SECONDHAND TIME by Svetlana Alexievich
Kirkus Star


The Last of the Soviets
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A lively, deeply moving cacophony of Russian voices for whom the Soviet era was as essential as their nature.

Nobel Prize–winning (2015) Russian writer Alexievich (Voices from Chernobyl, 2005, etc.) presents a rich kaleidoscope of voices from all regions of the former Soviet Union who reveal through long tortuous monologues what living under communism really was like. For a new generation of Russians born after World War II, the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika and glasnost, the attempted putsch of the government, collapse of the Soviet Union, and subsequent economic crises of the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin heralded a sense of freedom and new possibility, yet many Russians were left disillusioned and angry. What was socialism now supposed to mean for the former Homo sovieticus, now derogatively called a sovok ("dustbin")? Indeed, how to reconcile 70-plus years of official lies, murder, misery, and oppression? In segments she calls "Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations," Alexievich transcribes these (apparently) recorded monologues and conversations in sinuous stream-of-consciousness prose. People of all ages delineate events with bewilderment and fury—e.g., those who had taken to the barricades during the putsch of 1991 hoping for another utopia ("They buried Sovietdom to the music of Tchaikovsky") and ending up with a scary new world where capitalism was suddenly good and "money became synonymous with freedom." The older generation had lived through the era of Stalin, the KGB and arbitrary arrests, betrayal by neighbors and friends, imprisonment, torture, and the gulag, and these remembrances are particularly haunting to read. One horrifying example is an older neighbor and friend of a man who burned himself alive in his vegetable patch because he had nothing left to live for. The suicides Alexievich emphasizes are heart-wrenching, as is the reiterated sense of the people's "naivete" in the face of ceaseless official deception, the endurance of anti-Semitism, war in the former Soviet republics, famine, and the most appalling living conditions. The author captures these voices in a priceless time capsule.

Profoundly significant literature as history.

Pub Date: May 24th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-399-58880-8
Page count: 496pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2016


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