[Marxism] Vodka + Caesium

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Oct 12 09:23:43 MDT 2016


LRB, Vol. 38 No. 20 · 20 October 2016
Vodka + Caesium
by Sheila Fitzpatrick

Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future by Svetlana Alexievich, 
translated by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait
Penguin, 294 pp, £9.99, April, ISBN 978 0 241 27053 0

Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich, 
translated by Bela Shayevich
Fitzcarraldo, 694 pp, £14.99, May, ISBN 978 1 910695 11 1

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, but some 
people still don’t think her books are literature. In fact, they are 
collective oral histories, of similar genre, though completely different 
in tone, to those of Studs Terkel in the United States, whom she has 
probably never read. Her main influence as far as genre is concerned was 
the Belorussian writer Ales Adamovich, who in the 1970s (with Daniil 
Granin) collected the testimonies of wartime Leningrad survivors in 
Blokadnaia kniga, but that’s not very helpful in a Western context since 
nobody has heard of him. Lately, Alexievich has taken to citing Claude 
Lanzmann’s Shoah as an inspiration. Her first book, with methodology 
already honed, was finished before Shoah was made, so that obviously 
can’t be taken literally. But it’s a way of letting a Western audience 
know that what she’s doing is exploring suffering and loss through the 
voices of the sufferers.

Whatever her genre, Alexievich is an original, with a voice that is hers 
alone. That’s to say, it’s hers alone as a writer. Her respondents, 
particularly the women, tend to speak in the same voice as Alexievich. 
That voice is unmistakably Russian (though Alexievich, who writes in 
Russian, is actually of mixed Belorussian and Ukrainian origins). It is 
also unmistakably Soviet. She writes about suffering, and that means 
that the Gulag and the Second World War are never far away. She writes 
about death and the soul – an important word in her lexicon. She is, she 
says, a sovok, the post-Soviet pejorative term for Homo sovieticus, and 
so are her parents and her friends. She means the kind of sovok who 
suffers because of the Soviet identity and baggage they can’t disclaim, 
not the kind who glories in it. Only a sovok, she believes, could have 
persuaded all those other kindred souls to talk about their guilty, 
angry, nostalgic love of the world they have lost.

Alexievich came on the literary scene at the time of Gorbachev’s 
perestroika, the high point of her and many of her interviewees’ lives. 
Her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, appeared in Moscow in the 
mid-1980s, after a two-year hold-up by the censor. It made a big splash 
in Russia but wasn’t much noticed in the West. Her subject was the 
Second World War, on which the Soviet literature was enormous, but she 
had a genuinely new take: the war through the prism of women’s 
experiences. Her heroines, who tell their own stories, had volunteered 
as teenagers along with their boyfriends because they wanted to fight 
with rifles in their hands (they explain that Soviet schooling had 
taught them women could do anything). At the front, they both 
experienced the camaraderie of the frontline and, on occasion, felt 
excluded from it. They cut their hair short on joining up and tried to 
walk like men, but after a while started wanting to be women again and 
got annoyed by being issued male underwear. They saw their male comrades 
rape German women, and afterwards, even as they helped the weeping women 
clean themselves up, were glad to see their tears. They fell in love at 
the front, only in many cases to be dumped at the end of the war when 
the men went back to their peacetime wives. They were shocked, on their 
own return, to find themselves described contemptuously as ‘frontline 
wives’ and seen as loose women.

Alexievich loves these women. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she 
characterised them as the highest expression of the communist ideal, 
‘higher even than the revolution and Lenin’. But she doesn’t see just 
the women who went away to war in those terms: it’s a view that also 
applies to the women who stayed and bore the burden on the home front. 
These are people she knows from her childhood in a Belorussian village 
(she was born in 1948) where the women would sit around in the evenings 
telling stories about the war, particularly their wartime partings from 
the men they loved and their determination to wait for them for ever. 
She internalised the ‘sad intonation’ of their talk, she said in a 
recent lecture given at Oxford, and learned from them that ‘suffering 
was a form of information.’ Thanks to listening to these conversations, 
‘I think I’ve known from childhood what love is,’ she told her Nobel 
audience in Sweden. Alexievich is prone to saying things like that, on 
the sentimental side to a Western ear; I have to tell myself to let it 
pass, she’s Russian.

