It’s often said that in Russia human life has never been valued. Ever since the Romanovs installed themselves back in 1613, human beings have been at the mercy and disposal of state and state-backed power. Tens of thousands serf labourers died to create Peter the Great’s capital, St Petersburg. Plough a field almost anywhere in Russia and you turn up more recent human bones.
I don’t often read a 700 page book now, but Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history, Second-Hand Time is gripping. It’s also harrowing and I found myself putting it down at the end of a section, as if it would be indecent to hurry on to the next tale. People tell her their stories back to the 1930s and in to the early 2000s and the themes are repetitive but realised in different ways in every case. State violence, a mendacious bureaucracy, poverty, alcoholism (without end), domestic violence, forced separation of parents and children, husbands and wives, love in a cold climate, the importance of books, the failure of perestroika, a seemingly unshakeable loyalty to Stalin. And then there is the thin and uncertain line which separates those who do evil from those who try to do good.
Alexievich is a seventy year old Nobel Prize winner and what is remarkable in this book is how she elicits narratives from her cast of mainly female characters and how, in what I guess is an exceptionally good translation, those narratives pull you along. You never want to stop reading.
Many of her cast want to memorialise lost grandparents, parents, lovers, children. It’s one of the few things you can do to try to make reparation to them and to heal yourself. In the week when I was reading this book, I came across a story of a man, Andrei Zhukov, who has just completed a twenty-year self-imposed task. He has sat in the archives and made a list of all the names of all the 40 000 NKVD officers who executed Stalin’s Terror in the 1930s. The victim count is thought to number 12 million and the Russian organisation Memorial has so far managed to list about a quarter of the names. In Alexievich's book, that Terror still affects everyone.
This book should sit alongside the kinds of memoir and historical work which I have reviewed elsewhere on this Blog – see the labels to this post.
The footnote apparatus provided by the translator to assist the reader is excellent; I noticed only one error, Latvia rather than Lithuania (page 341). As for the translation itself, I queried only kikeling (basically, little Jew) finding that little kike sounded better to me.