A citizen of Belarus who was born in Ukraine and writes in Russian, Svetlana Alexievich takes as her subject the “history of the Russian-Soviet soul”. Second-Hand Time is the concluding book in a cycle of five, “The Red Man. Voices of Utopia”. Gathered from interviews carried out between 1991 and 2012, Second-Hand Time will appear in English for the first time later this month, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Our first extract comes from the short opening section, in which the author addresses the reader in her own voice. The second, a complete chapter, suggests the breadth of Alexievich’s canvas and the originality of her method. “I am often told, even now, that what I write isn’t literature, it’s a document. What is literature today? Who can answer that question? We live faster than ever before. Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it […] There are no borders between fact and fabrication, one flows into the other” (Nobel Lecture, 2015).
Remarks from an accomplice
We’re paying our respects to the Soviet era. Cutting ties with our old life. I’m trying to honestly hear out all the participants of the socialist drama… Communism had an insane plan: to remake the ‘old breed of man’, ancient Adam. And it really worked … Perhaps it was communism’s only achievement. Seventy-plus years in the Marxist-Leninist laboratory gave rise to a new man: Homo sovieticus. Some see him as a tragic figure, others call him a sovok . I feel like I know this person; we’re very familiar, we’ve lived side by side for a long time. I am this person. And so are my acquaintances, my closest friends, my parents. For a number of years, I travelled throughout the former Soviet Union – Homo sovieticus isn’t just Russian, he’s Belorussian, Turkmen, Ukrainian, Kazakh. Although we now all live in separate countries and speak different languages, you couldn’t mistake us for anyone else. We’re easy to spot! People who have come out of socialism are both like and unlike the rest of humanity – we have our own lexicon, our own conceptions of good and evil, our heroes and martyrs. We have a special relationship with death. The stories people tell me are full of jarring terms: ‘shoot’, ‘execute’, ‘liquidate’, ‘eliminate’, or typically Soviet varieties of disappearance such as ‘arrest’, ‘ten years without the right of correspondence’ , and ‘emigration’. How much can we value human life when we know that not long ago, people died by the millions? We’re full of hatred and superstitions. All of us come from the land of the Gulag and harrowing war. Collectivization, dekulakization , mass deportations of various nationalities… This was socialism, but it was also just everyday life. Back then, we didn’t talk about it very much. Now that the world has transformed irreversibly, everyone is suddenly interested in that old life of ours – whatever it may have been like, it was our life. In writing, I’m piecing together the history of ‘domestic’, ‘interior’ socialism. As it existed in a person’s soul. I’ve always been drawn to this miniature expanse: one person, the individual. It’s where everything really happens.
Why does this book have so many stories of suicides instead of more typical Soviets with typically Soviet life stories? When it comes down to it, people end their lives for love, from fear of old age, or just out of curiosity, from a desire to come face to face with the mystery of death. I sought out people who had been permanently bound to the Soviet idea, letting it penetrate them so deeply, there was no separating them: the state had become their entire cosmos, blocking out everything else, even their own lives. They couldn’t just walk away from History, leaving it all behind and learning to live without it – diving head first into the new way of life and dissolving into private existence, like so many others who now allowed what used to be minor details to become their big picture. Today, people just want to live their lives, they don’t need some great idea. This is entirely new for Russia; it’s unprecedented in Russian literature. At heart, we’re built for war. We were always either fighting or preparing to fight. We’ve never known anything else – hence our wartime psychology. Even in civilian life, everything was always militarized. The drums were beating, the banners flying, our hearts leaping out of our chests. People didn’t recognize their own slavery – they even liked being slaves. I remember it well: after we finished school, we’d volunteer to go on class trips to the Virgin Lands4 and we’d look down on the students who didn’t want to come. We were bitterly disappointed that the Revolution and Civil War had all happened before our time. Now you wonder: was that really us? Was that me? I reminisced alongside my protagonists. One of them said, ‘Only a Soviet can understand another Soviet.’ We share a communist collective memory. We’re neighbours in memory. […]
The Soviet civilization… I’m rushing to make impressions of its traces, its familiar faces. I don’t ask people about socialism, I want to know about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. Music, dances, hairdos. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. It’s the only way to chase the catastrophe into the contours of the ordinary and try to tell a story. Make some small discovery. It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life really is. There are an endless number of human truths. History is concerned solely with the facts; emotions are outside of its realm of interest. In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the world as a writer and not a historian. I am fascinated by people. […]
I asked everyone I met what ‘freedom’ meant. Fathers and children had very different answers. Those who were born in the USSR and those born after its collapse do not share a common experience – it’s like they’re from different planets. For the fathers, freedom is the absence of fear; the three days in August when we defeated the putsch. A man with his choice of a hundred kinds of salami is freer than one who only has ten to choose from. Freedom is never being flogged, although no generation of Russians has yet avoided a flogging. Russians don’t understand freedom, they need the Cossack and the whip. For the children: freedom is love; inner freedom is an absolute value. Freedom is when you’re not afraid of your own desires; having lots of money so that you’ll have everything; it’s when you can live without having to think about freedom. Freedom is normal. […]
From a conversation with a university professor: ‘At the end of the nineties, my students would laugh when I told them stories about the Soviet Union. They were positive that a new future awaited them. Now, 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. And they’re oriented toward radicalism. They dream of their own revolution, they wear red T-shirts with pictures of Lenin and Che Guevara.’ There’s a new demand for everything Soviet. For the cult of Stalin. Half of the people between the ages of nineteen and thirty consider Stalin an ‘unrivalled political figure’. A new cult of Stalin, in a country where he murdered at least as many people as Hitler?! Everything Soviet is back in style. ‘Soviet-style cafés’ with Soviet names and Soviet dishes. ‘Soviet’ candy and ‘Soviet’ salami, their taste and smell all too familiar from childhood. And of course, ‘Soviet’ vodka. There are dozens of Soviet-themed TV shows, scores of websites devoted to Soviet nostalgia. You can visit Stalin’s camps – on Solovki, in Magadan – as a tourist. The adverts promise that for the full effect, they’ll give you a camp uniform and a pickaxe. They’ll show you the newly restored barracks. Afterwards, there will be fishing…
Old-fashioned ideas are back in style: the great empire, the ‘iron hand’, the ‘special Russian path’. They brought back the Soviet national anthem; there’s a new Komsomol, only now it’s called Nashi ; there’s a ruling party, and it runs the country by the Communist Party playbook; the Russian president is just as powerful as the general secretary used to be, which is to say he has absolute power. Instead of Marxism-Leninism, there’s Russian Orthodoxy…
On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Alexander Grin wrote, ‘And the future seems to have stopped standing in its proper place.’ Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be. Our time comes to us second-hand.
The barricades are a dangerous place for an artist. They’re a trap. They ruin your vision, narrow your pupils, drain the world of its true colours. On the barricades, everything is black and white. You can’t see individuals, all you see are black dots: targets. I’ve spent my entire life on the barricades, and I would like to leave them behind. I want to learn how to enjoy life. To get back my normal vision. But today, tens of thousands of people are once again taking to the streets. They’re taking each other by the hand and tying white ribbons onto their jackets – a symbol of rebirth and light. And I’m with them.
I recently saw some young men in T-shirts with hammers and sickles and portraits of Lenin on them. Do they know what communism is?