Svetlana Alexievich: Fascinated by People

by Mark Chmiel

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year.  Her oral history, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, appeared this spring in the US. Translated by Bela Shayevich, the book is a compelling portrait of life in and after the Soviet Union.  The author states early in the work, “I want to know about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. Music, dances, hairdos. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. it’s the only way to chase the catastrophe into the contours of the ordinary and try to tell a story. Make some small discovery. It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life really is. There is an endless number of human truths. History is concerned solely with the acts; emotions are outside its realm of interest. In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the world as a writer and not a historian. I am fascinated by people.”

470 pages long, comprised of interviews with hundreds of people, the following passages were among the many that caught my attention…

 

The [tank] drivers weren’t murderers, they were just frightened kids with guilty looks on their faces.  24

Down from the throne, straight into the gutter.  30

All of you wanted capitalism.  You dreamt of it! Don’t go crying now that you’ve been lied to… 32

God is the infinite within us … We are created in His likeness and image … 36

His motto was, “Man up—the worst is yet to come.”46

They’re not afraid of anyone. Flying around in their private jets with their gilded toilets and bragging about it to boot. 54

The Russian intelligentsia never used to pander to the rich. Now there’s no one left—no one will speak for the soul except the priests. Where are the former supporters of Perestroika? 54

—- An indescribable passion for newspapers and magazines took hold of us—circulation numbers skyrocketed into the millions. Periodicals became more popular than books. In the morning, in the Metro, day in and day out you’d find  entire subway cars reading. 61

—A mysterious new life awaited us, and everyone was eager to see it. We all believed that the kingdom of freedom as right around the corner…. But life just kept getting worse.  63

—I ran into my neighbor: “I’m embarrassed that I’m so excited because of  German coffee grinder… but I’m just so happy!” It had only been moments ago—just a moment ago—that she’d spent the night waiting in line to get her hands on a volume by Akhmatova. Now she was head over heels for a coffee grinder.  66

After Stalin died, people started smiling again; before that, they lived carefully. Without smiles.  88

You can live through anything except death. 89

But I wasn’t prepared for Yeltsin… for Gaidar’s reforms. All our money disappeared at the snap of his fingers. Our money and our lives with it… 98

In every household, there’s someone who’s either doing time or has already been to prison. 109

What had to have happened to us… the Soviet people… to make us close our eyes and run to this motherfucking capitalist paradise? 111

Our state proved easy to destroy from the top.  123

Our country has a tsarist mentality, it’s subconsciously tsarist.  125

Kikes! They’re the root of all evil… A Russian has nowhere to turn to. They crucified Christ… 140

I adored my husband, but I also liked to flirt with other men, it was like a game for me. You walk along, they look at you, and you like being looked at–so what if they fall just a tiny bit in love with you?  143

She’s one of those people whose eyes sparkled with tears whenever the Internationale played.  145

Do you understand what I’ve been trying to tell you? I’ve been talking about Igor… About our lost generation—a communist upbringing and a capitalist life. I hate guitars! You can have mine if you want. 164

We will never live in such a big and strong country again. I cried when the Soviet Union collapsed. They began cursing us immediately. Slandering. The consumer triumphed. The louse. The worm.  168

The people have lost their history… They’ve been left without faith. 173

My grandchildren read the Dalai Lama. Instead of Capital, they have the Mahabharata. The Kabbalah…. Now everyone believes in something different.  174

Their friends come over and I overhear them saying things like: “I would rather live in a  weak country where there’s yogurt and good beer.” 176

Russian people need the kind of idea that gives them goose bumps and makes their spines tingle.  192

On television, they show us the Germans. They’re doing pretty well for themselves! The defeated are living one hundred times better than the victors. 193

Our men are martyrs, all of them are traumatized, either from war or from prison. From life in the camps. War and prison are the two most important words in the Russian language. Truly Russian words! Russian women have never had normal men. They keep healing and healing them. Treating them like heroes and children at the same time. 215

Italians aren’t like that, the don’t want to suffer, they love life, which they believe is given to them to enjoy, not suffer through. We don’t think like that. We rarely talk about joy… about how happiness is an entire world.  216

We’d say hi to each other. By all appearances, a normal guy. Tall, good-looking. He killed his old teacher, a Georgian. Killed him for teaching him Georgian in school. He’d given him bad grades. How could he do that? Can you understand it? In Soviet school, everyone was taught that all men are friends… friends, comrades, and brothers. When my mother heard about it, her eyes got very small, and then they got huge…242

In the evenings, I’d roam the grocery stores. I was always hungry; one time, a woman bought me a meat pie. I didn’t ask her to… She had been eating and she saw me watching her eat. She took pity on me. Just that one time… but I will remember that “one time” for the rest of my life. She was an old, old woman. Poor.

