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On eating a radioactive sandwich

Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary work records Russia’s lost voices, says Vanora Bennett

Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future

by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait (Penguin, £16.99)

Second-Hand Time

by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich (Penguin, £14.99)

A children’s bumper car ride in Ukraine abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986

In the autumn, the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her works exploring Soviet and post-Soviet history through the testimonies of thousands of people. The citation from the Stockholm judges praised her “polyphonic writings” as “a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”

The response from Moscow was vitriolic. “Alexievich is a classic anti-Soviet... a traitor,” wrote one critic in the cultural weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta; the author Zakhar Prilepin wrote in Izvestiya that Alexievich had been given the Nobel for opposing the Kremlin and was “not a writer”; President Vladimir Putin kept his counsel. The reaction was not surprising. Out of the five Russian-language writers to have won the Nobel Prize for literature, four have been given to dissidents—Ivan Bunin (1933), Boris Pasternak (1958), Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970) and Joseph Brodsky (1987). Like those authors, one of Alexievich’s major themes is the abuse of power. Even though she writes in Russian, she is not an insider on the Moscow literary scene, or even “properly” Russian—her father is Belarusian, her mother Ukrainian. As the conflict in Ukraine rumbles on, relations between Russia and the west are at a low ebb. It should be no surprise that Moscow sees Alexievich’s Nobel as a slap in the face.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s July issue: In her final issue as Editor Bronwen Maddox explores the legacy of former Prime Minister Tony Blair having spoken with him at a Prospect event on 24th May. She examines his domestic policy, the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan and what the future holds for the Labour Party. The Chancellor George Osborne lays down his view on why the public should to “Remain” in the EU, and Ian Hargreaves takes a close look at what is happening at the BBC. Also in this issue: Former Conservative leader David Davis suggests he can see a very narrow set of circumstances that might push him towards running for the party leadership again, William Skidelsky writes about why tennis is the best sport and Vanora Bennett looks at Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary work recording Russia’s lost voices.