You shouldn’t put so much stock in what people say, in human truth…History records the lives of ideas.People don’t write it, time does. Human truth is just a nail that everybody hangs their hats on.an excerpt from Second Hand Time:The Last of the Soviets
And yet this is exactly what 2015 Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexeich is known to do. Her works are a collection of human voices spanning the length and breadth of her country, across several generations. Through this intersection of journalism and literature, she has produced compelling works, that trace the history of the individuals who lived through that era.
After the disintegration of Soviet Union in 1991, many people went into depression and there was steep rise in the number of suicides. The disintegration led to opening of Pandora’s box. Violence erupted in many countries of the erstwhile Soviet Union with the dissolution of the common identity-that of a Soviet citizen. This resulted in hostility, migrations and violence. High inflation eroded the value of currency and most people turned poor in a matter of days, while a few strongmen took control of all the resources.
“In five years, everything can change in Russia, but in two hundred—nothing.”an excerpt from Second Hand Time:The Last of the Soviets
The oldest generation comprises of those who lived through the war and the Gulag. The Great patriotic War (1941-1945), as the Second World War is called in those parts, and the Gulag (purges during the Stalinist regime) lurk in the background, even decades later. USSR alone suffered casualties from somewhere around 26 million, by conservative estimates, to 42 million. The stories are forceful due to the sheer shock they induce, in spite of the unembellished style in which they are narrated.
I don’t like the word ‘hero’. There are no heroes in war… As soon as someone picks up a weapon, they can no longer be good. They won’t be able to.an excerpt from Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
Many years have passed….half a century…but I’ve never forgotten that woman. She had two kids. Little ones. She’d hidden a wounded partisan in her cellar.Someone informed on them… They hanged the entire family in the middle of the village. The children first… Her screams! They weren’t human,they were human, they were animal… Should people risk making such sacrifices? I couldn’t tell you. [Silence.] Today, people who weren’t there write about the war. I don’t read any of it… Forgive me, but I can’t…an excerpt from Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
These excerpts are taken from recollections of an old Jewish man who narrated his experience of escaping a genocide that killed his entire family, and joining a partisan group, as a little boy during the war. He goes on to describe the horrors and brutality of war.
It is difficult for the reader to make sense of the extremities of war and yet it draws one in. The question of how one would act in such circumstances is unimaginable. It is difficult to separate wrong from right because everything seems wrong. The only acts that seem right are brutally punished. Acts that are rewarded as acts of courage are rooted in hatred and revenge. And still when one is stripped down to just the bare essentials, one realizes what is truly essential. You will miss your ignorance but wouldn’t want to trade your newfound knowledge about life and death.
Today, they say that everyone was against it, but I ‘ll tell you- the people supported mass arrests. Take my mother… Her own brother was in a prison, but she still maintained,’ They made a mistake with our Felix. They have to sort that out. But people need to be punished, look at all the crime all around us.excerpt from Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
This sentiment of undisputed support is repeated many times over in the book. People recall their own time in Gulag or the family members who were taken away, but the faith of the people in their party was so strong that no one questioned the system. This was also due to the secrecy that was maintained during such operations. It was not until the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago that people realized the scope of the Gulag. An all encompassing account of the Gulag system, a cross between investigative journalism, introspection and philosophy, this book was ‘Samizdat’ and classified as illegal in the Soviet Union. It exposed the workings of random arrests, torture, convictions and executions was secretly read in all Soviet households as it was ‘Samizdat’ or literature classified as illegal.
Evil is mesmerizing. There are hundreds of books about Hitler and Stalin. What were they like as children, with their families, with the women they loved? Their wine and their favorite cigarettes… We’re interested in every last detail. We want to understand… Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, who were they? Who? And the millions of people like them… miniature copies… They also committed atrocities and only handful of them lost their minds. While the rest led normal lives: kissing girls and playing chess… buying toys for their kids… Each of them thinking, ‘That isn’t me.’….an excerpt from Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
….It’s not me, it’s the system. Even Stalin… even he’d say, ‘I am not the one who decides, it’s the party.’ He taught his son: you think that I’m Stalin- you’re wrong! That’s Stalin! And he’d point to the portrait of himself hanging on the wall. Not at himself, but at his portrait. Meanwhile the death machine worked non-stop… it’s 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 is no one to blame. No one! Everyone wants to be pitied. Everyone is a victim. Everyone is at the bottom of the food chain.
The excerpt is taken from the confessions of an executioner in Stalin’s regime and and the observations is made by the Army Officer to who the confession was made. The latter shared it with the author. In choicest of words, this small paragraph captures the workings of the Gulag.
Narratives of people, unacquainted to each other, from different generations, attest to each other’s stories. The post-Stalin generation lived a stable life. This generation refers to itself as the kitchen generation as they moved from communal housing to their own dachas with kitchens. It was in their kitchens that they discussed books and politics. It was the dissidence of this generation that eventually led to Perstroika.
Everyone hoped that Perestroika would usher in an era of real socialism and that they would have a democracy but instead it led to the disintegration of the state. What the people were left with was oligarchy and politicians with ulterior motives. Ethnic conflicts resulted in violence and illegal immigration and inhuman living conditions for the migrants.
The older generations lived for ideals and were at a complete loss about what to do as the state collapsed, and with it, their pensions. People were forced to sell their belongings to earn their meals. Even those who held resentment towards the Stalinist regime now had a somewhat stable life and looked at their past with nostalgia.
Though the young generation adapted better to the changed socio-politico-economic conditions, systemic corruption and bureaucratic indifference has led some to become nostalgic about a glorious past. They are drawn to Stalin and Che Guevara.
He was doing his job reluctantly, he was ashamed, but still, it didn’t stop him. There are thousands of people like him. There are thousands of people like him- officials, detectives, judges. Some do the beating, others spread lies in the press. Others arrest people, pass sentences. You need so little to start up the Stalinist machine….an excerpt from Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
….If they bring back the camps, there will be plenty of people who’ll want to be guards there. Tons! I remember one of them…
This is an excerpt from the narrative of one of the protesters who was arrested for participating in a peaceful protest challenging the result of elections in Belarus, that were suspected of being rigged. The protesters were arrested and coerced in different ways to give up their protests.
The axe is right where it always was. The axe will survive the master.an excerpt from Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
The tone of the book is contemplative, as people try to make sense of their experiences and their lives and ideals. Though it draws upon the experiences of a particular group of people, it is greatly enlightening and resonates with everyone.
“The mysterious Russian soul… Everyone wants to understand it. They read Dostoevsky: what’s behind that soul of theirs? Well, behind our soul there’s just more soul.”an excerpt from Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
In Secondhand time, Alexeich attempts to capture that elusive Soviet soul, what it meant to be a citizen of the Soviet Union. Does she manage to? I think she does. Soviet Union has possibly been the most fascinating nation in the history of all nations. This is the only country to have implemented a completely theoretical concept into practice at the cost of great human suffering. Its history is written in blood and sweat. All the books about the Second World War can not satisfactorily account for how Soviet Union won the war. Some attribute the victory to Stalin, some to Allied powers and others to the severe Russian winters. But none of these reasons can explain how the people of Leningrad held out for three years against the German forces as they starved to death, or how a highly unprepared Soviet Union won the war against heavily armed German Army, who was feared by the most powerful of nations. All odds were stacked against it and yet, not only did it emerge victorious but went on to become one of the two superpowers in the world. The citizens of the Soviet Union should be credited for the unimaginable feats that they accomplished, and also for all the incredible writers they continue to bring forth.