When I was small, I owned a plain-covered hardback book of Russian folk-tales. It was my most terrifying possession. It scared me, just to be in the same room as this collection of child-eating stepmothers, Baba Yagas, and terrors beyond imagination.
Second-Hand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich is that book, grown up. Alexievich transcribes the words of dozens of Russian and former-Soviet citizens she has interviewed. The result is a complex tapestry, with moments of beauty and joy, but overwhelmingly it tells of terror and torture and oppression and regret, played out over a scale of entire lifetimes. It is the most terrifying thing I have ever read.
We’d believed that art saved people. And then, it turned out that it didn’t.
One 21 year-old, who spent a month in jail for protesting the Belarus dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko, describes her elders thus:
Those who lived through Soviet times instantly start saying things like, ‘Our children thought that bananas grew in Moscow. Take a look around… There’s one hundred different kinds of salami! What more freedom do we need?’ Even today, many people want to go back to the Soviet Union, except with tons of salami.
Life is cheap:
The commander told us: ‘Just don’t shoot yourself. It’s easier to deduct personnel than it is to account for missing ammunition.’
(On wanting to leave Russia)
A Russian in Chicago:
I skipped out to the States. Now, I eat strawberries in the winter. There’s tons of salami here, and it’s not a symbol for anything at all…
One woman, one of the relatively few success stories, who had made something of herself as an advertising manager by becoming independent and cutting off others, says:
Today, single people are the ones who are happy and successful, they’re not the weak ones or losers. They have everything: money, careers. Being alone is a choice. I want to keep moving forward. I’m a huntress, not docile prey. I am the one making this choice. Loneliness is a kind of happiness… That sounds kind of like a revelation, doesn’t it? [She is silent..] Really, it’s not you I wanted to tell all this to, it’s myself…
One woman, who lost everything, forced to give up her Moscow flat to gangsters and live in poverty:
People are neither good nor bad. Everyone has their own lot in life.
[The rest of this article is just notes, I’m not sure what I was going to do with them. I struggled writing this post for so long, the book was just so depressing. Yet still I think it needs to be read widely]
On torturers who had also read Akunin and Umberto Eco:
What were they doing this for? Why? Ask them – they won’t be able to tell you. Someone gave them permission… it made them feel powerful…
What’s happening here in Britain and in the USA – where extremists (if that term still has any meaning) wish to see Vladimir Putin as strong-man “leader of the free world”.
and there’s plenty of evidence that Russia has influenced election results.