A review of “Second-hand Time” by Svetlana Alexievich translated by Bela Shayevich.
Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel prize for literature in 2015 for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” As part of my quest to understand better how Russian history and culture has contributed to public support, apathy or silence in regard to the current war, I decided to buy this book and read its 700 pages, a little at a time.
It has been worth it. Here are the voices (translated) of ordinary Russians commenting on what is happening now or what has happened in the past.
Helpfully the book starts with a chronology, from 1953 to 2015. So, this more or less covers the lifespan of those whose stories are voiced AND also the stories their parents told them of the horrors of World War 2, and before that of the Holodomor in Ukraine.
The book starts with “kitchen conversations” which were a phenomenon in Soviet times where within a censored society people felt emboldened to voice their opinions on current affairs only in their own homes, in the privacy of family kitchens (which were a change from the communal kitchens of early Soviet decades). There were kitchen dissidents:
“there’d always be someone who’d halt mid-conversation and point to the ceiling light or the power outlet with a little grin “Did you hear that, Comrade Lieutenant?”
Early in the book is the voice of a philosophy graduate given a job as a stoker
“we were completely sheltered; we didn’t know a thing about what was actually going on in the world. We lived in a world of mirages. The Russia of our books and our kitchens never existed. It was all in our heads.”
Then with perestroika, capitalism arrived. Many lost their protected Soviet jobs
“my wife and I were literally starving.”
They began peddling petty goods in the market square.
Russian history: Nostalgia for Soviet days
Another voice shows the strength of nostalgia for the Soviet days
“I was a Young Pioneer. I wore the red kerchief around my neck.”
…then came Gorby and perestroika “now our Parliament is lousy with criminals, dollar-rich millionaires.”
There are also memories of public demonstrations as the Soviet centralised economy collapsed:
”the more they shouted Freedom, the faster not only the cheese and salami but also the salt and sugar disappeared from the shelves.” “There were demonstrations.” “There should have been a Nuremberg trial for the CPSU.” “The black marketeers and the moneychangers took power.”
But some still look back to the old Soviet days
“I loved the empire. Life after the fall of the empire has been boring.”
“Russians need something to believe in… something lofty and luminous. Empire and communism are ingrained in us. We seek heroic ideals.” Ah -ah is that why Putin has been able to tap patriotic support for the invasion of Ukraine?
Cruel times with neighbour informing on neighbour
A father’s experience of World War 2 on the Finnish front pops up: Soviet troops drowning in an icy river were rescued (and then imprisoned) by Finns. But when they were returned in a prisoner swap in 1940, they were treated as traitors and sent to a Siberian prison for another six years where many died of starvation. But this father still kept a portrait of Stalin, and bore no grudge: “those were cruel times. A powerful nation was being built. And they really did build it, plus they defeated Hitler.”
But another voice a few pages later says, “it is possible to survive the camps, but you can’t survive other people” in the midst of a horrific story of neighbour informing on neighbour with the result that someone is sent to perish in the Siberian camps.
Seaside trips to Crimea while Ukrainians were starving
Someone reports her mother telling her how they used to go the seaside in Crimea in the 1930s. When the train to Moscow went through Ukraine, the guards would put the blinds down so that the passengers would not see the starving Ukrainians begging by the railway.
“No one asked about anything. They would go straight back to Moscow bearing their fruit and wine and showing off their tans, talking about the sea…I loved Stalin.” Actually, this reminded me of South African train journeys where you can be eating comfortably in the dining car as it speeds through dusty poverty-stricken townships. Air-travel, of course, avoids this ethical discomfort altogether as the aircraft soar over impoverished lands.
‘Communism is like prohibition..’
The central theme of the book, and of most of the conversations, is how they cope with the transition from Soviet times, “when we were a great nation that stood in line for toilet paper” to capitalism and materialism, “now they go shopping, picking out drapes and lace curtains, wallpaper, choosing between different kinds of frying pans. They like everything colourful because it all used to be so grey and ugly.”
I had a brief experience in Soviet Russia myself as a student in 1972 when I decided to travel back from a teaching practice in Norway via Finland and Leningrad where I hoped to see the museums and art galleries. In the middle of a busy day as a tourist, I wanted a quick sandwich lunch, so went into a shop that looked as if it might sell provisions. It was an hour of queuing, for each item, for the bread, for the salami, for fruit (no banana or orange, only apple) then another in the queue to get the bill then another queue at the actual cashier.
“Communism is like prohibition: it’s good in theory, but it doesn’t work,” says one character in this book. No wonder the populace welcomed fast food and McDonalds when it arrived with capitalism.
Fearful of darker skin
Towards the end of the book there are stories that reveal the racism that fuels some of the violence. There is the story of an Armenian girl in cosmopolitan Baku who married her Azeri boyfriends, only to experience that society splintering with war breaking out along ethnic lines. In the Soviet Republics, Russians were being killed by people in republics that had been colonised by Russia centuries ago.
The Chechnyan war and ensuing terrorism makes Russians fearful of darker skinned individuals: “I have black hair, black eyes…I’m Russian. Orthodox. The other day my friend and I went down into the metro and the police stopped me and took me aside: ‘Remove your outerwear. Show us your documents.’ They paid zero attention to my friend because she is blond.“ This would sound familiar to Black Londoners.
I highly recommend this book for its insights into the experiences of ordinary Russians, but take it slowly, one story at a time. Their experiences may seem so different from ours in the democratic and materialistic West, but would we react differently if we went through what they have? They are a traumatised populace now being conscripted to visit the horror of war on a neighbouring country. I wonder how that will be chronicled, polyphonically, in the future.