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The Backward Look

Pádraig Murphy

Second-Hand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich, Fitzcarraldo, 704 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1910695111

Second-Hand Time is the fifth book in the cycle “Voices of Utopia” by the Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015. She has indicated that it may be the last of the cycle. The previous titles were The Unwomanly Face of War (1985), which chronicles the experience of Soviet women during the Second World War; Last Witnesses (also 1985), which looks at the same period through the eyes of Soviet children; Boys in Zinc (1991), whose subject is Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan; and Chernobyl Prayer (1997), which deals with how the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was experienced.

The cycle is, for good reason, called “artistic-documentary” by its Russian publishers. Alexievich is an avowed disciple, and pupil, of her eminent countryman Ales Adamovich, who wrote in a similar genre. Perhaps the best-known Western practitioner of the same genre was Studs Terkel, cited in the introductory speech at the Nobel ceremony as another example of what, in his case, was called oral history. The term “artistic-documentary” undoubtedly refers to the mix of reportage, in Alexievich’s case including quotations from newspaper reports, and interviews, the artistry consisting in the particular presentation chosen.  Her work can thus be seen as qualifying, more so perhaps than the case of Bob Dylan, for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The prize was awarded to Alexievich, the Nobel committee announced, “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.

Asked about where the title Second-Hand Time came from, Alexievich explained

Because all the ideas, all the words, are all from someone else, as it were yesterday’s, used. Nobody knows how it should be, what will help us, and everybody makes use of what they knew once, what somebody once lived through, earlier experience. Unfortunately, for the time being, time is second-hand. But we are beginning to come to ourselves and to realise ourselves in the world. For, of course, nobody wishes to live amid ruins, everyone wishes to construct something out of this wreckage.

The book results from encounters Alexievich has had with her fellow countrymen and women over many decades. She is candid about the fact that she understands her fellow countrymen and women in this regard as coming from all over the former Soviet Union. In the introduction, called “Notes of a Participant”, she sets the scene. “Communism,” she notes,

had a crazy plan, to transform the “old” man, the Old Adam. And this was successful, perhaps the only thing that was achieved. Over more than seventy years a separate human type, homo sovieticus, was produced in the laboratories of Marxism-Leninism. To some, this was a tragic personage, to others, it was a sovok,

a derogatory term derived from Soviet communism, but recalling the everyday word for a dust scoop. “It seems to me,” she says, “that I know this man. He is well-known to me, I have lived side-by-side with him for many years. He is me.”

The book is not in any sense a scientific survey – it is often difficult to determine the time or the exact situation of those whose words are being conveyed; it is even, indeed, unclear whether these are the exact words used. The overall effect, however, is of a travelogue by a well-qualified explorer covering a territory known to a greater or lesser extent to exist, or, as the case may be, to have existed.

The most prevalent emotion expressed by Alexievich’s interlocutors is disillusion. Many of them were passive resisters of the regime in Soviet times – the well-known kitchen dissidents, who sat around in the evening, drinking tea or, more often, vodka, listening to Voice of America or the BBC, and bitching about the conditions of life in what was called “really existing socialism”. They would from time to time point to the ceiling bulb, as a signal of the perennial possibility that the all-powerful security services were listening. Or they would jam the dial of the old-fashioned telephone set as a way of frustrating bugging by the same services. In some – perhaps, in the later stages of the USSR, most – cases, the signal was an oblique attempt to exaggerate the importance of the exchanges, so that there was often nothing more heroic about it. Indeed, in some ways these kitchen palavers were a substitute for, admittedly dangerous, direct public action. And, apart from this, there was a traditional emotional satisfaction to be gained from such conversations, a staple of Russian social life, called “soul-to-soul conversation”. The first disillusion then was occasioned by the failure of the great experiment, which Alexievich calls the seventy-year-old one of creating the new, Marxist-Leninist engineered man. She quotes Shalamov, who, after serving a seventeen-year sentence in Stalin’s gulags, said: “I was a participant in the great lost battle for a really renewed life.” At the latest by the Brezhnev period, called that of “stagnation”, there was, some brave public dissidents apart, nothing but cynical resignation left when such ideals were invoked.

