Home Book Reviews Second-hand Time review: Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of the Soviet era

Second-hand Time review: Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of the Soviet era

by J. C. Greenway
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Second-hand Time review - Bouquet in Imperial Style
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Reading In Memory of Memory made me think about how we consider ours and our relatives’ recollections not only of far-off things, but also of more recent events that we have lived through. Memories are never set in stone and our perspective on them can change with time. Eyewitness evidence is notoriously shaky.

I think the global obsession with memory is simply the foundation, the essential precondition for a different cult: the religion of the past, as we knew it in olden times; a little splinter of the golden age, proof of the fact ‘that things were better back then.’ The subjectivity and selectiveness of memory means we can fix on a historical ‘excerpt’ which has nothing in common with history itself – there will be people out there for whom the 1930s were a lost paradise of innocence and permanence. Especially during times dominated by the dull fear of the unknown. In comparison with a future we don’t want to inhabit, what has already happened feels domesticated – practically bearable.

Maria Stepanova’s book led me to thinking about writing this Second-hand Time review (maybe as both are published by Fitzcarraldo Editions!) and, as today is Svetlana Alexievich’s birthday – for which she will be in Germany, due to health issues and her involvement with the political situation in Belarus – I thought today was a good day to read or reread her book about the end of the Soviet Union.

Second-hand Time, which is translated by Bela Shayevich, begins with ‘Notes from an accomplice,’ reflecting on the public story of the USSR, as seen from the inside. Alexievich’s generation was raised by those who beat the Nazis – as told in The Unwomanly Face of War – and who never let their offspring forget it. The younger generation ‘were bitterly disappointed that the Revolution and Civil War had all happened before our time’ and they share a ‘communist collective memory.’ When glasnost revealed to many what had been hidden in the archives, that story underwent a drastic rewriting, almost overnight. Looking from the other side, as a schoolchild when the Berlin Wall came down, it is now easier to see that there was a narrative served to us too of what the USSR was, but as countries opened up and it has become possible to read or travel more widely, socialise or work together, it is easier to determine that those narratives were also crafted to uphold certain beliefs. Where there are people, there will be nuance, which is often missed in day-to-day reporting and then passed over as the news cycle moves on.

Svetlana Alexievich also creates narratives, and her interviews are shaped and presented in a way to bring you to a certain conclusion. They are more creative nonfiction than reportage, but there is still a value in considering these other viewpoints. Perhaps to Westerners the idea that people could be nostalgic for the Soviet days is horrifying, but it is worth examining, especially while acknowledging that – although the Soviet experience is quite unique – our own nations have also engaged in a collective forgetting and are long overdue for a critical re-examination of their historical records. Recent public attempts to do so having been met by howls of being ‘disrespectful’ to the past shows how necessary this is.

One of the passages that struck me the most in writing this Second-hand Time review is when Alexeivich interviews Elena Yuievna S., who was a third secretary of the district Party committee. Her friend Anna Ilyinichna M. is visiting and joins in with the flow of memories. But as Svetlana Alexievich notes,

Their stories had nothing in common except for the significant proper nouns: Gorbachev, Yeltsin. But each of them had her own Gorbachev and her own Yeltsin. And her own version of the nineties.

They stay friends by avoiding talking about the past and sticking to safer topics. Other interviews come from people from across Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia and from various political attitudes, with people often saying how they have not spoken like this before, they have hidden their memories deep. She talks to a mother who spent time in a camp and orphanage after her parents were denounced, and her son who served in the Army and was once engaged to the granddaughter of an executioner. He notes:

We were the first ones in space… and manufactured the best tanks in the world. But there was no washing powder or toilet paper… For some, the past is a trunk of flesh and a barrel of blood. For others, it’s a great era.

Sometimes Alexievich notes down things she overheard in the crowds on Victory Day, near the beer tent being a good place to stand and listen.

You forget about the long lines and empty shops faster than you do about the red flag flying over the Reichstag.

Like many, I will never not be thrilled by the picture of the Soviet soldiers on the roof of the ruined Reichstag, while accepting that the regime that made it happen was the cause of so much suffering elsewhere. In the post-war era, the Atlee government that brought improved education and healthcare to my family and others like it was also instrumental in splitting up some of Liverpool’s Chinese families by deporting their fathers in the 1950s. Coming to terms with these contradictions means moving away from hero worship towards honest appraisal. The nuance will always be there and attempts to write around or distract from it must be questioned.

UK readers can purchase a copy of this book via a local UK independent website by using this link. I may receive a small affiliate fee if you do. Thanks!

Photo of ‘Bouquet in Imperial Style’ by Boris Orlov at Tate Modern, by me. Created in 1988, the artwork ironically references imperial architecture, using communist symbols. When I saw it in the gallery, I thought it was a perfect fit with this Second-hand Time review.

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