When she won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, Svetlana Alexievich was little known outside Belarus and the former Soviet Union where her books were published in Russian. Those that had been translated into English had appeared with small presses. Newspapers scrambled to find out who the Belarusian writer was and to gather expert views on her “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” as they were described by Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, in her announcement of the prize. In the Nobel citation Alexievich was credited with inventing a new literary genre, “a history of emotions”—a “carefully composed collage of human voices” recorded during interviews. Her oral histories (for that is what they are) are presented as monologues; they are concerned less with the witnesses’ recording of historical events than with their feelings about how their interior lives have been shaped by those events.
No reader could fail to be moved by the searing personal testimonies of Chernobyl’skaia molitva (Chernobyl Prayer, 1997), Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, as it was translated in 2005, or by the interviews she carried out with Soviet soldiers, their mothers, and their widows about the Afghan war of 1979–1989 in Zinky Boys (1990). These are both important books, original and powerful, retelling history through individual narratives, dispelling Soviet myths with the force of human truths, distilling the voice of memory into a form of literature. But as oral history they do not seem as inventive as the Nobel jury thinks.
The practice of oral history was slower to develop in the Soviet Union than in the West, where its practitioners have long used interviews to explore the reflection of events in the interior worlds of their interlocutors. As a discipline, oral history was never recognized by the Soviet Academy of Sciences, so it could not form part of professional historical research. The state kept a tight control on history. It molded the collective memory through propaganda and the media, school textbooks and commemorations to support its official version of the Soviet past—a propaganda myth of heroic sacrifice and achievement by the people under the Party’s leadership. Approved memoirs were published to add “subjective” content to this narrative. In the 1920s the oral reminiscences of revolutionary veterans were recorded for the official history of the Party (Istpart). But the stuff of oral history—the messy, uncontrolled, potentially subversive memories of ordinary people—had no place in it.
The earliest attempts at oral history in the Soviet Union were carried out by soldiers returning from the fighting between 1941 and 1945. Their experience was radically different from the official myth of the Great Patriotic War. One of them was the Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich, who as a teenager had joined the partisans against the German armies in Belarus. In collaboration with the Soviet writer Daniil Granin, a veteran of the Luga Front near Leningrad, Adamovich compiled A Book of the Blockade (Blokadnaia kniga), a history of the Siege of Leningrad from 1941 to 1944. Made up of individual testimonies, diaries, and interviews with siege survivors, parts of it were published in the liberal Soviet journal Novyi mir in 1977, but it was not until 1984 that the book was published in its entirety.
Adamovich was a major influence upon Alexievich, who refers to him as her mentor. But her technique is different from his. In contrast to Adamovich, whose interviews were interspersed with commentaries, Alexievich allows her subjects to speak without intrusions by herself. Whether she was aware of it or not when she began her work as a journalist in the early 1980s, her interview technique had become by then a standard methodology of Western oral history, whose practitioners were trained to be aware that every interruption by themselves not only influences but possibly contaminates their interviewee’s narrative. According to a profile of the Nobel laureate by Masha Gessen in The New Yorker, she
wanted to dispense with the author’s voice and with the usual chronologies and contexts. She wanted to approximate the voices she heard in childhood, when village women gathered in the evenings and told stories about the Second World War.1
Women tend to remember differently from men—a difference noted by psychologists and oral historians alike. They are better at recalling their feelings. They talk more freely about them than men, who focus more on actions and the sequence of events, and can become withdrawn when asked about traumatic incidents, even in the distant past. It is no surprise that women’s voices predominate in Alexievich’s works.
Her first book, U voiny ne zhenskoe litso (War Doesn’t Have a Woman’s Face, 1985), consists of monologues by women—soldiers, doctors, nurses, partisans, mothers, wives, and widows—involved in the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945. Their stories of sacrifice and courage are mixed with darker accounts of suffering, fear, and chaos that undermined Soviet propaganda myths. Published in an abridged form in 1985, the book sold two million copies in the perestroika years, when it also came out in English; but it was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that it could be published without cuts.
