Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

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Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets Book Cover Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
Svetlana Alexievich
Random House

I just finished this rather intense book and wanted to provide a review. If you are looking for a book about balalaikas and ballerinas, Tolstoy and troikas, this is not the book for you--this is a book about the tsunami of misery and ruin which engulfed many inhabitants of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of its collapse--the inhabitants that didn't understand what happened to their old world, or how to live in the new one... Just for context, I lived in Moscow in the summer of 1992, summer of 1993, 1994-2000, and 2008-2016 and have traveled extensively in Russia, so I have quite a lot of experience with the place. Generally I found this book to be interesting, but too long, and too focused on negative topics.

First, I can't really agree with reviewers that considered the interviews "false"; they seemed real enough to me.

Second, the author has done a very good job of finding a particular type of Russian (namely, the inhabitants described in the first paragraph) and recording their stories--their thoughts, feelings, hopes, and disappointments--this is powerful stuff, and for the first couple of hundred pages, I found it quite interesting, but eventually the stories became repetitive, tedious, and very depressing.

Third, somehow the author has managed to portray Russia and Russians, a very varied and complex place and people, in monotones--very dark, depressing monotones. For someone who does not know better, reading this book would leave the very strong impression that all Russians are miserable, pathetic, bitter wretches or psychopaths. Seriously, I've never read a book that mentions more suicides and murders--it seems like every couple of pages there is a new one. If you don't know much about Russia and hope to learn more about it, please don't start with this book, you'll come away with a very warped understanding! Again, not a false understanding, but only a very partial one... And I was fascinated to read how many Russians (all of them, as far as I could tell from the book) equated freedom with "salami" (actually, as another review points out, "sausage").

Fourth, I guess the author's intent is to simply tell the narrators' stories rather than frame or comment on them in any way, but for me it would have been interesting for the author to have done more to "connect the dots" by tying the various narratives into some overarching themes, etc,rather than simply relating dozens of individual and unrelated stories. Also, it would have been good to know more about how the author found and selected her interview subjects--sometimes I wondered if she hadn't found most of them in some kind of asylum...

Finally, best case, for someone hoping to understand today's Russia, this book will be of very limited utility--it focuses on the nineties, and the stories and narratives from those days are no longer particularly reflective of what's going on in Russia today, although they are helpful in understanding where Russia ended up where it is today. Instead of writing about the "last of the Soviets", I think that a more interesting book (and more useful someone trying to understand today's Russia and where it is going) would be about the "first of the post-Soviets"--either those who grew up under the Soviets but then successfully transformed under the new environment, or those who have grown up since the nineties and without any personal knowledge of the Soviet system at all. That would be a fascinating book, and if this author writes such a book, I would certainly read it.

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