Secondhand Gulag

Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets can only be compared to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973). It is an absolutely indispensable look into the human condition.

Even the Swedish Academy had the sense to award the Belarusian, Russian-language author the Nobel Prize for literature, hailing it as “a new kind of literary genre.”

It is not really literature. Alexievich simply interviews a surprisingly large number of people who lived through the Soviet days and they basically write the book for her. But she has the genius to draw them out.

They tell a horrifying tale. The book is too daunting to summarize; like Gulag it must be read.

The Nobel presentation described Secondhand Time as “a history of emotions—a history of the soul.” It truly is about emotions, especially the later chapters, but it is much deeper. Even the materialistic Scandinavians were obliged to use the proper term, “soul.”

In a way, her narrative surpasses Solzhenitsyn’s tragedy, which simply exposed unbearable brutality and evil. This work shows evil seeping deeply into the soul, with terrifyingly persistent effect.

Alexievich begins by describing herself, her family, and most of those she knows in the different nations of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as sovoks—people who were nurtured from birth into an “interior” socialism that, she says, molded every “person’s soul.” While she sought out people to interview who were “bound to the Soviet ideal,” the range of views is wide if not necessarily representative. While individuals differed in their level of attachment to the regime, almost all tended to have fond memories of the USSR, which began breaking up when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and was officially dissolved on December 26, 1991.

To simplify somewhat, the book posits two types of survivors of the Soviet era: those who emerged with a moral order and those who came out empty. The empty ones know no moral structure, are just empty; the moral ones are not empty but rather are believing sovoks. Both were shaped from birth by the explicit policies of Josef Stalin and both, to some degree, miss him.

The empty ones are the shell-shocked casualties of the break-up of the old order; they simply cannot cope with the new one. Work was (in memory at least) pleasant and unstressed but now it is hard to find and demanding. Wages, once relatively equal and automatic, now have to be earned. Salaries were much lower then, so less could be purchased in the old days, but on the other hand that left time for family around the kitchen table. And for reading books—almost all the interviewees mention books. The hospitals were dirty but all Soviet citizens had a right to get on the waiting list, even if it took months to get to the top of it, and even if one never did. Nothing worked well but that was just how things were. Everyone was equal even if life was hard. Everyone complained but only at home.

After the fall, all these certainties were shattered.

In the old system, says one interviewee, her workplace was where she and her friends did all their socializing; the work was an afterthought and everyone received the same pay anyway. Now under capitalism, money is front and center, and everyone is grubbing for jobs, food, and trifles. More freedom produced more goods but more work, too. “Who’s going to break their back working the land,” responded another interviewee being asked about owning available property. The old pensions and other stipends were meagre but enough to live on, usually. Incredibly, even when people were released from the camps, they received pensions.

And there was pride. All Russian literature was about historic heroes and wars and winning the “great patriotic war” of World War II was the pinnacle. It proved to the world that the USSR was the best. The anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis is still the top holiday of the year. The old Soviet Union had its deficiencies but it was unquestionably great. Everyone feared it.

When the Soviet archives were opened under perestroika, people were shocked that Vladimir Lenin not only personally encouraged murder but insisted the murders be made public so that all Russians would “tremble with fear.” Yet, most sovoks considered making the crimes of Lenin and Stalin public knowledge to be unpatriotic. And when the Soviet Union’s control system was loosened, the resulting freedom tended to be met with fear rather than rejoicing.

The end of the Soviet Union was profound for the world but deeply personal for its inhabitants. In the chaos of the USSR’s demise, a question arose: If I am not a sovok what am I? Well, I’m Russian but I now notice we are surrounded by “foreigners.” We are Russians and they are them. Or really we are Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Armenians, Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, or the remaining scores of peoples warily watching each other. One crime by one foreigner led to dozens of retaliations, murders, maimings, and beatings. It spread across the entire range of the old USSR.

No one was safe, especially in the more open rural areas. Mobs ranged, chaos was endemic. Millions were displaced into ethnic enclaves for safety. The men retreated to alcoholism and the women were mostly abused. To read the experiences reported by Alexievich as these nationalities clashed is heartbreaking. By and by, officials restored order but it took old-time brutality to suppress the brigands, to re-create a climate of fear of the police (as well as of each other) and to control the different peoples.

Moscow and a few other cities were more cosmopolitan but the advantages of this accrued mostly to Russians, criminal gangs, and rich oligarchs. There was no instruction manual on how to go from Stalinism to markets and even where the transition policy was thoughtful many mistakes were made. Ordinary people lost their guarantees. Inflation raged and savings, pay, and pensions lost much of their value. The most hated man in a remarkable number of the book’s interviews was Boris Yeltsin’s liberal, reforming deputy Yegor Gaidar, reviled even more than the brigands, or the oligarchs who gamed the system to gain great wealth.

By the end of the transition period there was more food and basics but the cost of getting them was enormous, leaving little public support for the greater freedom of post-communist society. Capitalism and freedom forced hard work and uncertainty. Almost all interviewees expressed disgust for the wild materialistic rush for cash and things. But there was more sausage, not just potatoes and pasta—many an interviewee mentions sausage.

Noting that suddenly “everyone” started going to church, one commentator said churchgoers she knew tended to pray, even the former guards, but few held orthodox views and mostly still retained communist beliefs so that religion often was confused and tainted with ethno-centrism and anti-Semitism.

