There are iconic events in history which can be used to measure out human lives. These are the ‘where were you when...’ moments like man’s landing on the moon, the death of Princess Diana, the 9/11 attack. The August putsch of 1991, and the defining image of Boris Yeltsin standing atop a tank in Moscow, is another such event, one that set the seal on the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This watershed in 20th century global politics can be approached in many ways, and has been: Tomes have been written about the end of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet system and the massive shake-up of the strategic chessboard.
Second-Hand Time—The Last of the Soviets, by 2015 Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, approaches the event from a unique vantage point, the uncompromising and utterly personal view of the ordinary person. This is not a novel; in fact, it is a journalistic tour de force, a collection of interviews and snatches of kitchen table conversations recorded over nearly three decades and juxtaposed skilfully by the author, with her own voice intervening only occasionally. The Russian kitchen, incidentally, is an institution—“We lived in our kitchens.... The whole country lived in their kitchens. You’d go to somebody’s house, drink wine, listen to songs, talk about poetry. There’s an open tin can, slices of black bread....” Together, these stories mesh into a large tapestry that covers not only a certain time and place, but also plumbs the depths of the human heart and soul. This is journalism as fiction, and the Nobel Prize jury knew what they were doing in treating it as such, in the sense that it goes much beyond facts. It teases out the emotions, the motivations, the unintended consequences, the lingering regrets. In what is presumably an authorial paragraph, Alexievich explains herself: “The Soviet civilization...I’m rushing to make impression of its traces, its familiar faces...I don’t ask people about socialism. I want to know about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. Music, dance, hairdos. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. It’s the only way to chase a catastrophe into the contours of the ordinary and try to tell a story.” This chase yields hundreds of human truths, a wealth of small discoveries. The result of Alexievich’s pursuit is a massive, sad, heart-wrenching and difficult book.