Although Alexievich says there were no men in the village, there was 
actually one important man: her father. He and her mother were 
schoolteachers and raised their children as Soviet patriots. A lifelong 
communist, her father wept when, after witnessing the pointless deaths 
of Soviet soldiers in the Afghanistan war (the subject of her 1990 Zinky 
Boys), she lost her socialist faith and told him: ‘We are all 
murderers.’ In the complex intergenerational relationships of late 
Soviet times, that ‘we’, addressed to a parent, mainly means ‘you’, but 
not entirely. ‘We were merciless towards our parents,’ she writes in 
Second-Hand Time. Yet she sees her father and others of his generation 
as tragic figures.

Her next big book was Chernobyl Prayer, published in Russian in 1997. 
This was another totally new perspective, the nuclear disaster seen 
through the remembered experience of local survivors and clean-up 
people, and it too annoyed the authorities, this time the Belorussians, 
who wouldn’t allow the book to be published there. Reading Chernobyl 
Prayer, one is reminded that Alexievich started off as a journalist and 
knows how to write a good story, as she demonstrates in her introduction 
to the interviews. There is heroism to spare in this book, but even more 
striking is the omnipresent recklessness and stupidity. One of the 
problems of a nanny state like the Soviet Union was that everyone got so 
used to ignoring the nanny that when what she said was sensible and even 
life-preserving they ignored that too. Clean-up men accepted toxic 
glasses of milk from locals so as not to spurn their hospitality. Locals 
devised their own rules for dealing with the radiation and its 
aftermath. If they listened to prohibitions on drinking fresh milk 
themselves, it didn’t stop them taking it to the towns to sell. As for 
cucumbers, perhaps it was better not to eat them fresh but surely one 
could bottle them for the winter.

The contaminated Belorussian landscape was relatively empty, but there 
were animals in abundance, including all the cats and dogs left behind, 
and a few tough old characters who wouldn’t leave or had surreptitiously 
returned. One woman talks about her New Year’s party with local produce 
and home-brewed vodka (‘Our very own … Chernobyl-style, with added 
caesium and strontium to spice it up’), where they all sang Soviet 
revolutionary songs and had ‘a wonderful evening. Just like old times.’ 
A Russian family kicked out of Central Asia by civil war in the 1990s 
and resettled in Belarus because of the cheap and available housing were 
excited to see cream and butter in shops. And of course, though this is 
one of the least sentimental of Alexievich’s books, we have the dying 
children. A paediatrician describes them chasing one another round the 
wards shouting: ‘I’m radiation! I’m radiation!’ When they die, the 
paediatrician says, ‘it seems to me they look surprised. Baffled. They 
lie there looking so surprised.’

*

Second-Hand Time is Alexievich’s attempt to come to terms with the 
collapse of communism and the Soviet Union. The awkward title – 
sekond-khend (which sounds awful in a Russian accent, though perhaps 
that’s the point) is the title of the Russian version too – seems to 
mean that time has gone out of kilter for the Russians, who are 
experiencing capitalism after socialism, when Marx said it should be the 
other way round, and are getting an already used version from the West. 
At 694 pages, it’s longer than her other books, and this is probably a 
mistake: towards the end, the reader may start flipping pages, feeling 
slightly nauseated from a surfeit of suffering. Alexievich has written 
that all her books are part of a history of utopia. The utopia here 
isn’t so much the Soviet project itself – though that’s part of it – but 
perestroika’s attempt to revive it. Her subjects are Soviet nostalgics 
whose nostalgia is tempered by the fact that they so badly wanted the 
really-existing Soviet Union to be different.

Second-Hand Time is not a coffee table book but a kitchen table one. The 
kitchen table was where, in the evenings of late socialism, people sat 
around, drank tea and vodka, and talked from the heart. Alexievich sees 
herself not as an interviewer but as a friend and neighbour having a 
conversation. ‘I reminisced alongside my protagonists,’ she tells us, 
although her side of the conversation isn’t recorded. The protagonists 
often burst into tears, and sometimes Alexievich weeps with them: ‘Do 
you believe me?’ one woman asks, after telling a complicated story about 
loss and dislocation. ‘I believe you, I tell her. I grew up in the same 
country as you. I believe you! [And both of us cry.]’ The reader often 
cries as well, or at least I, with my own Soviet-nostalgia reflexes, 
did. But that gets tiring.

