Shortlisted for the 2016 Bailie Gifford Prize
Published 23 May 2016, French paperback with flaps, 704 pages
ON BROTHERS AND SISTERS, VICTIMS AND EXECUTIONERS… AND THE ELECTORATE
Alexander Porfirievich Sharpilo, retired, 63 years old
AS TOLD BY HIS NEIGHBOUR, MARINA TIKHONOVNA ISAICHIK
Strangers, what do you want, coming here? People keep coming and coming. Well, death never comes for no reason, there’s always a reason. Death will find a reason.
He burned alive on his vegetable patch, among his cucumbers… Poured acetone over his head and lit a match. I was sitting here watching TV when suddenly I heard screaming. An old person’s voice… a familiar voice, like Sashka’s… and then another, younger voice. A student had been walking past, there’s a technical college nearby, and there he was, a man on fire. What can you say! He ran over, started trying to put him out. Got burned himself. By the time I got outside, Sashka was on the ground, moaning… his head all yellow… You’re not from around here, what do you care? What do you need a stranger’s grief for?
Everyone wants a good look at death. Ooh! Well... In our village, where I lived with my parents before I was married, there was an old man who liked to come and watch people die. The women would shame him and chase him away: ‘Shoo, devil!’ but he’d just sit there. He ended up living a long time. Maybe he really was a devil! How can you watch? Where do you look… in what direction? After death, there is nothing. You die and that’s it – they bury you. But when you’re alive, even if you’re unhappy, you can walk around in the breeze or stroll through the garden. When the spirit leaves, there’s no person left, just the dirt. The spirit is the spirit and everything else is just dirt. Dirt and nothing else. Some die in the cradle, others live until their hair goes grey. Happy people don’t want to die… and those who are loved don’t want to die, either. They beg to stay on longer. But where are these happy people? On the radio, they’d said that after the war was over, we would all be happy, and Khrushchev, I remember, promised… he said that communism would soon be upon us. Gorbachev swore it, too, and he spoke so beautifully… it had sounded so good. Now Yeltsin’s making the same promises. He even threatened to lie down on the train tracks… I waited and waited for the good life to come. When I was little, I waited for it… and then when I got a little older… Now I’m old. To make a long story short, everyone lied and things only ever got worse. Wait and see, wait and suffer. Wait and see… My husband died. He went out, collapsed, and that was that – his heart stopped. You couldn’t measure it or weigh it, all the trouble we’ve seen. But here I am, still alive. Living. My children all scattered: my son is in Novosibirsk, and my daughter stayed in Riga with her family, which, nowadays, means that she lives abroad. In a foreign country. They don’t even speak Russian there any more.
I have an icon in the corner and a little dog so that there’s someone to talk to. One stick of kindling won’t start a fire, but I do my best. Oh… It’s good of God to have given man cats and dogs… and trees and birds… He gave man everything so that he would be happy and life wouldn’t seem too long. So life wouldn’t wear him down. The one thing I haven’t gotten sick of is watching the wheat turn yellow. I’ve gone hungry so many times that the thing I love best is ripening grain, seeing the sheaves swaying in the wind. For me, it’s as beautiful as the paintings in a museum are for you… Even now, I don’t hanker after white bread – there’s nothing better than salted black bread with sweet tea. Wait and see… and then wait some more… The only remedy we know for every kind of pain is patience. Next thing you know, your whole life’s gone by. That’s how it was for Sashka… Our Sashka… He waited and waited and then he couldn’t take it any longer. He got tired. The body lies in the earth, but the soul has to answer for everything. [She wipes her tears.] That’s how it is! We cry down here… and when we die, we cry then, too…
People have started believing in God again because there is no other hope. In school, they used to teach us that Lenin was God and Karl Marx was God. The churches were used to store grain and stockpile beets. That’s how it was until the war came. War broke out… Stalin reopened the churches so prayers would be said for the victory of Russian arms. He addressed the people: ‘Brothers and sisters… My friends…’ And what had we been before that? Enemies of the people… Kulaks and kulak sympathizers… In our village, all of the best families were subjected to dekulakization; if they had two cows and two horses, that was already enough to make them kulaks. They’d ship them off to Siberia and abandon them in the barren taiga forest… Women smothered their children to spare them the suffering. Oh, so much woe… so many tears… More tears than there is water on this Earth. Then Stalin goes addressing his ‘brothers and sisters’… we believed him. Forgave him. And defeated Hitler! He showed up with his tanks… gleaming and iron-plated… and we defeated him anyway! But what am I today? Who are we now? We’re the electorate… I watch TV, I never miss the news… we’re the electorate now. Our job is to go and vote for the right candidate then call it a day. I was sick one time and didn’t make it to the polling station, so they drove over here themselves. With a red box. That’s the one day they actually remember us… Yep…
We die how we lived… I even go to church and wear a little cross, but there has never been any joy in my life, and there isn’t any now. I never got any happiness. And now even praying won’t help. I just hope that I get to die soon… I hope the heavenly kingdom hurries up and comes, I’m sick of waiting. Just like Sashka… He’s in the graveyard now, resting. [She crosses herself.] They buried him with music, with tears. Everyone wept. Many tears are shed on that day, people feel sorry for you. But what’s the point of repenting? Who can hear us after death? All that’s left of him are two rooms in a barracks house, a vegetable patch, some red certificates, and a medal: ‘Victor of Socialist Emulation’. I have a medal just like that in my cabinet. I was a Stakhanovite* and a deputy. There wasn’t always enough to eat, but there were plenty of red certificates. They’d hand you one and take your picture. Three families live together in this barracks. We moved in when we were young, we thought it would only be for a year or two, but we ended up spending our entire lives here. And we’ll die in this barracks, too. For twenty, for thirty years… people were on the waiting list for an apartment, putting up with this… Then, one day, Gaidar comes and laughs in our faces: Go ahead and buy one! With what money? Our money evaporated… one reform, then another… We were robbed! What a country they flushed down the toilet! Every family had had two little rooms, a small shed, and a vegetable patch. We were exactly the same. Look at all the money we made! We’re rich! We spent our whole lives believing that one day, we would all live well. It was a lie! A great big lie! And our lives… better not to remember what they were like… We endured, worked and suffered. Now we’re not even living any more, we’re just waiting out our final days.
