Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 10, 2016

Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich

Secondhand TimeSvetlana Alexievich was an unusual choice for the Nobel Prize because her work is investigative journalism, whereas the prize is supposed to be in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.  Her win is a further blurring of the definition of literature to mean almost any kind of writing, her citation simply saying that it’s for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.

In Secondhand Time, the last of the Soviets, an oral history this polyphonic writing refers to the assemblage of multiple voices from Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations to form a commentary on the end of the Soviet era.  Part One is called ‘The Consolation of Apocalypse’ and it consists of ‘Ten stories in a Red Interior’ covering the period 1991-2001.  Part Two is called ‘The Charms of Emptiness,  from the period 2002-2012.  The title comes from the introduction called ‘Remarks from an Accomplice’ where Alexievich says that she’s trying honestly to hear out all the participants of the socialist drama…

Old-fashioned ideas are back in style: the great empire, the ‘iron hand’, the ‘special Russian path’. They brought back the Soviet national anthem; there’s a new Komsomol, only now it’s called Nashi; there’s a ruling party, and it runs the country by the Communist Party playbook; the Russian president is just as powerful as the general secretary used to be, which is to say he has absolute power. Instead of Marxism-Leninism, there’s Russian Orthodoxy…

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 second-hand.  (p.11)

Most of us know feelgood stories about the collapse of the USSR.  Soviet people were captivated by opportunities to travel and by the sudden plethora of food choices in supermarkets.  Queueing up to buy McDonalds was fun – not like the soul-destroying queues for basic consumer goods which often ran out before the queue did.  (See my review of Vladimir Sorokin’s sly satire The Queue, published  in 1985 as Gorbachev came to power).  But what Alexievich does is to put a human face on the legacy of that collapse, which led to an economic crisis and a fall in living standards that was catastrophic for some people.  The book amplifies Wikipedia’s claim that

According to a 2014 poll, 57 percent of citizens of Russia regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union, while 30 percent said they did not. (Dissolution of the Soviet Union, Wikipedia, viewed 2/8/16)

Nostalgia for the Soviet Union could be expressed in nostalgia for the politics of the Soviet Union, society, lifestyle, culture, or simply the aesthetics of the Soviet epoch. (‘Nostalgia for the Soviet Union’, Wikipedia, viewed 2/8/16)

Secondhand Time is uniformly grim reading.

There are multiple threads to the book, but an early one intrigued me.

– For me, it’s more of a concrete question: Where do I want to live, in a great country or a normal one?

– I loved the empire … Life after the fall of the empire has been boring.  Tedious. (p.35)

This made me think: what makes a people think they’re entitled to consider their country great?  It’s actually quite a strange thing when you think about it, that we in our separate nations have a sense of entitlement about this, or not.  Tossing thoughts around, I suppose that the US thinks it’s great because of its democracy and its military and economic might.  Perhaps the UK thinks it’s great because of its history of empire, the Enlightenment and the peaceful development of universal suffrage.  Germany and Japan wanted greatness in the 20th century, cast the globe into bloodshed and are now humbly just concentrating on being respectable.  Middle ranking countries like Australia take pride in stuff like *sigh* sport; lots of countries that are, well, insignificant, probably only resent the greatness of others, if they think about it at all.  And the Chinese?  What are they thinking about this now?  And India?  Do they have ambitions to be great… and how would they define it?

When you read Secondhand Time you can see that the people of the USSR took great pride in the social experiment of socialism and having a social equality different to anywhere else.  They also won the space race and they were a great economic and military power.  They had a vast empire, and (maybe they were deluded) they felt a sense of unity and security about the network of Soviet states. They were a rival to the greatness of the USA.  They did not have expensive consumer goods and they had to work incredibly hard, but you get the impression from the testimony in this book that they despised people who thought that luxury goods were important, and that they felt they were working hard to accomplish something significant.  And then it fell apart, and while the rest of the world cheered them on, the Soviet people felt like catastrophe was at hand. (p.73)  It seems like a similar blow to national pride to the way the British felt when their Empire collapsed after WW2, but the impact on ordinary people was entirely different because all the infrastructure of Russian social security collapsed as well.  But it wasn’t just that oligarchs got rich and poor people starved.  It was that beliefs held for decades, and aesthetics such as valuing reading, were invalidated overnight.

All kinds of issues fester.  Families were split when the various republics hived off; free travel throughout the USSR has been replaced by the need for a visa, and in the new republics people don’t speak the lingua franca – Russian – any more.  Russians have found themselves to be foreigners overnight, and in some places they are targeted for violent reprisals.

Treasured memorabilia of the soviet era are labelled relics of totalitarianism and sold as trinkets on the street. Nobody’s interested in memories of Soviet achievement, and they don’t want to hear about repression under Stalin either.  An entire value system – imposed from above but internalised by many all the same – has vanished and been replaced with individualism and consumerism.   The sense I get from Secondhand Time is that the change in individual consciousness is as overwhelming as it was after the Revolution.  I remember reading Doctor Zhivago (see my review) and getting some idea of it when a middle class family suddenly had to share their house with complete strangers.

There was no referendum on the changes, and some resent this:

What a country they surrendered.  An empire!  Without a single shot fired … The thing I don’t understand is, Why didn’t anyone ask us?  I spent my life building a great nation.  That’s what they told us.  They promised. (p.87)

It’s an interesting question: what would the result have been if there had been a vote?

