Saturday, June 11, 2016

Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Having read hundreds of books on the Soviet Union and today's Russia there are few that make the kind of impression that Alexievich's latest foray into the lives of generations of former Soviet men and women has left on me.  "Secondhand time" is a book about life and death, suffering, tragedy, the human condition and what life is like in a space that encompasses a world not totally forgotten, that of the Soviet Union, and one not totally understood, crony capitalism moving in the direction of new-age fascism.  The weaknesses or biases of the book are few, even though they are important to remember.  This is a book based on human memory and one that mainly concentrates of women and their stories, all too often filled with adversity, desperation, humiliation and misfortune.  Although human memory is imperfect, there are snapshots that have entered everyone's consciousness and which can readily be recalled that seem to portray events that took place just yesterday yet truly occurred years or decades ago.  As the interviewees discuss traumatic events in their lives (war, terrorism, murder, violence, etc.), there is more reason to believe that what they are recalling is closer to an emotionally honest and raw remembrance than a self-censored, stylized depiction of events.  In some ways I would compare this volume with Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago in its emotionally draining narrative.  At almost five hundred pages this is a book best consumed slowly, methodically, with a lot of stops and interruptions to give readers time to digest what they've read and what has been related to them.

The book itself is divided into two main sections, interviews from the 1990s when the Soviet Union fell apart and those from the 2000s.  The 1990s were best represented by regular violence in the streets, against everyday people and newly created "businessmen."  Many were angry and could not understand how authorities could simply "give away" what was the "Soviet Empire."  The social-contract that previously existed was done away with.  Where previously people might not have trusted the government or its organs, they understood that jobs, medical care, education, etc., would be available and provided for those in need.  When "capitalism" was announced, with no real explanation by authorities or understanding by the majority of the population, social and cultural ideals cultivated under the Soviets for decades were replaced by the all mighty dollar.  Those with connections or the "entrepreneurial spirit" - who didn't see it as beneath themselves to sell, buy, barter and "hustle" their way to better living conditions - did well, while those who continued to believe that the state would or should provide the basic necessities of life, or were simply not equipped for a capitalist market, suffered.  Seniors, who survived the Stalinist purges and lived to see victory in the Second World War were looked down upon.   These men and women defined themselves against a state that "won the war" and "beat Hitler" but were viewed as useless beneficiaries of a system that, while they might have fought and suffered for, no longer existed.

Gangs preyed on the weak and violence was a daily occurrence the results of which could be seen on the streets by passersby.  Xenophobia that was kept in check by Soviet authorities appeared once more as minor conflicts broke out in the Baltics, among Armenians and Azerbaijanis and in Central Asia.  Neighbors and friends that you previously got along with or played with as children turned violent and vengeful.  Moscow became the beacon that many were drawn to, looking for a better life.  Men left their families behind to seek migrant work while women left everything and everyone to make a new life for themselves.  All too often they found abuse and humiliation.

The more remarkable accounts that make up the vignettes the author includes in this work are that of a former NKVD worker and how he performed executions on a regular basis - he compared the "quotas" that were sent down from higher ups to the quotas that factories and workers were regularly issued and made to adhere to.  Both served the state - one created goods needed by the state while the other destroyed perceived enemies of the state.  Those recalling their time in Stalinist prisons and camps offered moving testimony and profound accounts.  As the system and its cogs went through the motions, all too often victims were turned into executioners and executioners into victims - the previously mentioned NKVD worker was in turn arrested and served seven years.  This is a text that will long stay with readers.  It's less of a testimony for or against the former Soviet Union or its citizens than a look at the lives of people who have suffered trauma and tragedy in their lives due to events beyond their control.

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