Like most of the rest of the human race that took notice, the announcement last year that the Belorussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature left me totally clueless as to who she was and what she had written. Since then, I’ve managed to read through her account published in the 1990s of participants and their families who took part in the Soviet Union war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and now the rather more epic Second-Hand Time, just published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
At almost 700 pages, this is a long book to wade through. But it reads quite easily, despite the uncompromising content of some of the interviews. One in particular stayed with me—the account by the mother of a woman who died in Chechnya after volunteering to be a police woman. Like other petitioners in China, this individual had made it her life mission to find out what had happened to her daughter, despite being brutally beaten back by almost every official she had quizzed. One gets the feeling that somewhere in the world, this mother is still pursuing her quest—and still getting frustrated. A very sad story, but all too common.
There is a saying from Hungary, which goes “What is the one thing worse than Communism?” with the answer “What comes after it.” In some senses, Alexievich’s verbatim accounts from people over the last two decades reflecting on the fall of the Soviet Union testify to this. There is the odd expression of (very transient) admiration for Yeltsin, largely scathing accounts of Gorbachev as some traitorous gadfly who was one thing abroad and another at home, but on the whole pretty universal negativity about what happened post 1991. One section of the book talks about the suicide of one of the great generals from the Soviet era who simply couldn’t bear to see what was happening to the country he fought for from the age of seventeen. These sort of stories are not ones we often hear in the West, with its addiction to the story of how democracy triumphed over tyranny in Russia. The most sobering aspect of some of the voices and their stories is how positive the evaluations of Stalin are—even from people who had direct experience of the Great Terror in the 1930s.
Reading a book like this really helps to at least understand why in China there is so much skepticism about the introduction of a more pluralistic, post-Communist order. I imagine that were a Chinese politburo leader to look through this book, they would feel it completely reinforced their convictions that following the path of the Soviet Union would be hurtling towards perdition. And on the evidence of Alexievich’s writing, it would be hard to disagree with them.