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Svetlana Alexievich honored with Order of Merit

Torsten Landsberg
June 15, 2021

The Nobel Prize winner from Belarus is being recognized as a leading intellectual in the opposition movement against long-time ruler Alexander Lukashenko.

Svetlana Alexievich receives the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany from German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Svetlana Alexievich receiving the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany from German President Frank-Walter SteinmeierImage: REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier honored Nobel Prize for Literature laureate Svetlana Alexievich with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany on Tuesday.

At the ceremony, Steinmeier paid tribute not only to the Belarusian author's literary achievements but also to her contributions to her homeland.

"Your people are close to us, they deserve our attention and our support," said Steinmeier at the Order of Merit ceremony held at Bellevue Palace.

He also underlined how Alexievich's book The Last Witnesses is one of the "most impressive" accounts of the suffering that Germany inflicted on Belarus during World War II.

He added that the 2020 protests of the democracy movement in Belarus revealed to the world how strongly the country was yearning for freedom. "We have learned more about your country this past year than we ever knew before."

Svetlana Alexievich thanked the German president "for this unexpected gift." She said that her contribution to the current situation was only a modest one, since words alone could not eliminate the distress of the former Soviet Union.

Yet, Alexievich added, post-Soviet hardships can also be a resource: "This suffering is what made me go this way."

The writer and investigative journalist, who has been living in Germany since September 2020, belongs to the Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power, a non-governmental body created by presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to facilitate the democratic transition in Belarus.

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The former communist system's ideology lives on in the minds of millions of people, said Alexievich, and is prepared to fight "a final battle." She is concerned by the fact that many of her compatriots are still ready to take on the executioner's role, and act cruelly against their own people.

Despair and loneliness prevail in Belarus, the writer said. The opposition has been driven away from the streets, and many of them away from the country, but the protesters will never accept a return to slavery: "They will never be who they were before the summer of 2020."

The oral historian

The 73-year-old Alexievich received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. She became known for her style using collages of interviews to trace Soviet and post-Soviet history.

Her most notable works include an account on the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan, Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War, and another one on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Chernobyl Prayer / Voices from Chernobyl.

She is currently writing a book devoted to the "revolution with a woman's face," covering the Belarusian protests that followed the contested election of August 2020. Her books are banned in her home country.

This article was adapted from German.