August 13th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Rating the ratings agencies: FFF and "Watch out"

CANBERRA OBSERVED Despite bumbling, youth detention inquiry is needed

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Erdogan's political coup will transform Turkey

SEXUAL POLITICS Transgender Olympians: what about the AFL?

EDITORIAL Marriage plebiscite: why not a referendum?

SEXUAL POLITICS Gay lobby grasps at normal and natural

MILITARY HISTORY The Western Front, 1916: our costliest theatre of war

MILITARY HISTORY Delville Wood, 1916: South Africa's Gallipoli

EUTHANASIA Disability hate crime: then the rest is silence

BRITISH POLITICS Tories push trans agenda hard in schools, prisons

TAIWANESE HISTORY AND POLITICS Fractious party puts Tsai in a pickle

MUSIC Davis biopic sadly miles off the mark

CINEMA Bourne again, but still lost: Jason Bourne

BOOK REVIEW An empire built on suffering

BOOK REVIEW Freedom of speech


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An empire built on suffering

News Weekly, August 13, 2016

SECONDHAND TIME: The last of the Soviets, An Oral History

by Svetlana Alexievich
Translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich

Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2016
Paperback: 520 pages
Price: AUD$37.95


Reviewed by Jeffry Babb


Russia has a great tradition of literary creation. Russians are said to read more books than any other nation. Writers are the “engineers of the human soul”.

Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich writes in Russian. She is not, however, from Russia. She is from Belarus, formerly known as Byelorussia, which can be literally translated as “White Russia”. Alexander Lukashenko has been president of Belarus since 1994. Belarus is Europe’s last dictatorship. Freedom House classes Belarus as “not free”. Reporters without Borders ranks Belarus as 157 out of 180 nations; that is, its press is among the world’s least free.

Belarus lost a third of its population in World War II, or what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War. The Nazis destroyed 85 per cent of Belarus’ industry. It was the most harshly dealt with of any Soviet republic. The capital of Belarus is Minsk, after which one of two Soviet-era aircraft carriers was named. The other was named for Kiev, now capital of Ukraine.

We should firmly place Svetlana Alexievich in the great realist tradition of Russian literature. The first Russian Nobel Laureate in Literature was Ivan Bunin, hailed as the true heir to the realistic prose and poetry of Tolstoy and Chekov. Then Mikhail Sholokhov won the Nobel prize for his epic, And Quiet Flows the Don, about the Cossacks in war and peace. Sholokhov is the only Nobel Laureate whose works were approved by the Communist regime.

Boris Pasternak, who refused the Nobel prize under official pressure, is known in the West for his epic love story, Dr Zhivago, but he is most famous in Russia as a poet.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was known in Russia for his novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in the literary magazine, Novy Mir. It broke the mould for literature in the Soviet era. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich follows a day in the life of a zek (political prisoner) in one of Stalin’s prison camps.

Solzhenitsyn’s other works circulated in samizdat (underground writings) in Russia. His most famous work is his three-volume history, The Gulag Archipelago, about the network of prison camps that spread like a cancer all over the Soviet Union. “Gulag” became a synonym for the Soviet Union’s systematic and unjust imprisonment of dissidents on political grounds. By extension, it came to be used for other similar systems.

Next came Joseph Brodsky, who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972. He was resident in the United States. Apart from being named American Poet Laureate, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987.

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. Her citation says the award is for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. She is the first writer from Belarus to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but she is firmly in the Russian realist tradition. If there is nobility in suffering, you will not find it here.

It is a truism that the Russians have an enormous capacity to endure suffering. Women especially are drawn to those men who suffer hopelessly. On the other hand, those who suffer are frequently treated with indifference. “Suffering is like a dance; there’s bitterness, weeping, then acceptance. Like a ballet” (p345).

The executioners and the jailers both became victims in their turn. It is impossible to find any logic; some people were jailed and others weren’t. Commonly, those who were lucky enough to be released from the camps sought readmission to the Communist Party because in their view there had been “a mistake”. Some actually were readmitted. If there is any nobility in this suffering, I cannot find it here. Those who survived the camps had the life crushed out of them; they were husks of men; they frequently became drunks and wife beaters.

Secondhand Time is not a work of fiction; it is a weaving of multiple strands of interviews with several dozen people. It is a unique form of journalism. Svetlana Alexievich is the only journalist to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. She is recording the passing of the last of the Soviets.

The Soviet Union is gone – it’s over – but many older people mourn its passing. They are disoriented by a market economy. Their values are no longer respected. Of course, some will argue that the economy is not free; that it is dominated by the oligarchs. This is to some extent true, but now Russians can buy a good pair of blue jeans. It seems the Soviet factories were good at producing tanks and Kalashnikov assault rifles, but they couldn’t make blue jeans or lacy bras.

