The latest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, is a journalist from the former Soviet Union who has made an art of bypassing the powerful, finding sources among everyday people—witnesses to the daily unfolding of history. When writing about the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Alexievich reached out to soldiers and their families; when investigating Chernobyl, she spoke with first responders and their loved ones. "Usually journalists are interested in information—that's their god," she says. "But my god is the details of ordinary human lives." Like her countryman Alexandr Solzhenitsyn or America's chronicler of working people, Studs Terkel, Alexievich allows her interviewees' words to stand without commentary, "unpolished by an author's bias or ideology." She says when she started listening to so-called little people, she thought: "In what way are they little? I heard Shakespeare at every turn."

Alexievich has written five books, among them Voices from Chernobyl, which won a 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award. O's books editor, Leigh Haber, dug deeper into her mission and process:

Her work: The people I write about have been trampled by historical events—labor camps of the Gulag and World War II, Hitler's fascism on one hand and Stalin's on the other. I assemble their lives bit by bit. Not statistics or official lists of facts, but how men and women loved one another, their children, old people in their lives—stories of human souls.

Raising one's voice: I was brought up on Russian literature, in which a poet is always more than a poet. The poet's a citizen. For me, it was never a question of whether to speak truth to power. Of course you must. Opposition to the authorities is normal for us.

A favorite book: Dostoevsky's The Idiot. I fell in love with Prince Myshkin. It's all there—everything we are thinking about and talking about today, especially the impossibility of distinguishing between good and evil.

What the Nobel means: When it was announced, fellow Belarusians went out into the streets of Minsk to hug and kiss, yet our dictator, President Lukashenko, found no kind words for me. He said I'd poured filth on the country—which Stalin once said of Boris Pasternak and Brezhnev of Joseph Brodsky. All these years later, tyrants haven't changed: They even use the same vocabulary. Still, I'll continue to do my small bit—honestly, and with joy.


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