Book Review – Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

In her latest work, 2015 Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich explored the lives of those who personally experienced the Soviet Union’s demise. As with her other books, she allowed those who lived the events to tell the story. Reflections of anxiety, anger and disillusionment populated this troubling tome. A very unsettling portrayal of both the Communist and post-glasnost era emerged.

A line from Russian author Alexander Grin inspired the title. Ms. Alexievich observed:

On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Alexander Grin wrote, ‘And the future seems to have stopped standing it its proper place.’ Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be. Our time comes to us secondhand.” (Page 9)

Not surprisingly, both the author and her subjects expressed a hellish portrayal of life under communist rule. In the opening chapter–titled “Remarks from an Accomplice”– Ms. Alexievich explained her own views. She wrote, “People didn’t recognize their own slavery—they even liked being slaves.” (Page 2) “Many greeted the truth as an enemy. And freedom as well.” (Page 3) “Everyone thought of themselves as a victim, never a willing accomplice.” (Page 4) She best summarized the overall tone of the book in the following statement:

People are constantly forced to choose between having freedom and having success and stability; freedom with suffering or happiness without freedom. The majority chose the latter. (Page 8)

That’s a very unsettling observation; especially when the true picture of Soviet life emerged.

The Soviet State ruled through fear. I thought the best observation came from the interviewee who said, “Everyone was afraid, even the people that everyone was afraid of.” (Page 47) To show the pervasive anxiety the government instilled in citizens, another person said, “”I just hope they don’t put me away for telling you all this. Is the Soviet government still in power or is it entirely gone?” (Page 84) One person added a bit of dark humor to his take on the time period. “A communist is someone who’s read Marx, an anticommunist is someone who’s understood him.” (Page 16)

Not all the negative aspects of Soviet conduct were the government’s responsibility. One person reminisced about a disturbing incident during the “Great Patriotic War”:

Hundreds of Jews who’d escaped from the ghettos had gone into the forest. Peasants would capture them and give them up to the Germans in exchange for a bag of flour or a kilogram of sugar. Write that down…I’ve held my silence for long enough…A Jew spends his whole life afraid. No matter where the stone falls it hits him. (Page 194)

The most notable story regarded a soldier who worked as an executioner for the regime. One of the interviewees related the following anecdote that someone had shared with him. Aside from the psychological trauma, killing for the State had some physical repercussions, as well.

At first, we couldn’t meet our quotas. We physically couldn’t do it. So they called some doctors in. Had a consultation. It was decided that two days a week, the troops would get massages. They’d massage our right hands and index fingers. They absolutely had to massage our index fingers because they’re under the greatest strain during the shooting. My only work related injury is that I’m deaf in my right ear from shooting from the right side…” (Page 276)

From these narratives one would anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a halcyon era for those who suffered under its repression. Sadly, events didn’t develop that way. “Today, no one has time for feelings, they’re all out making money. The discovery of money hit us like an atom bomb.” (Page 18) “Democracy! That’s a funny word in Russia. ‘Putin the Democrat’ is our shortest joke.” (Page 290) “Capitalism isn’t taking root here. The spirit of capitalism is foreign to us. It never made it out of Moscow. We don’t have the proper climate for it in the rest of the country.” (Page 291)

While Ms. Alexievich drew material for the book from a series of oral histories, she managed to incorporate a number of memorable lines into the text.”[Her voice suddenly drops to a whisper. But to me, it feels like she’s screaming.]” (Page 142) “And the truth is…I worked at an archive myself, I can tell you firsthand: Paper lies even more than people do.” (Page 169) “Our entire tragedy lies in the fact that our victims and executioners are the same people.” (Page 261) And the most chilling, “The axe will survive the master.” (Page 276)

I came away from Secondhand Time with a new respect for the former Soviet Union’s people. I have immense admiration for their capacity to endure hardship. The author concluded the book with first hand observations on the political situation in her home nation, Belarus. If that is any harbinger of things to come, the past will once again be prologue for the former Soviet Union’s people.

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