The hopeless wasteland of modern Russia

In Second-hand Time, Svetlana Alexievich traces the experiences of ten families since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, revealing how quickly euphoria gave way to despair

4 June 2016

9:00 AM

4 June 2016

9:00 AM

Second-hand Time Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich

Fitzcarraldo Editions, pp.694, £14.99, ISBN: 9781910695111

‘Gilded doorknobs,’ spits a Party diehard as she contemplates the blessings of the Soviet Union’s collapse. ‘Is this freedom?’ Dozens of witnesses from the ‘lost generation’ in Russia who had ‘a communist upbringing and a capitalist life’ share Elena S’s disgust and bewilderment as they contribute to this epic fresco of an empire’s bitter aftermath. Some adjust smartly to the post-Soviet disorder, although a 35-year-old advertising manager reflects that ‘I never dreamed of being fucked in stairwells or saunas in exchange for expensive dinners.’ The few winners and many losers agree: ‘You can’t buy democracy with oil and gas… You need free people, and we didn’t have them.’

Since the millennium, the Swedish Academy has rewarded two great reporters with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Both show how empires end in minds as well as on maps. In his travelogues, V.S. Naipaul has chronicled not only the British imperial twilight but the longer rhythms of Islamic ascendancy and fragmentation. Svetlana Alexievich, born to a mother from Ukraine and a father from Belarus, has turned her own Naipaul-like marginality into a vantage point that lends a panoramic view of a culture in ruins.

Last year, she took the Nobel for five interview-led works that trace the downfall and afterlife of sovok — Soviet man —and build into a single ‘history of utopia’. True, Naipaul puts his own journey centre-stage while Alexievich retreats into the wings to let her subjects speak. But this is the art that conceals art. Her editor’s flair for selection, contrast and emphasis, her almost cinematic touch with cuts, pans and close-ups, make her a documentary virtuoso and not a transcription machine.

Prefaced by a jostling collage of voices from kitchen and street, each half of Second-hand Time traces the experience of ten individuals and their families in the years after the USSR crumbled in 1991. Act I covers the gangster melodrama of the 1990s, when a gang of kleptocratic oligarchs plundered the empire’s corpse and ‘the black marketeers and money-changers took power’. Memories of vanished Soviet glory drive most testimonies, even when the system starved or crushed its people: ‘Yes, we stood in line for rotting chicken and discoloured potatoes, but it was our Motherland. I loved it.’ Now, the salami — almost a running gag here — has improved, but the soul has shrivelled. ‘There’s loads of salami in the shops, but no happy people.’

In Act II, echoes of wartime victory and Soviet solidarity fade to expose the hopeless wasteland of the 2000s. Something, or someone, must satisfy Russia’s gnawing hunger for lost order and grandeur. A new name surfaces more than halfway through this 700-page doorstop of decline: ‘ “Putin the democrat” is our shortest joke.’ As nostalgia and nihilism combust, the residue looks strangely familiar. ‘Everyone needs a Tsar,’ says a high-ranking former Kremlin apparatchik. Many voices in this vast polyphony agree. ‘Our lives reel between barracks and bedlam,’ Elena S laments. Gorbachev opened the doors to bedlam. Now the barracks look tempting again. More upbeat, a beer-drinker insists that ‘Empire and communism are ingrained in us. We seek out heroic ideals.’

That heroism — or militarism — has delivered grief on an inconceivable scale. From the Gulag to Stalingrad, from early Bolshevik (and Tsarist) atrocities to post-imperial massacres in Georgia or Azerbaijan, blood soaks the pages. Frequently, people wage war on themselves. Suicide runs like a red thread through these accounts, from the Soviet Marshal Akhromeyev, who shot himself in 1991, to the young waitress Tamara, who tells Alexievich that she ‘has never seen anything good or beautiful in this life’. After their sessions, she takes her leave of it.

Even love may bring death. We meet an Armenian Juliet, who lost her Azeri Romeo to yet another vicious post-Soviet conflict of the 1990s. She had read Shakespeare’s play — almost every witness here, however humble, devours good literature — and thought: ‘It’s about my life.’ Alexievich seldom adds stage-directions to her interviews. For this one, she does: ‘Both of us cry.’

This long journey through public and private bereavement can feel like a hard slog. Take it rather in brief, galvanising shots, as fierce as the grog that succours so many invisible injuries. At the end of an execution shift in Stalin’s camps, we learn, ‘They would bring us two buckets: a bucket of vodka and a bucket of cologne.’ Alexievich listens to perpetrators and victims alike. In the wreckage of empire, they share a common destiny.

Uniforms and ideologies may change, but Russian suffering — and fortitude — endures. Both Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn crop up often in these confessions. Second-hand Time has snatches of impromptu tragic beauty that both might admire. ‘Who’s Red, who’s White — it makes no difference,’ says the Everywoman who bids us farewell with fond memories of a country marriage graced by lilacs and nightingales. ‘The important thing is to make it to spring.’