Second-hand Time is the latest work from Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. Here she brings together the voices of dozens of witnesses to the collapse of the USSR in a formidable attempt to chart the disappearance of a culture and to surmise what new kind of man may emerge from the rubble. Fashioning a singular, polyphonic literary form by combining extended individual monologues with a collage of voices, Alexievich creates a magnificent requiem to a civilization in ruins, a brilliant, poignant and unique portrait of post-Soviet society out of the stories of ordinary women and men.
Praise for Svetlana Alexievich
‘In this spellbinding book, Svetlana Alexievich orchestrates a rich symphony of Russian voices telling their stories of love and death, joy and sorrow, as they try to make sense of the twentieth century, so tragic for their country.’
— J. M. Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature
‘Second-Hand Time is [Alexievich’s] most ambitious work: many women and a few men talk about the loss of the Soviet idea, the post-Soviet ethnic wars, the legacy of the Gulag, and other aspects of the Soviet experience. ... Through her books and her life itself, Alexievich has gained probably the world’s deepest, most eloquent understanding of the post-Soviet condition.’
— Masha Gessen, New Yorker
‘The people she talks to, the co-authors of her books, are working people, women and elderly people – precisely those who are left behind. … Alexievich’s voices are those of the people no one cares about, but the ones whose lives constitute the vast majority of what history actually is. … This is history, major history, but written, as all history should be, from below.’
— Keith Gessen, Guardian
‘A series of monologues by people across the former Soviet empire, it is Tolstoyan in scope, driven by the idea that history is made not only by major players but also by ordinary people talking in their kitchens.’
— Rachel Donadio, New York Times
‘Alexievich’s work follows the strands of thought and emotion wherever her voices take her — through nightmares, but also flashes of joy … The work is unique in the intimacy of the experience transmitted through the writing: which is, after all, only the ability to have a human ear, to listen, and to publish.’
— John Lloyd, Financial Times
‘I am engrossed in Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary Second-hand Time, an oral tapestry of post-Soviet Russia.’
— Julian Barnes, Guardian
‘Second-hand Time is, at one of its many levels, about what the Soviet Union was and what its legacy still means. [Alexievich] writes a new form of history unlike anything that goes before … reading her deep exploration of what a Russian world would be without the myths of nationalism, I realised I had in my hands a book that transcends its geography and makes it essential reading in Brexit Britain.’
— Rachel Holmes, Guardian
‘[A] stunning chorale.’
— Marcel Theroux, Guardian
‘[An] epic fresco of an empire’s bitter aftermath. … Alexievich retreats into the wings to let her subjects speak. But this is the art that conceals art. Her editor’s flair for selection, contrast and emphasis, her almost cinematic touch with cuts, pans and close-ups, make her a documentary virtuoso and not a transcription machine.’
— Boyd Tonkin, Spectator
‘[Second-hand Time is] hailed as Alexievich’s masterpiece — not only for what it says about the fall of the Soviet Union but for what it suggests about the future of Russia and its former satellites.’
— Tobias Grey, Newsweek
‘The narratives Alexievich has sculpted take place in landlocked settings and yet, in Bela Shayevich’s English translation, they come at the reader in thunderous waves, churned from oceans of history. This book — important without sounding self-important — is heart-breaking and impossible to put down.’
— Max Liu, Independent
‘Her subjects argue with and lie to themselves; nearly everyone talks about love and loss in the context of war, hunger, betrayal, financial ruin, and emotional collapse. Yet with little intrusion from Alexievich and Shayevich’s heroic translation, each voice stands on its own, joining the tragic polyphony that unfolds chapter by chapter and gives expression to intense pain and inner chaos.’
— Publishers Weekly
Svetlana Alexievich was born in Ukraine in 1948 and grew up in Belarus. She’s primarily a newspaper journalist, and spent her early career in Minsk compiling first-hand accounts of World War II, the Soviet-Afghan War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Chernobyl meltdown. Her unflinching work – ‘the whole of our history … is a huge common grave and a bloodbath’ – earned her persecution from the Lukashenko regime, and she was forced to emigrate; she lived in Paris, Gothenburg, and Berlin before returning to Minsk in 2011. She’s won a number of large prizes, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Prix Médicis, and the Oxfam Novib/PEN Award. In 2015, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Bela Shayevich is a Soviet-American artist and translator.