Then came the nineties, and the culmination of Gorbachev’s efforts to open up the system as a way of making it more efficient. The unintended consequence was a growing and unstructured demand for freedom. Alexievich remarks that everyone was happy in the nineties, but that there is no return now to that naivety. “We thought that the choice was made, communism had definitively lost. And everything was just beginning.” She asked everyone she encountered, “What exactly is freedom?” She discovered that the answer depended on the generation to which her interlocutor belonged. Those born in the USSR and those who had not been born then were like people from different planets. The nature of the disillusion, unsurprisingly, was different in each case.

A striking element in the book, which is referenced all through it, is the extent to which the quality and the availability in the shops of what we call salami was a gauge of quality of life for people in the Soviet generation. As Alexievich puts it, giving voice to a common view in most of this generation (this is not her own view), “the man who chooses from a hundred different varieties of salami in the shop is freer than the man who chooses from ten varieties”. (She adds, provocatively and controversially, freedom also means “to be unwhipped, but we can never expect an unwhipped generation; the Russian doesn’t understand freedom, he needs the Cossack and the lash”.) There can be little doubt that the salami question points to a significant reason for the failure of the great experiment in transforming human nature. A striking example of its centrality is provided in the report of Yeltsin’s visit to the US in 1989. He toured a medium-sized grocery shop in Texas. Leon Aron in his Yeltsin biography quotes one of the entourage: “For a long time, on the plane to Miami, he sat motionless, his head in his hands. ‘What have they done to our poor people?’ he said after a long silence.” The accompanying official went on: “On his return to Moscow, Yeltsin would confess the pain he had felt after the Houston excursion: ‘the pain for all of us, for our country so rich, so talented and so exhausted by incessant experiments’.”

This very question of the place of salami in an ideal society will, like a revenant, persist in those who come after the collapse of the Soviet system, as an index of where each situates himself or herself in relation to that vanished past. Most have become totally cynical. One businessman diagnoses “a mental revolution of one hundred and eighty degrees”. There is now no talk of the Gulag or anything like it. “Solzhenitsyn returned from America, and all rushed to him. But he didn’t understand us, whereas we did understand him. A foreigner. He came to Russia, but outside the window it was Chicago.” From being a white-collar worker under the old regime, this interviewee now has his own optical clinic with some hundreds of dependants and the most modern technology, and sends surgeons for work experience to France. But he is distinctly not an altruist. “If someone eats salami that is worse than mine, that is of no interest to me.” A former third secretary of a regional committee of the Party considers: “The USSR was my country, and now I live in what is not my country. I live in a foreign country.” She acknowledges that her father lived in a cruel time. But, quoting her father, she says, “They built a strong country. And they built it right through, and defeated Hitler.” For her, “mountains of salami are not connected to happiness or to glory. This was a great country! They have made of it a country of looters and hucksters … of shopmen and managers.”

Another recurring theme is the place of literature. Literature has, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, been a spiritual resource in Russia, providing moral support for the forces which aimed to overturn autocracy before the Revolution, and, after it, the oppressive Soviet regime. Isaiah Berlin spoke of the vast “bill of indictment which Russian literature has been drafting against Russian life”. The name of Solzhenitsyn figures very prominently here, as do the names of the classic authors of the pre-Revolutionary period. In this instance too there are reminiscences of what used to be. One person interviewed recalls that, in the Soviet period, if someone managed to get hold of – it was, be it noted, not necessarily the case that it was bought, it was often samizdat  – a new book, he could come to a friend’s house at any hour of the day or the night, even at two or three in the morning: he was always a welcome guest. For another, “One could wear one costume for twenty years, and two overcoats were enough for a lifetime, but it was impossible to live without Pushkin or the complete works of Gorky.” For the post-Soviet generation, it was the case that it was permitted to have many books, but not an expensive car or a house. Now the libraries and theatres are now empty.  In the nineties, one interviewee complains, the newspapers gave news of Berezovsky and Potanin (the oligarchs of the time), but not of Bulat Okudzhava and Fazil Iskander, the prominent writers of the late Soviet period. As another has it, under the tsar, the work of Herzen, one of the great exiles of his time – editor of The Bell, which he published in London along with Ogarev  – circulated extensively  in dissident intellectual circles within Russia. Herzen and Ogarev both lived in London. Today, he says, it’s “our new Russians”, the kings of jeans, furniture, chocolate and oil, who live there. An Armenian woman caught up in the pogroms, sometimes of Armenians, sometimes of Azeris, at the end of the Soviet period recalls an artist she knew and admired going up to the bookshelves in his house and, striking the spines, said “All this should be burned! Burned! I no longer believe in books! We thought that the good would triumph – nothing of the sort! We disputed about Dostoyevsky … Yes, these heroes are still with us! Amongst us. Next door.”

