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Notes on Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time: The last of the Soviets, an oral history (2016)

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Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time: The last of the Soviets, an oral history, Random House 2016.


-better to forget the bad past.

-Perestroika wasn’t created by the people, it was created by a single person and handful of intellectuals

-before i hated money. I didn’t know what it was, considered it shameful. We grew up in a country where money essentially did not exist.

-Soviet intellectuals. Sat in kitchens criticizing, joking, reading samizdat. Something new, anyone could show up at any hour and still be a welcome guest. Enchantment. Double life.

-Russians don’t want to just live. They want to live for something. You’ll sooner find a saint here than an honest and successful man. Russian man isn’t rational or mercantile. Will give you the shirt off his back, but sometimes he’ll steal. He’s elemental, saving bores him. Acute sense of fairness. We’re a bolshevik people.

-Why silent (moscow terrorist bomb survivor)? Shouldn’t confess things to people. You survive and are more vulnerable and fragile. You’re branded a victim. I didn’t want people to see that brand on me.

Bomber: tells us: ‘you don’t see the way they’re killing us. We’re going to do to you what they do to us.’

-Mother smells linden tree and happy memories flood  back.


The cruder and bloodier life is, the more space there is for the soul. Suffering either brings you closer to god or pushes you away. If turn away, you shouldn’t judge them, because it comes from anger and pain.

Terrorist attacks in moscow 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2010, 2011.

-grandfather said only ever met truly good people during the war.

Not ‘strongest survive’ rather ‘best adapted’ => average carry on human race.

On akhromeyev. [general, 1991 coup -> suicide) Without gorbachev the Soviet Union would have lasted a long time. A colossus with feet of clay? Nonsense. No pantyhose but latest missiles. Stalin created a state that was impossible to puncture from below. But from above it was vulnerable. No one thought they would start destroying it from the top. As if caesar had initiated the fall of the roman empire. Gorbachev ~ herostratus (burned temple artemis at ephesus). Didn’t like the army. We were military nation 70% of economy tied to military. Best minds. Ideology. Gorbachev never mentioned international imperialism, only enemies of glasnost and perestroika ~ gandhi. ‘He’s going to drown and take everyone else down with him.' For america we were ‘evil empire’, threatened crusade, star wars. Akhromeyev realized treason and resigned as chief of staff and minister of defense. And suicide.

-People wanted simple things (ginger-snaps) and a tsar. Gorbachev refused. Yeltsin kept his wits about him and gave orders to fire on the parliament. Gorbachev disaster in vilnius then coupmakers too sheepish to shoot in ‘91. People don’t support weakness. ~ alexander ii the liberator. Czechs can have their vaclav havel, but we don’t need a sakharaov in charge. Gorbachev loved wife in tender, entirely un-Soviet manner. Ate salads in cafeteria. Yeltsin start morning with pickle and shot of vodka. Didn’t visit marx’s gave in london. Gorbachev was student with dubcek reformer mylnar. Swore to fight stalinism. (khrushchev liked sweden -> gorbachev liked canada)

Lenin?: i would live in a pigsty as long as it was under soviet rule.

We won wwii but lost wwiii. Akhromeyev went to sakharov’s funeral tho they’d been enemies. No one else from kremlin came. Only nina andreyeva leningrad chemistry teacher defended communism. ‘I cannot forsake my principles’. Was against afghanistan invasion. Pravda not print obit. But Time did. Grave defiled, uniform stolen.

-Stalin generation selfless, aescetic, joy in friendship. Each lived in own social circle. Hikers, climbers. By 1980s got room from housing dept for drama club. by 1980s word was the deed. Speaking out dangerous so political. Now can say what you want but the word has no power. We’d like to have faith in something but we can’t.

People supported yelstin but then had to buy/sell to survive. Had to abandon sovok ideals. The consumer triumphed. The louse. The worm. A mercedes is no kind of dream.  168.

Dostoevsky to chernyshevsky: go on and build your crystal palace, but i will throw a stone at it. Not because i’m hungry and living in a cellar,  but just because--out of my own free will. 185.

Happiest in prison making soup in boiler room.

-60s dissidents happy ‘total victory of anticommunism’ naive romantics. Susan sontag: communism is fascism with a human face. 221.

-Not many couples who both did time. Secret of the camps doesn’t bring people together. It cuts them off.

-‘I like western movies because nothing in them resembles our lives. So i can make up whatever i want.’

-‘Love the military parades, sporting events. That high. You march in step with everyone else, you’re part of something bigger than yourself. That’s where i was the happiest. This country now is foreign to me. We used to talk about books, plays. Now it’s who bought what? What’s the exchange rate. And the jokes. Nothing sacred.

The world now divided into new categories, no longer white and red, or those who did time and the ones who threw them in jail, who’ve read solzhenitsyn. Now it’s just the haves and have-nots. [degeneration of society -> postmodern -end of ideologies]

On positive side: must learn to live with freedom. People want to really live. Try everything, wear nice clothes, travel. Instead of burning and burning out, eternally running somewhere with a torch and a pickaxe. Just live like other people. Because you never know what might happen. They gave us land, but they can take it away. Forget history. It’s time to hurry up and make some money. No one thinks about anything great, sublime. Want something on the human scale. Remember the great stuff occasionally, after a little vodka.

I’m glad i left in time. For a while, people liked russians, now they’re afraid of us again. Aren’t you?



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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

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Eric's latest book The Canada Israel Nexus is available here http://www.claritypress.com/WalbergIV.html