Interesting Times: Svetlana Alexievich on the Dangers of a Great Idea

By Amelia Glaser, Teresa KurucNovember 22, 2016

Interesting Times: Svetlana Alexievich on the Dangers of a Great Idea

Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

THE OUTCOME of the November 8 American presidential election suggests the United States may be drifting in curious ways toward Russia. After all, Donald Trump has openly heaped lavish praise on President Vladimir Putin’s leadership, and has insinuated that a Trump administration could support Russian foreign policy. And in terms of ideology, it is hard not to observe parallels between the romantic idea of national “Greatness” that bolstered the isolationist principles of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and the “Make America Great Again” slogan employed by the successful Trump campaign. Time will tell what will emerge from the relationship between the two presidents: mutual admiration, fierce rivalry, or some other unforeseeable major shift in global power.

Whatever lies ahead, the United States may be entering an era when we will need to learn from Russia’s struggle with the rhetoric of greatness, while acknowledging our tendency toward the same ideological impasse. Svetlana Alexievich’s 2013 Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, now available in Bela Shayevich’s wonderfully readable English translation, offers sobering insights into the lives of ordinary Russians over the course of the last quarter century. Her interlocutors, who experienced the political and economic upheaval of the post-perestroika period, offer an extreme example of how a time of change and liberalism — a period in which society reassesses its central myths — can usher in a new search for past ideals of “greatness.”

Svetlana Alexievich’s book is made up of hundreds of interviews — “snatches of street noise and kitchen conversations” — taken between 1991 and 2012. They reveal the turmoil, hopes, unbridled capitalism, and widespread disillusionment with the Yeltsin era’s messy privatization and reforms, as well as the rise of Putin-era nationalism. The book — Alexievich’s last before receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015 — portrays the “Homo-Sovieticus” (or Sovok), a pejorative term for the Soviet man and woman, struggling to make sense of their past and present in light of the USSR’s dissolution. One interlocutor mourns the lost liberalism of the post-Soviet years: “We pissed away the nineties! We’re not going to have an opportunity like that again, at least not anytime soon…” But countless others illustrate the widespread desire for national strength over liberal democracy: “Putin is my president!” Says one interlocutor, “Today, it is shameful to call yourself a liberal, just like it used to be shameful to call yourself a communist. The men by the beer stand could break your face in for that.”

These people’s desire for a return to Soviet-era “greatness” cannot help but call to mind the spirit that led millions of American citizens to yearn for the comfort and pride associated with a vague American past; these Americans, as well as those baffled by the MAGA movement, might be enlightened by the Russian experience. As David Remnick has commented, Alexievich manages to capture “the sense of loss and humiliation after realizing that a once great power was now diseased and fallen.” While the United States broadly hailed the freedom ushered in by de-Sovietization in the 1990s — supposed evidence of the “better Great Idea” of Western-style liberal democracy — ordinary citizens saw the disappearance of the positive elements of the Soviet Union: the high level of education, the widespread love of literature, the lack of homelessness. In the wake of this cataclysmic change, one of Alexievich’s interlocutors asks, “What’s next, a new Gorbachev or the next Stalin? Maybe it’ll be the swastika? Sieg Heil! Russia has gotten up off her knees. Now is a dangerous time because Russia should have never been humiliated for so long.”

Svetlana Alexievich’s book chronicles — in many voices, many iterations — the journey from defeat, to alienation, to support for a new, Putin-era “Great Idea.” She covers a large and varied group of people from diverse national backgrounds — Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Azerbaizhanis, Jews — who share the same Soviet past. “I do not stand alone at this podium […] there are voices around me, hundreds of voices,” said Alexievich in the opening of her Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The award drew attention to Alexievich’s liberal critique of Russia’s Soviet past, and acknowledged her unique genre. Her collage-like books take as their material the vernacular voices of Soviet survivors of the Afghan war, perestroika, or the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, weaving them seamlessly into a narrative that is at once collective and vastly diverse.

