Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016, 704 pp.
Svetlana Alexievich’s father became a communist after Yuri Gagarin flew into space. “We’re the first! We can do anything!” he told her. She too became a believer. “Disillusionment came later,” the 2015 Nobel laureate for literature writes in Secondhand Time, the final installment of her five-volume exploration of the Soviet soul.
Like nearly every child growing up in the USSR, I also dreamed of meeting a real, live cosmonaut. Yet my wish came true only a quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union. Last September, Valentina Tereshkova, the world’s first woman in space, addressed the inaugural gala for the London Science Museum’s exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age. As Tereshkova came off stage, I seized the moment. Tripping over my words, I told her that for a child growing up in faraway England while his country was falling apart back home, her achievement was one of the few things that kept me proud of my once great motherland. Tereshkova glared at me. “It must have been tough, growing up in England,” she said and walked away, past her charred re-entry capsule encased in glass a few feet away.
What did I expect? A Soviet person has no time for those who have not suffered. War, displacement, hunger, and forced labor underpin Alexievich’s work like the pulsating ostinato in Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. “We know how to suffer and talk of suffering,” she wrote in her first book in the series, War’s Unwomanly Face, a collection of testimonies from women about their experiences of what is still known throughout the former Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War. “Suffering justifies our hard and bitter life. For us, pain is an art.”
Delayed by the censors for two years until it was finally published in 1985, War’s Unwomanly Face contained no overt criticism of the Soviet government. However, the book proved incendiary because of Alexievich’s refusal to focus on, as she put it, “how one group of people heroically killed and triumphed over another.” Instead, she chose to write not about war itself, but about “the person at war . . . thrown from normal life into the epic depths of a massive event, into Big History.”
Writing may not be the most appropriate way to describe the making of these texts, which contain almost no authorial interventions and consist nearly exclusively of recorded conversations. Alexievich’s profound achievement, over three decades of visits to her interviewees across the Soviet Union, was to coax out the intimate outpourings of individuals who have undergone profound shock and revelation, weaving them, strand by strand, into a grand tapestry.
The plight of the individual caught up in the Soviet Union’s utopian project permeates Alexievich’s work. Chernobyl Prayer (1997) about the 1986 nuclear disaster, and Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1989), which chronicles the experiences of conscripts in the Soviet war in Afghanistan and their families, reveal the almost comic senselessness of such concepts as heroism, glory, and sacrifice in the face of radiation and war. And yet, despite having experienced its horrors firsthand, and irrespective of whether they were for or against the regime, one by one Alexievich’s interlocutors express their loss and regret at the fall of the USSR. Why?
Ever since its adoption by Russian president Vladimir Putin as an ersatz official ideology, Soviet nostalgia has been dismissed by Western commentators as a hankering for strongman leadership and great power status. Certainly, that is how it has been cannily deployed by the Kremlin: through the revival of militarized Victory Day parades, irredentism in Ukraine, and revived alliances with former client states such as Syria.
However, as Alexievich shows in Secondhand Time, for many of its former citizens—often derided as sovoks, a cruel pun on the word for dustpan—what the Soviet Union represented most was not geopolitical but moral superiority. This may seem a strange way to describe a state that imprisoned and executed millions of its own citizens. But as one woman reminds Alexievich, “socialism isn’t just labour camps, informants, and the Iron Curtain, it’s also a bright, just world: everything is shared, the weak are pitied, and compassion rules. Instead of grabbing everything you can, you feel for others.”
The spiritual aspects of socialism are rarely discussed in Western accounts of the Soviet Union. As the Russian-born anthropologist Alexei Yurchak showed in his book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, the USSR had a distinct moral order broadly shared even by those who disagreed with the regime or its politics. A cornerstone of Soviet ethics was the belief that, as one man tells Alexievich, “it’s shameful to love money, you have to love a dream.” Other values included altruism, self-sacrifice, a concern for the weak, the elevation of group over individual concerns, and the rejection of wealth and materialism. The country’s sudden dissolution proved to be more traumatic to many of Alexievich’s characters than the suffering they had endured at the hands of the USSR.
Soviet times were a period of exalted poverty. When Margarita Pogrebitskaya, a doctor interviewed in the book, married her husband, “he had a blanket, I had a cot, and that’s how we began our life together.” My own parents were no different; as his wedding present, my father leveraged all his connections to procure a nearly unobtainable luxury: an ironing board (this was the early 1980s, not the 1920s). I remember my childhood fear of this menacing contraption; painted dark green and requiring the strength of two adults to lift and assemble, it could only have been produced at a munitions factory. To this day, my mother talks about that ironing board as if it were a Cartier solitaire.