The subject of the pogroms, a notable feature of the break-up of the Soviet Union, figures largely in the book. An Armenian woman has lived all her young life in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. It is a city to which she is devoted. But with the collapse of the USSR it becomes an inferno of inter-ethnic violence. In 1985, Armenians are massacred and expelled from Sumgait, thirty kilometres from Baku. Azeris are expelled by violence from Nagorno Karabakh in 1991. She has married an ethnic Azeri, but there is no future for Armenians in Baku. She escapes to Moscow and has to wait for seven years there before her husband can join her, having to do so against every effort of his family to prevent him joining his wife and daughter. She maintains herself there by washing the metro, cleaning toilets, lugging bricks and bags of cement on building sites. After her husband rejoins her, she works in a restaurant, and he at remodelling homes to European standards, the so-called Euroremont. Neither has the necessary documentation, and accordingly, as she says, no rights. “People like us,” she says, are like sand in the desert. Hundreds of thousands of people fled from their homes: Tajiks, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Chechens … They fled to Moscow, to the capital of the USSR, and this is already the capital of another state. And it’s impossible to find anymore our state on the map.”

Other people interviewed by Alexievich bear out this picture. There are the ethnic Russians who flee Tajikistan after anti-Russian violence breaks out. Then there are the Tajiks, who emigrate in their thousands to Russia, principally Moscow, where, according to another interview, they are among some two million “guest workers”, and where, in the pattern of many exiles – the Irish in the US of a hundred years ago, the Irish countrymen in England of sixty years ago – they work on building sites and in other non-skilled and poorly paid jobs. In present-day Russia, they have practically no rights and are preyed on by the police and exploited by the indigenes, to many of whom they are “black arses”. The Armenian woman remarks on another parallel: of looking for accommodation, she says, “Everywhere there are notices: ‘Flat to let to a Slav family’, ‘To let to an Orthodox Russian family. Others are asked not to trouble us.’” Earlier, she remarks, they were all of Soviet nationality, but now they all have a new nationality – “persons of Caucasian nationality” – and they have to be careful where they go, because in certain areas there are skinheads, with swastikas, for whom Russia is for Russians, and who will attack them violently.

Abkhazia, now a splinter state which has broken away from Georgia, is another locus of the appalling ethnic violence which accompanied the break-up. Olga V, a twenty-four-year-old topographer, was interviewed in 1994. She is an ethnic Russian who was born in Abkhazia. She recounts her mother’s stories at the time of how suddenly, as it seemed, Abkhaz and Georgians couldn’t live together any more. Her mother visits neighbours and every time comes back with another horror story. In Gagri, a whole stadium of Georgians has, she has heard, been burnt. Georgians are castrating Abkhaz. Perhaps the most emblematic account is that of how a monkey gets bombed. It is night-time and Georgians are hunting down what they take to be an Abkhaz. They wound him, and he cries out. And then, Abkhaz run into him, and take him for a Georgian. They chase him and shoot at him. And towards morning they all see that this is a monkey. “And they all, both Georgians and Abkhaz, declare a truce and rush to save it. But, if it had been a human, they would have killed it.”

The case of Sergey Fyodorovich Akhromeev, marshal of the Soviet Union, is one of disillusion of a quite special sort. He played a prominent role as chief of the Soviet General Staff in the arms control and disarmament negotiations between the USSR and the US which presaged the end of the Cold War, but resigned in 1988 because he thought Gorbachev was going too far in his concessions to the Americans. He came back nevertheless as military adviser to Gorbachev in 1990. But he joined the putsch against him in August 1991, not because he was part of the plot that originated it – he wasn’t – but apparently because he was profoundly dissatisfied with the path the country was embarked on. With the collapse of the coup, he committed suicide in his Kremlin office, leaving a letter to Gorbachev explaining the decision he had taken. In this letter of August 22nd, 1991, he says:

Why did I come to Moscow of my own initiative – no one summoned me from Sochi – and start to work in the “Committee”? I was after all convinced that this adventure would end in failure, and, having come to Moscow, was once again convinced of this. The fact is that, beginning in 1990, I was as convinced as I am today that our country was heading for disaster. Soon it will be dismembered. I looked for the occasion to proclaim this loudly. I considered that my participation in advancing the work of the “Committee” and the consequent investigation connected with it would give me the opportunity to speak directly about this. It probably sounds unconvincing and naive, but that’s the way it is. There were no selfish motivations in my decision.

