Saturday, June 24, 2017

Svetlana Alexievich's Secondhand Time

Svetlana Alexievich writes in Secondhand Time that she looks for those moments in everyday life that are in the process of becoming literature.  In truth, I didn't need the nobel prize winner's description of her craft to explain that her carefully selected interviews frequently demonstrate that ordinary people are capable of expressing themselves in beautiful, poetic, and timeless ways.  Again and again, Second Time reveals that average men and women can tell a stories that can compete with the great works of Russian literature in terms of their impact on the human heart.  In fact, some of the testimonies or oral histories that Alexievich records might seem almost too perfectly expressed to work in a modern drama.  Critics would no doubt applaud the poetic or prophetic power of the characters' monologues, but then go on to critique the playwrights' overly stylized or mannered lines.  Critics would accept the lines from Sophocles, Shakespeare, or perhaps even Racine, but never from Williams, O'Neil, or Mamet.  Alexievich gives us the tragedy of the banal and shows that even quotidian life--at least in Russia--is worthy of every once of eloquence contained within human speech.

Alexievich's book of seemingly random snippets of memory is truly literary, but it does also serve as the unofficial or secret history of the Soviet Union.  Free from official history, Secondhand Time allows readers to come to see the Soviet Union in all of its complexity.  For ordinary Soviet cities, the Soviet Union was both a murderous empire and a land of optimism, transnational solidarity, intellectualism, and stability.  

Secondhand Time reveals a Janus-faced Soviet experience in which men and women were both stifled by authoritarianism and comforted by communist ideals.  Secondhand Time isn't really about causality, but it does help to explain the deep disenchantment felt by so many Soviet citizens who were introduced to capitalism, and the West, in such a brutal way.  As bad as the Soviet Union may have been, even many enthusiastic supporters of reform would come to miss the stability it at least sometimes provided its citizens.  

Secondhand Time offers us a nuanced explanation of Soviet nostalgia by approaching the Soviet experience from an almost dialectical perspective in which ordinary people's positive and negative memories collide with one another to create a sort of new and transcendent historical synthesis of contradictory concepts.  The Soviet state oppressed people, but it also gave them ideals and an almost religious sense of meaning.  In its absence, formally Soviet citizens came to realize that they had lost a great deal, including superpower status, interethnic peace, relative equality, full employment, and shared rites related to World War II and communist education.  

The specific stories that make up this wonderfully moving book are largely centered on tragedy.   Taken from almost every phase of the Soviet experiment, these tragedies include gulag experiences, Civil War atrocities, World War II battles, Stalin's Great Terror, ethnic wars, military hazing, Afghanistan, and--above all--post-communist economic chaos.  But each tale of tragedy reveals some element of happiness.  After all, tragedy perhaps only really makes sense in the context of displaced happiness.  In a sense, happiness a kind of natural frame for the artwork of despair and disaster.  In fact, tragedy even helps you to finally realize what happiness (or the absence of tragedy) really looks like.

Secondhand Time shows us that Soviet citizens may have often been critical of their former government, but they also came to depend on it.  The Soviet government was never perfect, but it did give its citizens rituals, rites of passage, collective experiences, a sacred calendar of communist and national holidays, and a philosophy to oppose to some of the more exploitative aspects of capitalism and materialism.   The Soviet Union made some people feel safe, powerful, dignified, connected, and important.  But even those who hated communism, and eventually protested against it, often gained something even in the act of opposing its ideology.  Soviet citizens who opposed the government, however discretely, participated in a meaningful counter culture of books, jokes, ideas, poems, and songs.  Once the empire collapsed, the intelligentsia was surprised to discover that their world too quickly dissolved.  Into the vacuum stepped Russian mobsters, political strongman, thieves, conmen, speculators, businesspeople, etc.  One telling story describes how people with doctorates were forced to sell jars of cigarette butts to survive. As it turned out, in the post-Soviet world, dissidents were given even less political or creative space than they had previously occupied.

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