You can open this document anywhere; it’s a kind of enormous radio. It offers a flood of voices: doctors and writers, deli workers and former Kremlin apparatchiks, soldiers and waitresses. Ms. Alexievich gives these people space. There are few interpolations from the author. When she does insert a comment, it’s in brackets and often unbearably moving, like 'She no longer wipes her tears' or 'She’s practically screaming' or 'And both of us cry.' A freight of catharsis is on display ... This book is thick with longing for old times, terrible though they might have been ... In this lucid translation by Bela Shayevich, she gets these details onto the page. But the stories...can also be baggy and repetitive ... This book can leave you lost in time, as well. The interviews were collected over many years, but dates are rarely supplied. This book is dense on a macro level, but one sometimes misses the sentence-by-sentence density of the best fiction. These are quibbles. Secondhand Time is an avalanche of engrossing talk. The most ancient grievances are churned up...So are the freshest longings.
By the time you’re finished with Ms. Alexievich’s 470-page oral history of the Soviet people, heartbreak will become second nature ... While the book is an excellent guide to a vanishing culture, it transcends ethnography. Like the greatest works of fiction, Secondhand Time is a comprehensive and unflinching exploration of the human condition—or, as the Russian in me is tempted to put it, of the human soul ... Ms. Alexievich’s tools are different from those of a novelist, yet in its scope and wisdom, Secondhand Time is comparable to War and Peace. ... Her sources joke, philosophize, weep, digress and complain. They bang their fists on tables, describe dreams, plead and argue. Their asides and unexpected confessions are especially powerful ... Forging intimacy is Ms. Alexievich’s particular genius ... She is the least self-conscious and least self-indulgent writer I’ve ever encountered ... The book is easy to read, but not an easy read ... The most disturbing aspect of Secondhand Time is bearing witness to how people’s humanity crumbles under pressure to survive ... Beautiful tales of love and resilience dramatically pierce the darkness, but on the whole Ms. Alexievich creates a group portrait of traumatized people desperately in need of an opportunity to heal—and, tragically, not likely to get it.
[Alexievich] ... interviews ordinary citizens and shapes their testimonies into coherent narratives. The result is an extraordinary work of non-fiction which is composed of the types of stories that usually go untold amid the march of time and change ... It’s no surprise to find alcoholism, brutality and suicide featuring prominently in accounts of the former-Soviet Union. But this book communicates more clearly than anything I’ve encountered before the bewilderment Russians feel at their country’s chaotic transition from socialism to capitalism ... I struggle to find much light amid the darkness of these 700 pages. The courage involved in the collaborations between Alexievich and her interviewees is itself a source of hope but many of their stories are relentlessly disturbing. Perhaps you’ll find more reasons to feel optimistic than I do but, regardless, you should read Second-Hand Time. The narratives Alexievich has sculpted take place in landlocked settings and yet, in Bela Shayevich’s English translation, they come at the reader in thunderous waves, churned from oceans of history. This book – important without sounding self-important – is heart-breaking and impossible to put down.
As in many a Chekhov story, few of the people [Alexievich] records are happy ... Among believers in the dream of Soviet Communism, Alexievich finds a nostalgia for its achievements and a deep sense of loss ... It’s more surprising that Alexievich finds similar true believers among those who suffered the very worst Soviet fury ... I have a few minor quibbles with the way Alexievich weaves her rich tapestry of voices. Although the interviews are grouped by decades...she does not tell us whether she talked to someone in 1991, when the enfeebled Soviet Union was still alive, or in 2001, when it was 10 years dead. She uses many ellipses in each paragraph, which show how a monologue has been edited but give it a slightly spacey and disjointed feel. And unlike her distinguished American counterpart Studs Terkel, who sometimes set the scene in a headnote to an interview, she gives us little or no background on her subjects, usually just something as cryptic as 'Olga V., surveyor, 24.' And when she does provide a rare headnote, her own editorial voice can intrude ... There is no need for this: She has successfully bridged the abyss.
Svetlana Alexievich’s...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 ... 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 ... 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.' ... To be sure, much of Secondhand Time comes closer to poetry than documentary journalism...But Alexievich readily acknowledges her form’s potential shortcomings: the carefully curated interviews can contain more feeling and fabrication than fact ... 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.
What is most important about Alexievich is that even though she treads deeply into the Russian psyche, her books have immense humanistic power. Like her other books, Secondhand Time is told through oral monologues, and its stories transcend national boundaries ... Alexievich pays particular attention to new horrors: ethnic cleansing following the breakup of the U.S.S.R., plus Russia’s deadly war in Georgia ... This deep inquiry into a nation’s struggles is foregrounded with a quote from Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who tells Christ, 'There is no more pressing or tortuous task for man, having found himself free, than to seek out somebody to bow down to as soon as he can.' The riddle of freedom has long been one Russia has agonized over. This is the magnitude of Alexievich’s inquiry, as well as its importance — for isn’t America, too, agonizing over how to be free?
