Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, but some people still don’t think her books are literature. In fact, they are collective oral histories, of similar genre, though completely different in tone, to those of Studs Terkel in the United States, whom she has probably never read. Her main influence as far as genre is concerned was the Belorussian writer Ales Adamovich, who in the 1970s (with Daniil Granin) collected the testimonies of wartime Leningrad survivors in Blokadnaia kniga, but that’s not very helpful in a Western context since nobody has heard of him. Lately, Alexievich has taken to citing Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah as an inspiration. Her first book, with methodology already honed, was finished before Shoah was made, so that obviously can’t be taken literally. But it’s a way of letting a Western audience know that what she’s doing is exploring suffering and loss through the voices of the sufferers.
Whatever her genre, Alexievich is an original, with a voice that is hers alone. That’s to say, it’s hers alone as a writer. Her respondents, particularly the women, tend to speak in the same voice as Alexievich. That voice is unmistakably Russian (though Alexievich, who writes in Russian, is actually of mixed Belorussian and Ukrainian origins). It is also unmistakably Soviet. She writes about suffering, and that means that the Gulag and the Second World War are never far away. She writes about death and the soul – an important word in her lexicon. She is, she says, a sovok, the post-Soviet pejorative term for Homo sovieticus, and so are her parents and her friends. She means the kind of sovok who suffers because of the Soviet identity and baggage they can’t disclaim, not the kind who glories in it. Only a sovok, she believes, could have persuaded all those other kindred souls to talk about their guilty, angry, nostalgic love of the world they have lost.
Alexievich came on the literary scene at the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika, the high point of her and many of her interviewees’ lives. Her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, appeared in Moscow in the mid-1980s, after a two-year hold-up by the censor. It made a big splash in Russia but wasn’t much noticed in the West. Her subject was the Second World War, on which the Soviet literature was enormous, but she had a genuinely new take: the war through the prism of women’s experiences. Her heroines, who tell their own stories, had volunteered as teenagers along with their boyfriends because they wanted to fight with rifles in their hands (they explain that Soviet schooling had taught them women could do anything). At the front, they both experienced the camaraderie of the frontline and, on occasion, felt excluded from it. They cut their hair short on joining up and tried to walk like men, but after a while started wanting to be women again and got annoyed by being issued male underwear. They saw their male comrades rape German women, and afterwards, even as they helped the weeping women clean themselves up, were glad to see their tears. They fell in love at the front, only in many cases to be dumped at the end of the war when the men went back to their peacetime wives. They were shocked, on their own return, to find themselves described contemptuously as ‘frontline wives’ and seen as loose women.
Alexievich loves these women. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she characterised them as the highest expression of the communist ideal, ‘higher even than the revolution and Lenin’. But she doesn’t see just the women who went away to war in those terms: it’s a view that also applies to the women who stayed and bore the burden on the home front. These are people she knows from her childhood in a Belorussian village (she was born in 1948) where the women would sit around in the evenings telling stories about the war, particularly their wartime partings from the men they loved and their determination to wait for them for ever. She internalised the ‘sad intonation’ of their talk, she said in a recent lecture given at Oxford, and learned from them that ‘suffering was a form of information.’ Thanks to listening to these conversations, ‘I think I’ve known from childhood what love is,’ she told her Nobel audience in Sweden. Alexievich is prone to saying things like that, on the sentimental side to a Western ear; I have to tell myself to let it pass, she’s Russian.
Although Alexievich says there were no men in the village, there was actually one important man: her father. He and her mother were schoolteachers and raised their children as Soviet patriots. A lifelong communist, her father wept when, after witnessing the pointless deaths of Soviet soldiers in the Afghanistan war (the subject of her 1990 Zinky Boys), she lost her socialist faith and told him: ‘We are all murderers.’ In the complex intergenerational relationships of late Soviet times, that ‘we’, addressed to a parent, mainly means ‘you’, but not entirely. ‘We were merciless towards our parents,’ she writes in Second-Hand Time. Yet she sees her father and others of his generation as tragic figures.