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  • Pax Orbis

    This is just another hopeless anti-russian article.

    All the author has managed to prove here is that he can type words on a computer.

    • Frank

      Is it cold in Moscow at the moment?

  • Hegelman

    And how did it go in other lands?

    Just curious.

  • Oh my here we go again… Why is there a flood of anti Russian crap all of a sudden? It’s getting tediously boring real fast. I’m a 2nd generation Australian with Korean heritage, and neither my Australian friends & family nor my Korean relatives buy into any of this crap. That old cold war bogey man story was complete hokem with the fairy tale long dead & buried. So why is our media trying to revive it? It looks like some politicians (mostly American and British) are desperate to pick a fight as a distraction to their own failings and I don’t want any part of it. Clean up your act Spectator.


    • Frank

      Perhaps you need to improve your education before leaping to the conclusion that this book, or article are some kind of propaganda. The situation in Russia is dire and it is immensely sad that this country has been so destroyed, particularly by its own politicians. If you need a parallel it is the equivalent of North Korea, which is equally abused by its politicians and a very sad situation.
      As for “peace” are you aged 13?

      • Sure Frank… sure go on thinking whatever you like but in my job I travel everywhere and when I sum up the state of those countries Russia as a country is doing just fine. I can point to a lot of problems that worry me a lot more than our nice people in our Russian offices. Everyone I interact with on both ends of the country are happy & healthy.

        I’m in a unique position to know how many network port counts companies are catering for at least a year in advance and the headcount in firms operating in Russia are growing and that’s amazingly good, because in France, UK & US fall in planned head count are absolutely depressing and next year many companies operating in countries like Australia are headed for a big cliff. I’m sick & tired of the finger pointing being done at a time when our own government is ruling over a surveillance state, massive budget & current account deficits, growing race riots, growing unemployment, mass corporate tax avoidance, rigged elections, wide spread losses in pensions, lack of basic free health and education, and crumbling public infrastructure. Let’s just focus on our own problems rather than inventing someone elses… The big bad Red Communist Russian bogey man is coming to get you – what a joke. You’re pathetic!

        • Marcus

          No one is suggesting Russia is coming to get you in this post. N.b. surveillance state?
          Do you know what happens to journalists opposed to Putin ? They have a surveillance state.

          • Marcus Grant

            Do you know what happens to journalists opposed to Putin ?

            majority of those journalists were pro-Putin actually and they were killed in Southern ethnic republics of Russia by Islamists…

        • Mc

          You are employing a logical fallacy. People in the West are not ignoring their own failings. (It appears you haven’t noticed that articles about Russia make up a tiny proportion of news story). That’s the beauty of (relatively speaking) free speech in the West: one can criticize one’s own setup without fear of being assassinated or jailed (as is the default case in Russia). The point is that Russia is at almost any point in time in a much worse state than the West. This is for the simple reason that it has been ruled, with very brief exceptions, by brutal dictators who do not run their countries well and typically plunge into ruinous wars and follow stupid economic models.

      • Marcus Grant

        Frank wrote :”The situation in Russia is dire and it is immensely sad that this
        country has been so destroyed, particularly by its own politicians.


        you sound like a true communist – they (communists) usually dribble about how great and good was there in Soviet times and now Russia is “destroyed” by politicians now… Tell me which period of time was BETTER in Russia (as compared to what it is now) – and I’ll tell you who you are – a communist or a bandit or a feudal slave-owner…. Be advised that NEVER (during 11 centuries of their history) have russians lived better then they live now.

        • Marcus

          Totally agree… but…. perhaps, perhaps, not the extremes you see today in comparison to late 80s?

          • Marcus Grant

            perhaps, not the extremes you see today in comparison to late 80s?


            in late 80-s KGB was still in force, one-party system was ruling in the country and ofcource russians had no opportunity to travel abroad without state permit – only in 1990 the law demanding KGB permit for each and every Russian to leave the country was lifted by Gorby,,,but 1990-s was also time when food shortages started and payments of wages started to be delayed for months on mass sclale – just look at a crowd in Moscow or other russian cities those days – and compare that to situation today – there is a saying “poverty is something that one can’t hide ” – and it is seen on photos of late 1980-s – begining of 1990-s…
            I am in Russia now and believe me – there are no any EXTREMES here…Extremes were in 1990-s (if to consider Soviet period before collapse of USSR to be not EXTREMES, but some kind of MORBID normality, lol )

      • Mr B J Mann

        As Svetlana Alexievich was born to a mother from Ukraine and a father from Belarus why isn’t she writing about how the situation in her native countries is dire and it is immensely sad that they have been so destroyed, particularly by their own politicians.

        If you need a parallel.

