Review of “Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets” by Svetlana Alexievich

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

At a recent conference of far-right luminaries in Rome, Roberto de Mattei, a conservative Catholic intellectual, opined that a global leftist elite had “banned” good, honest patriots from publishing history books about communism.

The reporter of these words, Anne Applebaum, was better positioned than most of de Mattei’s audience to appreciate how wrong he was. Among the 16 awards Applebaum has won for writing histories of communism, two were National Book Awards and one was a Pulitzer Prize. Cataloging Soviet depredations is basically her career, and she’s still going strong.

But these days, if you choose your audience carefully and you make your claims in a certain tone of voice, it doesn’t really matter if there are great heaps of facts that contradict your position. Heads will be nodded in concerned sympathy, brows furrowed in resolve. But what kind of person, you might still wonder, would make such an easily falsifiable claim as the one de Mattei did about a global elite’s censoring of history?

I’ll come back to that in a moment.

In the meantime, I just finished a beautiful, wide-ranging oral history of late-20th century communism by the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, published in English translation in 2016. It is one of four epoch-spanning oral histories Alexievich has published about communism in eastern Europe.

secondhand time

And, like Applebaum, Alexievich has won here share of recognition. In 2015 she won the Nobel Prize in Literature, which, I’ve always been told, is a pretty high mark to hit. One wonders what kind of intellectual de Mattei could be since he clearly knows so little about the world of letters. Maybe he didn’t know we have girl historians who write books these days?

If I had to guess, I’d say the handful of Americans who read Alexievich probably start with the 2006 translation of her book Voices From Chernobyl, because it’s pretty clearly going to stroke the Schadenfreude we expect to feel about the USSR’s mendacity, brutishness and incompetence. Well, if that’s what gets you to read Alexievich, fine, but political porn is not what she delivers. She won the Nobel for a good reason. She writes about real people, mostly the things they’ve lost.

What Alexievich delivers in Secondhand Time is a haunting collection of often bleak but deeply human stories about how Soviet people experienced the death and denouement of the system they had built their lives around and thought of as permanent.

The impression that many westerners have of Soviets is that their lives were thoroughly dictated to them: they hated and feared their political masters and  never authentically believed in the ideology the Kremlin forced down their throats. The most important message of Secondhand Time is that many Soviets really did believe what they were taught, even if they knew their teachers were brutes. It turns out that real people found real reasons for believing in communism despite the horrors, large and small, that propped it up–the gulags, the informants, the secret police, the cult of Stalin, the show trials, the bread lines, the work camps, the mass relocations.

Outside the space created by these horrors, many Soviets managed to thrive in their mental and communal lives. They lived for the rewards that austerity tends to inspire in an educated people–ideas, discussions, small freedoms, camaraderie. Books and writers were the focal point this life, which brimmed with a shared sense of struggle. A former Soviet school teacher finds a notebook that belonged to her daughter during the last days of the USSR. An essay in it called “What is Life?” proclaims, “The purpose of life is whatever makes you rise above.” Another former Soviet observes, “Russians don’t want to just live, they want to live for something. They want to participate in some great undertaking.”

Most of Alexievich’s interlocutors show they have undergone a personal transformation that typifies this kind of great-society desire. Many recall the disciplined subordination of their individual interests to a collective goal as a sacred, even exhilarating experience. Remember Don Delillo’s oh-so-90s observation that “the future belongs to crowds”? Well it’s not entirely cynical. Masses can sometimes yearn for justice, not just demagoguery. Alexievich gets to know the crowd joiners and, again, reveals them as real people who were not crazy for believing what they believed.

The Soviet everyman saw himself as a worker, and not just in a factory. He (or in many cases, she, as Alexievich illustrates) saw himself as working hard to build a political system the world had never seen–a state that would guarantee economic justice. Of course we all know how precipitously the revolution collapsed, but we tend to see this event from the top down and the outside in. We are impressed by its structural features, its ethos as it affected the rest of the world. But what Alexievich draws out is that ordinary Soviet people suffered real loss at the failure of communism. Contrary to a western literature on the USSR going back to Isaiah Berlin’s 1949 The Soviet Mind, Soviet people didn’t just have cutout identities thrust on them by a faceless authority. They actively built lives that embodied communism’s guiding values of economic justice. They were proud of the fact that each was entitled to basic goods and services and there was no room for the predatory rich. And, despite the overwhelming corruption of the Soviet system that first undermined and later obliterated those values, the lives of many ordinary Soviets were full of dignity.

