Russian pot is impossible to know. Recently the Church brought some holy relics to Minsk, and people were waiting in line for hours through the night to come and venerate them, and when I walked out to look at this line, I was very surprised. I never knew these people existed, these fanatics. Everyone who wanted to come and venerate was not able to, so what they decided is that the relics would be flown around in a helicopter—absolutely crazy.

Your two books in progress concern love and old age. This approach seems like a departure from what you’ve done before because you’re not organizing the work around a single tragic event. How is the process going?

I want to show a person, a human, when he’s not under the power of an idea—can a person live without it? This is a new time in our countries. People are traveling, people are looking around, and I want to find out how they think about this—life, happiness.

And this outlook has only become possible now?

Yes, because before we either were building socialism, or we were fighting socialism, or something was happening. Recently, I went to Moscow and got in a cab and talked to the driver, and I asked, “What’s happening here with you guys in Moscow?” He said, “We’re building capitalism under the direction of the KGB.” This is a continuing experiment, to see how a person survives, with what, and by what.

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

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Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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