        Are you aged 13?

        • Frank

          I love the way that Putin is so scared of any criticism that whenever anything vaguely critical of Russia appears, you guys are all over it trying to defend the indefensible. Does it ever occur to you that you all just come across as ridiculous?

          • Mr B J Mann

            Sorry, you’ve lost me.

            Are you saying I’m Putin?!

            Does it ever occur to you that “you all” just come across as ridiculous?!?!?!?

          • Mr B J Mann

            And why are you avoiding answering my point, Svetlana?!

          • You love your own dreamy narrative, nothing else. Then a lot of mythology needs creating to support it. Suddenly every single Russian, or anybody who ever been there trying to tell you how things really are, becoming Putin’s personal friend or sits on some propaganda factory paid by KGB. With that approach the reality will never touch you.

            I personally think Putin is a great statesman and did a lot for his country – stopping oligarch rule, sorting out Chechnia and rebuilding industrial and R&D potential. establishing a layer of patriotic bureaucracy between oligarchs and the state was clever. Neither is perfect, but at least neither got the full power being in check by each other. But. He has to go now. Because he took this stand with the West too personal. He was attacked personally, and he cracked finally. It is not right to take a whole country with you on a personal quest. He is right on that quest and people will continue standing by him. But. Not all Russians are heroes, some just up to basics. He can still be a good asset to Russia, but off the power and decision making post. Time to cool down for him.

          • Frank

            If the Russian people want to carry on with a dictator and a mafia state, that is their choice – that doesn’t stop other nationalities feeling sorry for them.

      • You clearly never been to Russia or talked to alive Russian before.

        • Frank

          Yes I have. Secondly, you don’t have to be a chicken to judge an egg.

  • Marcus Grant

    I wonder why don’t they EVER report about “hopeless” or “happy” situation in other parts of ex-Soviet Union – like how “happy” are now ‘liberated’ citisens of Uzbekistan or Tajikistan or Kyrgizstan?…Yet they (western press) are so much concerned about “poor Russians”, not about those others tajics, uzbecks etc. whom they (western propaganda shills) were so happy to “liberate” from Soviet past after USSR collapse…Or maybe they in the west will be happy only when russians will slide back to stone age like those tajics and uzbecks did after “liberating” themselves from russian dominance in Soviet Union? – then there will be no need to be “concerned” about russians anymore – everything will be OK in their books

    • The state of education is devastating. My mum in Russia had tajik migrants digging for water pipe. The hole had to be 2.20 m deep to protect the pipe from frost. I was not able to explain what 2.20 m is or how to use a measuring tool. The translating guy seems to got it, but the actual builders did not look familiar with a concept of measuring. You nd handsome boys desperate to be paid. Zero skills. None.

  • Ingmar Blessing

    Russia will still be there, when we cover our daughters in veils and lift our butts to Mekka .

    People usually forget: Generation long suffering is Russia’s strong suit.

    • balls

      More balls, please!

    • Hegelman

      Russians themselves on the whole admire the Bolshevik Revolution. For all its horrors (like the history of other countries, including Britain) the revolution did a lot of good. Russians recognise that and value Soviet symbols.

      • 1917 was just more recent and coincided with ww1, major epidemic and invasion by 18 foreign states. One cannot claim it was more bloody than the French revolution. as such it was not. Nobody is surprised French having Marceliesa for national anthem and celebrating Bastille. Not to mention the bloody nature of Cromwell. A nation need one big revolution. There is a lot to think over when the bottom had enough momentum and guts to crush the establishment, rebuild and rule with a vision. Too much passion make people blind. That blindness is the next enemy. You demand Russians are swapping one stupid ideology by another. They look at you with disbelief how childish you are still running around chasing some ideology.

  • enoch arden

    Bismarck said: “Russia is never so weak or so strong as it may appear”.

  • Business Cat

    the important thing is that anything that isn’t full throated praise of Russia and it’s glorious benevolent & seemingly perpetual leader is evil western propaganda.

    • The important thing is giving people facts. There will be always interpetations, paranoid including. But the important measurable thing – amount of facts reaching public and amount of lies created to cover the hidden facts. Enormous disproportion on that front between the West and Russia. Starting from Russians needing no lies to go through the Cold War, truth about Nagasaki and Hiroshima was sufficient. How much lie had to be throwing at Western public, if even in Japan most youth do not know who bombed them in 1945. Most assume that was Russians if you come to asking. Measure lies. That works.

  • Michael D. Ray

    The ordinary people suffer. The Billionaires have million dollar weddings in London.

    • Hegelman

      It’s called capitalism.

  • Hegelman

    Russia, I think, will still be going strong long after the West has vanished from history. Russia is long term, built to endure. You are flimsy.

