Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

“Vast is my beloved country,

 Full of forests, field, and rivers.

 I know there’s none other like her,

 Where a man can breathe so freely.” (277)


Histories, we now know, are grand narratives which necessarily come into being by silencing contradictory micro narratives and to portray a nation in a relatively good light. Svetlana Alexievich offers a deft demonstration of this problematic in her book Secondhand Time.

The dominant narrative regarding Russia in the post-Soviet era has trained us to glorify the Russian Revolution, despise Stalin and his despotic rule and celebrate Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika. The reality, the hardships faced by the ordinary people, has been carefully ignored. Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, translated by Bela Shayevich, unfurls those concealed experiences of nostalgia, pain and anger.

Svetlana Alexievich specializes in the genre, which she calls “novels in voices”. Similar to her other books Voices from Chernobyl, Zinky Boys; this book too presents the heart-rending tales of the interviewees untouched by the author as she weaves together more than dozens of memoirs from the former Soviet Union.

Secondhand time is a work of non-fiction and spell-binding collection of interviews from ordinary people all across Russia. Alexievich has assembled her narratives through interviews taken by her of ordinary citizens, Gulag survivors, ex-Communist Party officials and traumatized women; mothers, wives and daughters. The book gives an account of their experiences of the post-Stalin period (1991-2001), when Communism was in demise and the concept of USSR was just a fond memory. The interviewees feel the need to pay respects to the Soviet Era. They cherish communism and the governance of Stalin. Elena Yurievna from Moscow, third secretary of a district party committee, without hesitation states: “I will take pleasure in writing “USSR”. That was my country; the country I live in today is not. I feel like I’m living on foreign soil. I was born a Soviet.” (127-128).They had fought and bled for Freedom but when it arrived, it brought them nothing but torment and hunger. The people could not accept this freedom offered by Gorbachev’s government where promises remained unfulfilled. Money was everything; the poor had no respect in society.

Alexievich’s book revolves around the recurrent theme of nostalgia about Stalin’s USSR, hate for Gorbachev and the dearth of bread, cheese and salami. Before the reign of apparent ‘Peace’, the public got to choose from variety of salamis and everything was equally handed out. Mikhail Gorbachev and his ideals became anathema and people longed for the rebirth of Stalinist regime; the public fell in and out of love with Gorbachev. Snatches of conversation hovered about in the streets: “Gorbachev is an American free agent…a freemason…he betrayed communism.” (66)

Alexievich lets us a peek into the kitchen lives of the Russians! Yes, the kitchen was a very significant place. The anonymous interviewee, a stoker from St.Petersburg, reminisces about his kitchen days filled with food, love and criticism about post-Stalin Russia where “revolution was nothing but a spectacle; a play put up for people.”(76-77). The kitchen was the place where Perestroika actually took place, “Russian culture lived on” and Fear was a stranger since they were among friends having meals (57-58). Most Russians were left with nothing but their memories. Elena, from Moscow, remembers USSR as a place of free will where “no one was forced to do anything. All of the kids dreamed of becoming Young Pioneers, of marching together…. To drums and horns…. Singing Young Pioneer songs:

“My Motherland, I’ll love forever,

Where else will I find one like her?” (138-139)

 The author intervenes between the conversations with cozy comments like, “We take a short break. The eternal tea, this time with the hostess’s homemade cherry jam.” or “She laughs.” (154-157). She carefully keeps her analytical, journalistic approach out of the way and lets the reader travel in the poignant world of the interviewees.

The tales of Secondhand Time collectively turn into ghastly dystopias. Though it is fact based, the author succeeds in molding it into a novel of the history of emotions. The book turns out to be a surprise to the reader, who may be a novice to such an experience, because a book about the communist USSR is immediately taken for granted; imagined to be just another irksome, literary work of political history consisting of collection of field notes depicting the drudgery, pain and oppression in the lives of Russians inflicted by Stalin. Instead it surpasses the expectations as the writer explores the fond memories, the intricate details of Russian livelihood during Soviet times and the sentimentality of the narrators about their lost motherland- the “USSR”.

The powerful and multi-vocal narrative of the novel breaks the norms of chronicling history of a nation. Second-hand Time is practically a bombshell, an unveiling which compels the reader to be cognizant of the fact that rigidly judging a country by a few literary works and reckoning upon the media can be quite detrimental. In the middle of a conversation in Red Square with an engineer (name not mentioned) about the suicide of Sergey F. Akhromeyev, marshal and chief of the General staff of the Soviet Armed forces of the Soviet Union, he shows his notebook full of quotations from the Marxist classics to Alexievich where she spots a particular quote from Lenin: “I would live in a pigsty as long as it was under the Soviet rule.” (376)

The agitation of the anonymous engineer and many other distressed individuals is hard to be oblivious to as Alexievich often receives rebukes against her questions: “What does history have to do with it? You want the facts “fried up”? Served spicy, with some extra sauce?” (359) Their anger against Gorbachev, scarcity of food, death of Stalin’s Soviet Union, the “bloody” bureaucrats lacking convictions, principles or any of those muddled metaphysical ideals, Marshal Akhromeyev who hanged himself from a Kremlin radiator leaving his country in the hands of traitors – all would have died with them if not for Svetlana Alexievich.

Alexievich transforms the grilling conversations about history and daily politics into coherent narratives through her honest documentary style. It is one of her most phenomenal works in which the Nobel laureate takes us back in time, while depicting a disturbing portrait of Russia and the readers can almost feel the emotions and the yearning of the ordinary men and women for the “normal” freedom whose suppressed voices have been buried deep down among unidimensional histories of the nation.

The book is a must read especially because it offers a different perspective and makes the reader experience a hidden history of the people of Russia by letting them narrate it; this is storytelling of a most unusual kind. Like Lorraine Warren had said in The Conjuring, “It’s an insight; like a peek through the curtain into another person’s life”. It is an onerous and perplexing read but also impossible to put down. 2017, coincidentally, also marks hundred years of the Bolshevik revolution.

-Sruti Purkait

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