Some of the speakers in Secondhand Time tell long, complex life stories that take up full chapters. Others are integrated into a crowd of seemingly irreconcilable salvaged voices:

— With socialism, the people were participating in History … They were living through something great …
— Fucking shit! Look at us, we’re so soulful, we’re so special.
— We’ve never had democracy. What kind of democrats would you and I make?
— The last great event in our lives was perestroika.
— Russia can either be great or not exist at all. We need a strong army.
— What do I need a great country for?

As the interviews suggest, the “Great Idea” of Soviet Communism still informs the lives of its heirs. Some of them cling to an ethics associated with communism: Elena Yurievna S., the third secretary of the district party committee, admits, “I still take pleasure in writing ‘USSR.’” For many more, the Soviet idea is bound up in the notion of victory, which reached an apex with World War II, when heroic death became a defining feature of the Soviet citizen; Marina Tikhonovna Isaichik, a pensioner, recalls the mixture of elation and confusion at the end of World War II: “Victory! […] What’s going to happen to us now?” Others appear to mourn an older generation’s belief that the defeat of Nazi Germany implied the strength of the Soviet victors. One woman recalls her parents’ belief that under Stalin, a “powerful nation was being built. And they really did build it, plus they defeated Hitler! That’s what my father would say…”

Many white American Trump supporters who grew up just after World War II have expressed strikingly similar sentiments. “I remember when everybody loved America. What went wrong? They took God out. It’s scary. It makes me want to cry,” one voter told Molly Ball, who has written about American right-wing nostalgia for The Atlantic. “I grew up at a better time,” said another. It would appear that not only Russian pensioners, but their American contemporaries, have begun to locate “greatness” in the Cold War.

The promise of Western-style liberal democracy may have helped to undermine the Soviet Union in 1991, but the ensuing financial collapse, the growth of petty capitalism, and the sense of humiliation associated with American intervention in rebuilding former Soviet states have alienated Russians from the West. A drunken man in a Minsk suburb chastises a Belarusian activist following a rally against President Lukashenko: “America is behind all this, they’re paying for it … Hillary Clinton … But we’re a strong people. We lived through perestroika, and we’ll make it through another revolution.”

Alexievich prefaces her book with a warning that she “sought out people who had been permanently bound to the Soviet idea, letting it penetrate them so deeply that there was no separating them.” The “Great Idea” that has affected Alexievich’s interlocutors is distinctly Russian, yet it holds crucial lessons for the United States as we head into a MAGA era. It’s an experience Russians know quite a lot about. In the 1940s, the exiled Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev wrote about the “Russian Idea” as “an eschatological idea of the Kingdom of God,” one that could spawn “both Moscow the Third Rome and Moscow the Third [Communist] International.”

The more recent nostalgia for the Soviet period has next to nothing to do with Marxism, but is instead a form of nationalism — a desire for a greater Russian sphere of influence. Vladimir Putin has called the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union a “great geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” The widespread support for Putin suggests that many Russians are ready to trade the vague idea of Western liberalism for a new incarnation of a Russian idea, whatever its economic underpinnings may be. “I go to Putin rallies! Rallies for a strong Russia!”

“Greatness,” Alexievich suggests, may not be all it’s cracked up to be. As sociologist Elena Gapova argues, the Soviet “Great Idea” was the frame through which Soviet people experienced and made sense of their world. With the fall of the Soviet Union, that frame was lost, and there was a fundamental change of ethics. One of Alexievich’s subjects documents bitterly how today’s circumstances appear without a frame to define them, shells of revolutionary images without any real substance: “Marxism is legal again, on trend, a brand. They wear T-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara and Lenin on them. [Despairingly.] Nothing has taken root. It was all for naught.”

