In Secondhand Time, 2015 Nobel Prize winner, Svetlana Alexievich chronicles the demise of communism. Everyday Russian citizens recount the past thirty years, showing us what life was like during the fall of the Soviet Union and what it’s like to live in the new Russia left in its wake. Through interviews spanning 1991 to 2012, Alexievich takes us behind the propaganda and contrived media accounts, giving us a panoramic portrait of contemporary Russia and Russians who still carry memories of oppression, terror, famine, massacres—but also of pride in their country, hope for the future, and a belief that everyone was working and fighting together to bring about a utopia. Here is an account of life in the aftermath of an idea so powerful it once dominated a third of the world.
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.