Akhromeev’s grave was subsequently plundered and the uniform in which he was buried stolen.

Akhromeev is recalled in various ways by Alexeevich’s interlocutors, but a significant strain emerges from many of them. In this perception, he was a pure product of Stalinist communism, born in 1923 in an obscure Mordovian village, becoming an orphan at an early age. He went to war as a volunteer while a cadet in a naval academy. He advanced with time from cadet to the very top of the military hierarchy. This at a time when the whole international status of the USSR depended on its having a super-power-sized military force. As one of the interviewees puts it, the country was essentially militarised. Seventy per cent of the economy, he says, in one way or another served the army, as well as the best brains, physicists, mathematicians. The ideology also was a military one. “We need a strong and powerful army, see how extensive our territory is! – bordering on half the world.”

Akhromeev’s origin was in deep provincial Russia. There, one of the interviewees remarks, all this talk of the greatness of Russia is so much bullshit. If people travelled, say, fifty kilometres from Moscow, they would see how people there lived. How drink-sodden are the holidays. In the countryside, there are hardly any men left. They have died out. Consciousness is at the level of cattle – men drink themselves to death.  In every family, someone has either served, or is serving a prison sentence. The local police is out of its depth. Only the women work. There may be tanks in Moscow and barricades during the putsch, but no one in the countryside is especially exercised about it. Everyone is more concerned with the Colorado beetle and the cabbage moth. Although not all are communists, they are for the great country, and most are in favour of the putsch. They were afraid of change, because after every change, the muzhik was left as the dumb one. Another, this time speaking in the Putin era, says that capitalism will never catch on in Russia. The fact has nothing to do with Putin or Yeltsin, but with the fact that, beyond Moscow, Russians are slaves. The spirit of capitalism is, in his view, alien to Russia, and has not spread beyond Moscow. The climate isn’t there for it, and neither is the human being. The people are Bolshevik, and he mocks Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, who were the apostles of the shock therapy of the nineties, as “the Iron Winnie-the-Pooh” and “the red-haired Chubais”. Because of what he himself went through in the 90s, they should, he says, be with Khodorkovsky in prison. This is a motif that is a constant in Russian culture. Outside a beer stand, a group drinks and debates, as always, about the future of Russia and about communism. If one considers that Russia is either great or is not at all, another couldn’t give a fig for a great country. “I want to live in a small country, like Denmark,” he says. But another, a professor, takes up a perennial Russian theme. “We spend our time,” he says,

talking of suffering. This is our way to knowledge. Western people seem to us naïve, because they don’t suffer like us, for them there is a medicine for every pimple. As for us, we were imprisoned in camps, the earth was crammed with corpses, with bare hands we removed the nuclear fuel in Chernobyl … And now, we sit on the ruins of socialism. Just like after the War. We’re just the same ground-down, beaten people. We have our language, the language of suffering.

The Russian propensity to put a special value on suffering is well exemplified by another interviewee who says, “Russian life has to be evil and worthless, because then the spirit is uplifted, it recognises that it doesn’t belong to this world … The more dirty and bloody, the more room there is for the spirit.”

On the other hand, and here we come back to the different planets on which they are living, he says that he has tried to talk about this to his students. They laughed in his face. “We don’t want to suffer. For us, life is something other than that.” He is non-plussed that they understand nothing of a world which existed such a short time ago, and that they are now living in another one. “A whole civilisation,” he says, “is thrown out on the rubbish heap.”

