Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

By Svetlana Alexievich

Publisher: Juggernaut 

Pages: 570

Price: Rs 1,500


I want to be a cold-blooded historian, not one who is holding a blazing torch. Let time be the judge. Time is just, but only in the long term, not in the short term. The time we won’t live to see, which will be free of our prejudices. — From the introduction to Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time.

Although cold-blooded by her own admission, Alexievich’s new book covers a range of emotions almost as vast as the land the people in this story inhabited: Soviet Russia, built by the new men — the “Homo Sovieticus”.

Alexievich, a journalist for over 30 years, won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2015 — the first one to be presented for a body of non-fiction writing. In her career spanning decades, she has emphasised the human voice in her writings, allowing it to be the guide into momentous events in the history of a great empire. Following this oral tradition, she meets and interviews people — the witnesses of History — over many years and finally pieces together the narratives into a volume of individual stories. In this general blueprint, she has produced masterpieces like War’s Unwomanly Face (1985), Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (2006), as well as her latest — Secondhand Time. Studying this “miniature expanse” of an individual “is the only way to chase the catastrophe into the contours of the ordinary and try to tell a story,” Alexievich writes.

Like many great Russian novels, the stories of the people in this one too take place against the backdrop of immense upheaval in Russia’s social and economic life, beginning with the October Revolution. The years that followed, under Communist rule, millions of Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, and Armenians participated in a massive rebuilding of their united motherland, which through their toil would one day emerge as a super power to reckon with. These very people who shaped a new country out of the old would watch this monument to human determination collapse and give way to a new and alien way of life. Economic reforms and liberalisation would introduce many of these people to the horrors of the Party they swore by. Dreams, disillusionment, disappointment and death — these are themes that constantly visit the men and women who were cogs in the grand machinery of the USSR. Interestingly, in the course of her interviews, Alexievich never asks the narrators, what socialism is. Hers is the “history of domestic, interior socialism. As it existed in a person’s soul”.

Perhaps nothing captures the nature of transition in Russian life better than this newspaper snippet from the year 1990: “At the moment bread is so cheap that farmers feed it to cattle when fodder is short and boys can be seen using loaves of bread as footballs. The price rises will not be popular. The government is dismantling a long-established social contract which has guaranteed full employment, excellent public transport and cheap food and accommodation for all the people in the USSR.”

The same report adds that the price of bread hadn’t changed since 1955. The government hadn’t changed in over seven decades. But times had changed.

Secondhand Time does not follow a chronological order, and the interviews do not flow into the other but stand alone by itself, like a diary entry by each protagonist. The 570-page volume is divided into two parts — the first deals with interviews she conducted during the years following the Soviet collapse, and the second follows people living in the new Russia ten years after the events of Perestroika — a political movement favouring more open policy reforms initiated by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Like many great Russian novels, the stories of the people in this book too take place against the backdrop of immense upheaval in Russia’s social and economic life, beginning with the October Revolution.

When Perestroika unsealed the archives, people devoured information, and were left stunned:

Lenin, 1918: “We must hang and it has to be hanging so that people will see, no fewer than one thousand inveterate kulaks, the rich ones, seize their grain take hostages…Make sure that people hear about it 100 versts around and tremble from fear.”

N.G. Kuznetsov to Trotsky: “Moscow is literally dying of hunger.”

Trotsky, 1918: “That’s not hunger. When Titus was taking Jerusalem, Jewish mothers ate their children. When I have your mothers eating their young, then you can tell me you are starving.”

And yet, these very men enthused believers, whose tales and perspectives — at once poignant, sometimes repulsive, even inspiring — are recorded faithfully by the author.

Alexievich rarely presents herself to the reader, letting the words flow in an uninhibited monologue. She makes an exit after a brief introduction to the character, or she steps in to tell of their reactions in the course of conversations, commenting beyond this only rarely. The people she sought were those who were completely consumed by the Soviet idea. “It was their entire cosmos” and they couldn’t simply walk away from it one fine day in 1991. There are also those who welcomed Perestroika and thwarted an attempted coup of the government that gave them these freedoms. And ultimately there are also those — the Everywoman — who has perhaps repeated the same words through many a different era. “Out here we live the same way we have always lived. Whether it’s socialism or capitalism. Who’s Red, who’s White — it makes no difference. The important thing is to make it spring.”

A brave and essential book, Secondhand Time is reminiscent of all the drama and tragedy, poetry and philosophy from Russian literature, serving to prove that Truth is stranger than fiction.

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