Her next big book was Chernobyl Prayer, published in Russian in 1997. This was another totally new perspective, the nuclear disaster seen through the remembered experience of local survivors and clean-up people, and it too annoyed the authorities, this time the Belorussians, who wouldn’t allow the book to be published there. Reading Chernobyl Prayer, one is reminded that Alexievich started off as a journalist and knows how to write a good story, as she demonstrates in her introduction to the interviews. There is heroism to spare in this book, but even more striking is the omnipresent recklessness and stupidity. One of the problems of a nanny state like the Soviet Union was that everyone got so used to ignoring the nanny that when what she said was sensible and even life-preserving they ignored that too. Clean-up men accepted toxic glasses of milk from locals so as not to spurn their hospitality. Locals devised their own rules for dealing with the radiation and its aftermath. If they listened to prohibitions on drinking fresh milk themselves, it didn’t stop them taking it to the towns to sell. As for cucumbers, perhaps it was better not to eat them fresh but surely one could bottle them for the winter.
The contaminated Belorussian landscape was relatively empty, but there were animals in abundance, including all the cats and dogs left behind, and a few tough old characters who wouldn’t leave or had surreptitiously returned. One woman talks about her New Year’s party with local produce and home-brewed vodka (‘Our very own … Chernobyl-style, with added caesium and strontium to spice it up’), where they all sang Soviet revolutionary songs and had ‘a wonderful evening. Just like old times.’ A Russian family kicked out of Central Asia by civil war in the 1990s and resettled in Belarus because of the cheap and available housing were excited to see cream and butter in shops. And of course, though this is one of the least sentimental of Alexievich’s books, we have the dying children. A paediatrician describes them chasing one another round the wards shouting: ‘I’m radiation! I’m radiation!’ When they die, the paediatrician says, ‘it seems to me they look surprised. Baffled. They lie there looking so surprised.’
Second-Hand Time is Alexievich’s attempt to come to terms with the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union. The awkward title – sekond-khend (which sounds awful in a Russian accent, though perhaps that’s the point) is the title of the Russian version too – seems to mean that time has gone out of kilter for the Russians, who are experiencing capitalism after socialism, when Marx said it should be the other way round, and are getting an already used version from the West. At 694 pages, it’s longer than her other books, and this is probably a mistake: towards the end, the reader may start flipping pages, feeling slightly nauseated from a surfeit of suffering. Alexievich has written that all her books are part of a history of utopia. The utopia here isn’t so much the Soviet project itself – though that’s part of it – but perestroika’s attempt to revive it. Her subjects are Soviet nostalgics whose nostalgia is tempered by the fact that they so badly wanted the really-existing Soviet Union to be different.
Second-Hand Time is not a coffee table book but a kitchen table one. The kitchen table was where, in the evenings of late socialism, people sat around, drank tea and vodka, and talked from the heart. Alexievich sees herself not as an interviewer but as a friend and neighbour having a conversation. ‘I reminisced alongside my protagonists,’ she tells us, although her side of the conversation isn’t recorded. The protagonists often burst into tears, and sometimes Alexievich weeps with them: ‘Do you believe me?’ one woman asks, after telling a complicated story about loss and dislocation. ‘I believe you, I tell her. I grew up in the same country as you. I believe you! [And both of us cry.]’ The reader often cries as well, or at least I, with my own Soviet-nostalgia reflexes, did. But that gets tiring.
