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Svetlana Alexievich Receives the 2013 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade

Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade today at a ceremony held in the Church of St. Paul in Frankfurt before 1,000 invited guests, which included Norbert Lammert, President of the German Bundestag. The laudatory speech was held by German historian Karl Schlögel.

Swetlana Alexijewitsch
© Margarita Kabakova

"In my books the 'little people' tell their story. History’s grains of sand", explained Svetlana Alexievich in her acceptance speech. "I seek out those who have no voice. I listen to them; I hear them; I overhear them. For me the street is a chorus, a symphony. It is a dying shame how much is said, whispered, screamed into the void, existing only for a short moment. In man and in human life there is much that art has not only never addressed, but about which it hasn’t even a clue – that which arrives in a flash and then disappears, and today it disappears especially fast". Svetlana Alexievich describes herself as a "woman of the ear" and in her speech at the Church of St. Paul, she once again let the people speak and provided a Russian-Soviet chronicle. As she noted: "Communism had a ludicrous plan – to remodel the old human, the old Adam. And in that they succeeded. It is perhaps its only success. In a period of over seventy years a new breed of man emerged: Homo sovieticus. While some saw him as a tragic figure, others dubbed him 'Sovok'. But who is he? I believe I know him; he is familiar to me; I lived many years side by side with him. I am he. My acquaintances, my friends, my parents are he. My father, who recently passed away, remained a communist until the end of his life".

In his laudatory speech, Karl Schlögel observed: "Svetlana Alexievich leaves no doubt that fundamental change in a country so depleted and traumatized by historical catastrophe will not arrive overnight. But it will arrive if the perpetual cycle of a return to violence can be broken. It will arrive if the dialogue is continually re-opened and remains engaged, in the rhythm of Svetlana Alexievich: listening, pausing, without illusions as to what people, for better or for worse, are capable of, and with the forbearance unique to those who grew up in dark times. This work, which now spans an entire lifetime, is truly worthy of a peace prize, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade". Schlögel noted that the full labour of Svetlana Alexievich's efforts would seem to be aimed at lending words and voices to those who never had the opportunity to be heard, be it due to shame, or fear, or because their ability to speak up and speak out has been lost altogether. "As a writer she has nothing to offer other than her word – persevering, fearless, poignant – in her confrontations with the authoritarian regimes in the post-Soviet world, and not just in Belarus. This word is strong, and within it is the language of a reality that is stronger than the manipulated reality of the state-controlled media. Within this reality, experiences are given a voice that cannot be silenced for long, even by bans, censors, secret services and show trials".

In his welcome greeting, Prof. Dr. Gottfried Honnefelder, Chairman of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, praised the work of Svetlana Alexievich: "Increasingly over the years, the Peace Prize began to function as the medium of those who had no voice at all. After all, can we say there is peace when individuals – and, with increasing modernity, even entire groups of people – are rendered mute? Can we say there is peace when the world loses sight of and sometimes even completely forgets these people as if they were merely the marginal phenomenon of a political process? In a world such as this, there is nothing more necessary than a person who commands the power of words and has the courage to give a voice to those who have been silenced". Honnefelder explained further that Svetlana Alexievich uses the entirety of her literary might to make sure that the voices of those people once rendered mute – those individuals and groups whose hopes have no chance of being fulfilled and who are obliged to carry out their existence as mere pawns in the hands of those more powerful – are revived and become audible again. And he argued that she does so in a measure that is equally as selfless as it is brave. As he explained: "This year, the German Booksellers and Publishers Association is extremely happy and especially grateful to have found a voice that has this power and performs this function in an extraordinary way and thus to be able to generate additional resonance for her essential and inimitable voice". 

The Peace Prize of the German Book Trade has been awarded by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association on the final day of the Frankfurt Book Fair since 1950. Among the previous recipients of the Peace Prize are Amos Oz, Teddy Kollek, Albert Schweitzer, Astrid Lindgren, Václav Havel, Siegfried Lenz, Susan Sontag, David Grossman, Boualem Sansal and, in 2012, Liao Yiwu. The Prize is endowed with a sum of €25,000.