I just finished Chernobyl by the Nobel-winning Svetlana Alexievich in March and along comes Secondhand Time, a Random House release distributed by/ Netgalley, by the same author – due out May 10. I jumped at it. In the words of the Nobel Committee, Alexievich’s writings are:
“a new kind of literary genre,” describing her work as “a history of emotions—a history of the soul.” and “For her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
Alexievich, a noted Russian journalist – Ukraine – the USSR – has written several books concerned with recent events, notably in English, “The Womanly Face of War” and “Voices From Chernobyl.” In this her most recent book, she covers the human reaction to the transition from Russian Communism to the current situation using the people’s own voices to communicate the reality, the memory. Her interviews probably took place between 2002 and 2012. Reading this book is not like reading a Wikipedia entry or another history – this is the situation from the eyes and with the words of the people who lived through it – more like reading “Hard Times” by Studs Terkle (1970) or parts of “Ravensbruck” by Sarah Helm. (I added the graphics because although I’m sure Alexievich intended the words to speak for themselves, as an American I don’t have the visuals to go with them.)
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
by Svetlana Alexievich
2013 / 496 pages – 2016 in English
rating: 8 / nonfiction – journalism – (Russian recent history)
“On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Alexander Grin wrote, “And the future seems to have stopped standing in its proper place.” Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be. Our time comes to us secondhand. ” (in “Remarks from an Accomplice”)
In late December of 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, already recently reduced by the exit of several satellite countries, finally and after a failed coup, dissolved itself and life as the Russian people had known it for several generations was ended. Just like that – with a “big bang” which plunged the country into “shock therapy.”
Capitalism was suddenly their way of life and for awhile chaos reigned and a few people made a lot of money while most others were suddenly destitute. Background knowledge would be helpful but it’s not really necessary if the reader familiarizes himself and uses the chronology in the front section.
Part I of the book concerns itself with the events of 1991 themselves, some history and the immediate aftermath.
Americans and the capitalist West do not understand how attached many of the the Russian people were to Communism, to the ideals of Stalin and Lenin. The people of Russia had never known “freedom” or “democracy,” so the attitudes of many were along the lines of “Freedom? What will they (we) do with it?” Or they were scared to death or they were overjoyed, some took up guns, some hid, some stood in front
of the tanks while others went on down the street for ice cream. Many gathered outside the White House (their parliament building) to protest the downfall of the only system they’d ever known. There was apparently a lot of Communist Party card burning. But others dreamed of the money – it just goes on.
But there were others who did support the fight for freedom – just not capitalism – and felt they were cheated, lied to . There were those who supported all manner of things during that time but it would seem that doesn’t matter now – what transpired has been a failure and many look back on the old days with some nostalgia, wishing things had turned out differently. Others look back and remember the gulags for WWII prisoners of war, the arrests, the horrors of life under Stalin – some were Jewish.
In October 1991 Yeltsin, the newly elected president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, (RSFSR), had announced that Russia would proceed with radical market-oriented reform along the lines of Poland’s “big bang”, also known as “shock therapy.” – ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Russia_(1991–present) and loc 735.)
Although Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost, were originally aimed at getting the Soviets out of their economic troubles, eventually, along with the war in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl incident, they brought on the downfall of the entire Soviet Union.
Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people for this book which took several years to compile and edit to give a comprehensible organization to the whole. It worked. Some of the interview results are interwoven while others are left to stand alone, but the result is powerful.
The vast majority of the people of Russia loved their Motherland dearly, it’s heroes even including Stalin, and when the Soviet system died so did their dreams and the reality their parents and so many others had fought and died for. For others the change was necessary – and the reality their sons and brothers and friends had died for. It appears to have been a crazy time for everyone and some grudges, hatred even, had been held a long time. It was a time of parties and suicides – celebrations and hiding, tears and exultation.
The subjects are mostly those who remember the Soviet Union from adulthood and include regular industrial workers, Soviet district committee members, doctors, students, teachers. Some remember the old victories, the times they celebrated – WWII, the first man in space, the Cuban revolution, and going back to the long history of Mother Russia, the Revolution and people’s lives wrapped up and interwoven in that history. But there are some really young people interviewed, students and a deceased 14-year old (as told by his mother and friends), who don’t remember the times prior to 1991. And one who old Communist who was 87 years old at the time of the interview and kept his Party card in his Bible – along with a 77-year old veteran of WWII.
Of rather special interest is the section on Sergey Akhromeyev, a Chief of the Armed Forces of the Soviet Union and advisor to Gorbachev – the last President of the Soviet Union. Included here is an interview with a man who remains known only as “N” because of his high place in the old Soviet system.
Also included are newspaper accounts and criminal reports and a series of interviews regarding the suicides which is rather odd because of a kind of Kitchen Chorus going on – Greek chorus style.
There is a section for the Civil War in Georgia and the immigrants to Russia or folks returning to their homeland – dislocations- returning from Afghanistan to find Moscow in shambles. .
The people interviewed aren’t always clear about what time frame they’re referring to in their monologues, so the Chronology in the front is very helpful.
Also quite good are the notes which are included at the end of each chapter.
Then comes Part Two – “The Charms of Emptiness.” and is more about what Russia was like when Alexievich was putting the manuscript together, 20 years down the road from 1991. This is the time when the wars in Chechnya started, the attempted take-over from Yeltsin, the coming of Putin and more demonstrations, more desire for revolution – again, even knowing the results will not be what they want.
The refugees were another issue – no home for them and their memories are sweet, their realities grim. Many went to the US.
Suddenly there was no money – the barter system prevailed, people were even paid in what they produced, canned goods or plastics – whatever. The value of the money had gone to zero including what people thought they had in their mattresses or the banks. Capitalism was underway because they had to sell things to get money to buy things – that or barter.
Many of the young people want money and the things it can buy – they don’t have the moral fiber their parents and grandparents did. They don’t value Marx, Lenin, Stalin or socialism – but others do, some are finding a revival of interest but others leave for the US – and then a few return. They often view the ideas of their parents and grandparents as silly romantic nonsense.
There is continued racist violence even today, especially against Muslims and there are 2 millions of migrant workers in Moscow (according to one entry). And we get a sort of briefing on the migrants and a bit of their historical experience.
The suicidal waitress with the drug addition has a gruesome tale to tell. The lovers without love or money – she leaves – he lands in prison.
The author’s experience is briefly told – I think it must be better for her as her work does get published and noticed. She was a 43-year old from Belarus in 1991, was exiled for brief periods but lives there today.
Overall this is quite an informative book, magnificently powerful presented and Alexievich did well in her articulation of many of the results of and the diverse human reactions to the 1991 collapse of the USSR. That said, it’s too long and sometimes repetitive.
Svetlana Alexievich Quotes With Pictures:
Svetlana Alexievich – home page: