Unlimited Stars for Alexievich: THE Oral History of Eastern-Block Communism & the Transition to Capitalism

secondhandSecondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich
First English Translation
by Bela Shayevich on May 24, 2016
Random House
Source: ARC from Random House via Netgalley
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The magnum opus and latest work from Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature—a symphonic oral history about the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia. In Secondhand Time, Alexievich chronicles the demise of communism. Everyday Russian citizens recount the past thirty years, showing us what life was like during the fall of the Soviet Union and what it’s like to live in the new Russia left in its wake. Through interviews spanning 1991 to 2012, Alexievich takes us behind the propaganda and contrived media accounts, giving us a panoramic portrait of contemporary Russia and Russians who still carry memories of oppression, terror, famine, massacres—but also of pride in their country, hope for the future, and a belief that everyone was working and fighting together to bring about a utopia. Here is an account of life in the aftermath of an idea so powerful it once dominated a third of the world.” Source: Penguin Random House.

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Review

“We sit atop the ruins of socialism like it’s the aftermath of war.”

UNLIMITED STARS.

One of the best books I’ve ever read. THE most personally touching and relevant book I’ve EVER read. A book that penetrates the soul of my being and explains me to myself.

An Autobiographical Review
this book is my autobiography, and it speaks my heart better than I ever have articulated it myself; many details below are personal, but they are also in the book, and what the book is about.

“Communism had an insane plan: to remake the “old breed of man,” ancient Adam. And it really worked … Perhaps it was communism’s only achievement. Seventy-plus years in the Marxist-Leninist laboratory gave rise to a new man: Homo sovieticus. Although we now live in separate countries and speak different languages, you couldn’t mistake us for anyone else. We’re easy to spot! People who’ve come out of socialism… We have a special relationship with death. How much can we value human life when we know that not long ago people had died by the millions? We’re full of hatred and superstitions. All of us come from the land of the gulag and harrowing war. Collectivization, dekulakization, mass deportations … This was socialism, but it was also just everyday life.

Not sure there is any overlap of experience between a life lived under communism as it manifested in Eastern Europe vs. a life lived in a capitalistic society, such as that embodied in the United States.

My experience has straddled both, with the transition from the former to the latter a violently, radically sudden rupture at a young and impressionable age. One day, I was accompanying my mom on her daily errands through Bucharest’s dilapidated landscape of empty government-run stores and identically dreary blocks of (state-issued of course) tenement housing, waiting in the 4th line of the day, for an extra handful of eggs she would receive for bringing me along. Then excitedly heading home for the 30 minutes of kids’ TV programming offered daily (of 2 or 3 hours total broadcasting, on one channel). All the while, being tailed by the Securitate (my father had defected and been sentenced in absentia, so we lived under constant surveillance).

Seemingly the next day – well. You’ve heard the stories of immigrant shock: the vast highways, insanely stocked supermarkets (supermarkets! we had no such thing). The variety, the diversity, the choices, the sheer mass, density, amount of STUFF. And people who nonchalantly wander through it all, completely nonplussed at the fact that there are mounds of bananas everywhere and people aren’t shoving each other out of the way to get to them. Ok so I had had ONE banana my entire childhood – smuggled into the country illegally of course. To this day I’m still … touched? surprised, just a little? at how much we take bananas for granted, at least here in the DC area.

Of course the stuff is only the beginning, only the surface layer that one immediately notices upon stepping off a plane into the Land of Abundance and Freedom for the first time. The divergences penetrate deep into the psyche/soul/historical memory/collective un/consciousness of the people and place. Everything down (up?) to structures of thought, modes of interaction, even constructs for understanding the self – ALL are different in a society that limits ALL material conditions and social acts (energy, food, media, knowledge, books, speech, movement, communication) vs. a society that views freedom and choice as fundamental.

Understanding the radical rupture created in my being by my move from Eastern Europe (Romania) to the US is the Holy Grail Quest of my life. I was young, it’s true, but you never forget-

“It wasn’t that long ago, but it’s as though it happened in another era … a different country … That’s where we left our naïveté and romanticism. Our trust. No one wants to remember it now because it’s unpleasant; we’ve lived through a lot of disappointment since then. But who could say that nothing has changed? Back then, you couldn’t even bring a Bible over the border. Did you forget that? When I’d come visit them from Moscow, I’d bring my relatives in Kaluga flour and noodles as presents. And they would be grateful. Have you forgotten? No one stands in line for sugar and soap anymore. And you don’t need a ration card to buy a coat. Did you forget that?

