Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich – Book Review

I put off reading this book forever, mostly because I was intimidated by its sheer doorstop size. In the end, this requiem for the Soviet era proved to be both an easy and hard read. While perhaps not the pick if you’re looking to lift your spirits in the time of a global pandemic, it’s a book that fully deserves the term “masterpiece”.

I was born five years before Gorbachev became the last leader of the Soviet Union. I experienced perestroika, the fall of the USSR and the rise of the new feral capitalism through the uncomplicated, protected perspective of a child and young teenager, who was excited about the influx of western chewing gum, chocolate bars, and Disney TV series. I actually happened to be on a summer holiday in Moscow when the momentous 1991 August Coup took place; mostly I remember being stuck at home with the Swan Lake ballet on TV, and the sense of giddy excitement in the air afterwards.

Having moved to Australia in 1995, I feel rather distanced from both the old Soviet Union and the new Russia that emerged later. For me personally, reading the book was a strange double feeling of looking at something very familiar and yet not – probably a feeling akin to reading a personal letter written by your parent to someone else.

I wasn’t familiar with Alexievich’s work prior to reading this one; apparently all of them are “oral histories”, the results of thousand of hours she spent travelling across the former republics of the Soviet Union with a tape recorder, collecting stories and interviews from the ordinary people. Some are presented as brief anonymous snatches of conversations overheard on a street, others get an entire chapter. There is no formal question-and-answer format and the interviews instead read as a stream of consciousness. But there’s nothing jumbled or inaccessible about them – on the contrary, they’re remarkably easy to read with a strong sense of flow and cadence, and are wonderfully translated into English.

“I’ve always been drawn to this miniature expanse: one person, the individual. It’s where everything really happens.

– Svetlana Alexievich

Published in 2013, Secondhand Time weaves together dozens of voices into a vast panorama of astonishing breadth. Chronologically, the book is split into two parts: conversations overheard and conducted between 1991 and 2001, and then the years 2002-2012. They cover the August Coup, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the horrific ethnic violence that exploded in some former Soviet republics afterwards, the Chechen war. But they also look back at the Soviet Union: the repressions of the Stalinist era, the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45, the last years under Gorbachev. These are not traditional historic accounts, rather it’s deeply personal history as seen through the eyes of the people who lived, loved, prospered or suffered through it.

I suppose that what unites most of the book’s voices is the fact that, with a few exceptions, they’re disillusioned, perplexed and exhausted voices of the people who were crushed, left behind, or simply couldn’t adapt to the new post-Soviet Russia and its values. One or two of the interviewees, such as a brash Moscow advertising manager in her mid-30s, relish this new world: “I’m no prey, I’m a huntress myself… show me a diamond ring, expensive labels… I liked… and still prefer bureaucrats and businessmen. Their vocabulary inspires me: offshore accounts, kickbacks, barters, internet marketing, creative strategies.”

Many others lament the new era as “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… Russians don’t want to just live… They want to participate in some great undertaking.” The picture of the past is complex: immense suffering mixed in with personal happiness and pride in the country and its achievements. 1937, the year of Stalin’s purges, can also be the year of first love and sweet scent of lilac in the park for others. People recall the atrocities committed by both sides during the war, the labour camps, censorship and deprivations, but for many the chaos, exploitation and lawlessness of new Russia wasn’t much better. Suicide is a prominent feature of the book.

There’s so much more to Secondhand Time that’s simply impossible to capture in a mere review. I can only say that Alexievich’s “history of human feelings”, by turns horrific, inspiring, deeply moving and deeply depressing, is an astounding literary achievement that gives all these ordinary voices a chance to live vividly on the page.

P.S. While the English translation is overall beautifully done, I wasn’t sure about the choice of the word “salami” for what I suspect was “kolbasa” in the original Russian. “Kolbasa” refers to a Russian variety of thick sausage made of meat products that was something of a food symbol of the Soviet Union, hence the constant references in the book that might puzzle the non-Russian readers. Salami is not really the same thing, more like a distant relative.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s