Second-Hand Time: A novel of voices

Some excerpts from Svetlana Alexievich’s novel ‘Second-Hand Time’


Second-Hand Time: By Svetlana Alexievich, Juggernaut, 571 pages, Rs699.
Second-Hand Time: By Svetlana Alexievich, Juggernaut, 571 pages, Rs699.

On how we fell in and then out of love with Gorby

—The Gorbachev era… Huge crowds of people with radiant faces. Freedom! It was the air we breathed. Everyone hungrily devoured the newspapers. It was a time of great hope—at any moment, we might find ourselves in paradise. Democracy was an exotic beast. Like madmen, we’d run around to every demonstration: now we’d learn the truth about Stalin, the Gulag. We’d read Anatoly Rybakov’s forbidden Children of the Arbat and other good books: finally, we’d all become democrats. How wrong we were! A single message rang out from every loudspeaker: Hurry! Hurry! Read! Listen! Not everyone was prepared for all this… Most people were not anti-Soviet; they only wanted to live well. What they most wanted was blue jeans, VCRs, and most of all, cars. Everyone wanted nice clothes and good food. When I came home with a copy of The Gulag Archipelago, my mother was horrified. ‘If you don’t get that book out of my house immediately, I’m kicking you out.’ Before the war, my grandmother’s husband had been shot, but she would say, ‘I don’t feel sorry for Vaska. They were right to arrest him. He had a big mouth.’ ‘Grandma, why didn’t you tell me before?’ I’d ask her. ‘I hope that my life dies along with me so none of you will have to suffer the consequences.’ That’s how our parents lived, and their parents before them. Then it was all bulldozed over. Perestroika wasn’t created by the people, it was created by a single person: Gorbachev. Gorbachev and a handful of intellectuals…

On falling in love with tanks under your windows

—I was so in love, I couldn’t think about anything else. It was my entire universe. Then, one morning my mother wakes me up: ‘There are tanks outside! I think there’s been an uprising!’ Still asleep, I tell her, ‘Mama, they’re just doing training exercises.’ But oh no! There really were tanks right outside our windows; I’d never seen tanks up close before. On TV, they were playing Swan Lake... My mother’s friend ran over, she was very anxious that she hadn’t paid her Party dues in several months. She said that at the school where she worked she had stashed a bust of Lenin in the store-room—what should she do with it now? The lines were drawn immediately: you couldn’t do this and you couldn’t do that. On the radio, they declared a state of emergency… My mother’s friend shuddered at every word: ‘My God! My God!’ My father spat at the television…

I called Oleg… ‘Are we going to the White House?’ ‘Let’s go!’ So I put on my Gorbachev badge and made some sandwiches. People were quiet on the metro, everyone anticipated tragedy. Everywhere you looked there were tanks… and more tanks… The drivers weren’t murderers, they were just frightened kids with guilty looks on their faces. Old ladies would feed them hardboiled eggs and bliny. What a relief it was to see tens of thousands of people in front of the White House! Everyone was in excellent spirits. We felt capable of anything and everything. We chanted, ‘Yeltsin! Yeltsin! Yeltsin!’ Self-defence squadrons were already forming. They would only let the young join, which the old people really resented. I remember one old man was very upset: ‘The communists stole my life from me! Let me at least have a beautiful death!’ ‘Step aside, Grandad…’ Today, they accuse us of fighting for capitalism... That’s not true! I was defending socialism, but some other kind, not the Soviet kind… That’s what I was standing up for! Or at least that’s what I thought. It’s what we all thought... Three days later, when the tanks were rolling out of Moscow, they were different, kinder tanks. Victory! And we kissed and kissed…

Excerpted from Second-Hand Time, with permission from Juggernaut.

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