The Arts

Secondhand Time recounts the chaos of a collapsed state

VISIONS-MAIN-secondhand_timePerestroika began as a conscious attempt to restructure the economy of the Soviet Union in response to weak growth and declining production. Over the course of six years Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to guide the economy into becoming a bastard child of both communism and capitalism, but capitalism won and, in that winning, the Soviet Union collapsed. What had been promised, by Gorbachev and Yeltsin after him, was a glorious age of personal freedom and the free market. What happened instead was the looting of the country by a few people for billions and billions of dollars while others starved and social structures broke down.

“The beginning of capitalism…” someone remarks in the interviews recorded from 1991-2012 by Svetlana Alexievich, “You could become a millionaire overnight or get a bullet to the head.”

No one interviewed in the book ever meets Gorbachev or Yeltsin and, it could be argued, no one understands the policies put in place or the goals they were attempting to achieve. This is a book about what happens to normal people on the ground during the dismantling of a government. It’s the story of how impossible it is to conceive of what is going on in your country as it begins to dissolve, and the strategies people adopt in order to survive.

Alexievich has, over the course of her writing life, essentially created a new non-fiction form. Woven almost seamlessly from hundreds of interviews over years and years, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Random House, $30) is a record of the kinds of conversations that take place in kitchens, living rooms, bars, and coffee houses, a record of people talking about the recent past, the remembered past, and the murkiness of a future. Alexievich never imposes herself into the narrative, preferring to give her ‘characters’ the space to tell their own stories. Only in the rarest instances does she insert an observation (“she is in tears now…); she does not provide commentary.

The result can be starkly intimate, as if we are overhearing the most personal conversation from the next table over.

There are horrific stories here: of surviving the war, the Gulag, the repression of a police state. Stories from soldiers, former party officials, and people just trying to get by from one day to next. There are stories of love and children and beauty but always, for Alexievich, it’s an awkward, tarnished kind of beauty which, to my mind, makes it all the more astonishing.

“I’m searching for a language,” she says in an interview. “People speak many different languages. There’s the one they use with children, another one for love. There’s the language we use to talk to ourselves, for our internal monologues. There’s even a difference between the way people speak in the morning and how they speak at night.”

Alexievich was born in Belarus, a former Soviet Bloc country. Her parents were journalists there. Her mentor was Belarusian author Ales Adomovich, who believed the 20th Century so horrific that it needed no elaboration or adornment. Her previous books, available in English, are Voices from Chernobyl, a record of the Chernobyl disaster and the years following, and Zinky Boys, about the Russian side of the Afghan War. (Alexievich on Vladimir Putin and the War in Syria )

In any book like this based upon interviews, one of the subjects being explored is always memory: What do we remember and why? How close is our memory to what actually occurred? What happens when our memory doesn’t overlap with the memory of those around us. In this regard, Alexievich wants to explore what she calls ‘domestic’ or ‘interior’ socialism, that is, the remembered experience of the individual and not the official historical record.

One woman tells her: “I remember my first supermarket, it was in Berlin: a hundred different kinds of salami, a hundred different cheeses. It was baffling. Many discoveries awaited us after perestroika, countless new thoughts and new sensations. They haven’t been described yet, let alone integrated into history.”

(An alternate view of Alexievich.)

In reference to the title, Alexievich explains: “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 secondhand.”

Her purpose, she says, is “not to create an exact picture, but a stained-glass window, if you will, as a musician or a composer might try to develop different melodies in order for them to blend in the ensemble and create that effect. I wanted to create the image of time.”

Secondhand Time is exhaustive and exhausting. Like many intimate conversations, it can go on too long as the characters explore ways of expressing themselves, and the stories can become strikingly similar because, well, they are strikingly similar. Still, the overall effect is of individual voices, yes, but also something like the voice of a suffering nation.

It’s important, especially to us, now, as we watch our nation become something else before our eyes.