  • As the Marxist Spectator knows, there was no Soviet collapse…

    A Pictorial Presentation Of The Fraudulent Collapse Of The USSR…

    (1) The State Emblem of the Soviet Union atop the Russian State Duma building…

    Notice that the State Emblem of the Soviet Union is illuminated at night for clear viewing by Muscovites…

    (2) High atop the facade of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, the State Emblem of the Soviet Union is Illuminated with pinpoint precision at night…

    (3) The State Emblem of the Soviet Union atop the Russian Ministry of Defense building, including other Soviet era iconography…

    (4) Soviet Red Stars atop Kremlin towers remain where Stalin placed them in 1935…

    And still there even after the recent Kremlin renovations…

    (5) Headquarters of the Russian Federal Security Service, and the Soviet Union’s security service, the KGB…

    Note the State Emblem of the Soviet Union still over the main door (click picture to enlarge), and hammer and sickle logo still above the clock. And here’s the Lubyanka at nightime…

    Note illumination of hammer & sickle, and enhanced illumination of area above the main door, where the office of the KGB chief was located (third floor).

    (6) Soviet roundel still on Russian military aircraft…

    (7) Soviet era Communist emblem (the Soviet red star) still attached to the bows of Russian naval vessels…

    (8) The hated hammer & sickle logo still used by Aeroflot, purpose being to remind Russians when they travel abroad to be careful what they say to foreigners concerning the ‘collapse’ of the USSR and who’s still in control of the ‘former’ USSR…

    (9) The brigades of the Armed Forces of Ukraine never destroyed their detested Soviet banners, nor did Kiev order the armed forces to destroy the reviled Soviet era banners …×432/public/images/story/2014_03_04/7f095050f5b1431d027e102cb4b5d681.jpeg

    …and the left side of the Soviet banner…×420

    (10) Red Star, the official newspaper of the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Defense…

    Note the Soviet era title (Red Star) and the four Soviet emblems (representing awards*) to the left of the masthead, the outer emblem displaying Vladimir Lenin. Now, Google the following to view the official newspaper of the Russian Ministry of Defense…

    Google: Red Star RU

    The newspaper is still called Red Star(!) and still has the four Soviet emblems with Vladimir Lenin still present!
    * Soviet awards from right to left…

    The Order of Lenin Type II:

    The Order of the October Revolution:

    The Order of the Red Banner:

    The Order of the Red Star:,_decorations,_and_medals_of_the_Soviet_Union#/media/File:Order_of_the_Red_Star.jpg

  • Being a winner and hold the “best value” at the same time is overwhelming. But. The worst barrier on the way of taking the reality on is absorption in self righteousness. Salivating in joy over the 25 years old “win” in the Cold War, westerners in mass refuse to notice what sort of ideology and mentality was born in the post Soviet Russia. If one ever able to see the world as a whole, there are changes which take us all on sooner or later. We are all different, but yet the same in terms of being just human beings. We as humanity evolve. Not without hick ups, like communism was no doubt. These who keep up with reality got the change evolutionary way. These who are driven by myths, self righteousness including, got themselves a bumpy road to future. The longer the myths drive, the bigger the bubble grows, the more laud is a blow when reality returns. It is fundamental for current western crisis to clear the ww2 and Cold War history from the mythology. Common. That is just the past of already won war. Future is far more important that this questionable legacy.

    “Collapse” of Soviet Uunion was an event of power grab by the regional “leaders” driven by personal greed with a use of the worst nationalistic trends. Nothing else. Done secretly against the will of the people who voted the opposite way .The biggest irony was Gobachev being blamed for it, while he had nothing to do with that power game. Gorbachev was blinded too of course, by the ideology of “convergention”. Not invented by nobler price winner Andrej Sakharov, but sold to post Soviet Russians by him. Russians are a strong and visionary nation. They had not just “lost”, they evolved driven by a set of deliberate choices. The choice number one being – enough of banning people for political views.

    So the post Soviet development turned into two scenarios – with or without illustration. Illustration was to make communist party illegal and punish former communists for political beliefs. That route was taken by most non USSR Soviet states together with growth of anti-Russian notion. Underlined by “belief” there were no local communists and Soviet regime was all ethnic Russian making. That “belief” turned ideology war into a racial stand, which is poisoning the current affairs at present. Russia and most actual USSR state chosen not to punish communists, as such punishment comes against the notion of freedom of belief. So anybody can exhibit any beliefs they wish as long as non violent means used. That is the current post-ideology state Russians are building.

    There are many ways to measure internal tension inside the state. Russian population is at large United by that simple belief – let everybody speak, ban violent non tolerant radical forms of any belief, but each and every non violent belief is part of healthy living together. Observing the Western situation, we see much more agitation and internal conflicts. Because once one group is in power another will be inevitably punished for just different beliefs. There is no ground for internal coherence with such approach. And very few messengers, like myself are not even able to post a comment in “free” western media.