Born in the west Ukrainian town of Stanislav (since 1962 Ivano-Frankivsk) to a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother, Svetlana Alexievich grew up in Belarus. After finishing school she worked as a reporter in several local newspapers before graduating from Belarusian State University (1972) and becoming a correspondent for the literary magazine Nyoman in Minsk (1976).
Alexievich's books trace the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet individual through carefully constructed collages of interviews. According to Russian writer and critic Dmitry Bykov, her books owe much to the ideas of Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich, who felt that the best way to describe the horrors of the 20th century was not by creating fiction but through recording the testimonies of witnesses. Belarusian poet Uladzimir Nyaklyayew called Adamovich "her literary godfather". He also named the documentary novel I'm From Fire Village (Belarusian: Я з вогненнай вёскі) by Ales Adamovich, Janka Bryl and Uladzimir Kalesnik, about the villages burned by the German troops during the occupation of Belarus, as the main single book that has influenced Alexievich's attitude to literature. Alexievich has confirmed the influence of Adamovich and Belarusian writer Vasil Bykaŭ, among others. She regards Varlam Shalamov as the best writer of the 20th century.
Her most notable works in English translation include a collection of first-hand accounts from the war in Afghanistan (Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War) and an oral history of the Chernobyl disaster (Chernobyl Prayer / Voices from Chernobyl). Alexievich describes the theme of her works this way:
If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath. An eternal dialog of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet–Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions – Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man.
Her first book, War's Unwomanly Face, came out in 1985. It was repeatedly reprinted and sold more than two million copies. The book was finished in 1983 and published (in short edition) in Oktyabr, a Soviet monthly literary magazine, in February 1984. In 1985, the book was published by several publishers, and the number of printed copies reached 2,000,000 in the next five years. This novel is made up of monologues of women in the war speaking about the aspects of World War II that had never been related before. Another book, The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories, describes personal memories of children during wartime. The war seen through women's and children's eyes revealed a new world of feelings. In 1993, she published Enchanted with Death, a book about attempted and completed suicides due to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Many people felt inseparable from the Communist ideology and unable to accept the new order surely and the newly interpreted history.
Her books were not published by Belarusian state-owned publishing houses after 1993, while private publishers in Belarus have only published two of her books: Chernobyl Prayer in 1999 and Second-hand Time in 2013, both translated into Belarusian. As a result, Alexievich has been better known in the rest of world than in Belarus.
She has been described as the first journalist to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. She herself rejects the notion that she is a journalist, and, in fact, Alexievich’s chosen genre is sometimes called “documentary literature”: an artistic rendering of real events, with a degree of poetic license. In her own words:
“I’ve been searching for a literary method that would allow the closest possible approximation to real life. Reality has always attracted me like a magnet, it tortured and hypnotized me, I wanted to capture it on paper. So I immediately appropriated this genre of actual human voices and confessions, witness evidences and documents. This is how I hear and see the world – as a chorus of individual voices and a collage of everyday details. This is how my eye and ear function. In this way all my mental and emotional potential is realized to the full. In this way I can be simultaneously a writer, reporter, sociologist, psychologist and preacher.”
26 October 2019 Alexievich was elected chairman of the Belarusian PEN Center.
Alexievich is a member of the advisory committee of the Lettre Ulysses Award. She will give the inaugeral Anna Politkovskaya Memorial Lecture at the British Library on 9 October 2019. The lecture is an international platform to amplify the voices of women journalists and human rights defenders working in war and conflict zones.
У войны не женское лицо (U voyny ne zhenskoe litso, War Does Not Have a Woman's Face), Minsk: Mastatskaya litaratura, 1985.
(English) The Unwomanly Face of War, (extracts), from Always a Woman: Stories by Soviet Women Writers, Raduga Publishers, 1987.
(German) Die letzten Zeugen. Kinder im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Neues Leben, Berlin 1989; neu: Aufbau, Berlin 2005, ISBN3-7466-8133-2. (Originaltitel: Poslednyje swedeteli). Neubearbeitung und Aktualisierung 2008. Aus dem Russischen von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. Berlin: Hanser-Berlin 2014, ISBN978-3446246478
(Portuguese) As Últimas Testemunhas: Cem histórias sem infância. Elsinore, 2017. ISBN9789898864178
(Turkish) Son tanıklar - Çocukluğa Aykırı Yüz Öykü. Kafka Yayınevi, 2019. Translated by Aslı Takanay. ISBN978-605-4820-81-8.
(English, UK) Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future. Penguin Modern Classics 2016 (ISBN978-0241270530), translated by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait. New translation of the revised edition published in 2013.
(German) Tschernobyl. Eine Chronik der Zukunft. Aufbau, Berlin 2006, ISBN3-7466-7023-3.
(Portuguese). Vozes de Chernobyl: Histórias de um desastre nuclear., Elsinore, 2016. ISBN9789898831828
(Turkish) Çernobil Duası - Geleceğin Tarihi. Kafka Yayınevi, 2017. Translated by Aslı Takanay. ISBN978-605-4820-52-8.
(Belarusian) Час сэканд-хэнд (Канец чырвонага чалавека) / Святлана Алексіевіч. Перакл. з руск. Ц. Чарнякевіч, В. Стралко. — Мн.: Логвінаў, 2014. — 384 с. — (Бібліятэка Саюза беларускіх пісьменнікаў «Кнігарня пісьменніка»; выпуск 46). — ISBN978-985-562-096-0.
^"Някляеў: Шанцы Беларусі на Нобелеўскую прэмію як ніколі высокія" (in Belarusian). Nasha Niva. Retrieved 8 October 2015. Original quote: "Калі ўся руская літаратура выйшла, як сцвярджаў Дастаеўскі, з «Шыняля» Гогаля, то ўся творчасць Алексіевіч – з дакументальнай кнігі Алеся Адамовіча, Янкі Брыля і Уладзіміра Калесніка «Я з вогненнай вёскі». Адамовіч — яе літаратурны хросны". Rough translation: "If the entire Russian literature came, as Dostoyevsky stated, from the Gogol's Overcoat, then the entire writings of Alexievich came from the documentary book of Ales Adamovich, Yanka Bryl and Uladzimir Kalesnik I'm from the flamy village. Adamovich is her literary godfather".