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Secondhand time : the last of the Soviets / Svetlana Alexievich ; translated by Bela Shayevich.

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Record details

  • ISBN: 9780399588808
  • ISBN: 0399588809
  • Physical Description: xiv, 470 pages ; 25 cm
  • Edition: First U.S. edition.
  • Publisher: New York : Random House, [2016]

Content descriptions

General Note: First published in Russian in 2013.
Formatted Contents Note: Chronology -- Remarks from an accomplice -- I. The Consolation of Apocalypse -- Snatches of street noise and kitchen conversations (1991-2001) -- Ten Stories in a Red Interior -- On the beauty of dictatorship and the mystery of butterflies in cement -- On brothers and sisters, victims and executioners...and the electorate -- On cries and whispers...and exhilaration -- On the lonely red marshal and three days of forgotten revolution -- On the mercy of memories and the lust for meaning -- On a different Bible and a different kind of believer -- On the cruelty of the flames and salvation from above -- On the sweetness of suffering and the trick of the Russian soul -- On a time when anyone who kills believes that they are serving God -- On the little red flag and the smile of the axe -- II. The Charms of Emptiness -- Snatches of street noise and kitchen conversations (2002-2012) -- Ten Stories In The Absence of an Interior -- On Romeo and Juliet...except their names were Margarita and Abulfaz -- On people who instantly transformed after the fall of communism -- On a loneliness that resembles happiness -- On wanting to kill them all and the horror of realizing you really wanted to do it -- On the old crone with a braid and the beautiful young woman -- On a Stranger's Grief that God has deposited on your doorstep -- On life the bitch and one hundred grammes of fine powder in a little white vase -- On how nothing disgusts the dead and the silence of dust -- On the darkness of the evil one and "the other life we can build out of this one" -- On courage and what comes after -- Notes from an everywoman.
Summary, etc.: "From the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, comes the first English translation of her latest work, an oral history of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia. Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive documentary style, Secondhand Time is a monument to the collapse of the USSR, charting the decline of Soviet culture and speculating on what will rise from the ashes of communism. As in all her books, Alexievich gives voice to women and men whose stories are lost in the official narratives of nation-states, creating a powerful alternative history from the personal and private stories of individuals."--
Subject: Post-communism > Russia (Federation)
Oral history > Russia (Federation)
Oral history > Soviet Union.
HISTORY / Europe / Former Soviet Republics.
HISTORY / Europe / Russia & the Former Soviet Union.
Russia (Federation) > Social conditions > 1991-
Soviet Union > Social conditions.
Russia (Federation) > Biography.
Soviet Union > Biography.
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SNATCHES OF STREET NOISE AND KITCHEN CONVERSATIONS

(1991–2001)

ON IVANUSHKA THE FOOL AND THE MAGIC GOLDFISH

--What have I learned? I learned that the heroes of one era aren’t likely to be the heroes of the next. Except Ivanushka the Fool. And Emelya. The beloved heroes of Russian folklore. Our stories are all about good fortune and strokes of luck; divine intervention that makes everything fall right into our laps. Having it all without having to get up from your bed on the stove.1 The stove will cook the bliny, the magic goldfish will grant your every wish. I want this and I want that .?.?. I want the fair Tsarevna! I want to live in a different kingdom, where the rivers run with milk and their banks are heaped with jam .?.?. We’re dreamers, of course. Our souls strain and suffer, but not much gets done--there’s no strength left over after all that ardor. Nothing ever gets done. The mysterious Russian soul .?.?. Everyone wants to understand it. They read Dostoevsky: What’s behind that soul of theirs? Well, behind our soul there’s just more soul. We like to have a chat in the kitchen, read a book. “Reader” is our primary occupation. “Viewer.” All the while, we consider ourselves a special, exceptional people even though there are no grounds for this besides our oil and natural gas. On one hand, this is what stands in the way of progress; on the other hand, it provides something like meaning. Russia always seems to be on the verge of giving rise to something important, demonstrating something completely extraordinary to the world. The chosen people. The special Russian path. Our country is full of Oblomovs,2 lying around on their couches, awaiting miracles. There are no Stoltzes. The industrious, savvy Stoltzes are despised for chopping down the beloved birch grove, the cherry orchard. They build their factories, make money .?.?. They’re foreign to us .?.?.

--The Russian kitchen .?.?. The pitiful Khrushchyovka3 kitchenette, nine to twelve square meters (if you’re lucky!), and on the other side of a flimsy wall, the toilet. Your typical Soviet floorplan. Onions sprouting in old mayonnaise jars on the windowsill and a potted aloe for fighting colds. For us, the kitchen is not just where we cook, it’s a dining room, a guest room, an office, a soapbox. A space for group therapy sessions. In the nineteenth century, all of Russian culture was concentrated on aristocratic estates; in the twentieth century, it lived on in our kitchens. That’s where perestroika really took place. 1960s dissident life is the kitchen life. Thanks, Khrushchev! He’s the one who led us out of the communal apartments; under his rule, we got our own private kitchens where we could criticize the government and, most importantly, not be afraid, because in the kitchen you were always among friends. It’s where ideas were whipped up from scratch, fantastical projects concocted. We made jokes--it was a golden age for jokes! “A communist is someone who’s read Marx, an anticommunist is someone who’s understood him.” We grew up in kitchens, and our children did, too; they listened to Galich and Okudzhava along with us. We played Vysotsky,4 tuned in to illegal BBC broadcasts. We talked about everything: how shitty things were, the meaning of life, whether everyone could all be happy. I remember a funny story .?.?. We’d stayed up past midnight, and our daughter, she was twelve, had fallen asleep on the kitchen couch. We’d gotten into some heated argument, and suddenly she started yelling at us in her sleep: “Enough about politics! Again with your Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, and Stalin!” [Laughs.]