According to Secondhand Time, 70 per cent of economic output in Soviet times was directed to preparations for war. There wasn’t enough left over for the civilian consumers.

Alexievich shows that Russia has been gripped by a form of historical cultural amnesia. Many young people have no idea of who Stalin was or what he did; if they do, they frequently regard him as a hero. His grave always has flowers on it. Russia is now a federation; it is the largest country in the world, by area.

According Alexievich, the secret to understanding the entire history of Russia is that it is always either preparing for war or going to war. Now we have a low-level conflict in Ukraine, plus the Russian intervention in Syria. Some surmise that Russia will invade the Baltic States – Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia – which would bring Russia into direct conflict with NATO.

Russia is actually more dangerous now than the old Soviet Union was, because it does not have to pretend that it has an ideological motivation for its actions. Russian adventurism can thus be described as raison d’etat, rather than “aiding fraternal parties”.

The old Soviet Union was a mobilisation economy. Everything was directed to preparing for war. It sucked the life out of the economy. The Soviet Union produced 10 times as many tanks as the United States, but it didn’t need them, even if they were the best tanks in the world. But the factories just kept on churning them out. Consumers craved East German consumer goods and Polish salami. The Nomenclatura (Soviet governing elite) had special stores with imported goods and caviar.

Apart from that, poverty was almost uniform. Low-level Communist Party officials received few tangible rewards for their service. Sometimes, families ate nothing but potatoes for months on end. The Brezhnev years were an era of dull, grey, uniform poverty. Even the Soviet elite lived no better than middle-ranking businessmen elsewhere.

Alexievich writes: “Our country fell apart from the deficit of women’s boots and toilet paper, because of the fact that there were no oranges. It was those goddamn blue jeans! Today, the shops resemble museums” (p52).

Muscovites read samizdat and listened to Radio Liberty and the BBC; as long as you didn’t get caught, it was OK. When Mikhail Gorbachev took power, the whole rotten place needed only a good shake to disintegrate, which it did. Boris Yeltsin could only go so far; it’s said he couldn’t get out of bed without a pickle and a shot of vodka.

The problem with a gerontocracy – a country ruled by the aged – as the Soviet Union and its successors in Russia have been, is that leaders don’t live long once they take power.

Fifty kilometres outside of Moscow, things have not changed much. Only women and children remain. The men have either drunk themselves to death or are incarcerated. Only the women don’t give up, they keep digging in their vegetable patches. The few men who stay sober have long since gone to Moscow to find work.

The Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev might have been dull and grey but for those who wanted an ideal – especially those who had lived through the Great Patriotic War – it offered something to believe in. Nothing escaped the Party. People were miserable, but then so was everyone. The Party had an answer for everything; it was holistic.

Capitalism, however, is granular. People are independent units who make their own choices. Especially in the years of which Alexievich writes, the Soviet Union had collapsed to be replaced by a freewheeling dog-eat-dog market economy. Only the oligarchs and gangsters were rich.

From this economic shock therapy there did eventually emerge an economy from which most Russians benefited. Today most young people know nothing else. Older people think it is a cruel world, with shop windows filled with things they will never be able to afford.

“Who am I? We’re just people … nothing but faces in the crowd. Our life is mundane, insignificant; though we do our best to live. We love, we suffer. It’s just not that interesting to anyone else, no one is going to write a book about us … the masses” (p356).

The Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight; it simply couldn’t compete with the West. Few constituents of the former Eastern Bloc seem anxious to reconnect with the new Russia. The birth rate has stabilised after a long decline; as of July 2016, Russia’s population is 143.4 million, making Russia the ninth most populous nation in the world. To put this in perspective, the population of Indonesia is 250 million.

Eternal Russia survives; the Russian Federation is still an empire. The Russian Orthodox Church has undergone a revival. In the Great Patriotic War, soldiers would give their lives for God and Mother Russia, a lesson Stalin soon learned. No one dreams any more of making a New Soviet Man, just of making ends meet. As for Death, a young soldier says: “Does it have to be a toothless old crone with a braid or can it be beautiful young woman instead? One day I’ll meet her” (p370).

Much of this comes as no surprise to me. In 1974, at the height of the Cold War, I helped chaperone an official party of Russian young people who were on a tour of Australia. They were simply flabbergasted by Australia’s consumer wealth. Their favourite meal was Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s hard to go back to a staple diet of cabbage and potatoes after you’ve dined on KFC.

This book is well written and tells the story, in their own words, of the last of the Soviets. The Soviet Union has gone, but Russia is eternal.

Jeffry Babb studied Russian literature, history and politics under Professor Patrick O’Brien at the University of Western Australia.

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