Book Review: Second-Hand Time***

Max Liu
Wednesday 25 May 2016 15:02 BST

In her latest book, the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Svetlana Alexievich weaves together dozens of voices from the former-Soviet Union, including Gulag survivors, ex-Communist Party officials and others whose fates are bound up with the tragedies of the last century and the upheavals of this one. Alexievich, a Belorussian journalist, says: “I’m piecing together the history of ‘domestic’, ‘interior’ socialism. As it existed in a person’s soul… It’s where everything really happens.” She interviews ordinary citizens and shapes their testimonies into coherent narratives. The result is an extraordinary work of non-fiction which is composed of the types of stories that usually go untold amid the march of time and change.

“I’m no judge. And you’re no judge either,” says one interviewee of the ways that, under Stalin, citizens were persuaded to inform on their neighbours to the NKVD (Soviet police). Alexievich believes those born in the USSR and those born after its fall in 1991 come “from different planets.” She presents harrowing stories from both sides of the divide. The life of a woman who grew up first in the penal colony where her mother was imprisoned as an enemy of the state, then in a godforsaken orphanage, is one of perpetual trauma, thanks to the regime. But she’s still troubled by what’s replaced it. Another woman, whose family were made homeless when their apartment was sold from under them by gangsters in the post-communist free-for-all, says: “There are thousands of people like me.”

It’s no surprise to find alcoholism, brutality and suicide featuring prominently in accounts of the former-Soviet Union. But this book communicates more clearly than anything I’ve encountered before the bewilderment Russians feel at their country’s chaotic transition from socialism to capitalism. “Why didn’t anyone ask us?” wonders an elderly woman who “spent my life building a great nation. Now that the novelty of seeing blue jeans and salami in Russian shops has worn off, almost nobody has anything positive to say about Perestroika. Both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin are condemned for creating a country where “all that matters is money. Elsewhere, somebody says: “‘Putin the democrat’ is our shortest joke.”

Classic Russian literature is important to Alexievich’s interviewees and, with its psychological intensity and political insight, her work has earned her comparisons to Fyodor Dostoevsky. Both writers favour polyphony (the use of diverse points of view) but, in novels such as Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky wrote about the possibility of redemption. I struggle to find much light amid the darkness of these 700 pages. The courage involved in the collaborations between Alexievich and her interviewees is itself a source of hope but many of their stories are relentlessly disturbing.

Perhaps you’ll find more reasons to feel optimistic than I do but, regardless, you should read Second-Hand Time. The narratives Alexievich has sculpted take place in landlocked settings and yet, in Bela Shayevich’s English translation, they come at the reader in thunderous waves, churned from oceans of history. This book – important without sounding self-important – is heart-breaking and impossible to put down.

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