But the most important piece of furniture in Soviet times was always the bookshelf. “We grew up in a country where money essentially did not exist,” one man recalls. Literature was the only real currency. “If someone got their hands on a new book, they could show up at your door at any hour—even two or three in the morning—and still be a welcome guest,” says another. As Alexievich writes in her prologue about the Soviet person (in whose ranks she includes herself), “‘reader’ is our primary occupation.” A girl talks about her Soviet parents: “They got by with one set of linens, one pillow, and one pair of slippers” because all they cared to do was “spend their nights reading each other Pasternak.”
For the cultured middle classes, the prison camp that was the Soviet Union of the 1930s and ‘40s had, by the 1960s, become more akin to a university campus. Known as the kitchen intelligentsia, this was Alexievich’s tribe, and perestroika was their moment. Finally, their beloved silenced writers could be read out in the open. People queued all night to buy a copy of Bulgakov’s unbanned The Master and Margarita. Poets commanded packed stadiums. Strangers exchanged newspapers on the Metro.
“The word was the deed,” says one, describing this incredible renaissance. It seemed at the time that simply believing was enough to will democracy into being. Another remembers how the country turned into a debating society, with “buses idling outside waiting to take us away to democracy.” When hardliners arrested Gorbachev in Crimea and attempted to turn back the clock, the liberal intelligentsia took to the barricades to defend Yeltsin and the democrats.
Their hopes that literature could save the world were quickly and cruelly dashed. Suddenly, words and ideas lost their power. Emptied of poets, the stadiums quickly filled with faith healers, hypnotists, and pyramid schemers. “The discovery of money hit us like an atomic bomb,” says a former Yeltsin supporter.
Unsurprisingly, the intelligentsia was quickly elbowed out by square-jawed men in tracksuits with altogether more pragmatic attitudes to democracy and capitalism. The revolution cast aside its own makers. As one man laments, “We turned out to be ill-suited for the new world we’d been waiting for.”
The plight of the once proud elite, forced to pawn its libraries and turn to cleaning offices and collecting and selling jars of cigarette butts, is a tale of monumental betrayal and humiliation. “Russian novels don’t teach you how to become successful, how to get rich,” Alexievich is told. An entire generation suddenly discovered, as the old joke goes, that everything the party told them about socialism was a lie, but everything it told them about capitalism turned out to be true. “Life is better now,” one woman notes, “but it’s also more revolting.”
Compared to this new order, the Soviet Union emerges as a state of both intense cruelty and grace, often coexisting simultaneously. When Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, her writing was hailed as “polyphonic.” That refers not only to the panoply of voices that people her books—the product of three decades of tape-recorded conversations, their cadences deftly rendered by Bela Shayevich’s sensitive and confident translation. It applies in equal measure to the ambivalence and even contradictions contained within the accounts of individual witnesses.
Time after time, we see victims of the regime refuse to renounce the banner of socialism. Having barely survived the war, Marina Isaichik was barred from attending a teaching college because she had lived under German occupation in Belarus and was therefore classified as an “unreliable element.” Instead, she was forced to spend her youth at a brick factory, digging for clay with her bare hands. Yet this woman later volunteered to go to Siberia “to help build communism.”
Margarita Pogrebitskaya’s father was a Bolshevik jailed during the purges of 1937. In prison, while his interrogators—fellow party members—cracked his skull and knocked out his teeth, his daughter wrote in her diary “pages and pages about how much I loved Stalin.” Yet he remained a communist to the end of his life. As did eighty-seven-year-old Vasily Petrovich N., who was arrested and tortured on the basis of a false report compiled by an informant: their neighbor, who was in love with his wife. They beat him with bags of sand until everything would pour out of him. His wife died in the gulag. Yet his final wish, he tells Alexievich, is to die a communist.
“You have to ask how these things coexisted,” one woman asks Alexievich. “Our happiness and the fact that they came for some people at night and took them away. Some people disappeared, while others cried behind the door.” Her own father was one of those taken away in 1937. “For some reason, I don’t remember any of that. I don’t! I remember how the lilacs blossomed in the spring, and everyone outside, strolling; the wooden walkways warmed by the sun. The blinding mass demonstrations . . . the names of Lenin and Stalin woven from human bodies and flowers on Red Square.”
