Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich, tr. Bela Shalyevich

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Может быть, через пятьдесят или сто лет о той нашей жизни, которая называлась социализмом, будут писать объективно. Без слез и проклятий. Начнут раскапывать, как древнюю Трою. Недавно вообще хорошо сказать о социализме было нельзя. На Западе после крушения СССР поняли, что марксистские идеи не кончились, их надо развивать. Не молиться на них. Маркс не был там идолом, как у нас. Святым! Сначала мы его боготворили, а потом предали анафеме. Все перечеркнули. Наука тоже принесла человечеству неисчислимые бедствия. Давайте тогда истреблять ученых! Проклянем отцов атомной бомбы, а еще лучше – начнем с тех, кто порох изобрел! С них… Разве я не права? (Я не успеваю ответить на ее вопрос.) Правильно… правильно, что из Москвы выбрались. В Россию, можно сказать, приехали. По Москве когда гуляешь, кажется, что и мы Европа: роскошные машины, рестораны… Золотые купола блестят! А вы послушайте, о чем у нас люди говорят в провинции… Россия – это не Москва, Россия – это Самара, Тольятти, Челябинск… жопинск какой-нибудь… Что на московских кухнях можно узнать о России? На тусовках? Бла-бла-бла… Москва – столица какого-то другого государства, а не того, что за кольцевой дорогой. Туристический рай. Москве не верьте…Perhaps fifty or a hundred years from now they’ll be able to write objectively about the way of life we called socialism. Without all the tears and obscenities. They’ll unearth it like ancient Troy. Until recently, you weren’t allowed to say anything good about socialism. In the West, after the fall of the Soviet Union, they realized that Marxism wasn’t really over, it still needed to be developed. Without being worshiped. Over there, he wasn’t an idol like he’d been for us. A saint! First we worshiped him, then we anathematized him. Crossed it all out. But science has also caused immeasurable suffering—should we eliminate scientists? Curse the fathers of the atom bomb, or better yet, start with the ones who invented gunpowder? Yes, start with them…Am I wrong? [She doesn’t give me a chance to answer her question.] You’re on the right track, leaving Moscow. You could say that you’ve come to the real Russia. Walking around Moscow, you might get the impression that we’re a European country: the luxury cars, the restaurants…those golden cupolas gleaming! But listen to what the people talk about in the provinces… Russia isn’t Moscow, Russia is Samara, Tolyatti, Chelyabinsk—some Bumblepinsk…How much can you really learn about Russia from sitting around in a Moscow kitchen? Going to parties. Blah, blah, blah… Moscow is the capital of some other nation, not the country beyond the ring road.* A tourist paradise. Don’t believe Moscow…
* The ring road is a major freeway encircling Moscow which served as Moscow’s administrative border until the 1980s.

Another in the grim sequence of Nobel Prize winner Alexievich’s accounts of her country’s history (I have previously read Voices from Chernobyl and Boys in Zinc). Here she takes on the lived experience of the break-up of the Soviet Union, mainly (though not only) as it affected Russians, simply told through their own testimony. There was good in the old system, in the sense of social solidarity and a sense of common purpose, but it was outweighed by the grinding poverty and brutal oppression. The subsequent collapse of Russian society, except for the super-privileged, has lent the Soviet years some undeserved retrospective legitimacy. There is some grim reading about personal hardships, the worst of them from the Communist era. It’s not a chronological history, it’s a report from the past, with all the caveats that that requires. Especially at the current time, it’s really useful to have a window into what makes Russia and Russians tick. Important and gripping reading. You can get it here.

I was interested to note that the original Russian title of the book, Время сэконд хэнд, uses the English words “second hand”.

This was my top unread book acquired this year, and also my top unread book by a woman. Next on those piles respectively are Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov, and Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman.

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