Secondhand Time: The Last of the Sovietsby Svetlana Alexievich
From the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, comes the first English translation of her latest work, an oral history of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia. Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive documentary style, Secondhand Time is a monument to the collapse of the USSR,/i>
From the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, comes the first English translation of her latest work, an oral history of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia. Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive documentary style, Secondhand Time is a monument to the collapse of the USSR, charting the decline of Soviet culture and speculating on what will rise from the ashes of Communism. As in all her books, Alexievich gives voice to women and men whose stories are lost in the official narratives of nation-states, creating a powerful alternative history from the personal and private stories of individuals.
Alexievich (Voices from Chernobyl), a Ukrainian-born Belarusian writer and winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, documents the last days of the Soviet Union and the transition to capitalism in a soul-wrenching “oral history” that reveals the very different sides of the Russian experience. Revealing the interior life of “Homo sovieticus” and giving horror-laden reports of life under capitalist oligarchy, Alexievich’s work turns Solzhenitsyn inside out and overpowers recent journalistic accounts of the era. Readers must possess steely nerves and a strong desire to get inside the Soviet psyche in order to handle the blood, gore, and raw emotion. For more than 30 years Alexievich has interviewed then-Soviets and ex-Soviets for this and previous books, encountering her subjects on public squares, in lines, on trains, and in their kitchens over tea. She spends hours recording conversations, sometimes returning years later, and always trying to go beyond the battered and distrusted communal pravda to seek the truths hidden within individuals. Her subjects argue with and lie to themselves; nearly everyone talks about love and loss in the context of war, hunger, betrayal, financial ruin, and emotional collapse. Yet with little intrusion from Alexievich and Shayevich’s heroic translation, each voice stands on its own, joining the tragic polyphony that unfolds chapter by chapter and gives expression to intense pain and inner chaos. (June)
Journalist Alexievich (Voices from Chernobyl), who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, captures the heartache, excitement, and harsh realities of life at the end of the Soviet era and the birth of modern Russia. A collection of oral histories linked by topic, theme, and the author's own musings, this impassioned and critical study, originally published in Russian in 2013, documents the immense changes the Russian people underwent in the 1990s and 2000s. Alexievich poses clear, pointed questions and is faithful in her transcriptions of the conversations that span 1991 to 2012, creating a riveting look at everyday culture, even as people recount their experiences through difficult economic and political transitions. Other oral histories have relied on a blended structure whereby the individual stories form the supporting elements to the historians' larger narrative; the grace and power of Alexievich's work is the focus on intimate accounts, which set the stage for a more eloquent and nuanced investigation. VERDICT A must for historians, lay readers, and anyone who enjoys well-curated personal narratives. All readers will appreciate the revelations about Russia's turbulent transition and present cultural and political status. [See Prepub Alert, 2/21/16.]—Elizabeth Zeitz, Otterbein Univ. Lib., Westerville, OH
A lively, deeply moving cacophony of Russian voices for whom the Soviet era was as essential as their nature. Nobel Prize-winning (2015) Russian writer Alexievich (Voices from Chernobyl, 2005, etc.) presents a rich kaleidoscope of voices from all regions of the former Soviet Union who reveal through long tortuous monologues what living under communism really was like. For a new generation of Russians born after World War II, the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika and glasnost, the attempted putsch of the government, collapse of the Soviet Union, and subsequent economic crises of the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin heralded a sense of freedom and new possibility, yet many Russians were left disillusioned and angry. What was socialism now supposed to mean for the former Homo sovieticus, now derogatively called a sovok ("dustbin")? Indeed, how to reconcile 70-plus years of official lies, murder, misery, and oppression? In segments she calls "Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations," Alexievich transcribes these (apparently) recorded monologues and conversations in sinuous stream-of-consciousness prose. People of all ages delineate events with bewilderment and fury—e.g., those who had taken to the barricades during the putsch of 1991 hoping for another utopia ("They buried Sovietdom to the music of Tchaikovsky") and ending up with a scary new world where capitalism was suddenly good and "money became synonymous with freedom." The older generation had lived through the era of Stalin, the KGB and arbitrary arrests, betrayal by neighbors and friends, imprisonment, torture, and the gulag, and these remembrances are particularly haunting to read. One horrifying example is an older neighbor and friend of a man who burned himself alive in his vegetable patch because he had nothing left to live for. The suicides Alexievich emphasizes are heart-wrenching, as is the reiterated sense of the people's "naivete" in the face of ceaseless official deception, the endurance of anti-Semitism, war in the former Soviet republics, famine, and the most appalling living conditions. The author captures these voices in a priceless time capsule. Profoundly significant literature as history.
