Friday, February 7, 2020

Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich

This oral history covers the periods 1991-2001 and 2002-2012 in Russia and former Soviet republics. Alexievich’s technique is to sit with people, to interview them as they remember the changes since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it’s appalling how many miss Stalin. The sovoks would gladly trade the new cutthroat capitalism that favors the unscrupulous (while everyone with honest jobs struggles and starves) for the iron fist of Stalin. Some ascribe this perversity to Russian sentimentality, simple-minded and simple-hearted; others miss the feeling of being part of something grand – a movement for The People, not for oneself. In the name of The People they worked hard, went to prison, endured torture, starved – and believed. The new system rewards the selfish, its purpose and future meaningless.

She speaks with a man who tortured prisoners under Stalin’s regime, who did that as a job, thoroughly but without joy or vengeance. He remarked that if a true sadist worked among them, they would get rid of him. And what of the woman denounced by a neighbor who lusted after her? She went to the gulag for years, eventually her husband was arrested too. And yet, they remained true believers – Lenin and Stalin were great men, the ideals were worth everything. The feeling of everyone working for the common good was overwhelming – they miss that; it has left a vacuum in their hearts. “With an Iron Fist, we will chase Humanity into Happiness!” Their most precious possessions were their Party cards.

For decades, the death machine worked nonstop… Its logic was brilliant: The victims are accused of being executioners and then, in the end, the executioners themselves become the victims. As though it wasn’t just people running it… Things are only that perfect in nature. The flywheel turns, but there’s no one to blame. No one! Everyone wants to be pitied. Everyone is a victim.

We see the sweep of tribalism: Russia for Russians. Tajiks in Moscow live in basement warrens, robbed and abused, doing work no Russian will touch, and thrown out on a whim, documents confiscated, attacked on the streets by skinheads… Sound familiar? The new economy has enriched gangsters, oligarchs, young people swept up in materialism. During Soviet times, books were precious, often samizdat (published and distributed hand to hand illegally) – but after the Soviet Union fell, no one cared. No Pasternak, no Akhmatova; no Sakharov, no Solzhenitsyn, only money, Italian bathroom fixtures, salami… and vodka. A drunkard nation.

Alexievich interviews mothers whose children were confiscated and raised in mass orphanages, and children who grew up without a mother’s love but with the Party to look up to. And, the bright thread through all the gloom: love. A mother who will do anything for her child. And a woman considered insane by her friends and family for pursuing a man she’d never met, based on a dream she had as a teenager – she knew she was in this life to love him. After two husbands and three children, she found him – a prisoner who had murdered a man. And her love, the Dostoyevskian saintliness of it, broke down every barrier. She made him her life.

Russia is an outsized example of humanity’s potential and pitfalls – in these stories we read extremes of what happens everywhere, because humans are pretty much the same everywhere, only more so in Russia through its unique combination of vast inhospitable lands, simple beauty, and the yearning of the spirit toward something greater than this miserable existence. Hope and love seem more precious and fleeting in the face of starvation, brutality, and repression. These folk and their dreams have been brought to life by the great Russian writers: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn – and now Alexievich.