Theses Doctoral

Telling and Retelling a War Story: Svetlana Alexievich and Alexander Prokhanov on the Soviet-Afghan War

Myers, Holly

Unlike the Russian Civil War or Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan War (1979–1989) never acquired a stable, dominant narrative in Soviet or Russian culture. Even as the war was in progress, Soviet media revised its evaluation of key events and players to reflect the changing political tides through the 1980s. After the war ended, state leaders were distracted by the political turbulence of the 1990s, and the citizens—largely unaffected by the war on a personal level—were not particularly interested in assessing either the war’s successes or failures. This lack of definition left the descriptions and representations of the Soviet-Afghan War open to the influence of evolving political realities and agendas. This study examines the literary techniques and strategies that writers Svetlana Alexievich and Alexander Prokhanov have employed in articulating different narratives that responded to the shifting demands of the moment.
With respect to the several revisions that Alexievich made to her documentary novel Zinky Boys from its initial publication in 1990 through its final version in 2007, I argue that the author’s position as anti-authoritarian and anti-war becomes increasingly rigid. Like many liberal-minded members of the intelligentsia after the fall of the Soviet Union, Alexievich had early hopes for a transition from totalitarianism to democracy in her native Belarus which would be disappointed. The poetics of her documentary prose, I argue, challenge the traditional identities and relationships of author, character, and reader by destabilizing the boundaries and allowing crossovers between roles. By engaging the reader in constructing the deeper meaning of the novel, Alexievich projects her reader into the full and active participation of a citizen building a new post-Soviet state.
Prokhanov, situated on the opposite side of the political divide, also made substantial revisions to his novels about the Soviet-Afghan War. Prokhanov’s 1994 novel The Palace is remarkable for its change in message and tone from the narratives of his Soviet-era writing on Afghanistan: it openly questions the Soviet Politburo’s decision to invade, and includes surreal dreamlike sequences that, I argue, reflect his contemporaneous collaboration with Alexander Dugin, founding proponent of neo-Eurasianism. In Dream about Kabul—his 2001 “remake” of his own 1982 novel Tree in the Center of Kabul—Prokhanov’s alter-ego protagonist becomes an even more passive participant in the progression of the Soviet-Afghan War, compared to The Palace, as well as a powerless pawn in the political conspiracies involving the Russian Federation, Israel, and the United States. His reader is more like the obedient subject of a tsar than the politically engaged citizen of a democracy, as envisioned by Alexievich.
In my study of the substantial revisions that Alexievich and Prokhanov made to their Soviet-Afghan War stories from the 1980s into the twenty-first century, I demonstrate how the literary representations of a military conflict in recent Soviet history reflect the increasing polarization of political and social realities facing authors and readers in the post-Soviet states of Russia and Belarus. The aesthetic decisions that Alexievich and Prokhanov made in revising their Soviet-Afghan War stories carry political and ethical implications. Thus, the relationship between implied author and implied reader in a literary text becomes a political statement about the relationship between the state and the citizen.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Slavic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Knapp, Liza
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 19, 2018