Dubbed a “polyphonic novel”, Secondhand Time by Belarusian Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich is a literary monument to post-war and post-Soviet history. Critical yet warm, the book consists of in-depth interviews with the Russian winners and losers of the transition to capitalism, ranging from gulag survivors and persecuted “enemies of the state”, to Stalin apologists and Communist Party officials.
I am a great fan of all of Alexievich’s works, but I’m particularly attached to Secondhand Time. It enabled me to see elements from the backdrop of my childhood in the 90s, such as the ubiquitous second-hand shops in my home city of Chișinău; symbols of the Western dreams and disappointingly low budgets that defined the transition to capitalism for so many people in Eastern Europe. As one of the interviewees aptly says, “the discovery of money hit us like an atom bomb.”
As a Moldovan, the book also helped me understand — but not justify — the Russian imperialism that continued decades after the dissolution of the USSR. “Why didn’t anyone ask us?” wonders one older woman in the book, contemplating the economic collapse that followed the USSR’s dissolution. It is a question I empathise with, especially in the context of the wild privatisations that benefited a small elite of profiteers throughout the 90s. When the same interviewee says she spent her “life building a great nation”, I get what she is saying, but still feel somewhat sick: I wish governments across the world — and Russian politicians in particular — focused on creating states that truly serve their citizens, rather than selling megalomaniac, messianic delusions of grandeur.
This article is part of Calvert Reads, a new series revisiting great works of literature across the ages.