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Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by…

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2013)

by Svetlana Alexievich

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This is a unique book- the collected voices of many Russians over many years. The Author has collected peoples' stories told in interviews. With her own voice edited out, it has resulted in a story of Russia and the former USSR that is very personal and very deep.

I am struck of course by the violence and depravity so many in the book describe, which, although must be told as is intertwined with so many aspects of recent history of this place, is just so....visceral. The violence is back to back with hardship and struggle. It's hard to read. But what I did get from this book is a real sense of how a nation of people have had the whole basis of their identities changed- which of course happened when socialism was ousted and capitalism installed.

The propaganda of Soviet times can come across as cheesy from the outside (how could they all fall for that? etc.) but when you read the heartfelt accounts of people who believed in their leaders, believed in the power of the people etc, you really see how much it meant on a personal level to have that collective identity. I haven't properly formulated my thoughts on it yet, but there is also a lot in there about happiness and how it comes about. The fundamental ingredients for it seem to be human connections and a plan (or maybe, hope, or a common goal or purpose). And some accounts in this book about Soviet times certainly show that this is at a loss under capitalism.

There is so much in this book to think on, and I can thoroughly recommend it. ( )
  Ireadthereforeiam | Sep 11, 2017 |
During the Soviet era I had wondered what life was like behind the iron curtain. Solzhenitsyn provided part of the picture but here Alexievich fills the canvas with a broad portrait of the lives of people from all walks of life. Overall it isn't pretty, especially the slow-motion horror of the Stalin era. Perestroika and the Yeltsin presidency were promising developments yet they came and went, leaving even modest hopes dashed. In any case you are able to see the interior life of the Russian people here in rich detail. The writing is excellent even in translation. ( )
  bkinetic | Aug 25, 2017 |
I know it is trite to talk about books being "profoundly moving" but that's what Alexievich's books are to me. Not just "interesting" or "fascinating" but moving, these relentless, passionate, bitter, hopeful, cynical, compassionate, bewildered, apathetic, angry, excited, agonized accounts of what was gained and what was lost with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Russia. There is one section that begins with a mother's account of her son -- who committed suicide -- and goes on to talk to the boy's friends and their own reactions, and I have to say, I could barely stand to read it. The pages were just saturated in grief. And frankly, it made everything on the news, every twitter storm, look utterly pathetic and pointless.

But in the end, despite story after awful, heartbreaking story, what emerges is a picture of a people that is not just compassionate, but loving. And the entire book -- all these stacks of people's comments and outbursts and feelings -- felt completely honest. At a time when journalism is more and more manipulative, Alexievich's brand of oral history comes across as incredibly sincere, human. She really deserved that Nobel Prize.

I find myself wondering what it would look like if Svetlana Alexievich wrote a book about the United States, about the transition represented by Obama and then by Trump. I have a feeling I wouldn't like what she would find.
4 vote southernbooklady | Jul 6, 2017 |
“Today, people just want to live their lives, they don’t need some great Idea. This is entirely new for Russia; it’s unprecedented in Russian literature. At heart, we’re built for war. We were always either fighting or preparing to fight. We’ve never known anything else—hence our wartime psychology. Even in civilian life, everything was always militarized. The drums were beating, the banners flying, our hearts leaping out of our chests. People didn’t recognize their own slavery—they even liked being slaves.”

“Our people need freedom like a monkey needs glasses. No one would know what to do with it.”

"The liberals are working off their piece of the pie. They want us to think of our history as a black hole. I hate them all: gorbachev, shevardnadze, yakovlev - don't capitalize their names, that's how much I hate them all. I don't want to live in America, I want to live in the USSR...”

“They were fooled by the shiny wrappers. Now our stores are filled with all sorts of stuff. An abundance. But heaps of salami have nothing to do with happiness. Or glory. We used to be a great nation! Now we’re nothing but peddlers and looters… Grain merchants and managers…”

^This an oral history of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of a new Russia. The author interviewed dozens of people over twenty years. This is a stellar achievement on so many levels. Hearing these distinct voices, gives the reader more perspective and understanding than a stack of nonfiction, devoted to this period. Some are heart-warming and patriotic but most will rip your guts out. The pain and hardship most of these people go through is heart-breaking and devastating.
My biggest take away from this monumental work, is how much better I now understand communism and capitalism and how our propaganda machines, working furiously, on both sides, have completely distorted both.

I would also like to give a shout-out to Bela Shayevich for an outstanding translation. ( )
  msf59 | Jun 6, 2017 |
Devastating. Like a funeral march for the utopian dreams of the 20th century, a dirge sung by a chorus of voices. Socialism, the culminating Enlightenment philosophy, runs aground on the profound irrationality of the Russian soul - and possibly the human soul. The failure to build a humanitarian socialism in Russia may prove to be one of those ultimately fatal forks in the road of human history, because now unfettered capitalism is leading all of us straight to the abyss. In the meantime, this is an essential record. I wonder if we will have anyone to chronicle the imperial US collapse as brilliantly. ( )
1 vote CSRodgers | May 25, 2017 |
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» Add other authors (39 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Svetlana Alexievichprimary authorall editionscalculated
Benech, Sophiesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Braungardt, Ganna-MariaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mateo, FerranAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rebón, MartaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shayevich, BelaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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