Readers Write In #280: Book review of Svetlana Alexievich’s Second Hand Time (2013)

Posted on October 12, 2020


(by G Waugh)

You are a woman with two kids. You own a Masters degree and work as a professor in some university. You had free education, free medical facilities and so do your children. Your husband works as an engineer in some State-owned company. You live in a modest apartment and since there is no ‘market’ out there, you are a bit worried that you don’t get to own a variety of consumer durables. There is only one ‘brand’ of soap, one kind of television which telecasts only State-censored content and apart from reading books, you aren’t entitled to any form of entertainment. You make use of the large amount of spare time to engage with your neighbours and live with them peacefully. Your neighbours are multi-ethnic and you cannot practice any form of discrimination with them since they are officially forbidden and also because you have no reason to. For whatever you are given by the State, you are just expected to remain loyal to it and are forbidden to talk against it in public forums.

You have grown in an environment like this right from your childhood. Your parents too had lived lives that were a lot more Spartan and all of them had to suffer wars, famines, disease and concentration camps. But many of them, despite suffering so much in the hands of the State were loyal to it, may be because the State propaganda was too strong or they believed genuinely in what they were doing or the logic behind the propaganda was a bit too solid or a combination of all of these. They had instilled the same spirit of ‘patriotism’ in you whatever that means and you have accepted state authoritarianism as an immutable aspect of your life, just like some people accept the burdens of casteism or race and try to live with it. But despite all the respect you have towards your country and the State, you secretly, sometimes long for a better life with slightly better standards of living where you can choose your favourite brand of soap from many, you can pick your favourite genre from a curated list of movies, you can come out and express yourself against the government and participate in the process of decision-making. But that’s that. All your ambitions are just too modest and you are happily aware that you are living in the only country in the world that has zero unemployment, free education, healthcare and low-cost housing. You don’t want to lose the perks that you have currently and one day, when someone comes and tells you that you can retain all of these things and yet hope for a better living, it is natural that you are seduced by the idea.

Soon the idea captivates people around you and a lot of your neighbours start talking against the government suddenly. There is suddenly no fear of retribution and you start joining protests that demand civil rights such as democracy, free press, etc. and also a bit of market-oriented socialism. Those who lead these protests appear as heroes to you who keep promising that they too are full-blooded socialists who vouch for all the State-sponsored privileges that you enjoy presently and their only mission is to slightly alter the character of the State for the better. After all, the founding fathers of your State also wanted their successor- generations to enjoy better lives that were based on freedom, equality and dignity.

But one day, suddenly you are told that you no longer are employed at your university whose ownership has changed overnight. Your engineer husband has been laid off since his company is no longer owned by the State. The savings you have at your bank are worth not more than a loaf of bread, the education your children have, shall be charged based on ‘market’ rules and the hospitals in your block are no longer free. But you are given one big privilege that you have been denied all these years- freedom. You can talk against the government, you can start a business on your own, fix prices for your goods, learn skills that you want to and make a career out of them, buy goods, hoard them and sell them at higher prices, bid for natural resources of your country and if you are powerful or manipulative, acquire a lion’s share of them and make a killing out of it. Within months, you see supermarkets with products of different brands and varieties lined up in neatly-stacked shelves arising in your town, you see colorful advertisements in your cheap television selling products that you were secretly dreaming of all these days and films and shows that you were never allowed to watch are right there in front of you for your taking.

But you soon realise that this is not what you wanted, you tell your friends that something has been terribly misunderstood at the top of the leadership only to realise that all your friends too have been suffering from the same, unforeseen malaise which has struck them out of the blue. Soon it is revealed that the leaders of the rebellion who spoke against the State have ascended to the top and are busy selling the State-owned companies and massive natural resources to friends and relatives getting massive kickbacks in return and when it is revealed that this is what they had planning right from the first, you are simply shocked. But within months, you realise that it is all too late and you are forced like millions of your compatriots to forget what you had in the past and learn completely new tricks in order to survive. You move from one city to another for a dignified job, you get nothing and so you decide to wash cars or do some menial jobs. You soon seek the help from one of the branches of a newly-created Mafia to get a proper job. The Mafia says that your Masters degree and your husband’s engineering qualification are just shit since thousands and thousands of daily wage labourers who do menial tasks today possess the same or higher academic qualifications.

You again migrate to some other country in the former Union you lived, work for more than twelve hours a day along with your children only to earn a day’s meal. Your husband you realise, is steadily losing his mind getting addicted to booze and drugs unable to bear the shock of the family’s suddenly shifted fortunes. You are left to fend for your family alone but the country where you work is suddenly torn with ethnic strife and tensions. People who do not belong there are discriminated, sometimes hounded, raped and killed. The country which before the rebellion was part of the erstwhile State-controlled Empire and whose citizens whom you knew too well as either your friendly neighbours or colleagues, has turned into a hotbed of ethnic nationalism, ejecting foreigners like a feverish body that has encountered a pernicious microbe. You and your family are forced to live in hiding as the new rulers have called for an ethnic cleansing and news about pogroms and large-scale killings abound everywhere. All your ideas about better lives and dignity that you harboured a couple of years ago have disappeared from your mind and what remains inside your head is one big wounded, animal that is cornered and besieged on all sides that would stop at nothing to add one more minute to its life. The local nationalist hooligans supported by the local army knock every home seeking out foreigners and the moment they meet any of them, they make sure they are brutalized or killed ruthlessly. One evening, you hear a knock at the door of the abandoned house into whose closet you are hiding for weeks and soon the mob breaks in. They quickly locate the closet, open it and confirm your identity. You beg and plead them to spare your children at least but they first attack your husband and mutilate his limbs, allowing him to bleed to death. They turn towards your children but you already are on your knees begging them to stop.