“There are many worthwhile books on the post-Soviet period and Putin’s ascent. . . . But the nonfiction volume that has done the most to deepen the emotional understanding of Russia during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union of late is Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history Secondhand Time.”—David Remnick, The New Yorker
“Like the greatest works of fiction, Secondhand Time is a comprehensive and unflinching exploration of the human condition. . . . Alexievich’s tools are different from those of a novelist, yet in its scope and wisdom, Secondhand Time is comparable to War and Peace.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Already hailed as a masterpiece across Europe, Secondhand Time is an intimate portrait of a country yearning for meaning after the sudden lurch from Communism to capitalism in the 1990s plunged it into existential crisis. A series of monologues by people across the former Soviet empire, it is Tolstoyan in scope, driven by the idea that history is made not only by major players but also by ordinary people talking in their kitchens.”—The New York Times
“The most ambitious Russian literary work of art of the century . . . There’s been nothing in Russian literature as great or personal or troubling as Secondhand Time since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, nothing as necessary and overdue. . . . Alexievich’s witnesses are those who haven’t had a say. She shows us from these conversations, many of them coming at the confessional kitchen table of Russian apartments, that it’s powerful simply to be allowed to tell one’s own story. . . . This is the kind of history, otherwise almost unacknowledged by today’s dictatorships, that matters.”—The Christian Science Monitor
“Alexievich’s masterpiece—not only for what it says about the fall of the Soviet Union but for what it suggests about the future of Russia and its former satellites. . . Stylistically, Secondhand Time, like her other books, produces a mosaic of overlapping voices… deepened by extraordinary stories of love and perseverance.”—Newsweek
“A trove of emotions and memories, raw and powerful . . . [Secondhand Time] is one of the most vivid and incandescent accounts of [Soviet] society caught in the throes of change that anyone has yet attempted. . . . Alexievich stations herself at a crossroads of history and turns on her tape recorder. . . . [She] makes it feel intimate, as if you are sitting in the kitchen with the characters, sharing in their happiness and agony.”—The Washington Post
“An enormous investigation of the generation that saw communism fall, [Secondhand Time] gives a staggeringly deep and plural picture of a people that has lost its place in history.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Secondhand Time, [Alexievich’s] latest book to be translated into English, is her most ambitious yet. . . . Its themes of hope and loss are universal. . . . A professional listener, Ms. Alexievich manages the feat of being present and invisible at the same time. . . . The result is always warm and human, however dark the content. Many of the people the author meets simply want to talk, sharing memories they had held on to for years or decades. With Secondhand Time, Ms. Alexievich has built a monument to these survivors of the collapse of the Soviet Union; a monument in words.”—The Economist
“[Alexievich’s] writing is sui generis, blending the force of fact with the capaciousness of fiction to create a new, vital literary compound.”—The Nation
“In Secondhand Time, the 2015 Nobel Laureate deftly orchestrates dozens of voices. . . . By letting her subjects keep their dignity, Alexievich has given us a fuller history of the fall of the Soviet Empire than we had before. By letting the vanquished speak, we might know better what, if anything, was actually won.”—Chicago Tribune
“A compelling vision of the human condition.”—Associated Press
“The Nobel Prize winner documents the last days of communism in the Soviet Union and the dawn of a new way of living in contemporary Russia. Through interviews with ordinary citizens, she finds the truth behind the headlines.”—Time
“If you want to understand contemporary Russia, Secondhand Time is essential reading.”—Newsday
“An epic chronicle of the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia, in the unadorned voices of its ordinary citizens . . . Told in solos and choruses, her books have the rise and fall of a symphony.”—Vogue
