Viewing the USSR Through Red-Tinted Glasses

The writings of Svetlana Alexievich cut through the fog of propaganda surrounding the Soviet Union.

Jane Miller November 28, 2017

A Soviet propaganda poster, date unknown, reads,"Women, Pick Up Your Guns!"

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.

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.

Jane Miller lives in Lon­don, and is the author, most recent­ly, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and After­thoughts (2016), a col­lec­tion of her In These Times columns and interviews.
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