Secondhand Time: socialist hopes and Stalinist tragedies

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“A time full of hope has been replaced by a time of fear. The era has turned around and headed back in time. The time we live in now is second-hand. …” So did Svetlana Alexievich, in her lecture after winning the 2015 Nobel Prize for literature, convey the essence of her brilliant, monumental work, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets.

Her book is especially resonant as we approach the 100th anniversary of the great Russian Revolution, which established the world’s first workers’ state, the Soviet Union or USSR. Despite incredible progress, it was betrayed by the reactionary bureaucracy of Joseph Stalin. The socialist economy was controlled by a police state until the 1990s, when a movement for democracy was blindsided by a cataclysmic rip-off of public wealth by pro-capitalist state officials.

Alexievich masterfully weaves interviews of people from former Soviet states into captivating prose. The majority of speakers express belief in socialism, horror at Stalinist totalitarianism, opposition to war, and a deep love of humanity. Alexievich is particularly attuned to the immense suffering and courage of the women of the USSR.

Mourning a loss of community. The author brings out the voices of many who are appalled at what has been lost in the last 20 years. They affirm the goals and achievements of the Soviet workers’ state, which provided security and education to people whose parents — toilers and peasants — had lived on the edge of subsistence. As part of the USSR, people felt enriched by something greater than themselves. Their lives had purpose, allowing them to sacrifice and forgive on a scale that is hardly imaginable:

Socialism isn’t just labor camps, informants, and the Iron Curtain, it’s also a bright, just world: Everything is shared, the weak are pitied, and compassion rules. Instead of grabbing everything you can, you feel for others… No one bought Versace suits or bought houses in Miami. …The leaders of the USSR lived like mid-level businessmen, they were nothing like today’s oligarchs. — Elena Yurievna, local CP administrator

We believed that tomorrow would be better than today and the day after tomorrow better than yesterday. We had a future. And a past. We had it all! — Margarita Pogrebitskaya, doctor

Nevertheless, decades of deprivation and repression led people to revolt in the 1990s. They wanted political freedom and a higher standard of living. They never dreamed that their demands for a better form of socialism would open the floodgates to capitalism.

We were so terribly eager for the gray Soviet everyday to turn into a scene from an American movie! … Money became synonymous with freedom. Everyone was completely preoccupied with it. … The only problem was that there wasn’t really enough to go around … — unnamed woman

High-level bureaucrats turned into ravenous billionaire wolves by stealing public resources. The currency lost all value. Jobs and savings disappeared. Workers, doctors, teachers and retirees found themselves on the streets. The culture changed from collectivity to commodity worship. Cross-ethnic solidarity dissolved into ugly chauvinism and ethnic cleansing.

Uncharted waters. Alexievich quotes a professor who sees youth turning away from the free-market apocalypse: “Today’s students have truly seen and felt capitalism: the inequality, the poverty, the shameless wealth. … And they’re oriented toward radicalism. They dream of their own revolution.”

But for many, alienation is leading to destructive paths. From being a happily atheistic society, many have turned to the feudalistic, state-sanctioned Russian Orthodox Church. Some, incredibly, look nostalgically to the days of Stalinist empire. Others veer toward fascism and anti-Semitism. For too many, the loss of compass is leading to suicide and alcoholism, with Russia’s rates among the highest in the world.

Neither Alexievich nor her subjects express much hope that the Russian people, deceived so many times, can mount a new challenge to capitalism. There seems little understanding of what led to Stalinism’s growth and capitalism’s victory. Opposition keeps rising, but is repeatedly dashed. Alexievich interviews a number of students whose mass protests against fraudulent 2011 elections in Belarus were violently put down. They ended up shattered and isolated.

Alexievich ends with the words of a 60-year-old rural “everywoman.” Decades of tumult have not eased her backbreaking labors or improved her small house without plumbing or gas. In her remote, frigid world, the unnamed woman says, “the important thing is to make it to spring. …” to plant potatoes and enjoy the blooming lilacs.

Secondhand Time leaves readers without an answer for what’s next, but with a deeper understanding and compassion for the people of the former Soviet Union, and hope for a coming spring.

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A Russian Revolution commemorative article

Other articles in the series:

The puzzle of Putin’s Russia (June 2017)

Trotsky in New York, 1917 (June 2017)

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