“For her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”—Nobel Prize Committee
“For the past thirty or forty years [Alexievich has] been busy mapping the Soviet and post-Soviet individual, but [her work is] not really about a history of events. It’s a history of emotions . . . a history of the soul.”—Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy
“In this spellbinding book, Svetlana Alexievich orchestrates a rich symphony of Russian voices telling their stories of love and death, joy and sorrow, as they try to make sense of the twentieth century, so tragic for their country.”—J. M. Coetzee
“[Alexievich’s] books are woven from hundreds of interviews, in a hybrid form of reportage and oral history that has the quality of a documentary film on paper. But Alexievich is anything but a simple recorder and transcriber of found voices; she has a writerly voice of her own which emerges from the chorus she assembles, with great style and authority, and she shapes her investigations of Soviet and post-Soviet life and death into epic dramatic chronicles as universally essential as Greek tragedies. . . . A mighty documentarian and a mighty artist.” —Philip Gourevitch
“Alexievich’s voices are those of the people no one cares about, but the ones whose lives constitute the vast majority of what history actually is.”—Keith Gessen
“Riveting . . . Other oral histories have relied on a blended structure whereby the individual stories form the supporting elements to the historians’ larger narrative; the grace and power of Alexievich’s work is the focus on intimate accounts, which set the stage for a more eloquent and nuanced investigation. A must for historians, lay readers, and anyone who enjoys well-curated personal narratives.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“[Alexievich] documents the last days of the Soviet Union and the transition to capitalism in a soul-wrenching ‘oral history’ that reveals the very different sides of the Russian experience. . . . [Her] work turns Solzhenitsyn inside out and overpowers recent journalistic accounts of the era. . . . She spends hours recording conversations, sometimes returning years later, and always trying to go beyond the battered and distrusted communal pravda to seek the truths hidden within individuals.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A rich kaleidoscope of voices from all regions of the former Soviet Union . . . profoundly significant literature as history.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Absorbing and important.”—Booklist (starred review)
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Read an Excerpt
SNATCHES OF STREET NOISE AND KITCHEN CONVERSATIONS
ON IVANUSHKA THE FOOL AND THE MAGIC GOLDFISH
What have I learned? I learned that the heroes of one era aren’t likely to be the heroes of the next. Except Ivanushka the Fool. And Emelya. The beloved heroes of Russian folklore. Our stories are all about good fortune and strokes of luck; divine intervention that makes everything fall right into our laps. Having it all without having to get up from your bed on the stove.1 The stove will cook the bliny, the magic goldfish will grant your every wish. I want this and I want that . . . I want the fair Tsarevna! I want to live in a different kingdom, where the rivers run with milk and their banks are heaped with jam . . . We’re dreamers, of course. Our souls strain and suffer, but not much gets donethere’s no strength left over after all that ardor. Nothing ever gets done. The mysterious Russian soul . . . Everyone wants to understand it. They read Dostoevsky: What’s behind that soul of theirs? Well, behind our soul there’s just more soul. We like to have a chat in the kitchen, read a book. “Reader” is our primary occupation. “Viewer.” All the while, we consider ourselves a special, exceptional people even though there are no grounds for this besides our oil and natural gas. On one hand, this is what stands in the way of progress; on the other hand, it provides something like meaning. Russia always seems to be on the verge of giving rise to something important, demonstrating something completely extraordinary to the world. The chosen people. The special Russian path. Our country is full of Oblomovs,2 lying around on their couches, awaiting miracles. There are no Stoltzes. The industrious, savvy Stoltzes are despised for chopping down the beloved birch grove, the cherry orchard. They build their factories, make money . . . They’re foreign to us . . .