Does anyone care about any of this anymore? Show me—who? It hasn’t been useful or interesting to anyone for a long time. Our country doesn’t exist anymore, and it never will, but here we are… old and disgusting… with our terrifying memories and poisoned eyes.  255

Every story I can remember about myself is about how I kept dying and surviving… and then dying again. 257

There used to be a Lenin Street. Everything is different now: the stuff, the people, the money. There are new names for it all. We used to be “comrades,” now we are “ladies and gentlemen,” except that we “ladies and gentlemen” seem to be struggling. Everyone is searching for their aristocratic roots. That’s what’s in fashion! Princes and counts are coming out of the woodwork. Before, people were proud of being from long lines of workers and peasants. Now everyone crosses themselves and keeps the fasts. They have serious discussions about whether or not monarchy will save Russia. 266

Hundreds of thousands of people sit in front of their televisions and listen to them like they’re hypnotized. It’s a drug! The terrifying loneliness… the sense of abandonment… From the taxi driver to the office clerk to the People’s Artist and the scholar. Everyone is terribly lonely.  271

With his own eyes, he’d seen an interrogator, this enormous guy, stick a prisoner’s head in the shit bucket and hold him down until he drowned in it.  As for Uncle Vanya… they’d strip him naked and hang him from he ceiling, pour spirits of ammonia into his nose, his mouth, every orifice in his body. The investigator pissed in his ear, screaming, “Names! … Give me names!”  So Uncle Vanya named names … and signed everything.  273

Don’t make things up about what our people are like, saying that Russians are so good at heart. No one is prepared to repent. It’s a great feat, repentance. Even though I go to church, I don’t have it in me to confess. It’s hard … and really, people only ever feel sorry for themselves. Not anyone else.  277

They also committed atrocities and only handfuls of them lost their minds. While the rest led normal lives: kissing girls and playing chess… Buying toys for their kids. 280

You asked how long a man is a man, how long he can hang on? I’ll tell you: The leg of a Viennese chair in the anus or a nail to the scrotum, and he’s gone. Ha ha… no longer a man… just some crap on the door!  281

I tripped and fell on a sign reading, “For a Bourgeois-Free Russia!”   288

When you’re part of a mob, the mob is a monster. A person in a mob is nothing like the person you sit and chat with in the kitchen. Drinking vodka, drinking tea. I’m never demonstrating again, and I won’t let my sons do it, either…. 289

I work at a private company and hate the owner. The way they split up the big pie of the of the USSR, their pirate privatization, just doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t like the rich…. I lived under socialism, for too long. Life is better now, but it’s also more revolting.    290

Not a single one of my friends was communist. For us, communism was inextricably linked with the Terror, the gulag. A cage.  291

Half the country dreams of Stalin—and if half the country is dreaming of Stalin, he’s bound to materialize, you can be sure of it.  292

We’re a Bolshevik people. And finally, Russians don’t want to just live, they want to live for something. They want to participate in some great undertaking. You’ll sooner find a saint here than an honest and successful man. Read the Russian classics… 293

—There’s nothing more terrifying than an idealist.  295

—It’s better to love our Motherland from afar.  295

—We stand on the square, chant, and then we go home to our computers and fool around online. 297

—I’m learning how to be a free person. I don’t want to die the way I am now, all Soviet.  I’m dredging the Sovietness out of myself by the bucketful… 298

—I’m no Che Guevara, I’m a wimp, but I haven’t missed a single rally. I want to live in a country I’m not ashamed of.  298

—We need to pray, not go to demonstrations. The Lord sent us Putin…  300

—People have to make up their minds to live according to the teachings of Solzhenitsyn, without lies. Otherwise, we’re not moving forward a single millimeter. We’ll just keep going around in circles. 301

Hundreds of thousands of people fled her homes: Tajiks, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Chechens… They escaped to Moscow, the capital of the USSR, only now it’s the capital of another country. You won’t find our nation anywhere on the map… 318

[My grandmother] worshipped him until her dying day: “If it weren’t for Stalin, we’d be licking the German’s asses.” 321

She thought that if someone had fought in a war or done time in Stalin’s camps, they couldn’t possibly be a bad person.

