Budapest, June 27, 2020 – Central European University has awarded its highest honor, the Open Society Prize, to the journalist and Nobel laureate for Literature, Svetlana Alexievich.
Born in Ukraine, Alexievich grew up in Belarus, where she studied to be a journalist at the University of Minsk. Having worked as a teacher, journalist and editor, Alexievich’s literature showcases what life was like during and after the Soviet Union by focusing on the experiences of individuals. These “documentary novels” tread the line between reportage and fiction, and her criticisms of the political regimes in the Soviet Union and later Belarus has forced her to live abroad for various periods at a time.
“In compassionate works of literature—including Voices from Chernobyl, Zinky Boys, The Unwomanly Face of War, Last Witnesses and Secondhand Time—Svetlana Alexievich has given noble expression to the suppressed and mutilated history of the people of the Soviet Union,” CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff said of Alexievich. “In awarding her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, The Swedish Academy praised Svetlana Alexievich for ‘her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage.’”
Ignatieff added that Alexievich “demonstrates that a fierce commitment to stand up for the truth of ordinary people’s lived experience of suffering and endurance is a critical value for any open society.”
Accepting the Award, Alexievich recalled how much the idea of freedom was awaited in the 1990s, only to find that “we ended up being in a completely different place than expected.” Addressing the Class of 2020, she reminded CEU graduates that the world requires their active participation in it and their openness. “A person always faces a choice — to act or not to act. To be on the side of good or to stay, to hide in the shadows, to live a life buried in a gray mass. I think that for those who have chosen the ideals of an open society, hiding is not their way, this is not your way.”
Proving why she is regarded by many as one of her generation's most insightful writers, Svetlana Alexievich concluded with the following advice: “Although it is very difficult to love a person, a human being is not a pure being, an inherently good being. A human being can be scary, believe me, I can tell this as a person who was in the war, maybe not so much in the battlefield, but who has heard a lot about the war, about Chernobyl. It is difficult to love a human being, but hatred will not save us. Only love can save us. I wish for you to have a lot of love in your heart in order to go through life calmly, honestly and joyfully.”
Created in 1994, the Open Society Prize has been awarded to to Karl Popper, Vaclav Havel, Arpad Goncz, Tom Lantos, Bronislaw Geremek, Ricardo Lagos, Carla Del Ponte, Kofi Annan, Richard C. Holbrooke, Joachim Gauck, Kristalina Georgieva, Janos Kornai and Joseph Stiglitz, among others. The Prize was presented to Alexievich as part of CEU's first-ever online commencement ceremony, on June 27, 2020.