The Russian kitchen . . . The pitiful Khrushchyovka3 kitchenette, nine to twelve square meters (if you’re lucky!), and on the other side of a flimsy wall, the toilet. Your typical Soviet floorplan. Onions sprouting in old mayonnaise jars on the windowsill and a potted aloe for fighting colds. For us, the kitchen is not just where we cook, it’s a dining room, a guest room, an office, a soapbox. A space for group therapy sessions. In the nineteenth century, all of Russian culture was concentrated on aristocratic estates; in the twentieth century, it lived on in our kitchens. That’s where perestroika really took place. 1960s dissident life is the kitchen life. Thanks, Khrushchev! He’s the one who led us out of the communal apartments; under his rule, we got our own private kitchens where we could criticize the government and, most importantly, not be afraid, because in the kitchen you were always among friends. It’s where ideas were whipped up from scratch, fantastical projects concocted. We made jokesit was a golden age for jokes! “A communist is someone who’s read Marx, an anticommunist is someone who’s understood him.” We grew up in kitchens, and our children did, too; they listened to Galich and Okudzhava along with us. We played Vysotsky,4 tuned in to illegal BBC broadcasts. We talked about everything: how shitty things were, the meaning of life, whether everyone could all be happy. I remember a funny story . . . We’d stayed up past midnight, and our daughter, she was twelve, had fallen asleep on the kitchen couch. We’d gotten into some heated argument, and suddenly she started yelling at us in her sleep: “Enough about politics! Again with your Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, and Stalin!” [Laughs.]
Endlessly drinking tea. Coffee. Vodka. In the seventies, we had Cuban rum. Everyone was in love with Fidel! With the Cuban revolution. Che in his beret. A Hollywood star! We talked nonstop, afraid that they were listening in, thinking they must be listening. There’d always be someone who’d halt in mid-conversation and point to the ceiling light or the power outlet with a little grin, “Did you hear that, Comrade Lieutenant?” It felt a little dangerous, a little bit like a game. We got a certain satisfaction out of leading these double lives. A tiny handful of people resisted openly, but many more of us were “kitchen dissidents,” going about our daily lives with our fingers crossed behind our backs . . .
Today, it’s shameful being poor and unathleticit’s a sign that you’re not making it. I come from the generation of janitors and security guards. Getting a job like that was a form of internal emigration. You lived your life and didn’t pay any attention to what was going on around you, like it was all just the view out the window. My wife and I graduated from the Philosophy Faculty of St. Petersburg (back then, it was Leningrad) State University, then she got a job as a janitor, and I was a stoker in a boiler plant. You’d work one twenty-four-hour shift and then get two days off. Back then, an engineer made 130 rubles a month, while in the boiler room, I was getting 90, which is to say that if you were willing to give up 40 rubles a month, you could buy yourself absolute freedom. We read, we went through tons of books. We talked. We thought that we were coming up with new ideas. We dreamt of revolution, but we were scared we’d never live to see it. In reality, we were completely sheltered, we didn’t know a thing about what was actually going on in the world. We were like houseplants. We made everything up, and, as it later turned out, everything we thought we knew was nothing but figments of our imaginations: the West. Capitalism. The Russian people. We lived in a world of mirages. The Russia of our books and kitchens never existed. It was all in our heads.
