Lost Russian faces

Lost Russian faces

Lead review

Lost Russian faces

In ‘Danko’s Burning Heart,’ a short story by Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), a group of people are lost in a forest at night. Danko wants to lead them to safety. His heart burns with such desire that it catches fire. He rips it from his chest and uses it to light the way.

There’s a bit of Danko, an element of self-sacrifice, in the lives and work of Russia’s best journalists. I’m thinking of Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated on Vladimir Putin’s birthday in 2006. I’m thinking too of Svetlana Alexievich, born in Ukraine, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Alexievich is an investigative journalist who compiles, in Studs Terkel-like fashion, dense volumes of oral history about postwar Russia. Her books bring her trouble. Zinky Boys (1992), for example, about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, led her to be put on trial for defaming the Soviet army. (She was acquitted.)

When she won the Nobel, Alexievich was little known in the West. Her major books are slowly making their way into English. Here now is her newest, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, a sprawling examination of life in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of a feral brand of capitalism.

You can open this document anywhere; it’s a kind of enormous radio. It offers a flood of voices: doctors and writers, deli workers and former Kremlin apparatchiks, soldiers and waitresses. Alexievich gives these people space. There are few interpolations from the author. When she does insert a comment, it’s in brackets and often unbearably moving, like “She no longer wipes her tears” or “She’s practically screaming” or “And both of us cry.”

A freight of catharsis is on display. People gather around Alexievich to speak about their lives — here is another way she is like Danko — because she’s a conversational hearth.
Most of the stories in Secondhand Time are about the promises of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras, promises that have been betrayed. Instead of tolerance and opportunity people were presented with a thuggish form of capitalism, one that divided people into winners and losers. Instead of peace, after the 1991 breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics into independent states, vicious racial hatreds re-emerged.

This book is thick with longing for old times, terrible though they might have been. One former Communist Party secretary tells the author: “Socialism isn’t just labour camps, informants and the Iron Curtain, it’s also a bright, just world: Everything is shared, the weak are pitied, and compassion rules. Instead of grabbing everything you can, you feel for others.” About leaders then, she adds, “They weren’t building themselves yachts with champagne showers.”

Part of the longing is for Russia’s old intellectual life. One woman says: “In one arm, my baby is dying, and with my free hand, I’m holding Solzhenitsyn. Books replaced life for us. They were our whole world.”

A man comments: “We stepped out of our kitchens and onto the streets, where we soon discovered that we hadn’t had any ideas after all — that whole time, we’d just been talking. Completely new people appeared, these young guys in gold rings and magenta blazers. There were new rules: If you have money, you count — no money, you’re nothing. Who cares if you’ve read all of Hegel? Humanities started sounding like a disease.”

Alexievich takes us into a lot of kitchens, once the soul of Russian dissident life. A section of this book is titled “Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations (1991-2001).”
“For us, the kitchen is not just where we cook, it’s a dining room, a guest room, an office, a soapbox,” the author is told. Kitchens are where “we could criticise the government and, most importantly, not be afraid, because in the kitchen you were always among friends.”

The implication in Secondhand Time is that today’s Russian kitchens are often soulless places, filled merely with knockoffs of high-end appliances. Less talk happens. So does less cooking. One interviewee talks about the opening of a McDonald’s: “Educated, intelligent adults saved boxes and napkins from there and would proudly show them off to guests.”

In an introduction to this book, Alexievich writes about her method. “I don’t ask people about socialism,” she says, “I want to know about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. Music, dances, hairdos. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life.”

In this lucid translation by Bela Shayevich, she gets these details onto the page. But the stories in Secondhand Life can also be baggy and repetitive. Occasionally, you are made to feel adrift in narrative Siberia, left to dream about condensation and editing, about the knife skills an oral historian should have in her kit.

This book can leave you lost in time, as well. The interviews were collected over many years, but dates are rarely supplied. This book is dense on a macro level, but one sometimes misses the sentence-by-sentence density of the best fiction.

These are quibbles. Secondhand Time is an avalanche of engrossing talk. The most ancient grievances are churned up. So are the freshest longings. One young woman is all for the new capitalism. She scorns Tolstoy for Jackie Collins. “I liked Western novels better because of the bitches in them, the beautiful bitches that men would shoot themselves over and suffer for,” she says.

Many people throw themselves under trains in this book. Incredible suffering is recounted in stories from Stalin’s concentration camps and the front lines of ethnic conflicts. A sense of uncertainty about Russia’s future blends with a sense of resiliency and Danko-like yearning. One woman says to Alexievich, “My memory grows weaker, but my soul has not forgotten a thing.”

How much impact will Alexievich’s brave books have on Russia and the world? In Gorky’s story, Danko falls over and dies. Someone steps on his heart, to put it out.

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
Svetlana Alexievich, Translated by Bela Shayevich
Random House
2016, pp 496, Rs 1,846

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