The disappointed hopes of perestroika are central to Alexievich’s story. 
‘There was a moment,’ she writes, ‘when everyone was a romantic,’ when 
people believed that instant freedom was possible and would cure all 
ills. ‘We were prepared to die for our ideals. To prove ourselves in 
battle.’ But there was no real battle (though she tends to write as if 
there had been: ‘I’ve spent my entire life on the barricades,’ she says 
at one point), and freedom turned out to be a mirage. ‘Our suffering has 
not converted into freedom,’ Alexievich said in her Oxford lecture, but 
she still seems to feel it was a reasonable expectation. ‘Freedom turned 
out to mean the rehabilitation of bourgeois existence … the freedom of 
Her Highness Consumption.’ Money, whose significance Russian 
intellectuals had so long and so proudly denied, suddenly became the 
thing that mattered most. Dignified members of the intelligentsia were 
seen queuing up for food at Hare Krishna mobile soup kitchens. The Arbat 
district, loved by generations of Muscovites, was profaned by tawdry 
commerce and fast food. ‘I found rows of pedlars selling matryoshka 
dolls, samovars, icons and portraits of the tsar and the royal family. 
Portraits of White Guard generals,’ one respondent complained. Old 
Soviet army uniforms, medals and party cards were on sale as souvenirs. 
‘I didn’t recognise my Moscow. What city was this?’ She called a 
policeman to have the blasphemers punished, but he said he only arrested 
people for drugs and pornography.

The reading culture of the Soviet era disappeared overnight. Second-hand 
shops were deluged with unwanted books: ‘the intelligentsia were selling 
off their libraries. People had grown poor, of course, but it wasn’t 
just for the spare cash – it was because ultimately books had 
disappointed them.’ Many people didn’t even bother to sell them. 
‘Volumes of Gorky and Mayakovsky piled up in the dumpsters. People would 
drop the complete works of Lenin off at the paper recycling centre.’

For people who still identified with Soviet values, it was an agonising 
time. ‘I’ve fallen behind,’ one woman said, invoking the old Soviet 
cliché about the importance of being in the vanguard. ‘Everyone else 
transferred from the train that was hurtling towards socialism onto the 
train racing to capitalism … People laugh at the sovok … They laugh at 
me … [the woman weeps].’ Since the young found it easier to adapt to the 
new mores, a gulf opened up in many families. ‘My children already live 
according to these new laws. They don’t need me anymore, I seem 
ridiculous … I’m a rare specimen! … Isn’t that right? You’re very lucky 
to have found me … [She laughs and cries at the same time.]’ This 
respondent’s son had gone into trade, a matter of shame to his mother, 
and made money. But when he and his friends got drunk, they would still 
sing Komsomol songs, and someone was sure to say: ‘It’s a mess out 
there. We need a Stalin.’ Another respondent, a 50-year-old doing his 
best to grow out of being a sovok, still baulked at the lip-smacking TV 
shows on the luxurious life of the rich. ‘It’s humiliating … I lived 
under socialism for too long. Life is better now, but it’s also more 
revolting.’

One special form of agony came from revelations about the Soviet past. 
When Gulag returnees and their relatives asked for their files, 
uncomfortable things emerged. Denunciations were the worst, especially 
when they came from people who had been liked and trusted. The nice 
neighbour who used to take the children fishing turned out to have 
informed on a respondent’s father, who was arrested in the Great Purges. 
His brother was arrested too, denounced by another family member, Aunt 
Olga, ‘a beautiful woman, full of joy’. When asked in her old age about 
1937, she said it was the happiest year of her life: ‘I was in love.’ 
She offered no explanation or excuse for the denunciation. Another 
respondent told the (possibly apocryphal) story of a single mother who, 
when arrested, asked her friend and neighbour in the communal apartment 
to look after her five-year-old daughter. She did so, becoming ‘Mama 
Anya’, and when the real mother returned from the Gulag after 17 years 
and found her daughter safe, she was beside herself with gratitude. But 
then she applied for her KGB file and found out that it was Mama Anya 
who had denounced her.

*

The horror stories, recounted at length by many respondents, mainly 
concerned the older generation. The respondents themselves – and 
Alexievich with them – had better memories. Typically, they were of the 
Soviet kitchen table, where the ‘kitchen dissidents’ would sit 
‘criticising the Soviet government and cracking jokes. We read samizdat. 
If someone got their hands on a new book, they could show up at your 
door at any hour – even two or three in the morning – and still be a 
welcome guest.’ They would swap precious numbers of journals like Novy 
Mir, play the labour camp songs croaked out by Vladimir Vysotsky, and 
listen to Voice of America on shortwave (‘I still remember that 
beautiful crackling’). At some point in the evening, someone would 
always point in jest to the ceiling light (a possible hiding place for 
bugs) and say: ‘Did you hear that, Comrade Lieutenant?’ It was a 
wonderful parallel life to their workaday existence as ordinary, 
non-dissident toilers: their night-time talks weren’t really risky, 
since ‘kitchen dissidents’ didn’t take their protests to the streets and 
the KGB didn’t really bug them, but all the same ‘it felt a little 
dangerous, a little bit like a game.’