With perestroika, everything came crashing down. Capitalism -descended . . . 90 rubles became 10 dollars. It wasn’t enough to live on anymore. We stepped out of our kitchens and onto the streets, where we soon discovered that we hadn’t had any ideas after allthat whole time, we’d just been talking. Completely new people appeared, these young guys in gold rings and magenta blazers. There were new rules: If you have money, you countno money, you’re nothing. Who cares if you’ve read all of Hegel? “Humanities” started sounding like a disease. “All you people are capable of is carrying around a volume of Mandelstam.”5 Many unfamiliar horizons unfurled before us. The intelligentsia grew calamitously poor. On weekends, at the park by our house, Hare Krishnas would set up a mobile kitchen serving soup and something simple for a second course. The line of the dignified elderly was so long, just thinking about it is enough to give you a lump in your throat. Some of them hid their faces. By then, we’d had two children. We were literally starving. My wife and I became peddlers. We’d pick up four or six cases of ice cream at the factory and take them down to the market, to the most crowded spot. We had no refrigeration, so a few hours in, all the ice cream would be melting. At that point, we’d give it away to hungry kids. They were so happy! My wife did the selling. I’d deliver it, haul itI was willing to do anything but actually make sales. It felt uncomfortable for a long time.
There was a time when I’d often reminisce about our kitchen days . . . There was so much love! What women! Those women hated the rich. You couldn’t buy them. Today, no one has time for feelings, they’re all out making money. The discovery of money hit us like an atom bomb . . .
ON HOW WE FELL IN AND THEN OUT OF LOVE WITH GORBY
The Gorbachev era . . . Huge crowds of people with radiant faces. Freedom! It was the air we breathed. Everyone hungrily devoured the newspapers. It was a time of great hopeat any moment, we might find ourselves in paradise. Democracy was an exotic beast. Like madmen, we’d run around to every rally: Now we’d learn the truth about Stalin, the gulag. We’d read Anatoly Rybakov’s forbidden Children of the Arbat6 and other good books; finally, we’d all become democrats. How wrong we were! A single message rang out from every loudspeaker: Hurry! Hurry! Read! Listen! Not everyone was prepared for all this. Most people were not anti-Soviet; they only wanted to live well. They really wanted blue jeans, VCRs, and most of all, cars. Nice clothes and good food. When I came home with a copy of The Gulag Archipelago, my mother was horrified. “If you don’t get that book out of my house immediately, I’m kicking you out.” Before the war, my grandmother’s husband had been shot, but she would say, “I don’t feel sorry for Vaska. They were right to arrest him. He had a big mouth.” “Grandma, why didn’t you tell me before?” I’d ask her. “I hope that my life dies along with me so none of you will have to suffer the consequences.” That’s how our parents lived, and their parents before them. Then it was all bulldozed over. Perestroika wasn’t created by the people, it was created by a single person: Gorbachev. Gorbachev and a handful of intellectuals . . .
Gorbachev is an American secret agent . . . a freemason . . . He betrayed communism. “All communists to the trash heap, all Komsomol members to the dump!” I hate Gorbachev because he stole my Motherland. I treasure my Soviet passport like it’s my most precious possession. Yes, we stood in line for discolored chicken and rotting potatoes, but it was our Motherland. I loved it. You lived in a third world country with missiles, but for me, it was a great nation. The West has always seen Russia as an enemy, a looming threat. It’s a thorn in their side. Nobody wants a strong Russia, with or without the communists. The world sees us as a storehouse that they can raid for oil, natural gas, timber, and base metals. We trade our oil for underpants. But we used to be a civilization without rags and junk. The Soviet civilization! Someone felt the need to put an end to it. The CIA . . . We’re already being controlled by the Americans . . . They must have paid Gorbachev a tidy sum. Sooner or later, he’ll see his day in court. I just hope that that Judas lives to feel the brunt of his nation’s rage. I would gladly take him out to the Butovo Firing Range7 and shoot him in the back of the skull myself. [Slams his fist down on the table.] Happiness is here, huh? Sure, there’s salami and bananas. We’re rolling around in shit and eating foreign food. Instead of a Motherland, we live in a huge supermarket. If this is freedom, I don’t need it. To hell with it! The people are on their knees. We’re a nation of slaves. Slaves! Under communism, in the words of Lenin, the cook ran the state; workers, dairymaids, and weavers were in charge. Now our parliament is lousy with criminals. Dollar-rich millionaires. They should all be in prison, not parliament. They really duped us with their perestroika!
