Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets

Svetlana Alexievich

Fitzcarraldo Editions 2016
A book review by Danny Yee © 2020 http://dannyreviews.com/
Using her signature approach to oral history, reworking extended and repeated interviews and less formal conversations, Alexievich tells in Second-Hand Time the stories of twenty people from the two decades after the end of the Soviet Union. She largely lets her subjects (and in many cases their friends and families) speak for themselves, with obvious editing but in most cases minimal direct involvement; the context of the interviews only occasionally surfaces. In addition to these stories, there are also fifty pages of fragmentary "Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations".

Part One, the "The Consolation of Apocalypse: Ten Stories in a Red Interior" covers the decade 1991-2001. Apart from a 14 year old, whose story is told through his family, and a 24 year old, the other central figures here are 49 years or older. So they talk about perestroika and the attempted putsch, but for most earlier memories are stronger, of the Revolution, the horrors of the purges and the gulag, the war, and the later Soviet Union; some mourn the loss of security, a shared literary culture, and respect for learning.

A local party secretary and her friend describe their different responses to Gorbachev and Yeltsin. A villager recounts her neighbour's suicide by self-immolation and looks back at the Great War. A doctor remembers a father who fought in the Revolution but was "repressed" in 1937 and a mother who came from the gentry, and her family's intertwining with history. A piece on "Red Marshal" Sergey Akhromeyev, titular leader of the 1991 putsch attempt, combines interviews with members of the public, an account by a Kremlin insider, and excerpts from official documents. A teenage suicide is remembered by his mother and friends. An 87 year old concludes, despite his personal tribulations: "I want to die a communist". An Armenian woman married to an Azerbaijani describes pogroms, an escape to Moscow, their life as undocumented migrants, and how much she misses Baku.

Part Two, "The Charms of Emptiness: Ten Stories in the Absence of an Interior", covers the decade 2002-2012 and features much younger figures. Indeed the oldest key figure here is 47, though one story involves an older woman describing the life of her daughter, and the perspectives of older family members are often present. The result is less dominated by memories and historical comparisons, with much more of an emphasis on the present.

The central figures are: an Armenian refugee; a technician whose life has fallen apart; an advertising manager living the high life; a young woman injured as a teenager in a terrorist attack on the Moscow metro; a conscript who served in Chechnya, found love, and moved overseas; a Tajik migrant worker; a police officer killed in Chechnya, whose story is told by her mother (who also remembers her own mother); a woman who throws aside her family to marry a life-prisoner; and a Belorussian student imprisoned after protesting.

Second-Hand Time is hardly a replacement for a history of modern Russia, but it conveys a vivid feel for what life was like for ordinary people in the two decades after the end of the Soviet Union, and how they looked back at that transition. With much of the depth and emotional power of fiction — it approaches a collection of short stories in its intensity — it is not an easy book to tackle, or to absorb.

March 2020

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Related reviews:
- Svetlana Alexievich - Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
- books about Russia + Russian history
- books published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
%T Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets
%A Alexievich, Svetlana
%I Fitzcarraldo Editions
%D 2016 [2013]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781910695111
%P 695pp