Most of the people Alexievich interviewed are people like her, 
perestroika-lovers who yearn for their lost utopia but also miss the 
non-utopia that was the Soviet Union. Indeed, it was a conscious policy 
to select them: ‘I sought out people who had been permanently bound to 
the Soviet idea, letting it penetrate them so deeply, there was no 
separating them.’ Nonetheless, she also allows a few other voices into 
the mix, although one feels a certain inner resistance on her part, 
especially when the unenlightened voices are male. Most of the outliers 
get excerpted without context or identification, in single paragraphs or 
even single sentences:

	I’ve had it up to here with the Jews, the Chekists, and the homosexuals.

	The Soviet civilisation! Someone felt the need to put an end to it. The 
CIA … They must have paid Gorbachev a tidy sum.

	I’m a simple man. Stalin didn’t touch regular people like me. No one in 
my family was affected, and all of them were workers. It was the bosses’ 
heads that flew, regular people lived regular lives.

A woman who from youth found capitalism more interesting than the Gulag 
gets a full interview, but it’s one of the least convincing in the book, 
and one suspects Alexievich of editorial intervention. The woman’s 
capitalist instincts are expressed in clichéd form – ‘I was looking up … 
to the top of the tall ladder of life’; ‘I want to keep moving forward. 
I’m a huntress, not docile prey’ – and any admiration the reader might 
have for her guts and determination is undermined by heavy-handed 
reminders that success doesn’t bring happiness:

	I love cats. I love them because they don’t cry, no one has ever seen 
their tears. People who see me on the street think that I’m rich and 
happy! I have everything: a big house, an expensive car, Italian 
furniture. And a daughter I adore. I have a housekeeper … But I live 
alone. And that’s how I like it … Loneliness is freedom.

When a young man identifying himself as a ‘Russian Orthodox patriot’ 
goes into a rant against Jews and the CIA, imperiously telling 
Alexievich to be quiet when she apparently disputes his conspiracy 
theories (her contribution to the conversation isn’t in the text), he 
discredits himself as a respondent: ‘[I can’t stop him]’ is 
interpolated, and he only gets a couple more paragraphs. But in one 
notable case Alexievich breaks her rule of not including uncongenial 
voices. This is the monologue from ‘Elena Yurievna S., third secretary 
of the district party committee, 49 years old’ (some interviewees get 
full names, others none: it seems to depend partly on whether they say 
things Alexievich thinks do them credit). The double interview with 
Elena Yurievna and a childhood friend of hers who comes along too, 
fortunately with more congenial views, is almost a novella on its own, 
taking up fifty pages.

Elena Yurievna deeply regrets the passing of the Soviet Union, but for 
the wrong reason in Alexievich’s terms: she was an apparatchik, part of 
the power structure, who remains loyal to the Communist Party. She still 
loves the word ‘comrade’ and ‘take[s] pleasure in writing “USSR”. That 
was my country; the country I live in today is not. I feel like I’m 
living on foreign soil.’ (She isn’t the only one of Alexievich’s 
interviewees to say this.) Her father was taken prisoner in the Finnish 
war, pulled out of freezing water by Finns, and therefore subsequently 
deemed to have betrayed his country and sent to the Gulag for six years. 
He accepted the notion of his guilt and remained fully loyal; his 
daughter, on the other hand, ‘never liked Stalin. My father forgave him, 
but I didn’t.’ The party she proudly served was the post-Stalin one, and 
she was ashamed when it finally gave up without a fight. She gives a 
memorable description of how, as the end approached, paralysed and 
frightened district party officials holed up in their offices reading 
detective stories, while scores of erstwhile members returned their 
party cards by stealthily throwing them over the fence into the 
courtyard. On her colleagues’ subsequent fate, she notes that some 
killed themselves, some went into business, and one became a priest.