The method of that first project has been applied by Alexievich in all her later works, including Secondhand Time, her first book to be published since the Nobel Prize, in an excellent translation by Bela Shayevich. The book is Alexievich’s most ambitious project to date—a panoramic study of ordinary lives affected by the downfall of the Soviet system, based on hundreds of extended interviews and recorded conversations between 1991 and 2012. The title of the book is intended to suggest the confusion and sense of dislocation caused by the Soviet collapse, as Alexievich explains in her introduction, “Remarks from an Accomplice”:
On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Alexander Grin wrote, “And the future seems to have stopped standing in its proper place.” Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be. Our time comes to us secondhand.
Most of the voices recorded in the book belong to people, three quarters of them women, who lived what they considered to be the best part of their lives in the Soviet system. As Alexievich acknowledges, she selected people from a generation (in which she counts herself) who had become so immersed in the Soviet way of life that its sudden disappearance left them struggling to find a new identity:
I 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 state had become their entire cosmos, blocking out everything else, even their own lives. They couldn’t just walk away from History, leaving it all behind and learning to live without it….
They were unable to adapt to the capitalist way of life, where there was no great idea, no collective purpose defined by the state, only a “normal” private existence.
These last Soviets experienced the break of 1991 as a confusing rupture in their sense of time. With Alexievich they talk about the last years of the Soviet Union as if they were in the distant past: “It wasn’t that long ago, but it’s as though it happened in another era…a different country.” They see themselves as exiles from their vanished homeland, a mythical Soviet Union nostalgically remembered for its certainties, familiarities, consumer goods that never existed. The new Russia is alien to them. Anna M., an architect who grew up in a Soviet orphanage, is only fifty-nine years old, but is unable or perhaps unwilling to adapt to the new Russia, which she is ready to denounce in terms derived from the Soviet regime:
What is our life like? You walk down a familiar street and see a French boutique, German, Polish—all of the stores’ names are in foreign languages. Foreign socks, shirts, boots…cookies and salami [a mistranslation of kolbasa, which is closer to a frankfurter]… You can’t find anything that’s our own, Soviet, anywhere. All I hear is that life is a battle, the strong defeat the weak, and this is the law of nature. You have to grow some horns and hooves, a thick skin, no one needs weaklings anymore. Everywhere you go, it’s elbows, elbows, and more elbows. This is fascism, this is the swastika! I’m in shock…and despair. This is not my world! It’s not for me! [Silence.]
For this generation the 1990s were a catastrophe. They lost everything: a familiar way of life; an economic system that guaranteed security; an ideology that gave them moral certainties, perhaps some hope; a huge empire with superpower status and an identity that covered over ethnic divisions; and national pride in Soviet achievements in culture, science, and technology. Alexievich records a chorus of voices all lamenting these losses, most of them complaining that nobody consulted them on the dissolution of the Soviet Union (its abolition was indeed achieved without a democratic vote). The sense of betrayal and disillusionment reappears on almost every page:
What a country they surrendered. An empire!! Without a shot fired… The thing I don’t understand is, why didn’t anyone ask us? I spent my life building a great nation. That’s what they told us. They promised.
We’d spent our whole lives building, just to watch it all be sold for a five-kopeck piece. The people were given vouchers [for state enterprises]… They cheated us…
Many people talk about the humiliation they felt in the 1990s when high inflation robbed them of their life savings and they could barely feed themselves on salaries or pensions often unpaid by the state. A construction worker recalls how he was reduced to selling cigarette butts collected from the streets by his wife’s parents, who had jobs as college professors. The collapse of living standards undermined popular confidence in capitalist “freedom” and “democracy”—abstract terms people could not understand (they had no experience of legally protected liberties) except as freer and more democratic access to material goods. As one of the younger unnamed interviewees in the book explains:
People dreamt that tons of salami would appear at the stores at Soviet prices and members of the Politburo would stand in line for it along with the rest of us. Salami is a benchmark of our existence.
In Secondhand Time the voices of the young are not heard as often as those of the old. Alexievich is less interested in them, although one of her best chapters, “On a Loneliness That Resembles Happiness,” the story of Alisa, a thirty-five-year-old advertising manager she meets by chance on a train, throws into relief the moral divide between those, like Alisa, who are young and tough enough to make it in the business world of Moscow, and the Soviet intelligentsia, people like her parents, both schoolteachers from Rostov, whose values are defined by books. After years of partying with oligarchs, when her good looks obviously helped, Alisa is settling down, determined to make money, and make it on her own, without the help of men:
I hate people who grew up in poverty, their pauper’s mentality; money means so much to them, you can’t trust them. I don’t like the poor, the insulted and the humiliated [a reference to Dostoevsky’s novel Humiliated and Insulted]… I don’t trust them!
