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Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich revisits Soviet Union breakup in ‘Secondhand Time’

Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize

Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, is the author of "Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets." Credit: Margarita Kabakova

SECONDHAND TIME: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich. Random House, 470 pp., $30.

Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, has taken the traditional genre of oral history and invented a hybrid that feels entirely new. She calls her nonfiction books “novels of voices.” Her ambition is to record the experiences of the masses of anonymous people whom history impacts but whose perspectives are never heard. She begins by recording conversations with hundreds of ordinary people, then selects narrators whose interviews she crafts into extended monologues, while the observations of other interview subjects are interlaced like a Greek chorus. Her own voice rarely intrudes.

“Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets” is only the third of Alexievich’s books to be published in English, in a translation by Bela Shayevich. Its subject is the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and its aftermath. The narrative begins with the election of Boris Yeltsin to the Russian presidency in June 1991, followed by the failed Communist coup that August, and continues through the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000, ending in 2014. She asks not how the breakup happened, but how it shattered ordinary lives. If you want to understand contemporary Russia, “Secondhand Time” is essential reading.

The polyphony of voices, with some individuals identified by their first names and patronymics, and others simply as “Snatches of Street Noises and Kitchen Conversations,” is astonishing; one wonders whether only Russians, inheritors of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, could be so raw and so tragically eloquent. However much Alexievich may have crafted — or to use her term, “sculpted” — these interviews, the voices of her interlocutors are hauntingly real.

There is, for instance, the 87-year-old Communist Vasily Petrovich N. Once, he had been a hero building a utopian dream under the Bolshevik slogan “We’ll chase humanity into happiness with an iron fist.” He believed fear was necessary for stability. Now he is the reviled enemy; everything he thought he was building has turned to dust.

And there are those like Anna M., with her terrifying memories of the Gulag. She returns, almost nostalgically, to the camp where her parents were held to discover that “there are as many bones as stones in this soil.” She had thought when the Soviet system collapsed that “people would repent, tears would be shed,” but no one is interested in their stories: “All we have is our suffering.”

There is the young man who is engaged to be married until he has a conversation with his fiancee’s grandfather. In a vodka-fueled stupor, the grandfather describes his role as a secret police interrogator under Stalin, how their plastic aprons dripped in blood and they washed themselves in cologne to get rid of the human stink of the tortured. The young man flees the family’s dacha and his fiancee that night.

We see the impact of the Chechen conflict through the eyes of a mother whose daughter, a junior police officer, is returned in a coffin with a bullet hole in her temple. The mother’s inquiries meet a terrible silence: Her daughter was not a casualty of the war. Either drunken fellow officers raped and killed her, or she was murdered by corrupt police for failing to turn a blind eye to kickbacks at checkpoints. A chorus of voices describes the interethnic conflicts in Tajikistan, Abkhazia and Baku, where neighbor turned on neighbor with unbearable barbarity.

Many Russians longed for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, but almost none were prepared for what followed: the rise of the oligarchs, the cynical gangster capitalism, the impoverishment of the general population, the election to the presidency of a despotic ex-KGB lieutenant colonel and the FSB (Federal Security Service) back in control.

How did this happen? Some of those interviewed complain that freedom was not something Russian citizens understood; they had been trained in passivity. But there is another explanation. Russians confused democracy and capitalism. They thought democracy meant everyone would get their fair share; instead, as Alexievich says in her introduction, they got unbridled capitalism with all “the inequality, the poverty, the shameless wealth.”

The collective rage at this national humiliation is palpable. According to historian Stephen Cohen, half of all Russians are nostalgic for Stalin. “Russia needs a strong hand. An iron hand. An overseer with a stick. Long live the mighty Stalin!” one of Alexievich’s unnamed interviewees exclaims. Another young man remarks ruefully: “I want a great Russia! I don’t remember it, but I know it existed.”

What will the future bring? “Secondhand Time” does not leave the reader optimistic. One tragic voice laments: “You need so little to start up the Stalinist machine.”

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