Endlessly drinking tea. Coffee. Vodka. In the seventies, we had Cuban rum. Everyone was in love with Fidel! With the Cuban revolution. Che in his beret. A Hollywood star! We talked nonstop, afraid that they were listening in, thinking they must be listening. There’d always be someone who’d halt in mid-conversation and point to the ceiling light or the power outlet with a little grin, “Did you hear that, Comrade Lieutenant?” It felt a little dangerous, a little bit like a game. We got a certain satisfaction out of leading these double lives. A tiny handful of people resisted openly, but many more of us were “kitchen dissidents,” going about our daily lives with our fingers crossed behind our backs .?.?.

--Today, it’s shameful being poor and unathletic--it’s a sign that you’re not making it. I come from the generation of janitors and security guards. Getting a job like that was a form of internal emigration. You lived your life and didn’t pay any attention to what was going on around you, like it was all just the view out the window. My wife and I graduated from the Philosophy Faculty of St. Petersburg (back then, it was Leningrad) State University, then she got a job as a janitor, and I was a stoker in a boiler plant. You’d work one twenty-four-hour shift and then get two days off. Back then, an engineer made 130 rubles a month, while in the boiler room, I was getting 90, which is to say that if you were willing to give up 40 rubles a month, you could buy yourself absolute freedom. We read, we went through tons of books. We talked. We thought that we were coming up with new ideas. We dreamt of revolution, but we were scared we’d never live to see it. In reality, we were completely sheltered, we didn’t know a thing about what was actually going on in the world. We were like houseplants. We made everything up, and, as it later turned out, everything we thought we knew was nothing but figments of our imaginations: the West. Capitalism. The Russian people. We lived in a world of mirages. The Russia of our books and kitchens never existed. It was all in our heads.

With perestroika, everything came crashing down. Capitalism -descended .?.?. 90 rubles became 10 dollars. It wasn’t enough to live on anymore. 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. “All you people are capable of is carrying around a volume of Mandelstam.”5 Many unfamiliar horizons unfurled before us. The intelligentsia grew calamitously poor. On weekends, at the park by our house, Hare Krishnas would set up a mobile kitchen serving soup and something simple for a second course. The line of the dignified elderly was so long, just thinking about it is enough to give you a lump in your throat. Some of them hid their faces. By then, we’d had two children. We were literally starving. My wife and I became peddlers. We’d pick up four or six cases of ice cream at the factory and take them down to the market, to the most crowded spot. We had no refrigeration, so a few hours in, all the ice cream would be melting. At that point, we’d give it away to hungry kids. They were so happy! My wife did the selling. I’d deliver it, haul it--I was willing to do anything but actually make sales. It felt uncomfortable for a long time.

There was a time when I’d often reminisce about our kitchen days?.?.?. There was so much love! What women! Those women hated the rich. You couldn’t buy them. Today, no one has time for feelings, they’re all out making money. The discovery of money hit us like an atom bomb .?.?.



ON HOW WE FELL IN AND THEN OUT OF LOVE WITH GORBY

--The Gorbachev era .?.?. Huge crowds of people with radiant faces. Freedom! It was the air we breathed. Everyone hungrily devoured the newspapers. It was a time of great hope--at any moment, we might find ourselves in paradise. Democracy was an exotic beast. Like madmen, we’d run around to every rally: Now we’d learn the truth about Stalin, the gulag. We’d read Anatoly Rybakov’s forbidden Children of the Arbat6 and other good books; finally, we’d all become democrats. How wrong we were! A single message rang out from every loudspeaker: Hurry! Hurry! Read! Listen! Not everyone was prepared for all this. Most people were not anti-Soviet; they only wanted to live well. They really wanted blue jeans, VCRs, and most of all, cars. Nice clothes and good food. When I came home with a copy of The Gulag Archipelago, my mother was horrified. “If you don’t get that book out of my house immediately, I’m kicking you out.” Before the war, my grandmother’s husband had been shot, but she would say, “I don’t feel sorry for Vaska. They were right to arrest him. He had a big mouth.” “Grandma, why didn’t you tell me before?” I’d ask her. “I hope that my life dies along with me so none of you will have to suffer the consequences.” That’s how our parents lived, and their parents before them. Then it was all bulldozed over. Perestroika wasn’t created by the people, it was created by a single person: Gorbachev. Gorbachev and a handful of intellectuals .?.?.

