Thursday, March 22, 2018

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich



Not everyone is a fan of twentieth century classical music.  I happen to be one, at least of the first half of the century before it became a "naked Emperor".  Here is a piano sonata by Henri Detilleux, Op. 1.  It was written in 1947 and is here performed by Francois Killian.


Secondhand Time: The Last of the SovietsSecondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is one of the most heart wrenching narratives I've ever read. Svetlana Alexievich spent almost twenty years compiling the stories of men and women of all ages during and after the Soviet government ruled and then collapsed.

The unbelievable cruelty and hardship that many endured under the Soviet Regime has, in many eyes, been replaced by an unbridled chaos and greed. They hate the old years but despise the new.

The first people Alexievich talked to were former members of the Communist Party. They hate the new way and loved the old. Even if it was oppressive, it was epic and they were great. Millions of people starved to death? Necessary for greatness!

Some of these former Soviets speak for the first time of how they betrayed their own families to advance their careers. One man turned in his uncle for hiding crops from the Soviet who were confiscating farmers' produce. His uncle was beaten to death. Afterwards his mother gave him a sack of food and told him to leave and never come back. His grand sons mock his reminiscing of Soviet greatness and when he died he left them nothing but gave all his money to the Soviet Government, even though it no longer existed. He could not shed his Communist identity. It was his god.

Even those who were sent to the Gulag and tortured often saw it as necessary because the Soviet Regime must operate even if sacrifices are made. Not all took it so stoically, however.

One woman was living with her daughter in a house with several other families. This was common; most houses were divided up to house many families, each family getting one or two rooms at the most. This woman was carried off because someone had reported her to be an enemy of the state. As the police were leading her away she begged her neighbor, another woman, to look after her daughter, which she did. Years later, after the woman was released and the records were opened, this woman found out that it was the other woman who turned her in. Why? She wanted her rooms. The woman, even though she endured years of torture in the Gulag, could not endure this; she hanged herself.

There are many such heart breaking stories like this. One man spoke of his engagement to a beautiful woman, but then he got to know her father. Her father was an ancient, unassuming man; he seemed nice and harmless. But then he shared his experiences as an army officer. His job was to execute "enemies of the state", not even people from other countries. The enemies would kneel before him and he shot them in the back of the head. Hundreds of "enemies" every day. His gun hand would badly cramp so a massage therapist was hired to massage the soldiers hands at the end of each day.

The father spoke openly of this with no regret. The man ran away. He could not marry this monster's daughter. He said, "They are everywhere; men like that. They look normal. You can't tell them from anyone else." It made him feel leery because he did not know who was walking next to him on the side walk; sitting next to him on the bus. They looked normal, were they also mass killers?

So many children orphaned, it's a wonder they survived to adulthood. And marriage is wholly unstable. Countless women interviewed speak of leaving their husbands for no other reason than they no longer wanted to live with them. The effect on the children was not considered.

It is unbelievable how a society can be so extensively dehumanized; yet they still have emotion. All of the stories are told in an deeply emotional tone; perhaps it is how Russians express themselves. It reminded me of Dostoevsky's characters.

The language in which each person tells their story is colorful and rich. The reader is sucked into their life for a brief moment. Maybe some people would not like to read their stories because they are so painful, but I think everyone needs to read this oral history of a people who have not only experienced hell but are still trying to climb out.



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10 comments:

  1. lucky, we are... as full of trouble as it is, to live in a place where there's at least a semblance of civilization... not a book i'd care to read; older people mostly like to read cheerful things, i think... anyway, i'm like that... well, pretty much, anyway...

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    1. Hi Mudpuddle. Yes I think all of us need to live other places at least once in our life. We'd realize how much of our problems are first world angst.

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  2. Very insightful commentary Sharon. I agree, these stories need to be told. With that, as I get a little bit older I am having more and more difficulty reading things like this. Communism, like other extreme and totalitarian ideologies caused so much human misery.

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    1. Hi Brian. It was hard to read these stories but I'm glad I did. It seems that Russian society is going through a brutal phase.

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  3. Sharon, your fine review will send to my library in search of a copy. I recall dystopian fiction (e.g., 1984 and Brave New World) when I read your commentary; truth really is stranger (and so often more important) than fiction!

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    1. Hi R.T. You are so right. If it was fiction, it's not be so interesting, but because it is true stories told by the people themselves, it is absorbing.

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  4. I read your review when you first posted but didn't get around to commenting until now. I tend to lean towards these sorts of books, partly because of the lessons they teach - when you follow a philosophy/belief all the way to its end what do you end up with? I'm reading through The Gulag again - I read it when I was about 19, I think, & have just finished 'First They Killed My Father,'about Cambodia. Not comfortable at all, just senseless atrocity coming out of the same sort of thinking that led to what happened in Russia & China. Life & Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng was a book I loved. The author showed such a defiant spirit it was inspiring.

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    1. Hi Carol. I also like reading these kind of books because they offer such insight in to the human mind and the depths of depravity it is capable of. I know it sounds overly simple, but I really think when a society turns away from God it goes insane. I hope I'm not around when my country goes completely into the void.

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  5. Thank you for this review. Stories of actual conditions and dynamic temptations , under totalitarian regimes are much needed, especially for the young and ardent of the west who need to study actual versus the stated intended consequences of many deadly attempts that have been made in the name of solving social and political problems.

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    1. Hi Jeanette. I could not agree with you more. When people compare our current leaders with certain totalitarian oppressors of history they are showing their ignorance of history. I advise those people to go live in a country like Somalia or even present day Russia to get a better idea of what true dystopia is like today.

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I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.