The poet Anna Akhmatova spoke of two Russias, that of the jailed and the jailers. But Alexievich’s interlocutors speak instead of a single Russia, one in which perpetrators and victims were frequently one and the same. One man recounts how his ex-girlfriend’s father, a terminally ill war hero, confessed to him one drunken night that he had served as an executioner with the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB. By the end of a workday, his trigger finger so sore that it had to be massaged by medical staff, he would retire to his room. Under the bed, he kept a packed suitcase ready for his own inevitable arrest.
“There [were] only two ways out of the service,” he told the man. “Either you die by the enemy’s hand or at the hands of the NKVD.” It was not paranoia: Yagoda, Yezhov, and Beria, the first three directors of the NKVD, were all eventually shot. Lazar Kogan, the man who executed Nikolai Bukharin in 1938, met the same fate a year later. Everyone lived in fear, said the old man, who was eventually sentenced to seven years in the Gulag, “soldiers and marshals alike. In that, we were equal.”
Terror, it seems, was the great leveler. Even as the bloodlust of Stalinism gave way to a subtler system of control, officials at every level remained under the same surveillance and coercion to which they subjected ordinary citizens. Elena Yurievna S., a former head of a party district committee, remembered having to turn up the volume on her TV when she would make private phone calls so that the KGB could not hear her. That was something even Gorbachev was said to have done, despite being general secretary. “Everyone was afraid, even the people everyone was afraid of,” she tells Alexievich. This is what it really means to all be in it together.
There were other ways in which the Soviet project represented a radical form of justice, however perverse. The Russian version of the Internationale, translated by the Menshevik poet Arkady Kots, states that under socialism, “he who was nothing will become everything.” Arguably, the Soviet Union succeeded merely in achieving its obverse. Even so, only in a society where success and personal achievement were suspect unless part of a collective enterprise could it finally become acceptable—even commendable—to be ordinary. Which is, after all, what most people are.
Against the grain of history, it was the elites who finally got a taste of victimhood. This could be taken to extremes: Gherman Titov, whose schoolteacher father had the temerity to name him after a character from Pushkin’s “The Queen of Spades” was passed over from becoming the first cosmonaut thanks to Yuri Gagarin’s more unimpeachably peasant stock. And I remember the grumbling of my pediatrician mother, an officer’s daughter to boot, that the party more readily admitted nurses than doctors. She never did manage to join.
Ploschad Revolyutsii—Revolution Square—is still my father’s favorite station on the Moscow Metro. Its platform hall is populated with seventy-six near life-sized bronze statues of workers, soldiers, and peasants enacted in grandiose forms reserved in previous epochs for kings and knights. He told me of how, on a trip to Moscow as an adolescent, he instantly recognized in the wheat harvester and the hammer-wielding Stakhanovite the people he grew up among on a collective farm near Kaluga. They—peasants like him—were the new heroes. Soviet girls walking past the gleaming effigies of women parachutists, students, and soldiers could feel themselves equal partners in building the new utopia. Representational politics is no panacea, but it’s difficult to deny the subversive, transformative force of such messages. The ordinary citizen—the malenky chelovek, or little person—saw himself elevated, for the first time in history, to an object of pride. In this way at least, he seemed to have finally become Kots’s “everything.”
The fall of the USSR was a return to the natural order of things. The demotion of the little person back to his place proved a difficult blow. Where it had once been shameful to be rich, almost overnight it became shameful to be poor. “Where are you going to see a metro station devoted to dairymaids, lathe operators or engine drivers today?” a woman asks. “They’re nowhere to be seen.”
In this new Darwinian world, the old heroes became profaned. One woman tells Alexievich how in the early 1990s, coffins were so expensive that her grandmother’s friend, who had been a nurse at the front, was buried wrapped in old newspapers. The communist regime was often cruel, but it was still run by people, and so it was at least possible to appeal to their compassion. Not so the impersonal market. Someone tells Alexievich: “Money knows no pity or shame.”
Alexievich has expressed her desire to avoid the rhetoric of heroism and teleology. She wanted to privilege the internal and private life of the individual over the bombastic cadences of Big History. “We don’t need your little history,” a censor told her when War’s Unwomanly Face was initially rejected as anti-Soviet. Accused of having “no love for our heroes or our great ideals,” Alexievich replied: “Yes, I don’t love great ideas. I love the little person.”
