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12 December 2016

History’s losers: intimate stories from survivors of the Soviet empire

Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich is an empathetic treatment of collective memory – and grief.

By Catherine Merridale

Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, is not so much an oral history as a lament. The work is multi-vocal, like a chorus, pierced in places by the solo of an anguished voice. Readers are swept on by a cadence that can ebb and swell with tidal force. The tone induces something close to a trance, demanding a complete surrender to its message of despair. This is no dry account of politics, no tasteful essay on the ending of the Soviet dream. Like any true lament, it comes from a primeval place of loss, the sort that goes with rending your clothes and clawing at your flesh until it bleeds.

All of these voices belong to people from the old USSR. As Soviet citizens, they were survivors of a long experiment whose purpose was to reprogram the human soul. For almost 70 years, entire populations were schooled, cajoled and corralled behind moral fences. The ideological project required them to rewrite their history and redefine each of their lives. Through songs and festivals, leader cults, perverted science and the ubiquitous red flag, Soviet messages saturated everyone’s imagination, reaching into the most sceptical of minds. The system was so effective for so long that even after December 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, citizens wandered amid its wreckage like the recently bereft, haunted by the only set of values they had ever known.

Sovók”, the Russian word for shovel, is now a pejorative term for those who bear the imprint of that past. Alexievich was born in western Ukraine in 1948. “I feel like I know this person,” she writes in her introduction. “We’ve lived side by side for a long time. I am this person.” The end of communism was far more than a tale of loss, but this account is for its legions of ­unsung losers.

The work proceeds in movements, often starting with assembled comments from the voices in a crowd. One intermezzo was recorded at a wake, another in Red Square. It is part of the author’s art to weave these into longer passages with clearer themes, for nothing in the book is random.

“I’m a patriot,” says a man wearing what Alexievich describes as “a massive cross”. “We’re living in the most shameful era of our entire history. Ours is the generation of cowards and traitors. That’s how our children will remember us.”

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Shame on this scale is not a private matter for one man; it is a motif for the whole book. Guilt was built into the Soviet project from the beginning, as no one could ever reach the leaders’ target of perfection. Along with private inadequacy, however, there was also much public pride, because every citizen could count herself a pioneer, and many thought they were creating a new humanity. “You can’t judge us according to logic,” one old survivor insists, his words accusing all outsiders everywhere. “You can only judge us according to the laws of religion . . . What greatness do you have in your life?”

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The revolution that put Lenin and his party into power was over well before the lives of the people in this book began. For Alexievich’s respondents, the moment of glory was their country’s victory in the Great Patriotic War. Hitler’s troops invaded the USSR in June 1941 and that summer Russia suffered a catastrophic rout. Even Stalin appeared to falter in his leadership. By the end of 1942, however, the Soviets had turned the tide, holding on to the blackened Stalingrad and refusing to surrender their besieged second city, Leningrad.

Later on, such myths of hero cities, like those of hero regiments and fearless partisan brigades, made dreams of greatness possible for anyone. But, in reality, the price of victory was roughly 27 million Soviet lives. No family was untouched, no individual remained without a debt to those who died. It is a burden that every sovók has to carry, and few believe that the current generation understands. “Our grandchildren would have lost,” a bitter voice complains. “They have no ideals and no great dream.”

Great dreams are something that Alexievich understands. She knows that ordinary people guard appalling secrets that have gnawed at them for years. She has a knack for making strangers confide in her, perhaps because they sense that there will never be another chance. Some stick to dismal little failings, but others describe wartime collaboration, bloodlust and the murder of neighbours. Having done oral history, I know that these stories are hard to hear. Survivors often told me that they did not share them with their families, for fear of the damage they might cause. Yet an outsider merits no such protection. As speakers sharpen each new phrase like knives, it can feel like a surrogate revenge. Respondent and listener alike are punished with verbal blows, timed to guarantee maximum harm.

Alexievich must have had endless stamina. Yet she is also subtle, gracious, devastating. Without employing cheap tricks, she transfers every injury directly to the page. I had read only a third of this book when I began to have nightmares.

Though almost every sovók had a memory of violence, they also had specific ways of coping, not all of which required alcohol. The other anaesthetic was collective jollity. Alexievich is nostalgic for the banners and the Soviet songs. People believed they were happy because that was what they were told. Even as they gathered to discuss the latest proscribed book, self-appointed dissidents relied on the solid framework of their Soviet jobs and pensions, the prim respectability of Soviet cultural life. When the empire
collapsed, it came as a shock to everyone.

The disaster was swift and comprehensive. First, there was a new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. “The country turned into a debating society,” one woman remembered. “The theatres grew empty; everyone was at home glued to their televisions.” But then came unemployment, shortages, the threat that all those Soviet certainties might prove false in the end. The foiling of a coup attempt against Gorbachev in August 1991 was the sovóks’ last victory. Since then, as the economy has mutated into a feral type of capitalist order, the older generation has endured poverty and ever-deeper shame.

A new generation spun quick bucks from T-shirts and pornography as libraries stood empty. Old battlefields were plundered for “vintage” weapons that collectors queued to buy. The humiliation was too much for some to bear. Timeryan Zinatov, a 77-year-old war hero, was one of many suicides. “I’d rather die standing up than on my knees, begging for my pauper’s pittance,” he wrote before he threw himself under a train. “I die, but I do not surrender.”

Like a photographer filming the last white rhinoceros, Alexievich has captured the sovóks’ world with subtlety and tenderness. She gives names and some ages, but what I missed was a sense of when each interview took place. This is not a detail: time moves quickly in the former Soviet spaces and context can be everything. Without dates and locations, readers may feel that they are drowning in a featureless sea of tears. On reflection, however, one realises that even that sensation may be something that our tragic European neighbours need us to share with them.

Catherine Merridale’s latest book, “Lenin on the Train”, is published by Allen Lane

This article appears in the 06 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump