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.
[Secondhand Time] is one of the most vivid and incandescent accounts of this society caught in the throes of change that anyone has yet attempted, the story of what one character aptly describes as 'our lost generation — a communist upbringing and capitalist life' ... No one should pick up this book expecting to find a well-explained chronological history of what happened in the Kremlin. Rather, the material is a trove of emotions and memories, raw and powerful. As history, it is the exact opposite, say, of a Soviet leader standing on Lenin’s Tomb, distant and unfathomable. Alexievich makes it feel intimate, as if you are sitting in the kitchen with the characters, sharing in their happiness and agony, enveloped in their nostalgia and riven with their anxiety.
If you want to understand contemporary Russia, Secondhand Time is essential reading. The polyphony of voices, with some individuals identified by their first names and patronymics, and others simply as 'Snatches of Street Noises and Kitchen Conversations,' is astonishing...However much Alexievich may have crafted — or to use her term, 'sculpted' — these interviews, the voices of her interlocutors are hauntingly real.