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