Books Essay

The Fall of the Soviet Union: Monologues from Below

A journalist by training, Svetlana Alexievich has spent most of her life in the Soviet Union and present-day Belarus. She is also the author of Zinky Boys (1990) and Chernobyl Prayer (1997)
Page 1 of 1

A Nobel Laureate chronicles the fall of the Soviet Union

Second-hand Time | Svetlana Alexievich | Translated by Bela Shayevich | Juggernaut Books | Pages 584 | Rs 699




ONE NIGHT WE were walking home from the cinema and stumbled on a man lying in a pool of blood. There was a bullet-hole in the back of his trench coat and a cop standing over him. That was the first time I’d ever seen someone who’d been murdered. Pretty soon, it became a familiar sight. We live in a big building with twenty entrances. Every morning, they’d find another body in the courtyard; eventually, we stopped being shocked. Real capitalism was here. With blood. I thought that I’d be disturbed, but I wasn’t. After Stalin, we have a different relationship to murder… We remember how our people had killed their own… The mass murder of people who didn’t understand why they were being killed… It’s stayed with us, it’s part of our lives. We grew up among victims and executioners… For us, living together is normal. There’s no line between peacetime and wartime, we’re always at war. Turn on the TV, everyone’s speaking in prison camp slang: the politicians, the businessmen, even the president; kickbacks, bribes, siphoning… Human life—you can just spit and rub someone out. Just like in prison…

Why didn’t we put Stalin on trial? I’ll tell you why… In order to condemn Stalin, you’d have to condemn your friends and relatives along with him. The people closest to you. I’ll tell you about my own family… My father was arrested in 1937 and, thank God, he came back after doing ten years in the camps. He returned eager to live… He himself was amazed that he still wanted to after everything he’d seen. This wasn’t the case with everyone, not by a long shot… My generation grew up with fathers who’d either returned from the camps or the war. The only thing they could tell us about was violence. Death. They rarely laughed and were mostly silent. They drank… and drank… until they finally drank themselves to death. The other option… the people who were never arrested spent their whole lives fearing arrest. This wouldn’t be for a month or two, it would go on for years—years! And if they didn’t get time, they’d wonder, ‘Why did they arrest everybody but me? What am I doing wrong?’ They could put you in prison or they could put you to work for the NKVD… The party requests, the party commands. It’s not a pleasant choice to have to make, but many people were forced to make it… As for the executioners… the

everyday ones, not the monsters… our neighbour Yuri turned out to have been the one who informed on my father… For nothing, as my mother would say. I was seven. Yuri would take me and his kids fishing and horseback riding. He’d mend our fence. You end up with a completely different picture of what an executioner is like—just a regular person, even a decent one… a normal guy… They arrested my father, then a few months later, they took his brother. When Yeltsin came to power, I got a copy of his file, which included several informants’ reports. It turned out that one of them had been written by Aunt Olga… his niece… A beautiful woman, full of joy… a good singer… By the time I found out, she was already old. I asked her, ‘Aunt Olga, tell me about 1937…’ ‘That was the happiest year of my life. I was in love…’ My father’s brother never returned. Vanished. We still don’t know whether it was in jail or the camps. It was hard for me, but I asked her the question that had been tormenting me, ‘Aunt Olga, why did you do it?’ ‘Show me an honest person who survived Stalin’s time.’ [He is silent.] Then there was Uncle Pavel who served in the NKVD in Siberia… You see, there’s no such thing as chemically pure evil… It’s not just Stalin and Beria*, it’s also our neighbour Yuri and beautiful Aunt Olga…

It’s 1 May. On this day, communists march through the streets of Moscow by the thousands. The capital ‘reddens’ once again, filling with red flags, red balloons, and red T-shirts with hammers and sickles. Portraits of Lenin and Stalin soar over the crowd. More Stalins than Lenins. The signs read, ‘We’ll see your capitalism dead and buried!’ ‘Red banners advance on the Kremlin!’ Regular Moscow watches from the pavement as Red Moscow barrels down the road. Skirmishes flare up at the crowd’s edges; here and there, they escalate into fist- fights. The police are incapable of untangling these two Moscows. I barely have time to write down everything I hear…

—Bury Lenin already, and without any honours.

— You American lackey! What did you sell out our country for?

— You’re idiots, brothers…

— Yeltsin and his gang robbed us blind. Drink! Prosper! One day, it’ll all come crashing down…

— Are they afraid of telling the people outright that we’re building capitalism? Everyone is prepared to pick up a gun, even my housewife mother.

— You can get a lot done with a bayonet, but sitting on one is uncomfortable.

— I’d like to run over all of those damn bourgeois with a tank!

— Communism was dreamt up by that Jew, Marx…

— There’s only one person who can save us, and that’s Comrade Stalin. If only he’d come back for just two days… he’d have them all shot, and then he can be once again laid to rest.

— You Stalinist bitches! The blood on your hands hasn’t even had a chance to dry yet. What did you murder the Tsar’s family for? You didn’t even spare the kids.

— You can’t build a Great Russia without a Great Stalin.

— You’ve filled the people’s brains with shit...

— 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.

— You red KGB goons! Soon enough, you’ll start saying that the only camps we had were Young Pioneer camps. My grandfather was a street sweeper.

— And mine was a land surveyor.