A kilo of meat costs three hundred and twenty rubles—Olga was an elementary school teacher, and she made one hundred rubles a month. Everyone ran around like crazy, desperate to make money any way they could.  329

We ended up becoming a kind of normal family. I started going to school again. Vitya was very kind, he made me a ring with a little stone. But the trouble was… he drank, too.  331

Men consider women game, war trophies, prey, and themselves hunters.  337

There’s one thing I know for sure. Capitalism was not what my parents ordered. No two ways about it. It’s what I ordered, it’s made for people like me, who didn’t want to stay in the cage.  The young and the strong. For us, capitalism was exciting…  339

I was looking up … to the top of the tall ladder of life… I never dreamed of being fucked in the stairwells in exchange for expensive dinners.  341

The people I met had steely logic and an iron grip on reality. They were systematic thinkers. All of them were learning English. Management.  342

But I live alone. And that’s how I like it!  I am never as happy with anyone else as I am by myself. I love talking to myself… first and foremost about myself… I’m excellent company!

Today, I would have flayed him like a hunter skins a wolf. I know how to be a predator and and panther now.  345

God forbid you were born in the USSR but live in Russia.  358

[Her son died in terrorist attack] The fact is, I’ve forgotten all about my beauty. When someone drowns, their body becomes completely saturated with water. That’s how I am, but with pain. It’s as though I’ve renounced my body and all that is left of me is my soul… 359

—We used to live in Brooklyn… Surrounded by Russian speech and Russian stores. Here in America, you can be delivered by a Russian midwife, go to a Russian school, work for a Russian boss, confess to a Russian priest… 385

—I’m a rational person. All that wishy-washy stuff about the language of our grandmothers and grandfathers is nothing but sentimental nonsense. I stopped letting myself read Russian books or look at the Russian web. I want to beat everything Russian out of myself. Stop being Russian… 387

…A mother received her son’s body from Russia. Without any of his internal organs… You can buy anything on the Moscow black market, everything a person has: kidneys, lives, pupils, heart valves, skin … 390

“Boys,” I say to the sadists in uniform, “I have faith in you. I know that you’re human.”  392

She used to be a famous violinist. What made her lose her grip? Maybe it was people constantly saying to her, “You play the violin—what good is that? You know two languages—what for? Your job is to clean up, sweep the floors. You’re nothing but slaves here.” This girl, she doesn’t play the violin anymore. She’s forgotten everything.  393

—My grandfather would tell me about how he defended Stalingrad alongside Uzbeks. They all believed that they were brothers forever!  394-395

—I dare you to walk through the city holding a poster that says, “I love Tajiks.” You’d get beaten up instantly.  395

—My father used to study in Moscow. Now he laments the loss of the USSR day and night. He dreamt that I would come here to study like he did. Instead, the police brutalize me, my boss beats me… I live in a basement like a cat.  400

At seventy, he could put away two bottles in a single night. And he was proud of it it, too. He returned from the war covered in medals—a hero! For a long time, he’d just parade around in his army jacket, drinking, carousing, having a gay old time. While my grandmother worked. Because grandpa was a hero… He would beat my grandmother half to death. I’d crawl around on my knees in front of him begging him not to lay his hands on her. He chased us around the house with an axe… 404

When I got divorced from my first husband, I thought I would never let another man into my house ever again. No man will set foot in here! I was sick of crying, walking around covered in bruises.  409

Don’t look for pity from me!  Eat up your own vomit with your own goddamn spoon. Pick up your own mess! Forgive me, oh Lord, if you really do exist. Forgive me!  412

“You try to tell us that Russia is our home, but every day, I have to bribe the police not to beat me to death for the way I look.” 422

I wasn’t afraid of anything anymore. I don’t give a damn about them! Stalin needs to come back from the dead! I am calling on him to rise up from the grave! That’s my prayer. 429

Later, the boys in my village told me that they teach them that “the worst that can happen is if you start seeing the demonstrators as human beings.”  458

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