Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich translated by Bella Shayevich

I bought Second-Hand Time after a friend recommended it. I hadn’t realised how long it was (700 odd pages) and thought I might dip in and out of the stories, but was completely engrossed.

Svetlana Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, so I expected her book to be weighty and important. It is, but it’s engaging and readable. Alexievich has collected first-hand accounts of ordinary people who tell their stories of life in Russia (and former Soviet countries) through the twentieth century up to 2012.

Second-Hand Time is fascinating on many levels. First, the human stories are interesting, sometimes told with dark humour, sometimes poignant and even tragic. Alexievich calls this a history of ‘domestic’ socialism. Then there is the arc of history and seeing how the country and former empire has evolved into the Russia of today. It also gives an insight into the pysche of people who grew up with socialism and had to adapt to a new world after 1991. It puts Putin into context. Alexievich talks about Russians – or rather, Soviet born people – having a ‘wartime pyschology’.

The accounts are beautifully curated and edited so it becomes a chorus of voices, like a painting that takes shape layer upon layer, or as the Economist describes it, ‘a monument in words’. It’s also skilfully translated.

These are people talking in kitchens or on the street, so the book has the immediacy of a friend telling you a story. But they are astute and eloquent and their language is vivid, striking in the details and rich with poetry and literary references.

The stories are often bleak. Each is unique but you also have a sense of the Soviet psyche and certain themes run through the book.

One is the desire to believe in a big idea. There is nostalgia for Stalin. The students think Marx is cool, perhaps because they want to believe in something: “Marxism is legal again, on trend, a brand.”

Another person says: “Russians don’t want to just live, they want to live for something. They want to participate in some great undertaking.”

Capitalism does not seem to have replaced socialism as the great idea. Because of the way Perestroika unfolded – hurriedly and unfairly, is my reading of it – there is a sense that capitalists (namely, the oligarchs) are thieves. The idea has not necessarily taken off as something ‘good’ to believe in. Some have embraced it, however. One more pragmatic witness says: “It’s time to hurry up and make some money. We were the first ones in space but there was no washing powder or toilet paper.”

It shows how hard the 1990s were for the average Soviet person, both financially and for their sense of national pride. It was a time of upheaval. For example, an academic and an engineer are now running a construction business and a grocery store. They reminisce about the Soviet era and are nostalgic for the army. They say “We need a Stalin!”

Reading it, I began to understand why Putin may have some appeal for those Russians who sense they have lost an empire and approve of his military aggression.

One person talks about the time under Stalin when people disappeared and were sent to prison because someone (often a neighbour) informed on them. The tragedy of Stalin’s reign and the fact that he turned the Russian people against each other is noted: “Our entire tragedy lies in the fact that our victims and executioners are the same people.”

Later there is a similar story of a prisoner who, after his release, went on to work in an office next to the informant.

How does this affect the pysche of a person, or a nation? One comments that: “Today the museums stand empty while the churches are full. It’s because all of us need therapists.”

The paradox of these situations helps to explain the sense of the absurd and the black humour in some Soviet literature. I recently read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov translated by Michael Glenny. It has a real sense of the absurd and even supernatural – as if to say, our life is so nonsensical, we might as well be flying on broomsticks to dine with the Devil.

We all have a heightened consciousness of these issues at the moment because of the war in Ukraine. The treatment of Chechnyan refugees is also still topical, as is the unrest in Nagorny Karabakh.

There is a sadness among some witnesses reflecting back on a time when everyone was together in that region: Azerbaijanis, Russians, Armenians and Ukrainians. The holidays were a blend of food from Georgian, Armenian and Russian cuisines. “We were all Soviet, everyone spoke Russian.”

I learnt more through reading this intimate history than I have from some more esoteric books about Russia. It’s a rich experience, highly recommended. I’m looking forward to hearing Svetlana Alexievich speak at Adelaide Writers Week in March.

Author: abailliekaras

Reader of fiction and non-fiction, it's a constant struggle to keep up with my TBR pile. I love books, food and travel. Proudly South Australian with a temporary home in London. Podcasts: "A Little Less Guilty" with Cressida Wall and "Books On The Go" with Amanda Hayes and Annie Waters.

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