Q&A with Marijeta Bozovic: On Belarusian author’s Nobel win and post-Cold War era of Slavic studies

Last week the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming one of a handful of women and the first nonfiction writer to do so since 1953. The Nobel committee cited her “polyphonic writings” as a “monument to suffering and courage in our time.” Her most well known books in the English language — “Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War” (1992) about the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and “Voices from Chernobyl” (2005), an oral history of the 1986 nuclear disaster — chronicle devastating historical events through the testimony of those directly affected by them. 

Marijeta Bozovic

YaleNews spoke with Marijeta Bozovic, assistant professor of the Department of Slavic Language and Literatures, and a specialist in 20th- and 21st-century Russian and South Slavic literature and culture. She discussed Alexievich’s work, a new era in Slavic cultural studies, and the importance of the humanities. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

What was your reaction when you heard that Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel?

I was initially surprised and delighted, and then after a moment’s reflection, less surprised. It is a coup for several reasons. Alexievich is a Russophone author from Belarus (not from the Russian intelligentsia centers of Moscow or St. Petersburg). She adds to the small handful of female winners. She is also stylistically interesting: she works in the field like an ethnographer, gathering countless interviews over years of study. These many voices are filtered, artistically rearranged, and edited into a mosaic. Some have called it a Greek chorus of voices of the suffering. In the Russian and Soviet literary context, I think of the 19th century “going to the people” movement, and of the collective novel. And yet, the desire to work with documentary forms simultaneously feels very contemporary. This win shakes expectations and genre boundaries — and that feels expansive and rich with potential.

Even the controversies and discussions her win provokes are extraordinarily useful. We have a fascinating new case study of the interplay between literature and politics; and international audiences are pushed to think about the complex legacies of the post-Soviet world.

What are some of the controversies?

We are in a moment of escalating tensions between the U.S. and so-called Western world, and Russia and the Russian sphere of influence. Alexievich in many ways reads as a classic liberal dissident, born in the 1940s, a critic of first the Soviet regime and then the Lukashenko-Belarus government. She is also extremely critical of Putin’s regime and the “Putinism” of the Russian people — a reference to the reported high percentages of support Putin has nationally. In this moment of escalating tensions, the fact that the Swedish academy would choose such a person to highlight — and just days before elections in Belarus — seems like a savvy political move. The entire world is suddenly paying attention to and celebrating a writer whose body of work is dedicated to the suffering of the people under Soviet times and in post-Soviet regimes. Therein lies the potential for critique. Awards like the Nobel can seem like an extension of NATO’s soft power. Comparisons to Boris Pasternak’s 1958 win at the height of the Cold War are flying in Russian media — especially as Alexievich seems better known in Europe than to Russian readers. The liberal elite is delighted with the win; much of the rest of the world rolls their eyes (or doesn’t notice); and the left has predictably mixed feelings.

However, and paradoxically, by giving the prize to a writer from the post-Soviet world — even if the work is about Soviet and post-Soviet suffering — we acknowledge that this world has something to offer us. It is culturally validating to have a Russophone author proclaimed the great literary voice of 2015, over every other writer in the world.

Do you have a favorite work by Alexievich?

My favorite of her works by far is “Voices from Chernobyl.” I’m very interested in literature and ecology, so this is an extremely rich text to work with in the classroom. It is important for me to put texts into dialogue, to move beyond national and local concerns in order to think critically about what other superpowers continue to do to the world.

How well known is Alexievich’s work in the United States?

The media have been full of jokes that this year’s announcement of the Nobel Prize prompted 10,000 journalists to Google Alexievich’s name. Her books have found their audience in parts of Europe, but far less so in the U.S, in part due to the tragic dearth of publications and attention to works in translation.

Personally, I am extremely happy for the validation this win brings to the tireless work my friends and colleagues have been doing for years. Keith Gessen, co-editor of “n+1” has been instrumental in translating and promoting Alexievich’s work in the United States. Bela Shayevich is currently working on a translation of Alexievich’s “Second-Hand Time.” Both are dedicated translators of the contemporary Russian scene. I’ve worked with them on a number of projects, most notably translations of the closing statements at the Pussy Riot trial for “n+1.”

