24 September 2020

Belarusian Nobel Prize winner receives the Sonning Prize

Sonning Prize

The 2021 Sonning Prize goes to the Belarusian author and dissident Svetlana Alexievich. She is recognised for her novels that are based on personal stories from Soviet citizens. After the presidential election in Belarus in August, she became a member of the opposition’s Coordination Council, whose aim is to ensure a peaceful transfer of power in the country. The University of Copenhagen’s DKK 1 million Sonning Prize is the biggest cultural award in Denmark.

Svetlana Alexievich
The Sonning Prize 2020 goes to the Belarusian author and dissident Svetlana Alexievich. Photo: M. Kabakova

The recipient of the Sonning Prize 2021, Svetlana Alexievich, is known for her testimonials from citizens in the former Soviet Union in her monumental work Voices of Utopia, consisting of five books published between 1985-2013. In the books, she describes the history of the Soviet Union seen from the perspective of the people living there. Alexievich has lived in the Soviet Union herself and writes on behalf of her fellow citizens.

Alexievich has enriched our common European narrative with neglected and unknown aspects such as life during the Second World War seen through the eyes of Soviet children and women.

Associate Professor, Tine Roesen

"Alexievich has enriched our common European narrative with neglected and unknown aspects such as life during the Second World War seen through the eyes of Soviet children and women. The aspect belongs to the many women who served in the Soviet army, the very young soldiers in Afghanistan and the mothers who received nothing but a sealed zinc coffin," says Tine Roesen, Associate Professor at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen, who has nominated Alexievich for the Sonning Prize.

"We’re looking forward to welcoming Svetlana Alexievich and to celebrating her works and contribution to European culture. Her efforts towards the people of Belarus after the presidential election in August is a clear extension of her life's work and calls for even more recognition of her courage and efforts" says Henrik C. Wegener, Rector of the University of Copenhagen.

Creator of distinctive genre

During her career as a journalist, Alexievich specialised in crafting her own literary non-fiction style within testimonial novels, which she has developed book after book. She has written captivating stories about 'the Soviet human' through testimonies, especially from women and children, of some of the Soviet Union’s most dramatic events, for example the Soviet-Afghan war, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Chernobyl disaster. Her books are the result of hundreds of interviews and personal experiences from citizens about life in the red union.

"The infinite nuances of Alexievich’s books emerge from her special working method, which consists of interviewing – in conversational form – hundreds of witnesses, selecting the most important excerpts and composing a unified work. Behind each of her books lies a long-term, extensive effort, and the books are never finished because she continuously edits each edition to achieve the most truthful, but never simplified, polyphonic work,” Tine Roesen says.

Political persecution

For many years, Alexievich could not get published in Belarus because her books were considered to be critical of the government system. She left Belarus in 2000 after political harassment from the Lukashenko administration. Throughout the 2000s, she lived in several Western European cities, such as Paris and Berlin, before moving back to Minsk in 2012.

Alexievich is also involved in the current political situation in Belarus, where the recent presidential election has led to widespread political protests. She is a member of the Coordination Council, which was established by the Belarusian opposition after the election. The council's aim is to coordinate a peaceful and just transfer of power from the incumbent president and to call a new free and fair election. Alexievich and several other council members have been questioned by the Belarussian authorities about their involvement in the council.

The work of Voices of Utopia consists of five books:

  • The Unwomanly Face of War, 1985
  • Last Witnesses, 1985
  • Boys in Zinc, 1989
  • Chernobyl Prayer, 1997
  • Secondhand Time, 2013.

Alexievich’s books have been translated into 52 languages in 55 countries. She has received numerous literary awards in France, Germany and Poland to name a few. In 2015, she received the Nobel Prize in Literature.