The Nobel Prize winner proves why she is one of the most significant writers today with this gut-wrenching whirlpool of a book that sucks you into the days just after the crumbling of the Soviet Union ... Alexievich has created a powerful alternative way of chronicling history that is easily more searing and multifaceted than a straight account ... By focussing on ordinary people living through extraordinary times, Alexievich redefines what has traditionally been considered ‘worthy of telling’... The leitmotif of this almost Wagnerian opus is of a displaced future; of a people emerging from a dark tunnel into a much-awaited epoch to realise, bewildered, that it is not 'standing in its proper place' after all ... Past and present and the absent future fuse into several terrifying dystopias that make this book a harrowing read at times ... I had to put the book down frequently to collect myself and gather the spirit to continue reading ... the sheer volume of narratives makes the book repetitive and overwrought at times, forcing it to lose steam towards the end ... Finally, though, it is enormously appropriate that this story should be told through monologues. In communist USSR, the word was the deed ... Today, in Russia as in the rest of the world, there is no word. You can say anything but it means nothing because the word has been devalued. It has fallen through the gaps of the shopping trolley.
Secondhand Time’s arrival in English...serves as a timely antidote to reports in the Western press about Russian nationalism. It is a necessary rejoinder not because the reports are false; rather, too little attention has been given to the complicated reasons behind the nationalistic sentiment ... Russia is a huge country and the various opinions expressed by Ms. Alexievich’s interlocutors cover an area nearly as vast ... Like insects that are suspended forever inside Russian amber, Secondhand Time is a testamentary record, a safe-keep of Russians’ beliefs and feelings as they existed in our time. Ms. Alexievich’s format of revealing history through individual stories feels more nuanced and more perceptive than conventional histories, a result that validates her conviction that it is at the individual level 'where everything really happens.' Leo Tolstoy would certainly agree.
...Alexievich treats her interviews not as fixed historical documents, but as raw material for her own artistic and political project. Her extensive editing—not only for clarity or focus, but to reshape meaning—brings Secondhand Time out of the realm of strictly factual writing. And by seeking to straddle both literature and history, Alexievich ultimately succeeds at neither ... Read as a work of literature...the book feels repetitive and heavy-handed, reinforcing conventional wisdom about the Soviet and post-Soviet world while providing few new insights ... [Alexievich] edits, reworks, and rearranges her interview texts, cleansing them of any strangeness that doesn’t serve her purposes. In doing so, she reduces the historical value of her work, effaces the texture of individual character, and eliminates the rhythm on which drama depends. It’s hard to get through Secondhand Time, not only because the subject matter is so painful, but because the testimonies are monotonous. As I read the book, I often wished that I could hear how Alexievich’s witnesses really sounded: their regional accents, their tone of voice, the pacing of their speech. I longed for the idiosyncrasies, false notes, and digressions of an actual interview ... Without the imprimatur of nonfiction, it is unlikely that Alexievich’s work would have won so much praise around the world ... Under scrutiny, Secondhand Time falls short as both fact and art.
Alexievich doesn’t know what she wishes to hear, except that it be the truth as her interviewee sees it ... Alexievich’s work follows the strands of thought and emotion wherever her voices take her — through nightmares, but also flashes of joy ... The work is unique in the intimacy of the experience transmitted through the writing: which is, after all, only the ability to have a human ear, to listen, and to publish. Only.
The book is Alexievich’s most ambitious project to date ... 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 ... 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 ... 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 ... There should, I thought, have been more information about the background of the person being interviewed...and the location of the dialogue ... Although the interviews are grouped by decade...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.
...a soul-wrenching 'oral history' that reveals the very different sides of the Russian experience. Revealing the interior life of 'Homo sovieticus; and giving horror-laden reports of life under capitalist oligarchy, Alexievich’s work turns Solzhenitsyn inside out and overpowers recent journalistic accounts of the era. Readers must possess steely nerves and a strong desire to get inside the Soviet psyche in order to handle the blood, gore, and raw emotion ... Her subjects argue with and lie to themselves; nearly everyone talks about love and loss in the context of war, hunger, betrayal, financial ruin, and emotional collapse. Yet with little intrusion from Alexievich and Shayevich’s heroic translation, each voice stands on its own, joining the tragic polyphony that unfolds chapter by chapter and gives expression to intense pain and inner chaos.
A lively, deeply moving cacophony of Russian voices for whom the Soviet era was as essential as their nature ... a rich kaleidoscope of voices ... The suicides Alexievich emphasizes are heart-wrenching, as is the reiterated sense of the people's 'naivete' in the face of ceaseless official deception, the endurance of anti-Semitism, war in the former Soviet republics, famine, and the most appalling living conditions. The author captures these voices in a priceless time capsule. Profoundly significant literature as history.