Like these empty Marxist baubles, the title of Alexievich’s book in Russian, Vremia sekond khend, is itself an allusion to the material humiliation many Russians experienced in the frameless wake of perestroika. The English term “secondhand” became painfully familiar to Russians in the 1990s, when they saw a proliferation of shops selling cheap, used clothing brought in from the West. The stores were a necessity to those struggling to make ends meet on meager salaries or who had seen their savings and pensions dry up. The anxiety at the heart of the book is triggered by the notion that an epoch itself might be reused and recycled — sloppy seconds handed down from past generations: is it possible to exit an endless cycle of revolution? “Our time comes to us secondhand,” writes Alexievich in her introduction. “The barricades,” she continues, “are a dangerous place for an artist. They’re a trap. They ruin your vision, narrow your pupils, drain the world of its true colors.”

Secondhand Time is arguably the most personal of Alexievich’s books. After all, she, who experienced perestroika as an adult, ends these interviews in 2012, when “tens of thousands of people are once again taking to the streets,” and despite her disdain for the barricades, she makes clear: “I’m with them.” Whereas her other well-known works, such as Zinky Boys (a journalistic account of the families of soldiers in the Soviet-Afghan war) and Voices from Chernobyl, unfold almost entirely in the voices of her informants, here Alexievich mixes in her own voice. The presence of Alexievich herself helps to preempt the criticism she has received, particularly from conservative Russian readers, for blurring the boundary lines between journalism and belles-lettres. Readers have complained that Alexievich has manipulated too many details, creating inaccurate accounts of the Afghan war, for example. To be sure, much of Secondhand Time comes closer to poetry than documentary journalism. Sophie Pinkham has pointed out the changes Alexievich made to previously published interviews. But Alexievich readily acknowledges her form’s potential shortcomings: the carefully curated interviews can contain more feeling and fabrication than fact. In her own defense, she claims that she compensates for inevitable editorial bias by kindling tension through rivaling accounts. This tension, she says, “creates a ‘high temperature’ that burns away all that is false.”

Furthermore, Alexievich forges long relationships with her interviewees, sometimes over the course of months and years, and collects enough competing stories to offer a broad snapshot of key themes, like the government’s handling of the Chernobyl disaster and the fate of the Afghan War’s disabled veterans. In Secondhand Time, she strives to paint a raw but deeply sympathetic picture of “Homo-Sovieticus,” investigating her subjects while maintaining the authenticity of their individual voices and remaining true to the emotional key of the post-Soviet moment. As she declared in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she aims to craft a “super-literature” able to “give the truth as it is” without invention of any kind.

Ultimately, Secondhand Time is not only about the changes that accompanied the Yeltsin revolution in 1991. It is about the irreconcilable clash between of the daily, lived experience of human beings and the ideological “Great Ideas” that fuel revolutions.

— These days they say we used to have a mighty fortress and then we lost it all. But what have I really lost? […] I’m still going around in my old Soviet fur — and you should see how it snows out here! […]
— In five years, everything can change in Russia, but in two hundred — nothing.

As Alexievich shows, the idea of collective “greatness” inspires citizens — but it also betrays them. This may be the most important lesson the American people can draw from Secondhand Time. “Great Ideas,” these voices tell us, are not the only things that hold a society together. The very form Alexievich’s books take suggests that open conversations, on the streets and in the kitchen, can also help a generation to assess and reassess its values.

The final interview in Alexievich’s book is a poignant encounter with a 60-year-old woman who longs for someone to talk to “about how I don’t feel like getting old”: “It’ll be too bad when it comes time to die. Have you seen my lilacs? I go out at night to look at them — they glow. I’ll just stand there admiring them. Here, let me cut you a bouquet.” With this moving encounter between two women who agree on some things and disagree on others — one a gardener and the other a gatherer of human stories — Alexievich presents an alternative to the barricades.


Amelia Glaser is associate professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at University of California, San Diego.

Teresa Kuruc is a PhD candidate in Russian and Czech literature at University of California, San Diego.

LARB Contributors

Amelia Glaser is associate professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at University of California, San Diego.

Teresa Kuruc is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature and a Russian language instructor at UC, San Diego. She is currently writing about Russian and Czech modernism, memoirs, and folklore.


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