Oral Histories from “The Last of the Soviets” #WITMonth

Book review: Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich (Amazon / Book Depository)

In writing, I’m piecing together the history of “domestic,” “interior” socialism. As it existed in a person’s soul. I’ve always been drawn to this miniature expanse: one person, the individual. It’s where everything really happens.

2015 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time is an oral history comprising interviews with “the last of the Soviets.” They’re people recalling their lives in the Soviet Union and under Communism, and what the collapse and immediate transition into capitalism and individual countries meant for them, their families, livelihoods, and daily life.

They blame the times…Our era is evil. Empty. We’re drowning in flashy rags and VCRs. Where is our great country? The way we are now, we’d never triumph over anyone. Gagarin wouldn’t have even gotten off the ground.

The entire range of human emotion is on display, reaching even into unexpected territory. The nature of this kind of storytelling is always affecting — the stops and starts, the emotions evident in word choice. They share remembered snippets of songs and poetry, which so vividly depict this lost world and the strange nostalgia still harbored for it, cultural touchstones from a time they struggle to comprehend even existed.

I ran through life, and now I sometimes regret that I don’t remember it all because I’ll never be that happy ever again.

It was published in Russian in 2013, so there’s a significant amount of distance and perspective involved. What surprised me was the sense and understanding I got of Communist ideology and how deeply ingrained it was, even when things were awful. That’s not something that other books on similar topics always succeed in. It becomes clearer what this system and structure meant to many, especially after it defined their lives for so long. How do you cope after such a sea change? From one day to the next every last vestige of the world they knew was just gone.

They were afraid of change because every time there had ever been change, the people had always gotten screwed. I remember what my grandfather used to say: “Our lives used to be shitty, really shitty, and then shit got worse and worse.”

It’s interesting to see how just by questioning, Alexievich brought back so much of their memory that was temporarily lost or paved over. It also sheds some light on Russia’s present, as mired in the past and old ways of thinking as it remains. One person explains that Russia has a Tsarist mentality and needs a Tsar, so they’ve got one still.

So what if Putin leaves? Some new autocrat will come take the throne in his place. People will go on stealing, same as before. We’ll still have the filthy entranceways, the abandoned elderly, the cynical bureaucrats, and the brazen traffic cops…Bribing officials will still be considered a matter of course…What’s the point of changing governments if we don’t change ourselves?

Half of the country dreams of Stalin—and if half of the country is dreaming of Stalin, he’s bound to materialize, you can be sure of it.

Her introduction is phenomenal, one of the few parts of the book written by Alexievich in her own words and not drawn from the oral histories of her interview subjects. This book features the most I remember reading directly from Alexievich. She’s an incomparable historian and journalist, and I like the structure of her books, with voices telling their own stories, but she’s also a writer who can say much in so few words. The small commentaries she gives on people, places, and situations were more telling than what other authors take entire books to convey. Even when very simple, they’re telling, like including stage direction-type lines throughout a person’s oral history, like “She laughs and cries at the same time.”

I wanted to love it more than I did, but it felt bleak without that illuminating buoyancy of the human spirit felt in The Unwomanly Face of War and Voices From Chernobyl. That’s here, to be sure, but the sense of melancholy, emotional darkness, the lack of hope, the feeling of a wash of gray over everything… This book feels like the embodiment of the color gray. I felt a little darkness descending every time I opened it.

But life is nothing like books. Will a mother’s prayer be heard from the bottom of the sea?

No one understands a stranger’s tragedy, God willing you might understand your own.

Alexievich writes that “it never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life really is.” On that I have to agree. I’ve never read something that made this time and its significance to those who lived through it so clear, or that effectively emphasized why the transition was so difficult. And how all of that really felt, and still feels. It’s not sunny but it’s powerfully affecting, and lends remarkable insight into the people, mentalities, and a great swathe of contemporary history.

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
by Svetlana Alexievich
published 2013 in Russian, English translation by Bela Shayevich in 2016

Amazon / Book Depository


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