For all that, there are members of the younger generation who are affected by a different kind of disillusion. Tanya Kishelova is twenty-one in 2010. She is a student in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Aleksandr Lukashenko, who, in Alexievich’s description, is the laughing stock of Europe, known as “the potato dictator” or “the world pug”, has been president since 1994. Tanya does not consider herself a heroine, and is not ready for heroics. She is concerned for her mother, who has heart problems, all the more so in that her family does not support the liberal ambitions of her circle. That same circle is ambivalent – she brings out the calculations of its members vividly. When it comes to a question of demonstrating for the rights of free assembly and free speech guaranteed in the Belarusian constitution, some say they aren’t revolutionaries, some are concerned for their professional future. Tanya doesn’t explain exactly her reasoning, other than to mention shame that the Ukrainians have had their Maidan and the Georgians their “Rose Revolution”, and that the Belarusian authorities must not be allowed to consider that they can treat their people like so many cattle. So, she finds herself on December 19th, 2010 participating in a large demonstration for these rights in Minsk.

There is a very large number of demonstrators and, as in all large congregations, they feel that their morale is high, and that everyone else is with them. They are also, she says, the first unscared generation, the first one that has not been shot at. Like the battle plan thought out in detail in Staff Headquarters, this high-mindedness does not survive the first contact with the enemy. For enemy there is, much to Tanya’s initial surprise. The authorities have assembled large companies of well-armed security troops. To Tanya, from one perspective it’s like these are two different peoples. From another, they are boys from the country, just like herself. Indeed, she recognises some of them, and can give their names. But they act as they have been trained to do, and proceed brutally to break up and arrest the demonstrators. The harsh reality is brought home by barked commands: “Mug in the snow, bitch! One move and I’ll kill you!”, while the boys among them are subjected to well-aimed kicks between the legs. Arrest – some seven hundred are arrested – and calculated further humiliations do the rest to dispel the illusions with which she started out. “They say,” she says,

that to understand this, it is necessary to read Solzhenitsyn. When I was at school, I borrowed from the library The Gulag Archipelago, but I didn’t take to it then. It was a long and boring book. I read about fifty pages and left it. Something far away, like the Trojan War. Stalin was a worn-out theme. I and my friends had little interest in all this.

Before this happened, she had become a lover of revolution in the abstract, “in the museum”, as she puts it: it was a romantic adventure. It would be interesting, she thought, to find out how a revolution is made. So she and her friends went out onto the streets, in a kind of children’s revolution, as it was called. But their parents remained at home, sat in their kitchens and talked of how their children had gone. They survived. For the parents, it was something frightening, but their children had no Soviet memories. They had read about communists only in books, and had no terror. But Tanya does not believe that the whole system is based on terror. Rather, there is complicity between the executioner and his victim, a complicity which has survived the communist times. There is a tacit bargain, a big deal. People understand it well, but remain silent. In return, they get a decent salary and can buy maybe a used Audi and holiday in Turkey. So much for democracy and human rights. “If the children of people in Soviet times thought that bananas grew in Moscow, look what happens now … one hundred kinds of salami! What other kind of freedom is necessary?” In her view, even today, many would want the Soviet Union back, provided there were loads of salami.

In her person, Tanya incarnates another division in Russia, adverted to often in the book: the country is far from being represented if only Moscow and St Petersburg are taken into consideration. She comes from a Belarusian village, and there, as she says, people live as they always lived. They dig potatoes with spades in their gardens, they crawl on their knees, they brew illicit spirits. Evenings, you don’t meet a single sober man. They drink every day. They vote Lukashenko and regret the ending of the Soviet Union and the unconquerable Soviet army. She has not changed. Met by chance on the Moscow-Minsk train a year later, she reveals that she is now studying in Moscow. This is 2011, and she is attending the Bolotnaya Square protests with her friends. She loves the faces of the people she meets there. Her disillusion is total. The armed forces are taught from the same textbooks as in Stalin’s time. In school, she says, they were told, “Read Bunin and Tolstoy. These books save people.” One could ask, she says, why this wisdom is not transmitted, but the practice of the door-handle in the anus and the plastic bag over the head is.

Among the protesters in Bolotnaya Square in 2011, a hundred thousand in total according to Alexievich, is another girl the author speaks to. She is seventeen, and says she goes to the protests because she has enough of the people being taken for suckers. “Give us back our elections, you skunks,” she says. What does she know of Putin? “I know that he’s a judo adept, that he got the seventh dan in judo. And it appears, that’s all I know.” “I’m not Che Guevara, I’m a coward, but I didn’t miss a single protest meeting. I want to live in a country of which I’m not ashamed.”