She is aware that her views aren’t congenial to her interviewer, and 
several times interjects that no doubt, since she was saying the wrong 
things, her testimony would be discarded. Finally, Alexievich takes the 
bait: ‘I promise her that there will be two stories’ – i.e. Elena 
Yurievna’s and that of her more appealing friend. ‘I want to be a 
cold-blooded historian, not one who is holding a blazing torch. Let time 
be the judge.’ A cold-blooded historian! That is the last 
characterisation one would make of Alexievich, and she herself usually 
repudiates any such aspiration. Elsewhere, she says she’s not a 
historian because a) historians don’t go after the big questions of 
death, suffering and the meaning of life, b) they don’t deal with evil, 
c) they don’t deal with emotions but just want the facts and d) they 
don’t base their works on the voices of the people. ‘Evil seems endless 
to me. I can’t view it just as a historian,’ she says in War’s Unwomanly 
Face. And in Second-Hand Time: ‘History is concerned solely with the 
facts; emotions are outside of its realm of interest. In fact, it’s 
considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the 
world as a writer and not a historian. I am fascinated by people.’

*

She is wrong, of course, about the current practice of history (though 
her description makes sense if applied to professional historians in the 
old Soviet Union, where personal stories and oral history were shunned). 
Not only is oral history now firmly ensconced in the international 
historical profession, but the latest hot thing in the discipline is the 
history of emotions, reconstructed from a variety of sources, not only 
oral history. ‘In writing, I’m piecing together the history of 
“domestic”, “interior” socialism,’ Alexievich writes. ‘As it existed in 
a person’s soul.’ Well, I wouldn’t have used the last sentence when I 
wrote Everyday Stalinism (1999), but lots of people since then have gone 
in search of the Soviet psyche. Overall, what she is trying to do isn’t 
so different from what ‘everyday’ historians of the Soviet Union have 
been doing for the past couple of decades. So do we want to claim her as 
one of us?

Viewed as an oral historian, she might seem on the sloppy side as far as 
methodology is concerned. She finds her respondents via acquaintance and 
referral and doesn’t tell readers what questions she asked or give 
respondents the chance to edit their answers; no ethics committee 
approved her project. Of course, the same could be said of Studs Terkel, 
whose oral histories of the Great Depression (Hard Times, 1970) and the 
Second World War (The Good War, 1984) are routinely cited by 
card-carrying members of the American Historical Association. A stamp of 
approval from a university ethics committee brings no great intellectual 
benefit, and the same could be said of a number of the current 
disciplinary rules surrounding oral history. Where Alexievich might be 
said to differ significantly from other oral historians, including 
Terkel, is in all the weeping she and her respondents do. Yet even here, 
the difference may be less than it seems at first sight. Oral historians 
and anthropologists learn to project empathy because that’s the way you 
get your subjects to talk freely. Most of us also learn to project this 
empathy even when we privately disapprove of what our subjects are 
saying, though Alexievich, who has a Soviet commitment to sincerity, 
only weeps with people she likes.

Still, there’s a reason, apart from the fact that there are no Nobel 
Prizes for history, that I’d just as soon Alexievich stayed labelled as 
a writer rather than a historian. If she’s a writer, even one who bases 
her work on interviews, the assumption is that she’s writing primarily 
out of her imagination and only secondarily out of documents. If she’s a 
historian, the issue of imagination retreats and some kind of implicit 
duty emerges to present the ‘real world’ in all its complexity. What 
Alexievich shows us is real, all right, but it’s only a part of the real 
Soviet and post-Soviet world, and not a part that, in my judgment, 
stands for the whole. Think of Brexit before the vote: everyone you knew 
was against it, but then it turned out that all the rest were in favour. 
It was the same for decades with Moscow’s ‘kitchen-table dissident’ 
intellectuals. All the old Moscow hands from the West were friends with 
these likeable, educated, morally serious people; indeed, they were 
generally the only people in the Soviet Union the Moscow hands knew. By 
extension, they were the only people known to readers of the Guardian or 
the New York Times, who naturally tended to think that their opinions on 
a given topic told us something about Soviet public opinion as a whole. 
That was true, but only if you reversed the opinions. Whatever the 
kitchen-table dissidents thought, the Soviet public probably thought the 
opposite. That is still true in a post-Soviet context. Don’t go to 
Alexievich to find out what ordinary people think about the present and 
the past in the former Soviet Union, because you’ll only be misled. Read 
her as literature, for the evocation of a lost world so warmly familiar 
to us, albeit at second-hand, and an era when Western readers could get 
innocent satisfaction from backing the good guys in the Soviet Union. 
Read it, and feel free to weep.




More information about the Marxism mailing list