This win gives voice, too, to the small presses and independent journals that have been diligently working to bring discussions of international work to these often indifferent shores. Reading the work of Alexievich and others is a very different way of relating to Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus than through the shorthand accounts in mainstream media.

Alexievich is the first nonfiction writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature since Winston Churchill in 1953. What is the significance of that?

The borders are porous: We might call Alexievich’s work documentary fiction. It seems very limiting to remain stuck in the modernist or postmodernist model of what literature — and the novel in particular — should look like. We should break past genre boundaries and the ways in which we think about literature, especially given that we’re living in an era of digital reproduction. All over the world, people increasingly read, disseminate, and create text online. I hope to see previously unimaginable online work or multi-dimensional websites win the Nobel in the future.

What are you researching right now?

My work focuses on Russia, the Russian-speaking world, and the former Yugoslavia. I study the transnational flow of cultures, and am especially interested in work that pushes genre and media boundaries — such as the performance of poetry. My current book project is on the contemporary Russian poetic avant-garde. I work with a group of poets, primarily based in St. Petersburg and Moscow, who combine experiments with literary form with progressive, leftist politics. It takes a great deal of courage and imagination to identify as a socialist in Moscow as early as 2001, and to say that we have to look for an alternative social and political organization to capitalism — again.

What are some of the key ideas you want your students to consider?

One of my courses at Yale, “Poetics and Politics of the Danube River,” uses the river as an alternative way to traverse this culturally rich region. The river has witnessed a great deal of historical tragedy, from concentration camps in WWII to the more recent Yugoslav wars as well as the colonial ambitions of many empires. It is fundamentally interdisciplinary. For example, I ask students to think about the ecological manifestations of pollution, but also metaphors of pollution, including blood pollution, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. In my teaching, I always try to historicize the present moment, to stress that we live in a historical time and that everything is in flux. We have no idea how the European Union experiment will be remembered in 50 years. Perhaps, the political organization of the former Second World is not set in stone.

Much of my work feeds into a larger research initiative that I have started at Yale, called “Utopia After Utopia.” Marta Figlerowicz, my colleague in Comparative Literature, and I are running a faculty seminar this year, linking several projects — conferences, individual research projects, classes. Our primary aim is to think about the culture and politics of the post-socialist world in ways beyond the dictates of Cold War legacies.

How has the study of Slavic languages and literature changed?

Slavic departments are undergoing an exciting moment. Of course, Slavic cultural studies in the U.S. were shaped by the Cold War — you can see this in terms of where funding came from, the politics of cannon selection, and modes of teaching. It is exciting to feel part of a post-Cold War generation of academics trying to reimagine what Slavic studies might look like in the 21st century. Can we move beyond narratives of battling an enemy ideology? It is extremely important to me when I write or teach about Russia or Eastern Europe to challenge the myth of a monolithic culture, and tendencies to demonize a people and a culture.

How does Slavic studies intersect with other fields of study?

I work with the Film and Media Studies Program — the boundaries between one form of cultural production and another are fluid. As a department, we also have very strong ties and overlap with the Department of Comparative Literature. My collaborator for the Danube project is a Germanist. And I work with a specialist in contemporary Anglo-American poetry for the colloquy “Poetry after Language” on Stanford’s online ARCADE project, a digital salon for scholarly work.

Why is important to study the humanities?

I’m the only humanist in a family of natural scientists — and I married an organic chemist. In an old fashioned way, I believe that different forms of knowledge are an integral part of education. We shouldn’t be terrified of empiricism. At the same time, the modes of thinking we practice in the humanities allow us to analytically question the very systems of knowledge production. Really creative work often slides back and forth between various kinds of knowledge production. One example is the interdisciplinary work in eco-criticism. Quantitative studies of the effects of pollution work hand in hand with human narratives, cultural reflections, and analyses of the powers at play. We have to resist the false enmity projected between the STEM fields and the humanities. We actually do have common goals, and we need to stand together to see resources distributed in ways that support scholars and scholarship.

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Amy Athey McDonald: amy.mcdonald@yale.edu,