Another kind of disillusion figures in the story of the executioner under Stalin. It is told by a man who was a young lieutenant in the Soviet army at the time of perestroika. He gets engaged to a girl, they buy the rings, and all arrangements are ready to proceed. The family of his fiancée lives in a big house on extended grounds, the kind, he says, that was given by the Soviet government to high-level public servants, academics and writers for special services rendered. The fiancée’s grandfather, who had been given the property, is released from hospital with incurable lung cancer. The young man often debated with him: perestroika had begun, it was the springtime of Russian democracy. The grandfather, for his part, was full of reminiscences of the Soviet past: how he had met Gorky and Mayakovsky. The people wanted to love Stalin and celebrate the Ninth of May (WWII Victory Day), he maintained.

One day they are left alone in the house, and amid drinking of vodka and, at the beginning, discussion of the everyday topics of that time – socialism, Bukharin, Lenin’s testament and so on – the old man comes out with the statement that “terror is necessary. Without terror, everything with us falls to pieces.” Subsequently, he reveals to the young lieutenant what the services which brought him the small estate really were. He had been one of the executioners of the Stalinist terror. In his telling, he had been a soldier. “They gave the order, and I went. They tell you, and you go. I killed enemies. Wreckers! There was a document: sentenced to ‘the highest measure of social defence’.” They had worked, as everyone did in those days, to a plan.

You make a man kneel down – a shot at almost point-blank range in the left-hand side of the back of the head … in the area of the left ear … My arm hung at the end of the shift like a whip. The index finger was especially disabled … As at a factory.

Asked how long a man can last under torture, the old man says “the leg of a cocktail chair in the rear passage or an awl in the scrotum – and there’s no more person. Ha-ha, no person. Pure crap! Ha-ha.”

The young man was no longer able to continue the engagement or to visit the house. He remarked how the butcher and his associates can live apparently normal lives subsequently . A dissociation process is at work: that was not me, it was the system. Even Stalin said “not I decide, but the Party”. The old man taught his son: “You think that was me, Stalin. No! Stalin, that was him,” pointing to the portrait on the wall. The logic was impeccable: first there was the victim and the other who butchered him, and in the end, the butcher was also a victim. Alexievich notes that after some days the interviewee telephones and refuses to have the text printed. He declines to explain why. Then she learns that he has emigrated to Canada. She runs across him again after ten years, and he agrees to publication. He says: “I’m glad that I left in time. At one time, everybody loved Russians, and now again they’re afraid of them. Are you not appalled?”

The book is filled with personal stories, almost all of which, as one reviewer has remarked, end in tears, and not only the tears of the tale-teller, but of the reader as well. Tears, of course, of disillusion, as mentioned. But, from a broader perspective, the personal fates described are the results of the tectonic shocks that Russia has been subjected to over the lifetimes of those interviewed. There is Timeryan Zinatov, a Tatar, hero of the defence of Brest in the Second World War, who keeps returning to the Brest fortress to relive his days of glory. After he commits suicide in 1992 by throwing himself under a train, another veteran, Viktor Yakovlevich Yakovlev, in a letter to Pravda, describes how he and another veteran are refused service in a Moscow restaurant at the Leningrad Station because the room is business class. Yakovlev explodes: “They took everything from us, those bastards the Chubaises, the Vekselbergs, the Grefs [Chubais was the architect of economic “shock therapy”; the others mentioned are oligarchs]  … our money, our honour.” “Yeltsin swore at the beginning of his Presidency,” he writes,

that he would lie down on the rails if the standard of living of the people was reduced. This level was not just reduced, it fell, one can say, into an abyss. But Yeltsin did not lie on the rails. The man who lay on the rails in Autumn 1992, in a sign of protest, was the old soldier Timeryan Zinatov.

