HOMO SOVIETICUS On the Actuality of Svetlana Alexievich’s “Secondhand Time”

Ten years ago, Svetlana Alexievich’s “Secondhand Time. The Last of the Soviets” came into being. In twenty stories, collected between 1991 and 2012, the author releases usually unheard voices of people from the former Soviet Union, reflecting on their own lives before and after perestroika. The question of how the regime managed to remodel its subjects into creatures of a perennial authoritarianism, infuses this work with urgent actuality in the current context.  

Image: Anatoliy Shostak.

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Deutsche Version, Versión en español

In Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, people from the former Soviet Union tell their own family stories in candid kitchen conversations: first between 1991 and 2001, as “Ten Stories in a Red Interior,” then between 2002 and 2012, as “Ten Stories in the Absence of an Interior.” The talks take place among people who are among themselves and regard the empathetically questioning Alexievich as one of them. In the familiar, “spy-free” room of the small family kitchen, they remember the events surrounding perestroika together, reflect on the effects of the political upheavals on their own lives, and often come back to the defining, traumatic experiences of their parents and grandparents during and after World War II. While in the first part, “The Consolation of Apocalypse,” the memories mix with the sometimes hopeful, sometimes illusory, twisted notion of ​​freedom after the sudden end of a totalitarian regime, these find their expression in the second part, “The Charms of Emptiness”, as a feeling of helplessness in the face of a new merciless “Russian capitalism” with strong Soviet traits. Alexievich already makes it clear in the introductory section that she is primarily concerned with feelings. In fact, the kitchen talks appear as the long-awaited opportunity for the interviewees not only to tell their stories, but also to finally pour out their hearts. While they signalize that they are not used to be asked for their opinion, let alone be seen as the victim or witness of injustice, it soon becomes clear that they are quite used to being suspicious, having suffered spying, betrayal, brutal interrogation, fraud, torture, and even imprisonment, either experienced themselves or by their close family members. Secondhand Time is therefore as document of testimony, in which the otherwise unnoticed victims of an oppressive system try to put into words what lurked in them as silent pain for years. The common denominator of these conversations is the experience of severely asymmetric power relations across generations, with perestroika as a brief respite on a continuum of greed, deceit, alcoholism, and brutality completely permeating family, community, and state.



Homo sovieticus, Death, and Language

Perestroika, for some a downfall, for others a glimmer of hope, for everyone ultimately as a great disappointment, appears to have failed due to the population’s lack of democratic understanding, the incompetence of those in power, and the brutal battle for the country’s resources among “bandits” who, since then – and once again – have repeatedly enriched themselves and stayed in power at the expense of the most vulnerable people in society. This Soviet-infused “reused” time that Alexievich brings before our eyes appears tenaciously enduring. It is a time that not only creates a “distinctive” breed of people, homo sovieticus – in which the author recognizes her neighbors, friends, herself –, but that is also produced by it. In fact, homo sovieticus is a being hopelessly trapped in an ideology based on dichotomies. But what is the crucial feature of this homo sovieticus? Right on the first page, Alexievich explains: it is the relationship to death that characterizes the Soviet self-conception, but it is not death as the passive experience of an individual passing away. It is rather an active, almost lively, collective activity that remains omnipresent in people’s memories in its various forms, emerging in everyday language. This willing negation of existence finds its vital expression in Secondhand Time in the fluent use of terms such as the “disappearance,” “execution,” “shooting,” “annihilation” of “traitors” and “fascists”; in “siting out” in imprisonment camps; in “self-sacrifice” for the “patriotic victory.” Suicide, as a last recourse, especially for young and righteous people who can no longer endure life in the realm of death, repeats itself constantly as well. In the twenty stories of Secondhand Time, each individual case becomes a mass experience of an actively carried out death in an all-determining, authoritarian system: “it was socialism, and it was our life,” reports Alexievich. It is therefore an experience of a life that was worth nothing under Russian-Soviet authoritarianism and that turns out to be the most valuable treasure in this work: the homo sovieticus, caught up with heart and soul in this system, living the consequences to the bitter end, through time and beyond this time.



Perestroika and the Problem of Truth and Freedom

Programmatically, the author reveals homo sovieticus as a creature of war. War preparation, war proceedings, war glorification, war yearning – without ever coming to terms with it – allows enduring a poor existence in a militaristic society, which admittedly grants anyone a life, but makes a survival filled with pride possible: a pride fed from old triumphs, “Stalin led us to the victory,” and the feeling of superiority of the “Russian soul.” Perestroika seemed to break with these ideals for a short moment in which the archives were opened, the masks fell, and the most exemplary, loyal, proud, trustworthy, patriotic role models in family, neighborhood, and state emerged as the most merciless members of the regime. In this way, the formerly unacknowledged became suddenly conspicuous: in the Soviet Union nothing was more important than serving one’s own material interests, nothing was more contagious than envy, resentment, and violence, all fueled by the unescapable, miserable living conditions. But for an instant, freedom was there, suddenly and incomprehensibly, and a new, real life “had to come.” Expectations were great in a phase of upheaval, in which Alexievich identified two problematic values ​​for homo sovieticus: truth and freedom. They were troublesome because people didn’t know them – what to do, what to think, when many newspapers now tell “several truths” and the absolute, irrefutable truth was no longer there, in the regime’s only newspaper? – and because they caused the shocking collapse of an entire world view, the view of the own self-perception. In cold print, through former confidential police reports being suddenly made available, the country’s true traitors became unmasked: the informers who willingly accepted the death of friends and relatives, in exchange of a slight improvement of their living conditions; and the rulers who subscribed to the ideology of sacrifice of the miserable population, as a duty of allegiance for the consolidation of their own power. Truth and freedom became therefore bewildering, painful, not only because they exposed the ideal of the “proud,” “great,” “spiritually superior” nation – founded in exemplary figures of the often-cited Russian literature in Secondhand Time – as a scam, but also because they were associated with the period of extreme deprivation just after perestroika.