No – you do not forget: childhood baths taken in a little pot in the middle of the living room, with mom pouring hot water heated on the stove. You do not forget relatives from the country bringing you the only meat you would eat that month – to this day, you do not scoff at pig feet or intestines or whatever items are too unfashionable in your new environment. You do not forget Sandy Bell, the only cartoon on TV for years, 30 minutes every weekday night. You do not forget salami (salami, the lifeblood/black market currency/favorite delicacy/only deli meat of communism – appears on almost every other page of Secondhand Time).

Because you do not forget these things, because you can never quite look at bananas in the same way as your new neighbors or new generations, because you never do overcome the cynicism and bravado you learned in diapers torn from old sheets and laundered with coarse hand-made soap, because you do not forget, you don’t ever fully adapt to Capitalism. Or, you adapt but do not fully accept – there is always a streak of nostalgia for old days of suffering, or a melancholy for the self-determination needed to survive ‘back then’, or paranoia, denial, indelible, fundamental distrust of/about existence, society, other people in your new environment.

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets is an oral history of this transition from full-blown privation, closed-off-to-the-world communism to a more or less capitalistic society. Told, as always with Alexievich’s work, through a complex tapestry of voices, collected over many hundreds of hours worth of interviews, The Last of the Soviets is an explosively profound rendering of the collective memory of the region, before-during-after revolution.

HIGHLY recommended for anyone interested in either modern Russia/Eastern Europe, or the old USSR/Eastern Europe, or the transition from communism to capitalism, or in life under totalitarianism more broadly, or in the psychology of oppression and resistance.

Note About Reading this in Parallel with The Fox was Ever the Hunter
Eastern European literature speaks to me in a way that no other work can (the reasons are obvious). I find my heart somewhere between Alexievich and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, and was so saddened/disappointed just earlier this week in my reading the first (German-)Romanian work about the period translated into English, by Herta Müller. The differences are stark. While both are Nobel laureates, and both write about life under communism – Alexievich’s work showcases the triumphant, perhaps naively romantically melancholic, but, proud, self-respecting Eastern European soul, while Müller’s worlds depict pathetic creatures unable to help themselves. While I wanted to throw The Fox out the window many a times (I settled for calling my mother to vent in frustration), Alexievich’s work is like salve to my soul, and everything I remember about the people and spirit of the region.

One Last Personal Note
For me, this was a tremendously personally important book, because, as an immigrant/emigrant, I have no grasp whatsoever of how the transition from communism to capitalism occurred for my fellow country wo/men. For me, it was an overnight affair: one day I’m in Romania, the next, in the United States. Which is perhaps why, when I visit Romania now, which I tend to every year/summer, it’s so foreign to me. This book goes a long way into filling in the gaps from my absence.

Even though I received a copy from the publisher through Netgalley, I bought the book anyway when it came out this week – no question I need a physical copy to mark up and peruse like a personal bible. Obviously, all opinions are very much my own.

27 comments

  1. What a fascinating post! I’m always a bit torn because the idea of communism is so wonderful – it just never seems to work. And as with any kind of idealism, when it fails, somehow it seems to show up all the worst of humanity. And yet, as a cynic about the sheer materialism, individual selfishness and total unfairness of the capitalist system I’ve lived under all my life, I know we’re (mostly) better off physically, but I can’t help wondering if we’re really better off spiritually – or emotionally. But I’m guessing only people who’ve experienced both systems could even begin to answer that question…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for your insight! You know, it’s *so* interesting that you bring up spirituality/emotion – because that’s exactly what we used to consider our ‘salvation’ back in Eastern Europe during that period. This history addresses that – people were OBSESSED with books, theater, catching the radio on banned channels, culture in general, art… But I think, as with all else, this adherence to spiritual pursuit in an environment empty of anything materialistic is really more a romantic re-imagination of how difficult things really were, a way to cope. Yes, people were spiritually quite attuned, but they also lived in constant fear.

      I’m sure the answer is in a balanced middle – perhaps like the socialism of some countries in Europe? Definitely neither selfish individualism/materialism nor pure communism, which in practice, has always failed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Absolutely fascinating. My mother is half-Polish, but because my grandfather lost much of his family in the war and never went back, it’s a part of my heritage that I unfortunately know little about. I studied a bit of Eastern European literature in college as a way of trying to connect to my grandfather’s culture, I would be fascinated to read about what life was like for Poles in the tumultuous post-Communism period, and your review has me absolutely hooked.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading Jane, and for sharing the story of your grandfather. I love Eastern European literature myself – Stanisław Lem, who is Polish, is one of my favorite satirists. Alexievich is Belarusian, but I do think this book speaks in general to the Eastern block experience- also I didn’t even get to this in the review but one aspect I love about it is how varied the voices she presents are. So many perspectives are shown, from the nostalgic communist to the unapologetic new-capitalists to everything in between.