Alexievich, if you’re wondering, does not bait her hook and go fishing for stereotypes of such dignity. She casts her net wide and gathers whatever stories come up. Most of the personas are damaged, and a few are repulsive, such as the former gulag guard who “was just following orders” and says he would torture and kill again if another Stalin would arise.

But mostly, the stories are of loss, experienced by people we can relate to. Very few of Alexievich’s interlocutors want the whole Soviet edifice back (although some are nostalgic for empire), but most of them want a return to the time when their ideals meant something and had official backing. One subject recalls how for decades, she and her friends and family had been content to discuss books and debate communism all the time, usually in the kitchen. When those decades came to a sudden close, the ideas behind the discussions simply vanished, she recalls:

With perestroika, everything came crashing down. Capitalism descended. . . .90 rubles became 10 dollars. It wasn’t enough to live on anymore. We stepped out of our kitchens and onto the streets, where we soon discovered that we hadn’t any ideas after all–the whole time, we’d just been talking. . . . We [had been] like houseplants. We made everything up, and as it later turned out, everything we thought we knew was nothing but figments of our imaginations: the West. Capitalism. The Russian people. We lived in a world of mirages.

In his 1908 book The Philosophy of Loyalty, the philosopher Josiah Royce argues that the key ingredient to a meaningful individual life is the same as the key ingredient to a decent community–loyalty. It’s the thing that enables a dying person to say, “Okay, I can let go. The cause I’ve lived for is still intact. It will absorb the contribution I made during my life and keep going.” If we can die still feeling such loyalty, we can be fundamentally content.

The devastation that so many of Alexievich’s interlocutors evince is caused, I think, by the loss of the only object of loyalty they ever knew. They had worked, suffered and bled for the revolution. And many killed for it. But since the 1990s, they face the prospect of death with their life-sustaining narratives swept away. There is no recognizable future for them to be loyal to, let alone struggle for. One interlocutor told Alexievich, “For us, suffering is a personal struggle, the path to salvation.” Now, though, they’ve been told to stop struggling; there was never any point. They should just feel good and buy stuff instead.

For me, this is where the former Soviet’s pain gets slightly personal. By a series of accidents that shaped my values, and despite my utterly different lived experience, I arrived at a communist-style contempt for the crass life of the stomach and wallet, the very thing that many of Alexievich’s interlocutors scorn. I feel the same contempt for consumerism that the ex-Soviets experienced so dramatically when they were simply told that money would be their new god. Class war was still on, they were told, but the goal was different. It was a now race to the top of the exploiting class.

Many of Alexievich’s interlocutors were appalled at the economic injustices that cascaded all around them in the 1990s even as promises continued to be made that everything would be fine. One observed that the Russians in transition “were sure [in the 1990s] that a new future awaited them. Now [in the 2000s] it’s a different story. Today’s students have truly seen and felt capitalism: the inequality, the poverty, the shameless wealth. They’ve witnessed the lives of their parents, who never got anything out of the plundering of our country.”

Homo sovieticus is dead and gone. He cannot and should not be brought back. But gain and again, Alexievich’s interlocutors seem to mourn certain parts of their lived communist experience that were undeniably decent and good. A kitchen talk about political novels is an objectively better thing–for the individual and society–than a coked-up ride on an oligarch’s yacht. There’s no denying that, unless you are a supreme asshole. Alexievich’s ex-Soviets rebel at the idea that the default option to communism is surrender to an even lower, more crass form of life. This presentation of “the problem” is both stupid and harmful. You can be a collectivist without going Stalinist.

Many of the subjects in Secondhand Time still feel loyal to those kitchen discussions and the underlying idea that people have a higher purpose than exploiting other humans and consuming as much as they possibly can. I do too. Yachts are for jackasses and ignoramuses. Give me the kitchen and a good book any day.

(You can also read reviews of Secondhand Time in the NYT or the Independent. As always, I wrote mine first to keep my thoughts fresh.)

 

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