A Twisted Understanding of Freedom and the “Superior Russian Soul”

What is remarkable here is the banalized meaning of freedom that became valid in the years that followed, translated in the language of hunger as the chance to “eat better sausage than before,” an adulteration of the term that seems to have changed little during the two decades of collected accounts in Secondhand Time. Over the years, the material notion of freedom, as the ability to consume or possess something, remains just as persistent as the ideal notion of freedom that prevailed in the Soviet era and continues to be propagated by some party loyalists: as the ideological allegiance to the still deeply felt “superior, Russian soul.” Either with a materialistic or ideological connotation, the so understood “freedom” remains worthwhile in both cases, regardless of whether murder, torture, or looting is still being perpetrated on the neighbor, Chechnya, or Afghanistan. In the merging of these two notions of “freedom,” which are only seemingly contradictory, the material plunder, abuse, and murder are justified with an ideological self-perception that affirms that anyone refusing to accept the myth of Russian “greatness,” deserves nothing else than terror. This is especially true for the people of the Central Asian republics formerly controlled by the Soviet power, still accused of being “barbaric,” neither “Slavic” nor “Christian,” and regarded as subordinates due to their status as undocumented workers in the country. Secondhand Time unveils through the interviewees’ use of language a never-ending cycle of repeated crimes in the voices of Yelena Yuryevna S. (“Third Secretary of the Party District Committee”, 49 years old), Marina Tikhonovna Issaichik (neighbor of the late Alexander Porfiryevich Sharpilo, pensioner, 63 years old old), Margarita Pogrebzikaja (doctor, 57 years old), Margarita K. (Armenian refugee, 41 years old), the daughter of the late Lyudmila Malikova (technologist, 47 years old), Alisa S. (advertising manager, 35 years old), Tanya Kuleshova (student, 21 years old), and many others. These are atrocities committed on the basis of twisted meanings that still cloud a certain worldview in today’s Russia: an understanding of “freedom” translated in a language of poverty and violence, that interprets “liberation” as the punitive submission through murder, rape, and plunder of the disloyal counterpart, whether man, woman, or child. This connection is most striking since the acts of violence are committed by militias whose starved members cannot “buy themselves free” and at the same time look greedily at the goods of the “fascist” enemy. In this respect, “liberation” also means plundering and robbing in the world view of homo sovieticus, just as “fascists” are for him are the ones who not only enjoy a better financial position, but also the outrageous individuality of going their own way.



Alexievich’s Premonitory Microhistory and the Russian War Against Ukraine

With the urgency of a conscious eyewitness, Svetlana Alexievich attempted to capture in Secondhand Time the contradictory emotional world of what she believed to be the slowly disappearing homo sovieticus, all before it was too late. From today’s perspective, however, in the context of the Russian war against Ukraine, this “being almost too late” can be relativized, then the ideological lever of this reused Soviet time, the “iron hand” leading to “Russian victory,” appears now more actual and destructive than ever before. In this way, Alexievich’s microhistorical writing can now be regarded as premonitory. She sheds new light on the transgenerational, tragic fate of Russian national pride and its offspring: a youth prevented from learning the true meaning and value of freedom. Alexievich’s statement “because nobody taught us freedom. Just how to die for freedom,” is what thousands of Russian soldiers experience today, every day, in the war fields they created with their own hands in Ukraine. Ten years ago, Secondhand Time presented us with more than thirty-year-old stories of a Soviet trauma of human failure, the afterwardsness of which is causing new suffering in Ukraine at this moment. Ukrainians today are paying a dear price for rejecting the fairytale of the “superior Russian soul,” which can be only realized as a mere murderous paradox. The inconsistent Russian hubris sees itself both humiliated and envied by the “West,” and deems it necessary to prove a perceived “God-given” superiority through the forced suicidal rebuilding of a “great empire,” then “something must happen” that finally brings eternal victory. Again, new generations face another rewinded constant in a never-ending vicious cycle of violence. But, perhaps, this wistfully awaited “hand of God” reveals a secretly desired salvation from the usual “iron hand.” Or maybe not. Perhaps, this fantasy is just the source of all evil in the idealized “Russian soul” to this day. Svetlana Alexievich’s “Secondhand Time” helps us understand a little, what may seem absolutely incomprehensible in the current situation.

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About Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich

The Belarusian author Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich, born in Ukraine in 1948, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015: “for her polyphonic work, which sets a monument to the suffering and courage of our time.” Secondhand Time. The Last of the Soviets (2016) is available here.

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