On Thursday 4th October 2018, RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in WAR) celebrated Svetlana Alexievich, a brave writer and investigative journalist from Belarus. She has been, for many years, bravely speaking out about injustices in the post-Soviet space and giving voice to those trapped in conflict, past and present. Svetlana has repeatedly criticised the Russian annexation of Crimea and the human rights violations in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, as well as the growing nationalism and the oligarchy in Ukraine, which brought threats against her from both Russian and Ukrainian nationalists.
In October 2015, Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature for works that the prize judges called “a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” In her very first public statement after she was announced the Nobel Prize winner in literature in 2015, Alexievich condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, calling it an armed intervention.
On nominating Svetlana Alexievich to receive the 2018 Anna Politkovskaya Award, Ella Polyakova, chair of the “Organization of Soldiers’ Mothers of St Petersburg”, a member of the 2018 Award Nominations Committee, said:
“I am especially glad about Svetlana Alexievich’s nomination, who showed us the truth about the war in Afghanistan back in Soviet times. In my opinion, her books, especially “Zinc Boys”, helped turn public opinion in favour of peace. For example, we in the human rights organization “Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg” consider Svetlana Alexievich to be our inspirational forebear. At the current time, when the human rights movement in Russia finds itself in such a hard place with murders, “political prisoners”, “prisoners of conscience”, “foreign agents” and against a background of wars in Ukraine and Syria, Svetlana Alexievich’s nomination is very important to us. For us, she is a voice for morality, peace and love.”
Svetlana Alexievich is a well-established author and investigative journalist of Belarusian and Ukrainian parentage. She used the skills of a journalist to create literature chronicling the great tragedies of the Soviet Union and its collapse: the Second World War, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the suicides that ensued after Communism. Her first novel, War’s Unwomanly Face, published in 1985 and based on the previously untold stories of Soviet women who had fought against the Nazi Germans in the war. It was previously censored and only published in its full version after 1991 selling more than 2 million copies worldwide.
Her speeches and public talks are awaited by many in the post-Soviet space, as she is seen as the voice of truth and conscience of her generation. Her work is liked among the liberal opposition, who value her as an independent voice and commentator on the complexities of the post-Soviet space and on the armed conflict in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Nationalists’ opinion sees her as a ‘traitor’ and an ‘enemy’, whose books and public talks degrade Russia. Similarly, the nationalists in Ukraine have branded her “enemy of Ukraine”.
On accepting the award, Svetlana Alexievich said:
“Thank you for your letter and for awarding me this prize, it is so important to me today. My friends and I, we are all trying to resist the all-consuming grey gloom that surrounds us today, but our efforts are not visible!! But in order to remain true to ourselves, we continue to do our little bit all the same. Thank you for your support. We are strong for one another by the very fact we exist.
I knew Anna. I remember meeting her once in Oslo. We only had a little time and she and I went for a coffee, we sat in that cafe for two hours in all and she talked about Chechnya, it was a raw nerve. I told her I was terrified for her, how could a person withstand such an ordeal? And she said: “I couldn’t live any other way. A friend once told me that I even talk about it in my sleep.” To live a peaceful life seemed to her a betrayal of those who remained in Chechnya, she was always dying to get back there. Her soul was always there.
Anna loved life but was fearless. She said that there are many more people on the side of Good than we think. Not everyone has the courage to admit it, but it was they who helped her in Chechnya. And they often paid for it with their lives. Here, it was her belief in people that made the strongest impression.”
Svetlana Alexievich did not stop speaking truth to power, despite the threats and intimidation, just like Anna Politkovskaya did. She returned to her native Belarus in 2011, after 11 years in exile, following threats and persecution under the regime of President Lukashenko and for the publication of her book about the war in Afghanistan. Svetlana Alexievich remains under a government “ban” – her books have not been published in Belarus, and she is de facto banned from making public appearances.
On Binalakshmi Nepram and Svetlana Alexievich receiving the 2018 Anna Politkovskaya Award, as well as the special tribute to “Shanti Mohila”, Lord Frank Judd, a member of the 2018 Award Nominations Committee, said:
“Anna Politkovskaya will forever remain a lodestar and inspiration for all who are struggling for the cause of the highest standards in journalism and freedom. Binalakshmi and Svetlana are outstanding examples of the courage and bravery of so many like them standing firmly in the frontline against the forces of oppression, the abuse of human rights and tyranny. I am glad that we are celebrating their determination. We should take this opportunity of remembering all the others who are fighting as well.”
The award will be presented to the winners in March 2019 in London at RAW in WAR’s ‘Refusing to be Silenced’ event, part of the 2019 Women of the World (WOW) Festival at London’s Southbank Centre.