--Gorbachev is an American secret agent .?.?. a freemason .?.?. He betrayed communism. “All communists to the trash heap, all Komsomol members to the dump!” I hate Gorbachev because he stole my Motherland. I treasure my Soviet passport like it’s my most precious possession. Yes, we stood in line for discolored chicken and rotting potatoes, but it was our Motherland. I loved it. You lived in a third world country with missiles, but for me, it was a great nation. The West has always seen Russia as an enemy, a looming threat. It’s a thorn in their side. Nobody wants a strong Russia, with or without the communists. The world sees us as a storehouse that they can raid for oil, natural gas, timber, and base metals. We trade our oil for underpants. But we used to be a civilization without rags and junk. The Soviet civilization! Someone felt the need to put an end to it. The CIA .?.?. We’re already being controlled by the Americans .?.?. They must have paid Gorbachev a tidy sum. Sooner or later, he’ll see his day in court. I just hope that that Judas lives to feel the brunt of his nation’s rage. I would gladly take him out to the Butovo Firing Range7 and shoot him in the back of the skull myself. [Slams his fist down on the table.] Happiness is here, huh? Sure, there’s salami and bananas. We’re rolling around in shit and eating foreign food. Instead of a Motherland, we live in a huge supermarket. If this is freedom, I don’t need it. To hell with it! The people are on their knees. We’re a nation of slaves. Slaves! Under communism, in the words of Lenin, the cook ran the state; workers, dairymaids, and weavers were in charge. Now our parliament is lousy with criminals. Dollar-rich millionaires. They should all be in prison, not parliament. They really duped us with their perestroika!

I was born in the USSR, and I liked it there. My father was a communist. He taught me how to read with Pravda. Every holiday, we’d go to the parades. With tears in our eyes. I was a Young Pioneer, I wore the red kerchief around my neck. Then Gorbachev came, and I never got the chance to join the Komsomol, which I’m still sad about. I’m a sovok, huh? And my parents are sovoks, and my grandparents, too? My grandfather the sovok died defending Moscow in ’41 .?.?. My sovok grandmother fought with the partisans .?.?. The liberals are working off their piece of the pie. They want us to think of our history as a black hole. I hate them all: gorbachev, shevardnadze, yakovlev8--don’t capitalize their names, that’s how much I hate them all. I don’t want to live in America, I want to live in the USSR .?.?.

--Those were wonderful, naïve years .?.?. We had faith in Gorbachev like we’ll never have faith in anyone ever again. Many Russians were returning from emigration, coming back to their Motherland. There was so much joy in the air! We thought that we’d tear down these barracks and build something new in their place. I got my degree from the Philology Faculty of Moscow State University and started graduate school. I dreamed of working in academia. In those years, I idolized Averintsev,9 all of enlightened Moscow sat in on his lectures. We would meet and reinforce one another’s delusions that soon, we would find ourselves in a completely different country, and that this was what we were fighting for. I was very surprised when I learned that one of my classmates was moving to Israel. “Aren’t you sorry to leave at a time like this? Things are just starting to get good.”



1 The Russian stove is a large masonry stove that, to this day, serves as the central and most important feature of rural Russian houses. Stoves are used not only for cooking and heating, they are large enough to accommodate people sleeping on top of them--and they are always the warmest place in the house.

2 Hero of the eponymous novel written by Ivan Goncharov published in 1859, Oblomov is an idle aristocrat whose extreme laziness and apathy gave rise to the expression “oblomovism.” Stoltz, his friend, is an active and energetic young man.

3 Khrushchyovkas are cheap, prefabricated concrete panel or brick apartment blocks that started being built in the 1950s, during the administration of their namesake, Nikita Khrushchev. Though they are cramped and shoddy, they provided many families with their first-ever private apartments.

4 Alexander Galich (1918 - 1977), Bulat Okudzhava (1924 - 1997), and Vladimir Vyso-tsky (1938 - 1990) were singer--songwriters who rose to popularity in the 1960s, primarily among the Soviet intelligentsia. Their songs were known for being anti-Soviet.

5 Osip Mandelstam (1891 - 1938) was a Russian and Soviet poet and essayist who died in the gulag.

6 Anatoly Rybakov (1911 - 1998) was a Soviet writer most famous for his anti-Stalinist Children of the Arbat tetralogy.

7 Between 1936 and 1953, over twenty thousand political prisoners were executed on the Butovo Firing Range as victims of Stalin’s purges. It is located just outside of Moscow.

8 As the minister of foreign affairs from 1985 to 1991, Eduard Shevardnadze (1928 - 2014) was responsible for many important foreign policy decisions in Gorbachev’s administration. He was the president of Georgia from 1992 to 2003. Alexander Yakovlev (1923 - 2005) was a Soviet politician and historian, sometimes called the “godfather of glasnost.” He was one of the main theoreticians behind perestroika.

9 Sergey Averintsev (1937 - 2004) was a philologist, cultural historian, translator, poet, and specialist on antiquity and Byzantine culture. He lectured on Russian spiritual traditions.

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