It’s surprising to read that some who suffered terribly under Stalinism still regret the end of the USSR.  One man, a hero of WW2, was

imprisoned as a counter-revolutionary, but released to go to war …

I came home twice wounded, with three decorations and medals.  They called me into the district Party committee, “Unfortunately, we will not be able to return your wife to you, she’s died.  But you can have your honour back…” And they handed me back my Party membership card.  And I was happy!  I was so happy! (p. 184)

One woman says

In reality, for me, I’m just a twit, freedom of speech would have been enough because, as it soon turned out, at heart, I’m a Soviet girl. (p. 157)

Another says:

Under socialism, I was promised that there was a place in the sun for everyone. Now they’re singing a different tune.  If we live according to Darwin’s laws, we will enjoy abundance.  Abundance for the fittest.  But I’m one of the weak.  I’m not a fighter…. There was a plan for me and I was used to living according to plan: school, college, family.  My husband and I will save up for an apartment in a cooperative, and after the apartment, we’ll save up for a car… Then they cancelled that plan. Threw us to the wolves of capitalism… I have a degree in engineering, I worked at the design institute that everyone called the “women’s institute” because it was all women… […]… but then they started downsizing… They didn’t touch the men, there weren’t that many of them, or single mothers, or women who only had one or two years left before retirement.  They posted lists, and I saw my last name on one of them… (p.294).

She’s now given up hope of getting a job.  She talks about a colleague who’s now a servant, walking a businesswoman’s dog.  Today, it’s embarrassing to be Russian.

And so it goes on.  The multiplicity of voices is fascinating, and much of it makes very sobering reading, but I found it frustrating that there was none of the journalistic analysis that I’m used to.   Its main value, it seems to me, is in raising awareness that for many people socialism remains an ideal, if it’s implemented without Stalinism and repression.  But since there’s nothing to indicate how widespread these attitudes are – not even a very clear indication of generational differences – the book floats in a bit of a vacuum.

That makes it interesting, but I’m not entirely convinced that it’s Nobel-worthy.

Author: Svetlana Alexievich
Title: Secondhand Time, the Last of the Soviets, an Oral History
Translated by Bela Shayevich
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925355567
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets or direct from Text


  1. I had been waitlisted at the library for this book for a few weeks before I cancelled it, I think because of a comment you made on good reads that it is hard going. I don’t have the headspace for this type of book right now but now I have read your review I’m not sure I’ll bother at all – I like reading about things I know very little about but I do think you need context and it doesn’t sound like this has much context.


    • I know what you mean … I’m glad I read it, but there is so much bad news around the world at the moment, and everything seems so uncertain, from Brexit to Trump to that character in the Philippines with his extra-judicial shootings…and here in Australia we’ve got Hanson in the Senate and gosh, we can’t even get a census right any more, and that’s something we’ve done successfully in this country for over a hundred years. I just want to put my head in the sand for a bit.
      So right now I’m reading light fiction and shorter works of more literary fiction and that suits my mood quite well.
      Surprisingly, I’m also enjoying John Brumby’s book. There’s something rather comforting about reading about how to achieve sound, steady, stable government instead of the chaos we’ve got now.


  2. Great review, Lisa. No, the book was probably not Nobel-worthy on its own, but combined with Voices From Chernobyl (2005) and a whole bunch of other books, articles, etc. Alexievich has made a huge impact on our thoughts and ideas about Russia. Just the fact she was able to write and publish it is to be commended considering what the USSR was only 25 years ago – and the censorship prior to that was … (I think Nobels are given in part for the context of the writing.)

    Also, who could have imagined the whole socialist country, the winner of WWII and the space race, the challenger to America, would simply be sold off to the highest bidders?

    I felt so sorry for some of the people finding themselves without a moral compass in a system which had been condemned for a century. The changes the Russian people have had to survive – omg. Makes the US revolutions look like tinkering –


    • Hi Becky, I think you’re right, and I am going to check out Chernobyl as well (after a bit of a break LOL).
      The more we reflect on the USSR/Russia in the C20th, the more astonishing its history seems…


  3. An unusual choice but an interesting one! Great review – I really must track this down.


  4. Nobel Prizes seem often to be a bit dodgy, think Kissinger or even Obama (right at the start of his term). However if as Becky says Alexievich has a substantial body of work then that makes a difference. The big problem with Russia is a) it seems the oligarchs stole the whole economy; and b) western triumphalism over the ‘fall of communism’ makes it hard to see what is really going on.


    • Yes, exactly,. and I wonder whether the prize in part was a way of giving prominence to a PoV that tests western triumphalism. WE know that thousands died because of collectivisation, but I wonder how many have died of hunger and cold in the streets since the Fall. (The Russians call the dead who are found when the snow melts, Snowdrops).


  5. […] Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich, translated from the Russian by by Bela Shayevich and […]


  6. I’m buying Secondhand Time this weekend because of Mireille Juchau’s terrific review in the papers today; also will get the Chernobyl one as well cause it’s been on my list. Will come back and read your review and comments shortly! Have a great weekend.


  7. A fascinating review Lisa. I know very little of Russia around the collapse and this sounds a very immediate way to hear the experiences of the people, even if as you say, it needed a bit of analysis and framing to root it in a wider context.


    • I’ve just bought The Unwomanly Face of War by this author and am looking forward to seeing how this one compares.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] previously read Secondhand Time, I’m only too well aware of how Alexievich has brought the suppressed voices of the Soviet […]


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