In "Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets," author Svetlana...

In "Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets," author Svetlana Alexievich revisits the breakup of the USSR through oral history. Credit: Random House

The Soviet civilization . . . I’m rushing to make impressions of its traces, its familiar faces. I don’t ask about socialism, I want to know about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. Music, dances, hairdos. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. It’s the only way to chase the catastrophe into the contours of the ordinary and try to tell a story. Make some small discovery. It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life is. There are an endless number of human truths. History is concerned solely with the facts; emotions are outside of its realm of interest. In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the world as a writer and not an historian. I am fascinated by people.

My father is no longer living, so we won’t get to finish one of our conversations. . . . He claimed that it was easier to die in the war in his day than it is for the untried boys to die in Chechnya today. In the ’40s, they went from one hell to another. Before the war, my father had been studying at the Minsk Institute of Journalism. He would recall how often, on returning to college after the holidays, students wouldn’t recognize a single one of their professors because they had all been arrested. They didn’t understand what was happening, but whatever it was, it was terrifying. Just as terrifying as a war.

I didn’t have many honest, open conversations with my father. He felt sorry for me. Did I feel sorry for him? It’s hard to answer that question. . . . We were merciless toward our parents. We thought that freedom was a very simple thing. A little time went by, and soon, we too bowed under its yoke. No one had taught us how to be free. We had only ever been taught how to die for freedom.

So here it is, freedom! Is it everything we had hoped it would be? We were prepared to die for our ideals. To prove ourselves in battle. Instead, we ushered in a Chekhovian life. Without any history. Without any values except for the value of human life — life in general. Now we have new dreams: building a house, buying a decent car, planting gooseberries. . . . Freedom turned out to mean the rehabilitation of bourgeois existence, which has traditionally been suppressed in Russia. The freedom of Her Highness Consumption. Darkness exalted. The darkness of desire and instinct — the mysterious human life, of which we only ever had approximate notions. For our entire history, we’d been surviving instead of living. Today, there’s no longer any use for our experience in war; in fact, it ought to be forgotten. There are thousands of newly available feelings, moods, and responses. Everything around us has been transformed: the billboards, the clothing, the money, the flag . . . and people themselves. People are now more colourful, more individualized; the monolith has been shattered and life has splintered into a million little fragments, cells, and atoms. It’s like in Dal’s dictionary: free will . . . free rein . . . wide-open spaces. The grand old evil is nothing but a distant saga, some political detective story. After perestroika, no one was talking about ideas anymore — instead it was credit, interest, and promissory notes; people no longer earned money, they ‘made’ it or ‘scored’ it. Is all this here to stay? ‘The fact that money is a fiction is ineradicable from the Russian soul,’ wrote Marina Tsvetaeva. But it’s as though Ostrovsky and Saltykov-Shchedrin characters have come to life and are promenading down our streets.

I asked everyone I met what ‘freedom’ meant. Fathers and children had very different answers. Those who were born in the USSR and those born afterwards do not share a common experience. They’re people from different planets.

For the fathers, freedom is the absence of fear; the three days in August when we defeated the putsch. A man with his choice of a hundred kinds of salami is freer than one who only has ten to choose from. Freedom is never being flogged, although no generation of Russians has yet avoided a flogging. Russians don’t understand freedom, they need the Cossack and the whip.

For the children: freedom is love; inner freedom is an absolute value. Freedom is when you’re not afraid of your own desires, it’s having lots of money, so that you’ll have everything; it’s when you can live without having to think about freedom. Freedom is normal.

Excerpted from “Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets” by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Belya Shayevich. Copyright © 2016 by Svetlana Alexievich. Excerpted by permission of Random House, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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