There are stories of a widow and her young daughter being defrauded of their inherited property under the new dispensation; of the childhood of a now fifty-seven-year-old writer, born in Siberia as the daughter of an exiled Pole, and eventually orphaned there and sent back west to what before the war had been Polish territory, now incorporated into the Soviet Union, to live with an uncle and aunt she had never seen before. The one tale that doesn’t fit this pattern is that of Lena, the woman who corresponds with a long-term prisoner convicted of murder, to marry whom she leaves her husband, and who, after the prisoner’s release, having served eighteen years, just disappears. Rumour has it that she now lives in a monastic settlement with drug addicts and AIDS sufferers, perhaps having taken a vow of silence. The point explicitly made by this tale is that of the great Russian soul: that Russian, as Alexievich puts it, “of whom Dostoyevsky wrote, that he is as wide as the Russian land. Socialism didn’t change him, and capitalism will not.” A friend adds to this picture, saying that Lena “all her life wanted the absolute, and the absolute can exist only in written form, can be realised fully only on paper”. The relevance to a system that set out to create a new man, a homo sovieticus, is clear. Another of those interviewed recalls the perhaps apocryphal story of the sign displayed at the entrance to the Solovetsky prison camp in the north of Russia: “We will drive humanity to happiness with an iron hand.”

Alexievich’s book is a panorama of the human beings who have lived and suffered in Russia over the past eighty or so years. She divides the period into four generations: those of Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev; she herself belongs to the last. As the account covers also developments among the younger generation in Minsk and Moscow of just a few years ago, it would be fitting to add a fifth, that of Putin. But this is not a public opinion survey, with any of the scientific validity to which such surveys profess to aspire. It is her perspective. It is permissible to ask what this perspective may be. In her Nobel lecture, she mentions that as Flaubert called himself a human pen, she is “a human ear”. No more, perhaps, than in the case of Flaubert, is the suggestion of passivity quite appropriate. But she goes further. Her interest, she says, is in the history of the soul, and she gives the five books she has written the overall title of “a history of utopia”. The Red Empire may be gone, but what she calls the “Red Man”, or homo sovieticus, remains. Her history is that of domestic, indoor socialism. But she also buys into the perennial Russian preoccupation with suffering. “I’m interested in little people,” she says in her lecture, “the little, great people … because suffering expands people.”

Further, and in the same lecture, she avers that Russians are a people of war – they have always been at war or preparing for war. She sees greatness in this: she is, she says, “absolutely convinced that there will never again be young women like the wartime girls of 1941. This was the high point of the ‘Red’ idea, higher than even the Revolution and Lenin. Their Victory still eclipses the Gulag.” She is at one with those of her countrymen, and they are many, who consider that the only time they were really free was during the war: “Suffering is our capital and natural resource.” Russian literature, in her view, is the only literature that tells the story of an experiment carried out on a huge country – the same effort mentioned at Solovetsky to drive humanity with an iron hand to happiness. The results are everywhere in Russia still: as she puts it, despite the end of “socialism”, “‘Red’ people are everywhere”. She acknowledges that she herself is one of them, even if, after Afghanistan, she no longer believes in socialism with a human face. She has more than empathy with those who resent the division that has been brought about by the revolution that followed Gorbachev. The division between those who can buy things and those who can’t was, she says in her Nobel lecture,

the cruellest of the ordeals to follow socialism, because not long ago everyone had been equal. The ‘Red’ man wasn’t able to enter the kingdom of freedom he had dreamed of around his kitchen table. Russia was divvied up without him, and he was left with nothing. Humiliated and robbed. Aggressive and dangerous.

In an interview with Natalya Igrunova in the Russian edition of the book, Alexievich puts her position on the state of Russia against the background of her having lived for a long time in Europe. She sees the challenge faced at the end of what was called “socialism” as that of a people “thrown out of their own history and into a common time”. It’s a way of saying that the seventy-plus history of the Soviet Union produced a kind of institutionalisation which challenges in a special way those who have emerged from it. It was a huge task, she says, and they did not have the free people and the freedom of thinking necessary to adapt to, and adopt, the new dispensation. While humanity is on its way to a just society, it is, she says, a long perspective.

In the meantime, she agrees that what happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union was a great injustice. While everything was still permeated with “socialism”, a few concrete individuals set out to act and divvied up the country, sawed it in pieces, and carried it off. She is sorry for much that was lost, dignity above all. But she does not make the mistake of writing this off to the culture of the West. Russians, she says, should orient themselves to the general intellectual and political space of Europe. While there had been an effort to sell people the idea that possession and glamour were all that mattered, many quickly saw how empty this was. All cried that a new national idea was called for, but the space was filled with rubbish. There is indeed such a debate in Russia, begun by Boris Yeltsin, but it seems to have broken down in the face of irreconcilables: for instance, to what extent, in a multi-ethnic state, can Orthodoxy, which is not the religion of all constituent republics, fill the ideological void?