I was born in the USSR, and I liked it there. My father was a communist. He taught me how to read with Pravda. Every holiday, we’d go to the parades. With tears in our eyes. I was a Young Pioneer, I wore the red kerchief around my neck. Then Gorbachev came, and I never got the chance to join the Komsomol, which I’m still sad about. I’m a sovok, huh? And my parents are sovoks, and my grandparents, too? My grandfather the sovok died defending Moscow in ’41 . . . My sovok grandmother fought with the partisans . . . The liberals are working off their piece of the pie. They want us to think of our history as a black hole. I hate them all: gorbachev, shevardnadze, yakovlev8don’t capitalize their names, that’s how much I hate them all. I don’t want to live in America, I want to live in the USSR . . .
Those were wonderful, naïve years . . . We had faith in Gorbachev like we’ll never have faith in anyone ever again. Many Russians were returning from emigration, coming back to their Motherland. There was so much joy in the air! We thought that we’d tear down these barracks and build something new in their place. I got my degree from the Philology Faculty of Moscow State University and started graduate school. I dreamed of working in academia. In those years, I idolized Averintsev,9 all of enlightened Moscow sat in on his lectures. We would meet and reinforce one another’s delusions that soon, we would find ourselves in a completely different country, and that this was what we were fighting for. I was very surprised when I learned that one of my classmates was moving to Israel. “Aren’t you sorry to leave at a time like this? Things are just starting to get good.”
1 The Russian stove is a large masonry stove that, to this day, serves as the central and most important feature of rural Russian houses. Stoves are used not only for cooking and heating, they are large enough to accommodate people sleeping on top of themand they are always the warmest place in the house.
2 Hero of the eponymous novel written by Ivan Goncharov published in 1859, Oblomov is an idle aristocrat whose extreme laziness and apathy gave rise to the expression “oblomovism.” Stoltz, his friend, is an active and energetic young man.
3 Khrushchyovkas are cheap, prefabricated concrete panel or brick apartment blocks that started being built in the 1950s, during the administration of their namesake, Nikita Khrushchev. Though they are cramped and shoddy, they provided many families with their first-ever private apartments.
4 Alexander Galich (1918 - 1977), Bulat Okudzhava (1924 - 1997), and Vladimir Vyso-tsky (1938 - 1990) were singersongwriters who rose to popularity in the 1960s, primarily among the Soviet intelligentsia. Their songs were known for being anti-Soviet.
5 Osip Mandelstam (1891 - 1938) was a Russian and Soviet poet and essayist who died in the gulag.
6 Anatoly Rybakov (1911 - 1998) was a Soviet writer most famous for his anti-Stalinist Children of the Arbat tetralogy.
7 Between 1936 and 1953, over twenty thousand political prisoners were executed on the Butovo Firing Range as victims of Stalin’s purges. It is located just outside of Moscow.
8 As the minister of foreign affairs from 1985 to 1991, Eduard Shevardnadze (1928 - 2014) was responsible for many important foreign policy decisions in Gorbachev’s administration. He was the president of Georgia from 1992 to 2003. Alexander Yakovlev (1923 - 2005) was a Soviet politician and historian, sometimes called the “godfather of glasnost.” He was one of the main theoreticians behind perestroika.
9 Sergey Averintsev (1937 - 2004) was a philologist, cultural historian, translator, poet, and specialist on antiquity and Byzantine culture. He lectured on Russian spiritual traditions.
Meet the Author
Svetlana Alexievich was born in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, in 1948 and has spent most of her life in the Soviet Union and present-day Belarus, with prolonged periods of exile in Western Europe. Starting out as a journalist, she developed her own nonfiction genre, which gathers a chorus of voices to describe a specific historical moment. Her works include War’s Unwomanly Face (1985), Last Witnesses (1985), Zinky Boys (1990), Voices from Chernobyl (1997), and Secondhand Time (2013). She has won many international awards, including the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
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One of the best books I've ever read. THE most personally touching and relevant book I've EVER read. A book that penetrates the soul of my being and explains me to myself.