Secondhand Time: The last of the Soviets

“We share a communist collective memory. We’re neighbors in memory.” 

Earlier this year, before the world was halted by a virus, I visited Uzbekistan. This Central Asian country was part of Soviet Union till 1991, the final year in which the Union dissolved. It was an interesting place for many reasons, but for me what stood out were the conversations I had with the few guides that we met. Most of them were history aficionados and shared a certain philosophical outlook to life. One other trait which was common across them was a wistfulness in their voice when they spoke of Soviet era. That was surprising to me, for before this I had seen Soviet from a filter of Stalin’s atrocities. I know there are always two sides of a coin, but I didn’t expect every day people to look beyond the extreme poverty and the suppression.

When I read/listened to Svetlana Alexievich’s compilation or documentary literature, Secondhand Time, I detected the same wistfulness in many Soviet voices. The author, or more appropriately, the collector and presenter of stories in this case has brought forward conversations and interviews with citizens of the Soviet Union and presented them as a coherent and complete narrative of the end of an era and what comes after. Most of the voices in their own way shed a tear at the loss of an ideal, even though life was difficult in that ideal.

The narrative starts with a bewildered nation, caught up in the frenzy of perestroika, and the subsequent civil unrest led by Yeltsin. There is an energy, particularly from the Muscovite voices that a people could overturn a military coup. And yet, quickly the excitement dies down, as people realise that the dream of blue jeans and salami is a fake dream and cannot give fulfilment. The fascination with salami is particular, as many people mention this in different interviews. It struck me, because one of our guides in Samarkand talked of this too – On a teacher’s exchange program, she had an opportunity to visit America. Fascinated with the hype around it, she went to Walmart to buy some salami, and nearly threw up at the amount and choices available. She sat down on the aisles, breathless, and asked a puzzled man for assistance in choosing a salami for her: “I don’t know how to pick one, I am only looking for Salami. How can there be so many kinds?!”

People shaped with socialist thought of supporting the weak and bringing everyone along, could not make peace with the mindless grabbing that came with capitalism. Most others did not know how to navigate a system where you have to plan your own profits and efforts instead of the state planning for you. Other fell victims to those who could grab (the real estate agents, the profiteers). Some, the intellectuals, felt that their life had a purpose when USSR was leading the path for the world towards a just society, and in capitalism had lost that richness.

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.


One can overwhelmingly hear the mourning for a community. One person recalls a woman who delivered a new coat for his wife, it was sufficient for her that the couple belonged to the party and were in need.

The collection is one of tragedies. There are multiple suicides, or dreams of suicides, memories of death. There is some survival, yes, from the gulags and from camps. But it is always broken souls who return, forced to share a drink with neighbours who told on them, or sometimes perhaps even their tormentor. In Russia, the line between the prisoner and their oppressors is dynamic.

Why didn’t we put Stalin on trial? I’ll tell you why…In order to condemn Stalin, you’d have to condemn your friends and relatives along with him. The people closest to you…our neighbor Yuri turned out to have been the one who informed on my father. For nothing, as my mother would say…When Yeltsin came to power, I got a copy of his file, which included several informants’ reports. It turned out that one of them had been written by Aunt Olga…his niece…a beautiful woman, full of joy…It’s not just Stalin and Beria, it’s also our neighbor Yuri and beautiful Aunt Olga..

For someone not deeply familiar with the times, the stories made me aware of many things. The violence towards non-Russians, the partisan war, the battles over the oil rigs in Chechnya. It made me wonder, if the individual starts believing in a collective and the collective dissolves, where does it leave the individual? Is it better then, to always stay the individual? Even in their Soviet identity, people found the space to be Kazakhs, Russians, Chechens and immediately divided along those lines when the union fell.

This is a unique form of story-telling, where people narrate their own stories and the writer presents them as is. The beauty is in selection and sequencing. I don’t know how Svetlana Alexievich selected the voices to present, but there was so much wisdom and understanding of life in those words. I can endlessly keep quoting from the book and not tire. Here are a few quotes that I have chosen, but these are not the only ones that spoke to me.

According to Darwin’s theory, it’s not the strongest who survive, but those who are the best adapted to their environment. Average people are the ones who survive and carry on the human race.

The first thing to go was friendship…Suddenly, everyone was too busy, they had to go out and make money.

It’s possible to survive the camps, but you can’t survive other people

Let time be the judge. Time is just, but only in the long term—not in the short term. The time we won’t live to see, which will be free of our prejudices.

Our people need freedom like a monkey needs glasses. No one would know what to do with it. 

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