by Mark Chmiel

I’m discussing Svetlana’s Alexievich’s Secondhand Time with Lori Hirst and Helen Houlle later today. One of the fascinating threads in this oral history is the emphasis on books in Soviet culture…


My mother wasn’t alone, all of her friends were like this, too–the first generation of Soviet intelligentsia who had grown up on Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov, Nekrasov … on Marxism … Could you imagine my mother sitting down and embroidering something or going out of her way to decorate our house with porcelain vases or little elephant figurines … Never! That would be a pointless waste of time. Petit bourgeois nonsense.  The most important thing is spiritual labor… Books… You can wear the same suit for twenty easts, two coats are enough to last a lifetime, but you can’t live without Pushkin or the complete works of Gorky. You’re part of the grand scheme of things, there’s a grand scheme… That’s how they lived…

In tenth grade, I had an affair. He lived in Moscow. I went to see him, we only had three days. In the morning, at the station, we picked up a mimeographed copy of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs, which everyone was reading at that time. We had to return the book the next day at four in the morning. Hand it off to someone on a train passing through town. For twenty-four hours, we read without stopping–we only went out once, to get milk and a loaf of bread. We even forgot to make out, we just handed the pages to one another. All of this happened in some kind of fever, a stupor…

I always had The Gulag Archipelago under my arm, and I would immediately open it and start reading it. In one arm, my baby is dying, and with my free hand, I’m holding Solzhenitsyn. Books replaced life for us. They were our whole world.

All that will be left of us will be a couple of lines in a history textbook. A paragraph. Solzhenitsyn and history according to Solzhenitsyn are going out of style. People used to be in jail for The Gulag Archipelago, they read it in secret, typed copies of it up on their typewriters, wrote it out by hand. I believed … I believed that if thousands of people read it, everything would change. People would repent, tears would be shed.

My mother had so many friends, but none of them had anything but books at home.

My whole life, I’ve made my daughters read good books, tried to convince them that good is more powerful than evil, that good always wins in the end. But life is nothing like books.