As soon as I read the first chapters of Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time, I knew that I absolutely had to translate this book and make it available to the greatest possible number of readers. Above all, Alexievich’s oral history gives us a picture of Russia and Russians that is far more insightful than what we typically find in the media. By deepening our understanding and lending nuance to our views of the country and its history, it encourages us to go beyond prejudices, clichés, and set opinions.
Second-Hand Time is the fifth volume of a vast literary fresco, a representation of the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia according to the testimony of ordinary people. The previous volumes in the series are Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices From the Afghanistan War (the conflict as seen by soldiers and their mothers); War’s Unwomanly Face (World War II from the point of view of women who fought in the Russian Army); The Last Witnesses: The Book of Unchildlike Stories (the memories of Russians who were children during the Second World War); and Voices From Chernobyl (on the nuclear disaster and its aftermath). Now, finally, comes Second-Hand Time, in which everyday Russian citizens speak about their experiences over the past 20 years: the fall of the Soviet Union, the decline of communism, and the emergence of contemporary Russia.
To create her fresco, Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people who are rarely given the opportunity to speak, collecting the traces left in their lives and memories of more than 70 years of communism and what it wrought: not only massacres, decades of terror, the absence of freedom, the deportation of entire peoples, the famines, and the denunciations—but also the hope brought first by the revolution and then by perestroika, the crazy idea of changing the world completely, the intoxicating freedoms of the 1980s, as well as the disenchantments and the aborted dreams.
Second-Hand Time is a magnificent symphony, or rather an opera with a chorus (a multitude of voices are assembled in the two chapters both entitled “Street Noises and Kitchen Conversations”), with solo voices emerging to tell their personal tales—stories that are ordinary but nonetheless emblematic, of human lives marked by history with a capital H. Alexievich questions the people she interviews “not about socialism, but about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. About music, dances, hairdos. About the thousands of details of a way of life that no longer exists.” Endeavoring to capture “human truths,” she has sought above all “those who adhered completely to the ideal, who had absorbed it so completely that it was impossible to break away: the State had become their universe, it replaced everything else, even their own lives.”
Among the tasks that Alexievich set for herself was to tell the story of communism as people experienced it day by day, but to remain as neutral as possible. She intervenes only at the beginning, in a section titled “Notes From an Accomplice,” and then parenthetically from time to time during the testimonies. The stories assembled in this book raise questions that have no fixed answers: Why do so many Russians miss the Soviet Union? What do they miss about it? How could anyone have been happy in a country where you were always subject to the whims of power, where you were constantly asked to make sacrifices in the name of a future that was never coming? What are the advantages of placing one’s own freedom in the hands of a party, a tyrant, or a state? Why do Russians have so much trouble living with freedoms, personal or political? What traces have been left by the communist regime? How do people in Russia today understand what they’ve lost and what they’ve gained? Why is Stalin so popular now, embraced especially by young people? What are the mechanisms of oppression, and how are they able to take hold from one day to the next?