The disappointed hopes of perestroika are central to Alexievich’s story. ‘There was a moment,’ she writes, ‘when everyone was a romantic,’ when people believed that instant freedom was possible and would cure all ills. ‘We were prepared to die for our ideals. To prove ourselves in battle.’ But there was no real battle (though she tends to write as if there had been: ‘I’ve spent my entire life on the barricades,’ she says at one point), and freedom turned out to be a mirage. ‘Our suffering has not converted into freedom,’ Alexievich said in her Oxford lecture, but she still seems to feel it was a reasonable expectation. ‘Freedom turned out to mean the rehabilitation of bourgeois existence … the freedom of Her Highness Consumption.’ Money, whose significance Russian intellectuals had so long and so proudly denied, suddenly became the thing that mattered most. Dignified members of the intelligentsia were seen queuing up for food at Hare Krishna mobile soup kitchens. The Arbat district, loved by generations of Muscovites, was profaned by tawdry commerce and fast food. ‘I found rows of pedlars selling matryoshka dolls, samovars, icons and portraits of the tsar and the royal family. Portraits of White Guard generals,’ one respondent complained. Old Soviet army uniforms, medals and party cards were on sale as souvenirs. ‘I didn’t recognise my Moscow. What city was this?’ She called a policeman to have the blasphemers punished, but he said he only arrested people for drugs and pornography.
The reading culture of the Soviet era disappeared overnight. Second-hand shops were deluged with unwanted books: ‘the intelligentsia were selling off their libraries. People had grown poor, of course, but it wasn’t just for the spare cash – it was because ultimately books had disappointed them.’ Many people didn’t even bother to sell them. ‘Volumes of Gorky and Mayakovsky piled up in the dumpsters. People would drop the complete works of Lenin off at the paper recycling centre.’
For people who still identified with Soviet values, it was an agonising time. ‘I’ve fallen behind,’ one woman said, invoking the old Soviet cliché about the importance of being in the vanguard. ‘Everyone else transferred from the train that was hurtling towards socialism onto the train racing to capitalism … People laugh at the sovok … They laugh at me … [the woman weeps].’ Since the young found it easier to adapt to the new mores, a gulf opened up in many families. ‘My children already live according to these new laws. They don’t need me anymore, I seem ridiculous … I’m a rare specimen! … Isn’t that right? You’re very lucky to have found me … [She laughs and cries at the same time.]’ This respondent’s son had gone into trade, a matter of shame to his mother, and made money. But when he and his friends got drunk, they would still sing Komsomol songs, and someone was sure to say: ‘It’s a mess out there. We need a Stalin.’ Another respondent, a 50-year-old doing his best to grow out of being a sovok, still baulked at the lip-smacking TV shows on the luxurious life of the rich. ‘It’s humiliating … I lived under socialism for too long. Life is better now, but it’s also more revolting.’
One special form of agony came from revelations about the Soviet past. When Gulag returnees and their relatives asked for their files, uncomfortable things emerged. Denunciations were the worst, especially when they came from people who had been liked and trusted. The nice neighbour who used to take the children fishing turned out to have informed on a respondent’s father, who was arrested in the Great Purges. His brother was arrested too, denounced by another family member, Aunt Olga, ‘a beautiful woman, full of joy’. When asked in her old age about 1937, she said it was the happiest year of her life: ‘I was in love.’ She offered no explanation or excuse for the denunciation. Another respondent told the (possibly apocryphal) story of a single mother who, when arrested, asked her friend and neighbour in the communal apartment to look after her five-year-old daughter. She did so, becoming ‘Mama Anya’, and when the real mother returned from the Gulag after 17 years and found her daughter safe, she was beside herself with gratitude. But then she applied for her KGB file and found out that it was Mama Anya who had denounced her.
The horror stories , recounted at length by many respondents, mainly concerned the older generation. The respondents themselves – and Alexievich with them – had better memories. Typically, they were of the Soviet kitchen table, where the ‘kitchen dissidents’ would sit ‘criticising the Soviet government and cracking jokes. We read samizdat. If someone got their hands on a new book, they could show up at your door at any hour – even two or three in the morning – and still be a welcome guest.’ They would swap precious numbers of journals like Novy Mir, play the labour camp songs croaked out by Vladimir Vysotsky, and listen to Voice of America on shortwave (‘I still remember that beautiful crackling’). At some point in the evening, someone would always point in jest to the ceiling light (a possible hiding place for bugs) and say: ‘Did you hear that, Comrade Lieutenant?’ It was a wonderful parallel life to their workaday existence as ordinary, non-dissident toilers: their night-time talks weren’t really risky, since ‘kitchen dissidents’ didn’t take their protests to the streets and the KGB didn’t really bug them, but all the same ‘it felt a little dangerous, a little bit like a game.’
