Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time is such a deeply, deeply disturbing book. One of the best works of non-fiction I’ve read. History is allowed to emerge in our minds through multiple voices on the street, kitchens and trains. Will write more about it later. But this passage brought a wry smile on my face (one of our learning centre boys noticed it and asked, ‘what happened’- I wasn’t surprised to see that he could relate to it, with the very little context that I gave, especially after clarifying that there was another Stalin – not the one who filled his pockets during elections) – it summed up most of the feelings expressed about Stalin in the book:
“When I was five…I remember my mother and I were at a bus stop, as I now know, not far from the KGB offices, and I kept whining and crying: ‘Don’t cry,’ my mother implored me. ‘Or else the bad people who took Grandpa and lots of other people away will hear us.’ And she began telling me all about Grandpa. Mama needed someone to talk to…When Stalin died, at our nursery school, they sat us down to cry. I was the only one who didn’t.”
-Second Hand Time, Svetlana Alexievich
[Everybody in Russia seem to be prone to quoting Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn or Gorky or Gogol. Whether they wanted communism or capitalism, they had wanted books. (Before they probably shifted their allegiance to blue jeans and salami).]
‘In reality, for me, I’m just a twit, freedom of speech would have been enough because, as it soon turned out, at heart, I’m a Soviet girl. Everything Soviet went deeper in us than we had ever imagined. All I really wanted was for them to let me read Dovlatov and Viktor Nekrasov and listen to Galich.’
‘Books…You can wear the same suit for twenty years, two coats are enough to last a lifetime, but you can’t live without Pushkin or the complete works of Gorky.’
‘poems always filled our home, like speech: Mayakovsky, Svetlov…my beloved Semyon Gudzenko’
‘In the tenth grade, I had an affair. he lived in Moscow. I went to see him, we only had three days. In the morning, at the station, we picked up a mimeographed copy of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs, which everyone was reading at that time. We had to return the book the next day at four in the morning. Hand it off to someone on a train passing through town. For twenty-four hours, we read without stopping – we only went out once, to get milk and a loaf of bread. We even forgot to kiss, we handed the pages to one another.’
– Second-hand Time
Reports on Chernobyl in the newspapers are thick with the language of war: ‘nuclear’, ‘explosion’, ‘heroes’. And this makes it harder to appreciate that we now find ourselves on a new page of history. The history of disasters has begun.
Instead of the usual words of comfort, a doctor tells a woman who husband is dying, ‘No going near him! No kissing! No cuddling! This is no longer the man you love, it’s a contaminated object.’ Here, even Shakespeare bows out, even Dante. The question is whether to go near or not. To kiss or not. One of the heroines of my book went near and kissed, and remained by her husband’s side until his death. She paid for it with her health and the life of their baby. But how can you choose between love and death? Between the past and an unfamiliar present? Who could presume to judge the wives and mothers who did not sit with their dying husbands and sons? Next to those radioactive objects.
What lingers most in my memory of Chernobyl is life afterwards: the possessions without owners, the landscapes without people. The roads going nowhere, the cables leading nowhere. You find yourself wondering just what this is: the past or the future.
It sometimes felt to me as if I was recording the future.
– Chernobyl Prayer : A Chronicle of the Future, Svetlana Alexievich