For a good deal of the 20th century, it was difficult to know much about how Russians were getting on in the USSR and what they were making of the extraordinary changes their lives were undergoing. My father started learning Russian at the beginning of the Second World War (“the Great Patriotic War” for Russians of his and my generation), partly because the Russians became our allies. He was not a Communist, but many of his friends were. I unsatisfactorily studied Russian in 1952 at Cambridge, mainly in order to read the literature. We didn’t discover very much, though we read Turgenev’s warnings and Tolstoy’s almost impenetrable epilogue to War and Peace, which castigates historians for mapping their versions of the past onto a few “great” men and their victories and defeats. Wasn’t it possible, he wondered, to describe what people thought and felt about their lives and how power and the powerful were experienced and understood by those affected by that power? His answer to that was literature, fiction.
Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015, offers the spoken life stories she’s elicited from “witnesses and participants … actors and makers,” which, she believes, become literature in the telling. And so they do, individually and collectively. She has listened to literally thousands of people, and she has created her books of stories from what they told her. Her first, The Unwomanly Face of War, was banned in the Soviet Union after its 1985 publication. The stories are by and about women who performed every kind of military role in the Red Army and who often returned to their towns and villages to be treated with suspicion and contempt as unwomanly and as possible prostitutes. Even where they were welcomed, their accounts of what the war had been like for them were often dismissed, and husbands would occasionally insist on accompanying their wives when Alexievich interviewed them, in case they slipped up on facts.
Another of her books, Voices from Chernobyl, has been made into a film. That book and Boys in Zinc, which charts the horrifying fates of young men and women sent to fight in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, cover the two critical events of those years that may be thought of as harbingers of the downfall of the Soviet Union. The years following it are the subject of her latest and most impressive book, Secondhand Time (2013). This is not only an important document; it’s a moving and beautiful piece of work.
Alexievich remembers the 1990s in her introduction: “Yes, we were ecstatic: There’s no way back to that naiveté. We thought that the choice had been made and that communism had been defeated forever. But it was only the beginning. … Twenty years have gone by. … ‘Don’t try to scare us with your socialism,’ children tell their parents.” For some, Gorbachev was “a windbag,” for others, a shrewd politician, though distrusted for being popular abroad. The young sometimes rebuked the old for failing to make money in the 1990s, when the going was good. For most people it’s too late now. There are stories here of destitution and of a complete lack of state support or welfare. Suicides, broken families, alcoholism and devastating physical and mental illness run through nearly every story. Yet, while one old person remembers that “we could live off our pensions” in the good old Soviet days, a young woman, 35 years old and an advertising manager, rejoices in this new world. “It’s all mine! I’m happy that the only time I ever see Soviets is on May 9, Victory Day.” She’ll start her own business, no need to bother with pensions. And she knows that her elders think, “Young people today inhabit a world that’s much crueller than the Soviet Union.”
Sovoks, those who look back fondly on the Soviet era, are mocked for their suspicion of capitalism, for their unwillingness to avail themselves, even where they’re able to, of choice, profusion, luxury. Many of them have kept faith with socialism, with the ethos of the USSR, with their youth and its commitment to socialism and rodina, motherland, even when they remember and admit to the horrors perpetrated by Stalin. One old man ends what has become a confession with the words, “I want to die a communist.” He has just told Alexievich that when he was 15, he reported his uncle (a so-called rich peasant, or kulak) to the army for hiding some sacks of grain. The soldiers cut his uncle into small pieces before his very eyes.
And the old sovoks stick to their old ways. A woman remembers that it took her years to use up the matches and the flour her mother had stockpiled, unnecessarily. In the old days it was salami and jeans that people longed for. Now there is an overwhelming choice of both. There’s even a choice of newspapers. Things were simpler when Pravda was more or less all there was, a single truth. This feels like real history: time lived and understood, and differently by men and women, by young and old, by rich and poor, by Tajiks and other members of minority groups, and by racists. The particular, the detailed, the exceptional, woven into the dangerous generalizations of 20thcentury Soviet society; the generalizations that inspired people and the generalizations that did untold damage, from the treatment of the kulaks, the attitudes toward women, and of course, the policies that led to oppression, to murders and to terror generally.
They were often the same ones. Mysteriously, perhaps miraculously, Alexievich has quietly listened and allowed each storyteller to develop their own eloquence as they worked to make sense of a painfully complicated life. It seems salutary to remind ourselves of the particular horrors that were inflicted on vast populations by tyrannies coming from the left and the right. We need to be on our guard.