Most of the people Alexievich interviewed are people like her, perestroika-lovers who yearn for their lost utopia but also miss the non-utopia that was the Soviet Union. Indeed, it was a conscious policy to select them: ‘I sought out people who had been permanently bound to the Soviet idea, letting it penetrate them so deeply, there was no separating them.’ Nonetheless, she also allows a few other voices into the mix, although one feels a certain inner resistance on her part, especially when the unenlightened voices are male. Most of the outliers get excerpted without context or identification, in single paragraphs or even single sentences:
I’ve had it up to here with the Jews, the Chekists, and the homosexuals.
The Soviet civilisation! Someone felt the need to put an end to it. The CIA … They must have paid Gorbachev a tidy sum.
I’m a simple man. Stalin didn’t touch regular people like me. No one in my family was affected, and all of them were workers. It was the bosses’ heads that flew, regular people lived regular lives.
A woman who from youth found capitalism more interesting than the Gulag gets a full interview, but it’s one of the least convincing in the book, and one suspects Alexievich of editorial intervention. The woman’s capitalist instincts are expressed in clichéd form – ‘I was looking up … to the top of the tall ladder of life’; ‘I want to keep moving forward. I’m a huntress, not docile prey’ – and any admiration the reader might have for her guts and determination is undermined by heavy-handed reminders that success doesn’t bring happiness:
I love cats. I love them because they don’t cry, no one has ever seen their tears. People who see me on the street think that I’m rich and happy! I have everything: a big house, an expensive car, Italian furniture. And a daughter I adore. I have a housekeeper … But I live alone. And that’s how I like it … Loneliness is freedom.
When a young man identifying himself as a ‘Russian Orthodox patriot’ goes into a rant against Jews and the CIA, imperiously telling Alexievich to be quiet when she apparently disputes his conspiracy theories (her contribution to the conversation isn’t in the text), he discredits himself as a respondent: ‘[I can’t stop him]’ is interpolated, and he only gets a couple more paragraphs. But in one notable case Alexievich breaks her rule of not including uncongenial voices. This is the monologue from ‘Elena Yurievna S., third secretary of the district party committee, 49 years old’ (some interviewees get full names, others none: it seems to depend partly on whether they say things Alexievich thinks do them credit). The double interview with Elena Yurievna and a childhood friend of hers who comes along too, fortunately with more congenial views, is almost a novella on its own, taking up fifty pages.
Elena Yurievna deeply regrets the passing of the Soviet Union, but for the wrong reason in Alexievich’s terms: she was an apparatchik, part of the power structure, who remains loyal to the Communist Party. She still loves the word ‘comrade’ and ‘take[s] pleasure in writing “USSR”. That was my country; the country I live in today is not. I feel like I’m living on foreign soil.’ (She isn’t the only one of Alexievich’s interviewees to say this.) Her father was taken prisoner in the Finnish war, pulled out of freezing water by Finns, and therefore subsequently deemed to have betrayed his country and sent to the Gulag for six years. He accepted the notion of his guilt and remained fully loyal; his daughter, on the other hand, ‘never liked Stalin. My father forgave him, but I didn’t.’ The party she proudly served was the post-Stalin one, and she was ashamed when it finally gave up without a fight. She gives a memorable description of how, as the end approached, paralysed and frightened district party officials holed up in their offices reading detective stories, while scores of erstwhile members returned their party cards by stealthily throwing them over the fence into the courtyard. On her colleagues’ subsequent fate, she notes that some killed themselves, some went into business, and one became a priest.