Her mother wants to give up teaching because her pupils are bored when she tells them about Alexander Solzhenitsyn (“We don’t dream about performing great feats, we want to live well”). They read Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls and see Chichikov, the swindler at the center of the novel, as a model.
Where the young are prominent is in the many tales of suicide. There are at least a dozen in the book: a fourteen-year-old boy who hangs himself for no apparent reason; a woman cheated out of her Moscow home by gangsters who throws herself under a train; a junior policewoman officially recorded as having shot herself in Chechnya, although her mother finds out from her own investigations that she was killed by drunken colleagues after she refused to go along with taking bribes. Many others tell of having tried to kill themselves. Alexievich has long been interested in the theme of suicide. In 1993, she published a collection of short stories, Zakharovannye smert’iu (Enchanted by Death), each about a suicide attempt related to a personal crisis prompted by the collapse of the Soviet Union.2 Some of those stories reappear in Secondhand Time, where the interviews have been selected to illustrate such experiences, as Alexievich acknowledges in her “Remarks.”
The picture of contemporary Russia that emerges in these pages is extremely dark—a bleak landscape populated by poor, depressed, humiliated people, damaged and embittered, homeless refugees from ethnic wars, criminals and murderers, with little space for hope or love. No doubt there are Russians who will take offense, point to a lack of more positive stories, or accuse Alexievich of peddling Russophobic stereotypes. The state-controlled media in Russia responded to the news of her Nobel Prize with an outpouring of abuse, claiming she was not a proper writer and had won the prize only because of her anti-Putin views. This was reminiscent of the Soviet response on previous occasions when the Nobel was awarded to Russian writers known for anti-Soviet views: Ivan Bunin in 1933, Boris Pasternak in 1958, Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1970, and Joseph Brodsky in 1987.
My main issue with the book has not to do with its darkness but with my uneasy sense that many of its stories have been chosen for dramatic and sensational effect. There are some extraordinary tales—none more so than one that is already the subject of a film about a woman, Yelena Razduyeva, a thirty-seven-year-old worker who gives up everything, a good husband, three children and a home, to travel to the other end of Russia for a man she does not know, an imprisoned murderer. “It’s that Russian type,” says the filmmaker,
the kind of Russian person that Dostoevsky wrote about, who is as bountiful as the Russian land itself. Socialism didn’t change him, and capitalism won’t, either.
The story might have jumped straight from the pages of a Dostoevsky novel but what it’s doing here is not so clear. To add redeeming light to a dark book? To contemplate the “Russian soul”?
Alexievich has called her work “novels in voices.” In Secondhand Time she declares that her aim is the
transformation of life—everyday life—into literature. I’m always listening for it, in every conversation, both general and private. Occasionally, my vigilance flags—a “fragment of literature” may sparkle into sight at any moment, even in the most unexpected places.
By careful listening and editing, she turns the transcripts of an interview into a spoken literature that carries all the truth and emotional power of a great novel. But the most dramatic stories are not always representative. Perhaps that is why the book concludes with “Notes from an Everywoman,” a one-page distillation of an interview that could have been conducted with any one of millions of village women in the former Soviet Union.
Objections could be made about the absence of authorial intrusions in the book. Uninterrupted monologues can develop into rants. They can become repetitive. There should, I thought, have been more information about the background of the person being interviewed (a first name, age, and profession are not enough) and the location of the dialogue (there is a world of difference between Moscow and the Russian provinces). Although the interviews are grouped by decade (1991–2001 and 2002–2012, respectively), they are undated individually, leaving readers to guess when the conversation might have taken place. This is a serious shortcoming, because the Soviet Union looked very different in 2001 than it did to its supporters in 1991, and in oral history the political setting of the interview is always important.
But these are issues that do not detract from a very impressive achievement. Alexievich has given voice to a lost generation who feel betrayed, cheated out of their own lives by history. By listening to them, the humiliated and insulted, we can learn to respect them.