"Born in the USSR - that's a diagnosis." This is what one of the people interviewed by the author said and it would have been a great title for this book, as well.
I discovered Svetlana Alexievich three years ago when she received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis) and then decided to read "Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster". After she received the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, I found many more of her books and "Second Hand Time" sounded like a great read. The author wrote down her interviews with former citizens of the Soviet Union, people who liked the new system, people who disliked it, people who loved it, people who hated it. She wrote down their life stories and you can understand every single one of them. This is what makes politics so hard, trying to please everyone is not possible, there is always someone who disagrees with a certain decision.
I love how understanding she is with everyone, how she manages to report their feelings, their stories as if we are there with the storytellers. I also could relate to many of the stories. Having grown up during a different time, we probably went through a lot that the former Soviets had to go through after their state broke apart. Not exactly the same but our lives were still closer to that than to our children's nowadays. Maybe that is one of the reasons why I always loved Russian literature.
And then there are the stories she tells that get you closer to her interviewees. I liked how they said "For us, the kitchen is not just where we cook, it's a dining room, a guest room, an office, a soapbox." and "We like to have a chat in the kitchen, read a book. 'Reader' is our primary occupation." Or the way they joke about politics, the best jokes always are from oppressed people. "How do you tell a communist? It's someone who reads Marx. And how do you tell an anti-Communist? It's someone who understands him." But one of my favourites is: "In five years, everything can change in Russia, but in two hundred - nothing."
With her work, the author has put together a vivid history of the USSR, of its failures and its positive sides. Yes, there were a lot of people who saw something positive in their oppression and partly, I even understand them. The above joke aside, communism is a good idea, if only it was invented for other species than men. Because men are greedy, they will never want to share and Karl Marx had a dream that this might be possible. He shared that dream with so many people, same as many people still believe in the American Dream and that they might be millionaires one day.
Svetlana Alexievich gets us to think like a Russian, to follow their tragic lives and imagine it might have been us. I read somewhere that her subject is the "history of the Russian-Soviet soul". Not a bad description. I have never read such a good and concise description of other people's lives. She asked her fellow citizens what they thought "freedom" meant and got different answers from those who remembered the USSR and those who didn't. They did grow up in different countries. I can relate to that in that way that our country was divided into East and West probably the same way the USSR/Russians are divided into Before and After. We speak the same language but have many different memories.
The author does what Tolstoy and Dostoevsky did one and a half centuries ago, she puts Russia on the literature map again.
This book makes quite an impression. The tragedies these people went through and are still going through should be known to the whole world. Reading this book is the first step.
And if I hadn't known it already, the Russians are a people of readers. The amount of authors and books mentioned is enormous. Here are just some of them:
Belov, Vasily Ivanovich (Васи́лий Ива́нович Бело́в)
Berdyaev, Nikolai Alexandrovich (Никола́й Алекса́ндрович Бердя́ев
Chernyshevsky, Nikolay Gavrilovich (Никола́й Гаври́лович Черныше́вский)
Dobrolyubov, Nikolay Alexandrovich (Никола́й Алекса́ндрович Добролю́бов)
Dovlatov-Mechik, Sergei Donatovich (Серге́й Дона́тович Довла́тов)
Fyodorov, Nikolai Fyodorovich (икола́й Фёдорович Фёдоров)
Galaktionovich, Vladimir (Влади́мир Галактио́нович Короле́нк)
Grinevsky, Aleksandr Stepanovich (better known by his pen name, Aleksandr Grin, Александр Грин)
Grossman, Vasily Semyonovich (Васи́лий Семёнович Гро́ссман)
Herzen, Aleksandr Ivanovich (Алекса́ндр Ива́нович Ге́рцен)
Iskander, Fazil Abdulovich (Фази́ль Абду́лович Исканде́р)
Kollontai, Alexandra Mikhailovna (Алекса́ндра Миха́йловна Коллонта́й - née Korolenko, Domontovich, Домонто́вич)
Lermontov, Mikhail Yuryevich (Михаи́л Ю́рьевич Ле́рмонтов)
Nekrassow, Nikolai Alexejewitsch (Николай Алексеевич Некрасов)
Ogarev, Nikolay Platonovich (Никола́й Плато́нович Огарёв)
Okudzhava, Bulat Shalvovich ( Була́т Ша́лвович Окуджа́ва)
Platonov, Andrei (Андре́й Плато́нов)
Pushkin, Alexander Sergeyevich (Алекса́ндр Серге́евич Пу́шкин)
Rasputin, Grigori Jefimowitsch (Григорий Ефимович Распутин)
Saltykov-Shchedrin, Mikhail Yevgrafovich (Михаи́л Евгра́фович Салтыко́в-Щедри́н)
Shalamov, Varlam Tikhonovich (Варла́м Ти́хонович Шала́мов)
Uspensky, Gleb Ivanovich (Глеб Ива́нович Успе́нский)