The actual moralists were those who still believe today that the old Soviet Union had promised equality and actually delivered it, earning the regime its proper moral legitimacy. One might think Stalin and his minions would fear raising the communist ideal of equality but it was taught in every classroom in the world’s largest empire from earliest age to university, constantly on television, in art, theater, cinema, and every other cultural medium and form. The teaching worked so well that everyone took equality to be the actual Soviet ideal. What is most shocking is that even those who were sent to the Gulag camps believed the USSR delivered on the equality promise—at the time, and still today.

The interviews with those who had been sent to the camps, almost all without committing a real crime, are truly unnerving. A ruthless executioner tells of developing hand cramps from all the shooting he did to dispatch prisoners—a repetitive stress injury that he said was so common that the government had to devise a special therapy to cure it. He was later sent to war; after he miraculously survived combat, he was sent to the camps as a prisoner because he knew too much about the murderous camps. He served 10 years of incredibly brutal treatment but ended up being thankful to Stalin for allowing him to survive and for the little pension that was his after he got out! He praised Stalin for his true commitment to socialism, for rendering equal treatment to everyone. His only hope was for a return to Stalinism.

Today, he curses the one undeniable improvement under capitalism, which he derides as “Her Majesty Salami” and its so-called freedom and complains that the old “ideals have been trampled underfoot. Communism has been anathematized.” The good people “all died young” but “they died happy, with faith, with Revolution in their hearts.” We “imagined a just life without rich and poor. We died idealists, wholly uninterested in money.” “Nobody lived for himself.” My “party membership is my Bible.” We wanted to “create Heaven on Earth” but “man is not ready for it.” From Lenin on down, everyone “dreamed of equality and brotherhood.” “A Mercedes is no kind of dream.” All this after a decade in the Gulag.

He was not alone. After near starvation, ubiquitous beatings, the intolerable cold and heat, the back-breaking work, many innocents were so grateful to have gotten out alive that they were thankful for the rest of their lives for being released. Decades later, they still loved Stalin for setting them free from the bondage he imposed!

What emerges is that the Soviets were cynical about how communism worked but they loved what it taught. The constant presentation of the equality ideal seems to be what stays in their minds. As they reflect back, there were no hated rich, everyone was equal. Greater plenty today is no balm; they disparage it as materialistic (never mind that Karl Marx was a materialist) and they feel offended that it is not distributed equally. The interviewees tend to lapse into the passive voice when touching on how “mistakes were made” in the name of that beautiful goal, equality.

More properly we can say that the Soviet Union terrorized all equally. No one was exempt except the chief terrorist, Vladimir Lenin, Stalin, and their successor chiefs who terrorized all below them equally. “Uncle Joe” killed his closest associates right up to those in the Politburo. The most innocent person in the USSR was as likely to go to the Gulag as the greatest criminal or the top party boss. Those who say true equality is impossible are simply wrong.

Interestingly, the transitional figure of Mikhail Gorbachev enters this picture with mixed reviews: a modicum of admiration on the one hand, but several interviewees scoff at his weakness in not fighting to preserve the equality of the old Soviet Union (some put it down to Gorbie’s having been corrupted by his Christian mother). Yeltsin is the devil for announcing a new era of freedom and capitalism, and Gaidar for implementing them. Today, those with Gaidar’s reformist views (he died in 2009 at age 53) win a few percent of the vote at best.

Only one real hero seems to have emerged from the Soviet experience: Sergey Fedorovich Akhromeyev. Akhromeyev, a Marshall of the Soviet Union, Chief of the General Staff, Order of the Patriotic War, Hero of Afghanistan, and advisor to the President of the USSR, was found dead in his Kremlin office on August 24, 1991. He was hanging from a window frame clad in full military regalia. He had written to Gorbachev to explain that his fear that the old Union was doomed under perestroika had led him to assist the attempted military takeover of the Russian Soviet parliament.

Akhromeyev was the only top official to commit suicide upon the failure of the old guard to oust Gorbachev and prevent the demise of the USSR. Investigation and five notes in his own hand revealed it took at least two attempts to get it right. His notes say he supported the coup because he wanted to show history that there was some “resistance to the death of such a great state” even though he thought the coup would fail.

While most of the interviewees were ordinary people, Alexievich did get one former high official of the Communist Party’s Central Committee to speak. “N” (he requested anonymity) began his interview reflecting on Akhromeyev. He considered him the only idealist, the only one with the moral courage to openly oppose Gorbachev. As for the rest, “What kind of putsch was this, with no shots fired? The army beat a hasty retreat out of Moscow, like cowards.”

The Soviet Union could have lasted indefinitely, “N” insisted. It was a superpower with nuclear weapons and a tough society that could weather even nuclear war, unlike the spoiled inhabitants of the capitalist West. “The Russian soldier is not afraid to die.” The USSR was invulnerable from the outside or from below. Stalin made the system only vulnerable from the top; therefore only the misguided Gorbachev could take it apart by embarking on his doomed program of reform. Then he went and resigned without a fight! Not a surprise, according to “N,” since he was the only Soviet leader with no war experience or ethnic repression experience. He was soft.

Secondhand Time is important to understand the problems of Russia today but its lessons go much further. The interviewees tell the world that terror works; but it must be total. Nazism terrorized its enemies but not its supporters and did not last long nor was it remembered favorably. The Islamic State fanatics are comparative pikers, killing a proportionally small number of their enemies (so far). Ancient Rome was ruthless but one normally had to disobey some Roman law.

Only the USSR targeted everyone equally and was loved for it.

Alexievich concludes that “communism had an insane plan: to remake the ‘old breed of man,’ ancient Adam. And it really worked. Perhaps it was communism’s only achievement.” A terrible achievement and one from which the world is still suffering the consequences.