Certainly, there is no denying the damage caused by the collision between these metanarratives and people’s ordinary lives. “We were taught that death is more beautiful than life,” says a mother who blames the fetishism of sacrifice and heroism for the suicide of her young son. Alexievich frequently speaks about how utopias have a tendency to end in bloodshed. Yet the testimonies of her interlocutors consistently show that little people need big ideas. This may help explain why the unspeakable hardships of the Soviet period were more bearable than the relatively more tolerable difficulties of post-Communist life. It is not death or suffering that her interviewees invariably fear most, but the absence of meaning. “Let us die as long as we know what we’re dying for,” a man tells her.
The act of construction, of building something together, provided a common purpose and journey. It gave people a sense of meaning, the feeling of being, in the words of one woman, “part of the grand scheme of things.” For millions of ordinary people, the official slogans about “building communism” proved to be highly literal. They built the Baikal-Amur Mainline and the Belomor Canal, they planted the Virgin Lands. Many were volunteers driven by romanticism, many more were convicts and forced laborers. Marx’s dialectic rendered in blood, bricks, and mortar.
Incidentally, it was in a forced labor camp that Akhmatova’s son, the nationalist historian Lev Gumilev, developed the concept of passionarnost, an exultation of suffering and epic sacrifice in the service of national rebirth (the renewed interest in this idea among Russia’s current political elite is discussed in Charles Clover’s incisive Black Wind, White Snow, published in April).
In this cauldron of sacrifice for a common purpose, “nobody lived for himself,” remembers one man. In its seventy-odd years, the Soviet Union failed to create the utopia envisioned by its founders and believers. It is true that many of the projects for which so many young lives were sacrificed turned out to be in vain. The country proved unable to catch up with, let alone overtake, the West. But in the way that the journey bound people together, in purpose and hardship, a profound communion emerged between them. Importantly, there was no exit option. “We lived our Soviet lives by a unified set of rules that applied to everyone,” a man tells Alexievich. “We used to listen to the same tapes and read the same Soviet books. Ride the same bicycles.” Talking about village life, one woman gives a good description of the society at large: “Everything was mundane and simple, and that’s what made it truly lofty.”
For all its militant atheism, the Soviet Union is evoked in these accounts in unmistakably Christian terms—the language of faith in the perfectibility of mankind, the virtue of poverty, and the construction of a new world of goodness, brotherhood, and justice. The novelist Vladimir Sorokin likened the ubiquitous Soviet queue to standing at an Orthodox service. And what, after all, is the Soviet creed of communal living, self-abnegation and opposition to Western liberalism but a reformulation of sobornost, the notion of an ascetic and communalist Orthodox utopia advanced by the nineteenth-century Slavophiles?
For Vasily Petrovich N., who witnessed the October Revolution, the passion for building socialism comingled religious and romantic ecstasy. “I remember the people with fire in their eyes. Our hearts were on fire! Those people didn’t want anything for themselves, it wasn’t like today, when everyone puts himself first. We wanted to create heaven on earth. . . . A Mercedes is no kind of dream.” It is impossible to hear those words and not be moved, indeed seduced; in one of her rare asides to the reader, Alexievich can’t help noting “how handsome he still is.” Communists like him may have sacrificed themselves and countless others, but there is no denying the beauty and goodness of the dream.
In the Chernobyl Prayer, Alexievich hears from the widow of one of the so-called liquidators—firefighters who were first on the scene of the accident. Fatally ill with radiation poisoning, her husband was placed in an isolation ward. Against all advice, and pregnant with their child, she holds a vigil by his hospital bed. Her child is born severely disabled and dies shortly afterwards, irradiated, she believes by the close contact. The woman is left desperately to ponder how something as pure as her love for her husband could have ended up killing their daughter.
It is both a metaphor for the Soviet project as a whole, and the reason so many of its victims have forgiven the suffering and loss they have endured. “With an iron hand, we will drive humanity to happiness,” pronounced the slogan mounted on the fence of a forced labor camp on the White Sea’s remote Solovetsky Islands, renowned in equal measure for their monasteries and gulags. For all its cruelty, Soviet socialism emerges from the collective memories of its survivors as a product, however distorted, of genuine faith and love, above all for its key beneficiary and victim: the little person. That it ended up killing millions of its own children was, if anything, a sign of its ardor. “Is it possible to kill with love? With such love?” the widow asks Alexievich. “Why are they always together, love and death? Always together. Who will explain to me this?”
Vadim Nikitin is a Murmansk-born Russia analyst and commentator based in London.