Secondhand Time is one of the four books shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, UK’s most prestigious prize for nonfiction, the winner of which will be announced tomorrow.
Russian thinkers in the nineteenth century began referring to the Russian soul (Russkaya dusha) as a way to crystalize a national identity around the idea that Russia and its people possess a singular, exceptional destiny. Be it Dostoevsky’s high-strung and philosophical protagonists, Goncharov’s ambitionless, sensitive Oblomov, or Tolstoy’s nature-inspired, contemplative heroes, Russia’s iconic authors portrayed their countrymen as uninterested in replicating Europe’s then burgeoning industrial capitalism and its protestant work ethic; rather, these characters’ thoughts and actions sprang from a loftier, more spiritual sensibility.
Today, Russians’ views of their country’s tumultuous history and uncertain, post-Soviet future are shaped, in no small part, by whether or not they believe in Russian exceptionalism, and this question frames Belarussian author Svetlana Alexievich’s latest book to be published in English, Secondhand Time. As she did earlier with Voices from Chernobyl (1997), the work that precipitated her winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, in Secondhand Time, originally published in 2013, Ms. Alexievich gives readers history “in miniature,” by presenting the reflections of ordinary Russians as told in their own voices. For this latest book Ms. Alexievich collected Russians’ thoughts about their post-World War II history that she recorded between 1991 and 2012. She writes that she specially sought to interview “sovaks,” a term that Russians use pejoratively to describe those who remain stuck in Soviet attitudes and behaviors.
Secondhand Time’s arrival in English (Random House, 2016) serves as a timely antidote to reports in the Western press about Russian nationalism. It is a necessary rejoinder not because the reports are false; rather, too little attention has been given to the complicated reasons behind the nationalistic sentiment.
Ironically, most Soviets felt a sense of security under the old system, despite the government’s repression and cruelty. Without the dual rudders of government control over everyday life and the ideology that justified it, those who came of age under the Soviet system now feel uncomfortably adrift. There remains nothing to replace the old ideals that grounded their lives except empty consumerism:
“No one can convince me that we were given life just to eat and sleep to our hearts’ content. That a hero is someone who buys something one place and sells it down the road for three kopecks more.”
For many, the ideological vacuum brings a loss of identity—an uncertainty about who they are as a nation and what they stand for. There is a longing to be “part of the grand scheme of things” like generations before. They want a unifying, national purpose, like the shared sacrifice required to defeat the Nazis, or the scientific and industrial achievements of the last century. Instead, they are disappointed and disillusioned:
“We turned out to be ill-suited for the new world we’d been waiting for. We were expecting something else, not this.”
Naturally, this mindset creates a nostalgia for the past and along with it, the hope that Russia’s destined exceptionalism will assert itself. A bellicose leader like Mr. Putin encourages these hopes.
But Russia is a huge country and the various opinions expressed by Ms. Alexievich’s interlocutors cover an area nearly as vast. Some look beyond the past, discarding greatness for the simple desire to be a “normal” country, one where people are able to exercise personal freedoms, walk into stores stocked with infinite varieties of food and consumer goods, and communicate openly with the rest of the world. These (often younger) people find the sacrifices and accomplishments of the past irrelevant to how they conduct their lives. Others go a step farther: not only is Russia’s past irrelevant but the total destruction of every vestige of the past is imperative in order to achieve normality and survive in the contemporary world.
Ms. Alexievich completed Secondhand Time just months before Russia annexed Crimea, an act of aggressive nationalism that once more redrew Russia’s borders through the lands of its neighbors. The annexation signifies that the past remains very relevant indeed for those in Russia who believe that national identity is best invoked, not by tapping into those loftier sentiments of the Russian soul expressed in its literature, but rather by stomping on other nations’ sovereignty.
Like insects that are suspended forever inside Russian amber, Secondhand Time is a testamentary record, a safe-keep of Russians’ beliefs and feelings as they existed in our time. Ms. Alexievich’s format of revealing history through individual stories feels more nuanced and more perceptive than conventional histories, a result that validates her conviction that it is at the individual level “where everything really happens.” Leo Tolstoy would certainly agree.
Lori Feathers is an Assistant Managing Editor at Asymptote.
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