She is aware that her views aren’t congenial to her interviewer, and several times interjects that no doubt, since she was saying the wrong things, her testimony would be discarded. Finally, Alexievich takes the bait: ‘I promise her that there will be two stories’ – i.e. Elena Yurievna’s and that of her more appealing friend. ‘I want to be a cold-blooded historian, not one who is holding a blazing torch. Let time be the judge.’ A cold-blooded historian! That is the last characterisation one would make of Alexievich, and she herself usually repudiates any such aspiration. Elsewhere, she says she’s not a historian because a) historians don’t go after the big questions of death, suffering and the meaning of life, b) they don’t deal with evil, c) they don’t deal with emotions but just want the facts and d) they don’t base their works on the voices of the people. ‘Evil seems endless to me. I can’t view it just as a historian,’ she says in War’s Unwomanly Face. And in Second-Hand Time: ‘History is concerned solely with the facts; emotions are outside of 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.’
She is wrong , of course, about the current practice of history (though her description makes sense if applied to professional historians in the old Soviet Union, where personal stories and oral history were shunned). Not only is oral history now firmly ensconced in the international historical profession, but the latest hot thing in the discipline is the history of emotions, reconstructed from a variety of sources, not only oral history. ‘In writing, I’m piecing together the history of “domestic”, “interior” socialism,’ Alexievich writes. ‘As it existed in a person’s soul.’ Well, I wouldn’t have used the last sentence when I wrote Everyday Stalinism (1999), but lots of people since then have gone in search of the Soviet psyche. Overall, what she is trying to do isn’t so different from what ‘everyday’ historians of the Soviet Union have been doing for the past couple of decades. So do we want to claim her as one of us?
Viewed as an oral historian, she might seem on the sloppy side as far as methodology is concerned. She finds her respondents via acquaintance and referral and doesn’t tell readers what questions she asked or give respondents the chance to edit their answers; no ethics committee approved her project. Of course, the same could be said of Studs Terkel, whose oral histories of the Great Depression (Hard Times, 1970) and the Second World War (The Good War, 1984) are routinely cited by card-carrying members of the American Historical Association. A stamp of approval from a university ethics committee brings no great intellectual benefit, and the same could be said of a number of the current disciplinary rules surrounding oral history. Where Alexievich might be said to differ significantly from other oral historians, including Terkel, is in all the weeping she and her respondents do. Yet even here, the difference may be less than it seems at first sight. Oral historians and anthropologists learn to project empathy because that’s the way you get your subjects to talk freely. Most of us also learn to project this empathy even when we privately disapprove of what our subjects are saying, though Alexievich, who has a Soviet commitment to sincerity, only weeps with people she likes.
Still, there’s a reason, apart from the fact that there are no Nobel Prizes for history, that I’d just as soon Alexievich stayed labelled as a writer rather than a historian. If she’s a writer, even one who bases her work on interviews, the assumption is that she’s writing primarily out of her imagination and only secondarily out of documents. If she’s a historian, the issue of imagination retreats and some kind of implicit duty emerges to present the ‘real world’ in all its complexity. What Alexievich shows us is real, all right, but it’s only a part of the real Soviet and post-Soviet world, and not a part that, in my judgment, stands for the whole. Think of Brexit before the vote: everyone you knew was against it, but then it turned out that all the rest were in favour. It was the same for decades with Moscow’s ‘kitchen-table dissident’ intellectuals. All the old Moscow hands from the West were friends with these likeable, educated, morally serious people; indeed, they were generally the only people in the Soviet Union the Moscow hands knew. By extension, they were the only people known to readers of the Guardian or the New York Times, who naturally tended to think that their opinions on a given topic told us something about Soviet public opinion as a whole. That was true, but only if you reversed the opinions. Whatever the kitchen-table dissidents thought, the Soviet public probably thought the opposite. That is still true in a post-Soviet context. Don’t go to Alexievich to find out what ordinary people think about the present and the past in the former Soviet Union, because you’ll only be misled. Read her as literature, for the evocation of a lost world so warmly familiar to us, albeit at second-hand, and an era when Western readers could get innocent satisfaction from backing the good guys in the Soviet Union. Read it, and feel free to weep.