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  3. I’m loving your effusive love and praise for this book. After the last one being such a let down, you definitely deserved this! Finding a book that resonates with your personal experience so intimately is something every reader should experience regularly.

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    1. Thank you so much Naz! 🙂 This book definitely made up for the previous one.. And you are so right, it’s so meaningful finding books that speak to us in such a personal way – which is why your blog’s mission is so important – helping all of us find something that we may identify with outside of the ‘white male’ “canon” 🙂

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  4. Thank you so much for sharing such a personal post! I’m so happy you found a book that spoke to you on such a level. I was born here in the U.S. I know how fortunate and privileged I have been and am today. I do my best to remember this and appreciate everything. This book sounds fascinating! I love to read about other people’s experiences. I find that it gives me perspective on what is truly important in life.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading! I love Alexievich so much, she has such a talent for bringing out the essence of experiences in people’s own voices. I had read “Voices from Chernobyl” before by her and I can’t say I cared much or knew anything about Chernobyl but it quickly became one of my favorite books. I so agree that reading about others’ experiences keeps us balanced and in touch with what is really important, and also prevents us from becoming complacent, which is one of the reasons I love books so much! And also, our book blogging world – so much of *us* comes out even when (especially when?) we’re chatting bookish topics 🙂

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  5. Thank you so much for sharing this autobiographical review! I studied the Soviet union and Russia over the past century in depth, but it’s never quite the same as hearing first hand accounts of what people had to go through. Most of what I know is from textbooks that I had to memorise, but reading this review really puts it all into perspective. I’ll definitely be adding this one to my list. Loved this review!

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    1. Thank you so much for reading Fatima! Alexievich is truly a genius in bringing out the essence of any experience (I first read Voices from Chernobyl by her and was blown away even though I didn’t know anything and didn’t care too much sadly about Chernobyl before reading her book). I ‘discovered’ oral history relatively recently, and find it so much more enlightening than regular analytic histories (well, those can be fascinating too but in different ways). Also, memorizing history for school – YUCK. It’s why I hated this subject in school myself. It all falls into perspective though when you build some personal connection to the material, which is why I LOVE oral histories!

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      1. I really want to read more of her works now. Thanks for this post! I completely with you. I always hated how studying history at school felt … distant. I’d almost forget that it happened, and truth be told, just wanted to remember everything to pass my exams.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading, Laila! I do love Alexievich so much, she is incredibly gifted in composing compelling and multi-faceted oral histories. This is my second book by her, and now I *know* I want to go out and buy everything else by her that’s been translated to English 🙂

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    1. Hi, thank you so much for stopping by and for reading! So interesting that you spent 4 years in Hungary, wow! Just across the border from me in Romania (probably much closer than we are now on this side of the world!) 🙂 I would love to read some Hungarian renditions of the period, I can only imagine all that you heard… I wish I could commission Alexievich to just do an oral history of everything, but especially a comparative one of different Eastern-European places.

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  6. Thanks so much for sharing this very personal review! I’m glad you found such a “personal bible” after the Müller book was such a let down.
    Having grown up in what used to be West Germany, I only know about such a post-communist society from friends and acquaintances who lived in East Germany. There’s this general sense of those poor creatures from the West, while there has been quite a surge in east-algia, Ostalgie, by those who were thrown into capitalism once.the wall came down. It’s quite fascinating to me how belonging and political propaganda play into their and our perceptions. Although I’ve met quite a few leftist people with communist leanings it’s still very much used as a.concept to shock us. You know, have we’ve been rescued by the US after WWII and no one likes to talk about the dependency that remains to this day.

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    1. Hi Bina, thank you, I was so glad to have read this almost in parallel with the Muller book, which definitely did not do this time period/region justice.
      It’s so interesting to hear how this is playing out in Germany, seeing as your country was literally divided along these lines. What I know about that time is that Berlin was *the* major escape route – it’s how my father and other people we know made it out. Since people weren’t allowed to travel outside the communist region, the primary way to defect was to get permission to go to East Berlin, usually for conferences or international meetings, and then to stay behind and find one’s way across to West Berlin. I would not be surprised to learn that many organizations planned “conferences” there knowing this would occur, and there were definitely many heroes in the East who hid refugees and then helped them across.

      And as for propaganda and today, there’s so much railing against liberals in the US being “communist” that it makes me ill. These people who throw around these words have no idea what communism entailed, and it always upsets me when some person on the right calls me a “communist” on some internet forum simply because I vote with the US Democratic party.

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