cover image Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

Svetlana Alexievich, trans. from the Russian by Bela Shayevich. Random, $30 (496p) ISBN 978-0-399-58880-8

Alexievich (Voices from Chernobyl), a Ukrainian-born Belarusian writer and winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, documents the last days of the Soviet Union and the transition to capitalism in a soul-wrenching “oral history” that reveals the very different sides of the Russian experience. Revealing the interior life of “Homo sovieticus” and giving horror-laden reports of life under capitalist oligarchy, Alexievich’s work turns Solzhenitsyn inside out and overpowers recent journalistic accounts of the era. Readers must possess steely nerves and a strong desire to get inside the Soviet psyche in order to handle the blood, gore, and raw emotion. For more than 30 years Alexievich has interviewed then-Soviets and ex-Soviets for this and previous books, encountering her subjects on public squares, in lines, on trains, and in their kitchens over tea. She spends hours recording conversations, sometimes returning years later, and always trying to go beyond the battered and distrusted communal pravda to seek the truths hidden within individuals. Her subjects argue with and lie to themselves; nearly everyone talks about love and loss in the context of war, hunger, betrayal, financial ruin, and emotional collapse. Yet with little intrusion from Alexievich and Shayevich’s heroic translation, each voice stands on its own, joining the tragic polyphony that unfolds chapter by chapter and gives expression to intense pain and inner chaos. (June)