I heard about this book on the Get Booked podcast. One of the listeners wrote in asking for books on Russia. I picked up a copy from the library and about a hundred pages in I knew I needed to buy this book. I wish I had realized then the paperback would be out soon! Hardbacks are pricey and this was no exception and it's a big book at nearly 500 pages, to hold up and read. Nevertheless, I can't put it down. The stories are so visceral yet surreal.
The book takes all the glory out of war. In an interview with a Jewish man, who miraculously survived the German invasion by crawling out of a pit of bodies and running into the forest, is firm in his conviction that, "...there are no heroes in war. As soon as someone picks up a weapon, they can no longer be good. They won't be able to." His story is in direct contrast to that of a Red Army veteran, "...We blew up a church...I can still hear the cries of the old women, 'Children, don't do it!' they begged us. Grabbed onto our ankles. The church had stood there for two hundred years. A prayed-in place, as they say. They built the municipal toilet over the ruins. And forced the priests to work there as cleaning men. Washing out the shit. Today...of course...Today, I understand...But back then, it was fun..."
There are also some frightening parallels between what's happening in Russia and America, namely putting the past on a pedestal and wishing to return to this idealized version of history while forgetting the reality of how things actually were. This is a common thread that runs through each story. A career executioner is adamant that, "The last thing we want is for men to have freedom. They'll piss it all away!! ...You need fear. Without fear, everything will fall apart in the blink of an eye." He goes on to share his elation at being hired by the NKVD, "I was terribly proud...What was the work like...What can you compare it to? It's something like war. But for me, the war was like a vacation. You shoot a German, he screams in German. These people screamed in Russian...They're practically your own people." This is not the Motherland of the propagandist literature. That Motherland, never existed. These are the stories of people coming to terms with what ought to have been and what actually happened.
From the cover flap:
"In Secondhand Time, Alexievich chronicles the demise of communism. Everyday Russian citizens recount the past thirty years, showing us what life was like during the fall of the Soviet Union and what it’s like to live in the new Russia left in its wake. Through interviews spanning 1991 to 2012, Alexievich takes us behind the propaganda and contrived media accounts, giving us a panoramic portrait of contemporary Russia and Russians who still carry memories of oppression, terror, famine, massacres—but also of pride in their country, hope for the future, and a belief that everyone was working and fighting together to bring about a utopia. Here is an account of life in the aftermath of an idea so powerful it once dominated a third of the world."
Some of the stories in this book will no doubt break your heart. It will certainly humble you. As the winner of the Nobel prize in literature, the writing is stunning, yet entirely accessible. Since it is a series of interviews, the writing is conversational and flows right off the page as if you're right there listening. I'm only half way through and I can not put the book down. It's rare for a book of this magnitude to be such a page turner. I would love to hear your thoughts. This is a book that begs to be discussed. There are too many emotions to handle all on your own. The book is out today in paperback and you can purchase it online at Powell's.
Note: A lot of trigger warnings in this one.