Belyaev, Alexander Romanovich (Беляев, Александр Романович) "Человек-амфибия=Chelovek-Amfibiya" (Amphibian Man/Der Amphibienmensch) - 1927
Brezhnev, Leonid Ilyich (Бре́жнев, Леони́д Ильи́) "Малая земля=Malaja semlja" (Little Land/Das kleine Land) - 1978
Brezhnev, Leonid Ilyich (Бре́жнев, Леони́д Ильи́) "Возрождение=Vozrozhdenie" (Rebirth/Wiedergeburt) - 1978
Brezhnev, Leonid Ilyich (Бре́жнев, Леони́д Ильи́) "Целина=Celina" (The Virgin Lands/Neuland) - 1979
Bulgakov, Mikhail (Булгаков, Михаил Афанасьевич) "Ма́стер и Маргари́та=Master i Margarita" (The Master and Margarita/Der Meister und Margarita) - 1967
Bunin, Ivan Alekseyevich (Бунин, Иван Алексеевич) "Okajannyje dni=Окаянные дни" (Cursed Days/Verfluchte Tage) (Nobel) - 1926
Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich (Чехов, Антон Павлович) "Сапожник и нечистая сила= Sapozhnik i nechistaja sila" (The Cobbler and the Devil aka The Shoemaker and the Devil/Der Schuster und das Böse) - 1888
Chernyshevsky, Nikolay Gavrilovich (Чернышевский, Николай Гаврилович) "Что делать?=Chto delat?" (What is to be done?/Was tun?) - 1863
Dostojewskij, Fjodor Mikhailovich (Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский) "Братья Карамазовы/Brat'ya Karamazovy" (The Brothers Karamazov/ Die Brüder Karamasow) - 1879-80
Fadejew, Alexander Alexandrowitsch (Александр Александрович Фадеев) "Molodaia gvardia=Молодая гвардия" (The Young Guard/Die junge Garde) - 1946
Gogol, Nikolai Vasilievich (Никола́й Васи́льевич Го́голь) "Шинель=Shinel" (The Overcoat/Der Mantel) - 1842
Marx, Karl "Das Kapital" (Capital: Critique of Political Economy) - 1867
Ostrovsky, Nikolai Alexeevich (Николай Алексеевич Островский) "Как закалялась сталь=Kak zakalyalas' sta" (How the Steel Was Temperered/Wie der Stahl gehärtet wurde) - 1832-34
Pasternak, Boris Leonidovich (Пастернак, Борис Леонидович) "Доктор Живаго=Doktor Živago" (Doctor Zhivago/ Doktor Schiwago) - 1958
Polevoy, Boris Nikolaewich (Борис Николаевич Полевой) "Повесть о настоящем человеке= Povest' o nastojashhem cheloveke" (The Story of a Real Man/Der wahre Mensch) - 1947
Rybakov, Anatoly Naumovich (Рыбаков, Анатолий Наумович) "Дети Арбата=Deti Arbata" (Children of the Arbat/Kinder des Arbat) - 1987
Sholokhov, Mikhail Aleksandrovich (Шолохов, Михаил Александрович) "Они сражались за Родину=Oni srazhalis' za Rodinu" (They Fought for Their Country/Sie kämpften für ihre Heimat) - 1959 Nobel Prize
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Aleksandr Isayevich (Солженицын, Александр Исаевич) "Архипелаг ГУЛАГ=Archipelag GULAG" (The Gulag Archipelago/Der Archipel Gulag) - 1973
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isayevich (Солженицын, Александр Исаевич) дин день Ивана Денисовича=Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha" (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich/Ein Tag im Leben des Iwan Denissowitsch) - 1962
Tolstoy, Lew Nikolajewitsch (Толстой, Лев Николаевич) "Война и мир=Woina I Mir" (War and Peace/Krieg und Frieden) - 1868/69
Turgenev, Ivan Sergeyevich (Тургенев, Иван Сергеевич) "Zapiski Okhotnika=Записки охотника" (A Sportsman's Sketches aka The Hunting Sketches/Aufzeichnungen eines Jägers) - 1852
From the back cover:
"From the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, comes the first English translation of her latest work, an oral history of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia.
Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive documentary style, Secondhand Time is a monument to the collapse of the USSR, charting the decline of Soviet culture and speculating on what will rise from the ashes of Communism.
As in all her books, Alexievich gives voice to women and men whose stories are lost in the official narratives of nation-states, creating a powerful alternative history from the personal and private stories of individuals.
Svetlana Alexievich was born in the Ukraine in 1948 and grew up in Belarus. As a newspaper journalist, she spent her early career in Minsk compiling first-hand accounts of World War II, the Soviet-Afghan War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Chernobyl meltdown. Her unflinching work—‘the whole of our history…is a huge common grave and a bloodbath’—earned her persecution from the Lukashenko regime and she was forced to emigrate. She lived in Paris, Gothenburg and Berlin before returning to Minsk in 2011. She has won a number of prizes, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Prix Médicis, and the Oxfam Novib/PEN Award. In 2015, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature."
The Russians/USSR/former USSR states had quite a few winners for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Svetlana Alexievich is the latest.
Nobel Prize Winners for Literature:
Ivan Bunin - 1933
Boris Pasternak - 1958
Michail Sholokhov - 1965
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - 1970
Joseph Brodsky - 1987
Alexievich, Svetlana - 2015 (Belarus but born in the USSR)
Svetlana Alexievich received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time" and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis) in 2013.
I contribute to this page: Read the Nobels and you can find all my blogs about Nobel Prize winning authors and their books here.