Igrunova touches on the all-important – in Russia up to 1990, in any case – place of literature in the culture and polity. “Many generations,” she says, “relied on literature, on the Russian classics. Now this experience seems to have ceased to work, it’s disappearing, reading is ceasing to be the main parameter of the cultural level of a person. In your view, can a person who doesn’t read count as a cultured person?” Alexievich’s answer is interesting. She recounts an occasion she personally experienced. A very well-known Moscow cosmologist was giving a party in his own house at which a number of Western colleagues of equal eminence were among the guests. The Russian cosmologist was the life and soul of the party, and sprinkled his comments liberally with examples from the Russian classics, reciting Russian poetry by heart. A Western colleague, of equal eminence, intrigued, asks him if he has specially learned the poetry by heart? “This,” says Alexievich, “is what struck me most of all in the West. The humanistic spectrum is not obligatory. There is professional acuteness, but no breadth.” This is to her an example of the fact that there can be a very varied definition of what constitutes high culture. For all that, she acknowledges that, for her, reading still has paramount value. Asked what of that she has recently read caused her to say, “Oh! This was indispensable,” she says she has read a lot of Olga Sedakova. “In such a dark time as this, we very much need teachers/prophets, and her presence in contemporary life is for me like a lantern.”

Sedakova was a student of Sergei Averintsev, professor at the Institute for History and Cultural Theory at Moscow Lomonosov University. In essence, he was an old-fashioned philologist, subsequently professor of East Slavic Literatures at Vienna University. Sedakova is a poet and translator, and, very much under Averintsev’s influence, a cultural commentator in the mode of TS Eliot (whose “Ash Wednesday” she has translated). Both Averintsev and Sedakova were cultivated by Pope John Paul II, who was very active in trying to bring about a rapprochement between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy. Averintsev was appointed to the Papal Academy of Social Sciences by John Paul II; Sedakova was conferred by him with the inaugural Vladimir Solovyev Prize. Both Averintsev and Sedakova were advocates of reconciliation between the Western Christian – Catholic and Protestant – and Orthodox traditions. Alexievich also studied in the philological faculty at Moscow State University under Averintsev. She describes him as the idol of the time – all enlightened Moscow crowded into his lectures. Sedakova explains the attraction he exercised on students such as herself as consisting in keeping alive, at a time when the official culture was at its most extremely obscurantist, the sense that there existed an overarching European culture which went back to classical and Old Testament roots. His erudition, in her description, was able to encompass in one overview Athens and Jerusalem, Edgar Alan Poe and Clemens von Brentano. In 1990, Sedakova wrote of the problem of tradition in the then newly “liberated” Russia. The problem, in her view, is that referred to by Alexievich: an old tradition has been betrayed by the wilful effort to create a new man. This effort has now been definitively discredited, but a special effort is needed to replace it. For Sedakova, this can only be done by Orthodoxy, with the openness to the Western tradition that she and Averintsev have advocated.

There can be little doubt that Alexievich shares Sedakova’s view that a new dispensation is called for to replace the discredited one that resulted in homo sovieticus. She is not on record as to how Orthodoxy might contribute to this, but her expressed admiration for Sedakova suggests sympathy, at least, for this view, as does her statement in the Igrukova interview, inspired by her investigation of the Chernobyl experience, that: “We more and more often have to think about the fact that we do not dispose of power over this world, as we had thought, that there are other laws, that there are certain other forces.” What on the other hand is striking in Averintsev and Sedakova – in the latter case explicitly – is that the focus is entirely on the Christian world, East and West. Sedakova excludes Islam, a move not without consequences in a state such as the Russian Federation.

What of the future? Alexievich in her interview refers again to the Russian self-understanding that they are a people of misfortune and suffering, “deep and long-standing Russian culture”. “We don’t have the culture of happiness, a joyful life. A culture of love.” The next book I’ll write, she says, will be about love, tales of love of hundreds of people . But she immediately expresses doubt. “We didn’t have that kind of life. How could we undertake such a literature, such a cinema? Suffering, struggle and war, this is the experience of our life and of our art.” At the end, she confirms: the cycle of five books, a history of utopia, is at an end.


Pádraig Murphy is a retired official of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs. He served as ambassador to the then Soviet Union from 1981 to 1985.