“Second-hand time” by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich: “Cracking the mystery wrapped in an enigma”

Second-hand Time by [Alexievich, Svetlana]

This is an amalgam of largely unedited and at times remarkably frank, no-holds-barred interviews with individuals and fragments of conversations with groups living in the former Soviet Union after the collapse of communism in the early 1990s. The author’s personal experience of life in Belarus, and her obvious listening skills no doubt helped to draw people out.

Patterns emerge from the diverse accounts. Despite the violence, physical hardship and social oppression, those who lived under Stalin’s regime retain a nostalgia for the past which may at first seem surprising. It must be partly due to conditioning from an early age with the propaganda of patriotic songs:
“World capital, our capital/Like the Kremlin’s stars you glow/You’re the pride of the whole cosmos/Granite beauty our Moscow”.

Yet it also seems related to the past pride in being part of an empire, the sense of purpose in helping to build it through fighting on the winning side against Germany, working with one’s hands to develop it, sending Gargarin as the first man into space. There is also the lost “dream of equality and brotherhood”, and drive to “create Heaven on Earth” – the pining for community spirit and mutual support, overlooking the practice of informing on friends and neighbours. The “sovok” (Soviet man) remains appalled by the current lack of idealism, the preoccupation with obtaining consumer goods (“A Mercedes is no kind of dream”) and rewards for the crooks who control the new market system.

Then there are those born after Stalin’s death in 1953, who grew up reading forbidden books, and conducting endless debates in the kitchen about how life might be changed for the better, half-joking over the risk of a bugged light fitting. They were initially seduced by Gorbachev’s “Perestroika”, even daring on his behalf to brave the tanks on the streets in the abortive coup against him. This made their disillusion all the deeper when the unchained capitalism of the 1990s made them the victims of crooks and violent gangsters, creating large-scale unemployment for the first time, forcing even the skilled and educated to sell their possessions and work as cleaners or flog goods smuggled in from Europe, and reducing to destitution pensioners whose savings had become worthless.

I think the title “second-hand time” refers to the irony of how events have come round full circle in some ways: Russia is ruled in 2020 by an ex-KGB man who has made himself into a modern equivalent of an autocratic Tsar. There is even a “new cult of Stalin” with “everything Soviet back in style, but in the commercialised form of Soviet cafes, Soviet salami, Soviet-themed TV shows, even tourist trips to Stalin’s camps. Young people are reading Marx by choice.

The book also covers the horrors of civil war in areas like Armenia and Chechnya, where different ethnic groups who had previously intermingled came to blows once the iron hand of communist control was removed. The second-class treatment, racial and religious discrimination against migrants like the Tajik street cleaners of Moscow is another troubling aspect of recent change.

Does the lack of editing not only create a book of nearly 700 pages, too long for many people to find the time to read it, but also make for excessive repetition, or does the latter serve to reinforce important impressions? I am not sure what a reader with no prior knowledge would make of all this. Even with the useful chronology of political events from 1953, it is sometimes hard to keep track of exactly what people are referring to. Yet I kept coming across sharp observations and vivid insights which encouraged me to read on. I regret that the author did not do more to sift these out for the reader, although you may feel that the rambling, contradictory nature of the text adds to its power.

It sometimes seems as if the typical Russian man is addicted to vodka, continually beating his wife and children. Women are portrayed as neurotic, hysterical and superstitious, with a self-destructive urge to nurture inadequate men, particularly prisoners, down on their luck, who will inevitably repay their kindness with brutality in due course. Westerners, it seems, can never really understand the tortured, sentimental Russian soul…..But despite the frequent oppressive bleakness, this book encourages readers to form their own understanding of a complex situation of mingled brutal tragedy and poignant humanity. It proves a very powerful and informative aid to grasping the current nature of Russian society and how it has come about.

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