— Mine was an engine driver…

A rally begins in front of the Belorussky Railway Station. The crowd bursts into applause and cries of ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Glory!’ At the end, the whole square sings a song to the tune of the ‘Warszawianka’, the Russian ‘Marseillaise’, but with new lyrics: ‘We’ll cast off these liberal chains / Cast off this bloody criminal regime.’ After that, packing up their red flags, some hurry toward the metro, while others line up for pastries and beer at the kiosks. The real party begins. There’s singing and dancing. An old lady in a red kerchief twirls and stomps her feet around an accordion player, singing, ‘We’re merrily dancing / Around a big tree. / In our Motherland, / We are happy and free. / We’re merrily dancing / And singing our song / The one who we sing for / Is Comrade Stalin…’ By the very entrance of the metro, I can still hear snatches of a drunken folk ditty: ‘All the bad stuff can fuck off! And the good stuff fuck right on!’


It’s always noisy by the beer stand. All sorts of people gather there. You can meet a professor, a working stiff, a student, a homeless man… They drink and philosophize. The conversation is always about the same thing: the fate of Russia... And communism.

— I’m a drinking man. Why do I drink? I don’t like my life. I want to do an impossible somersault and, with the help of alcohol, transport myself to another place where everything is good and beautiful.

Why didn't we put Stalin on trial? I'll tell you order to condemn Stalin, you'd have to condemn your friends and relatives along with him

— For me, it’s more of a concrete question: where do I want to live, in a great country or a normal one?

— I loved the empire… Life after the fall of the empire has been boring. Tedious.

— A great idea demands blood. Today, nobody wants to go off and die somewhere. Fighting in some war. It’s like that song: ‘Money, money, money everywhere, / Money everywhere, gentlemen…’ But if you insist that we do have a goal, then what is it exactly? That everyone drive a Mercedes and have tickets to Miami?

— Russians need something to believe in… Something lofty and luminous. Empire and communism are ingrained in us. We seek out heroic ideals.

— With socialism, the people were participating in History… They were living through something great…

— Fuck! Look at us, we’re so soulful, so special.

— We’ve never had democracy. What kind of democrats would you and I make?

— The last great event in our lives was perestroika.

— Russia can either be great or not exist at all. We need a strong army.

— What do I need a great country for? I want to live in a small one like Denmark. No nuclear weapons, no oil, no petrol. So no one would ever hit me over the head with their pistol. Maybe then even we would learn to shampoo our pavements…

— Communism is too strenuous an undertaking… We’re always either demanding a constitution or Sevruga caviar with a side of horseradish…

— I am so envious of the people who had an ideal to live up to! Today, we are living without one. I want a great Russia! I don’t remember it, but I know it existed.

— We used to live in a great country where we stood in line for toilet paper… I remember the smell of Soviet cafeterias and grocery stores all too well.

— Russia will save the world! That’s how it will save itself!

— My father lived to the age of ninety. He said that not a single good thing happened in his entire life; he was always at war. That’s all we’re capable of.

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


— I was 90 per cent Soviet… I couldn’t understand what was going on. I remember seeing Gaidar on TV saying, ‘Learn how to sell… The market will save us…’ You buy a bottle of mineral water on one corner and sell it on another—that’s business. The people listened, bewildered. I would come home, lock the door, and weep. All of it scared my mother so much, she ended up having a stroke. Maybe they wanted to do something good, but they didn’t have enough compassion for their own people. I’ll never forget the rows of elderly begging for alms along the road. Their worn out little hats, their jackets that had been mended too many times… I would run to and from work with my eyes down, afraid of looking at them… I worked at a perfume factory. Instead of money, they paid us in perfume… make-up…

— There was a poor girl in our class whose parents had died in a car crash. She lived with her grandmother. All year long, she wore the same dress to school every day. No one felt sorry for her. It’s surprising how fast being poor became shameful…

— I don’t have any regrets about the nineties... It was an exciting, tumultuous time. Even though I’d never been interested in politics or even read the papers, I ended up running for parliament. Who were the foremen of perestroika? Writers, artists... poets… You could have collected autographs at the First Congress of the People’s Deputies of the USSR. My husband is an economist, and it would drive him up the wall: ‘Poets are capable of setting people’s hearts on fire with words. You’re going to end up with a revolution on your hands. And then what? How are you going to build democracy? Who’s going to do it? I can already see what your efforts are leading to.’ He laughed at me. We ended up getting divorced because of it… But as it turned out, he was right…

— Things got scary, so the people turned to the church. Back when I still believed in communism, I didn’t need church. My wife goes to services with me because in church, the priest will call her ‘little dove’.

— My father was an honest communist. I don’t blame the communists, I blame communism. I still can’t decide how to feel about Gorbachev… Or that Yeltsin… You forget about the long lines and empty shops faster than you do about the red flag flying over the Reichstag.

— We triumphed. But over whom? And for what? You turn on the TV, and they’re playing a film about the Reds beating the Whites. You flip the channel, and it’s the Whites beating the Reds. Sheer schizophrenia!

— We’re always talking about suffering… That’s our path to wisdom. People in the West seem naive to us because they don’t suffer like we do, they have a remedy for every little pimple. We’re the ones who went to the camps, who piled up the corpses during the war, who dug through the nuclear waste in Chernobyl with our bare hands. We sit atop the ruins of socialism like it’s the aftermath of war. We’re run down and defeated. Our language is the language of suffering.

I tried to talk about this with my students… They laughed in my face: ‘We don’t want to suffer. That’s not what our lives are about.’ We haven’t understood a thing about the world we’d only recently been living in and yet we’re already living in a new one. An entire civilization lies rotting on the trash heap…

*Lavrentiy Beria (1899–1953) was the chief of the NKVD from 1938 to 1946, responsible for significantly expanding the Gulag system, overseeing the exile of many ethnic minorities from their native lands, and supervising the Soviet atom bomb project. He was arrested and executed shortly after Stalin’s death.

(Excerpted from Second-hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Bela Shayevich) published by Juggernaut Books; 584 pages; Rs 699)