If the above story looks like one from a Mani Ratnam film made in the 1990s, it is not your fault. When I was reading Svetlana Alexevitch’s Second Hand Time, I felt like I was seeing a well-made, political Mani Ratnam film. In 2015, Svetlana became the first journalist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature for her works in non-fiction. Second-Hand Time, similar to many of her works on Soviet History is an oral recounting of experiences of Russians and erstwhile Soviet citizens who underwent a searing, blood spattered transition from socialism to market economy. The above story is so typical of millions of educated women who had lived dignified lives under the Soviet system and who, on account of a sudden change in the leadership, lost everything that they had cherished and valued and ended up becoming slaves or wage-labourers or even prostitutes.

The sweeping, 496-page account of Svetlana deserves attention due to a lot of factors. First, it is not a history book in the conventional sense, about rulers and army generals taking over a country or stories about economic growth and falling indices of wealth distribution and GDP. As Svetlana says, her work is an attempt to capture the political history of a country from the perspective of its citizens, a practice that still has not come into vogue, despite numerous avenues that have emerged in the wake of proliferation of social media platforms that provide a channel for individual expression. The book as a result, does not try to give a third-person or a bird’s eye-view account of the events and by confining itself to individual voices that narrate their own personal stories, it broadens its scope to cover a lot of dimensions that are usually missed out in conventionally-styled narratives of history. It is for this aspect that successfully finds a middle ground between fictional tales and non-fiction narratives that the book won her the world’s highest literary award in 2015.

But as a Marxist sympathizer, I found the tale intriguing on some more aspects. First, the book shatters to smithereens the commonly-held Western notions about Russians and their political inclinations and choices. Whenever I see Hollywood films or read accounts of Russia by Western journalists, I never had been able to miss a tone of derision or condescension that mocks the attitudes of Russian commoners for either supporting an authoritarian form of government or choosing to live under one. Russians are generally shown either to be fools or innocents who due to their lack of exposure to outside world live under a regime run by autocrats and self-serving politicians. Svetlana’s account that contains testimonies from people over the length and breadth of the former Soviet Union, indirectly questions this dubious assumption. The history and culture of Russians which have traditionally been more allied with those of Asians than Europeans are much more complex and multi-layered to be understood easily through a simplistic Western lens. Russians, according to Svetlana’s book, whole-heartedly supported the Socialist Revolution that happened under Lenin in 1917, fought to safeguard the new establishment through the West-sponsored civil wars for four years until 1922, suffered coercion and concentration camps under Stalin, sometimes willingly and sometimes half-heartedly until the ruthless Nazi invasion in 1942, gave their lives in millions willingly to decimate the Axis powers in 1945, worked hard once again to rebuild their Empire post the War, drew great pride when they sent the first man to Space under Khrushchev and lived peacefully with different races and communities belonging to fifteen different countries enjoying full employment, free, universal education and healthcare for over fifty years. If you think Svetlana by supporting the Soviets appears to be yet another Marxist propagandist, it is time you read this book to get a grip on the gruesome sufferings endured by innocent Soviet citizens in the concentration camps created during the Stalin era. Svetlana’s other books too, provide similar accounts on the atrocities committed by the Soviet State especially during the Chernobyl disaster of 1987 which went on to become the basis for the recent, universally acclaimed TV series, Chernobyl directed by Johan Renck.

Before I finish the essay, there are only a few important questions that I would like to raise. What happened in the Soviet Union on the eve of its dismantling in 1991 and the following years preceding the new millennium, is one big, gruesome tragedy whose scale approaches the horrors, a smaller country like India endured during its partition in 1947. But why wasn’t this story not documented enough and not given due attention by journalists and the so-called free press that the Western part of the world is so proud of? If I accuse them of being ‘intentionally blind’ to these horrors and attribute this to their biases that are rooted in the free-market ideology whose failures could no longer be hidden in the erstwhile Soviet Union, will they have anything to give me in reply? When the West was supporting the new President of Russia, the corrupt Boris Yeltsin with trillions of dollars to manipulate public opinion and elections in 1995 that were going in favour of the Communist Party, what were the Western newsmakers, the self-appointed custodians of democracy and universal freedom busying themselves with?

Russians who were born in the capitalist era of Russia and had no personal experiences of living under a socialist regime, according to the logic of the West, must be finding it easier to adopt themselves to a supposedly, merit-based, free-market system that gives opportunities for everyone to grow. But why are thousands of them wearing T-shirts with Stalin’s faces on them, attending meetings that discuss Marxism and Soviet life and deeply wish for a return to the socialist system? When ethnic conflicts such as the Chechenyan crisis and the Azerbaijan-Armenian issue come to the surface as they do today, doesn’t the West know very well that these issues had no place to exist when the Soviet Union was in place? Why don’t they have the guts to mention it even once when they are writing pages and pages about these issues today? Forget me. I am a Marxist sympathizer and all I say could be interpreted only as socialist propaganda. What answers do they have when one modern Russian born and brought up under the Yeltsin-Putin era, asks his father in Svetlana’s book, “You were poor when you were under the socialist system, I understand. But why didn’t you get rich post-1991 when it was so easy?”