ZOiS Spotlight 20/2018 by Anja Tippner (30 May 2018)
Between 1991 and 2012, Svetlana Alexievich conducted hundreds of interviews, recorded conversations and noted down snatches of street noise. What she hears in this oral testimony is despair at the demise of the Soviet Union, grief at the loss of old certainties, and a yearning for the past. Her writings give a voice to those who identify as “Homo sovieticus” and who are portrayed as such by the author herself. She writes: “I was searching for those who adhered completely to the ideal, who had absorbed it so completely that it was impossible to break away: the State had become their universe, it replaced everything else, even their own lives.” Although some of her interviewees lead unconventional lives – married to a convicted murderer, swindled out of their homes by conmen or forced out by pogroms – they are all “people who have come out of socialism”. Alexievich makes no exceptions – not even for herself. She describes herself as “a participant”. I am this person, she says.
Contemporary analysis and rose-tinted recollections
The countless oral testimonies gathered by Alexievich overwhelmingly convey a sense of collective nostalgia. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether this is a genuine yearning for socialism or, rather, regret for vanished greatness, patriotic sentiment or dissatisfaction with the present. What shines through, however, is the desire to turn the clock back to what is perceived to have been a better world. Here, Alexievich’s writing certainly has its finger on the pulse of our time. This is borne out by a comparison with surveys by the Yuri Levada Analytical Center, which draw similar conclusions. Here too, there is nostalgia for the past and regret at the loss of significance, albeit expressed with less pathos and in a less elegiac and evocative style than in Second-Hand Time. Many of Alexievich’s interviewees gained new freedoms with the breakup of the Soviet Union: opportunities to travel, access to literature previously denied to them, the right to express an opinion without worrying about the consequences, the freedom to set up in business, to purchase property, to buy brand-new consumer goods. And yet their lives have become more precarious. Unemployment and a decline in social status, but also military conflicts and the loss of familiar certainties and routines are all part of every-day life in post-socialism in the 1990s, along with disillusionment at the changes wrought by political transformation. Alexievich’s witnesses recall parades and public holidays, the toys they played with, the food they ate, the concerts they went to, their first love. Many say that small pleasures – an ice cream on a summer’s day, a weekend trip to the cinema, the scent of lilac – often brought them far more joy than today’s consumer goods can do. These recollections chime with a critical view of consumerism whose beginnings predate even perestroika and which has steadily gained momentum, acquiring anti-Western undertones along the way. It is tempting to assume that Alexievich only gives a voice to those who have lost out as a result of their society’s transformation and lack the means to participate in the new consumerist world, but this is not the case. Even so, the dominant voices here belong to people whose status, income and security have declined as a consequence of social change and the demise of the Soviet Union.
Back to the USSR?
In this retrospective, bygone fears and worries fade into the background, while current problems take on sharper contours. Some of the people whose voices are heard in Alexievich’s book have good memories of bad times and regard the Soviet product aesthetic not as an expression of poverty but as a philosophy of life. The tenor of the testimonies is: we were poor but happy. The greater their disenchantment with the present, the more vivid their memories become – and the stronger their desire to go back to the days of the Soviet Union. But what do these laid-bare feelings of disappointment, loss and nostalgia convey to the reader? What do they tell us about the mood and opinions of Homo post-sovieticus? Here, it is necessary to give some thought to the reliability of Alexievich’s material – not just her retelling of the conversations but also the less-discussed issue of the accuracy of her witnesses’ memories. Even more than in her previous writings, this amalgamation of oral testimony and narrative presentation, fact and fiction, imaginary and real events lead to ontological uncertainty about the status of what is being said. Nostalgia is a paradoxical process, as one of her witnesses makes clear. In his words: “For us, there is only one way out – a return to socialism, but it must be orthodox socialism.” The notion expressed here encapsulates this paradox: a return to the past as a possible means of reclaiming the future and, with it, national greatness. Second-Hand Time shines a light on life built on the wreckage of socialism. It tells us what happens when belief in the future is lost and when, in the words of Zygmunt Bauman, “the lost/stolen […] but undead past”  creates visions of the future which are simultaneously old and new.
 Bauman, Zygmunt. Retrotopia. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2017, 13.
Anja Tippner is a Professor of Slavic Literature at the University of Hamburg. With Manfred Sapper and Volker Weichsel, she has recently edited a special issue of the journal Osteuropa (Eastern Europe) titled „Nackte Seelen. Svetlana Aleksievič und der ‚Rote Mensch‘“.