Oral History of the Russian People Article Review

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Svetlana and Suny

Svetlana Alexievich provides the reader of Secondhand Time with a personal, intimate glimpse into the real life experiences of a Russian during the Soviet Era and during the post-Soviet Era. The glimpses are often chaotic and disordered, but they have the feeling of being authentic and of showing an unfiltered, raw side of life that does not come across in more staid and structured productions, such as Suny’s The Soviet Experiment, which reads more like a text book or a typical history book—dry, free of emotion, sentiment, personality and intimacy. While undoubtedly equally authentic in its approach, Suny’s Experiment wields a more sophisticated air and exudes a scholarly perspective that does not always deliver to the reader the kind of immediate sensations that people in the 21st century are used to having. In the Digital Era, senses have become used to instant gratification, to jumping from tidbit of information to tidbit of information—and that is what Svetlana Alexievich is able to do for the reader in both Secondhand Time and The Unwomanly Face of War. Each gives morsels of authentic experience, of oral history that is uncensored and presented as is. There is no attempt to pretty it up: the reality of the subject and the manner in which it is presented by Alexievich tells the whole story of the chaos of life in specific place in a specific time. Suny accomplishes a much more prosaic depiction of Russian life during the Soviet Era—but for a sense of how the people lived, thought, spoke, expressed themselves, and communicated their feelings, there is no substitute for the kind of oral history that Svetlana Alexievich provides.

In the section entitled, “Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversation,” Alexievich ties together multiple anecdotes and personal narratives of people telling about their own experiences during the collapse of the Soviet Union. What one quickly sees and learns is the manner in which the institutionalized corruption of the Soviet system impacted the lives of everyday people—how it affected everything, from the way they loved to the way they worked to the way they thought about themselves. For example, one individual who worked in the real estate industry describes the corruption and how the agency was taken over by the nomenklatura: “We should have spent our days and nights out on the squares, fighting with all our might to get what we had come for—a Nuremberg trial for the CPSU. [Instead] we all went home too early. The black marketers and money changers took power. Contrary to what Marx predicted, after socialism, we’re building capitalism.”[footnoteRef:1] Or there is the description of the young woman in love, recounting the experience of seeing tanks in the streets for the first time, and feeling alive, feeling liberated, feeling in love with Oleg and in love with socialism (happy to see Soviet socialism falling but hoping for a purer socialism to prevail): “Today, they accuse us of fighting for capitalism…That’s not true! I was defending socialism, but some other kind, not the Soviet kind—that’s what I was standing up for! Or at least that’s what I thought.

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”[footnoteRef:2] One learns from such snatches the confusion of the times, the confusion in ordinary peoples’ minds. There is a sense of have an ideal, a belief, but being uncertain as to what that belief truly is. In the real world, most people are not academics. They do not reflect consistently on their own thoughts or actions or beliefs. They are passionate but not always scrutinizing. This reality is primarily what an oral history can teach. [1: Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets (NY: Random House, 2007), 47.] [2: Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets (NY: Random House, 2007), 48.]

The same can be seen in Alexievich’s Unwomanly Face of War. There is the story recounted by Xenia Sergeevna Osadcheva: “I just became an adult…On June 9, 1941, I turned eighteen, I became an adult. And two weeks later this cursed war began, even twelve days later.”[footnoteRef:3] One would have to turn to fiction, the realist fiction of Solzhenitsyn or Dostoevsky, to discover such colorful, authentic figures as are presented by Alexievich here. She understands how the human experience speaks for itself, how it communicates shades of meaning that cannot be communicated through the objective, prosaic style of the straight-forward, third-person approach to history, as is given by Suny. Alexievich allows the first-person narrator to emerge from an era and show the reader exactly how it was. It is like meeting a new neighbor and being part of a conversation over a fence. The voices are real and the phenomenon of war, of social collapse, of hunger—all of it is brought to fore and gives a powerful new take on a subject that would otherwise feel stale, dry and dusty, as is so often the case when the subject is served up cold and without garnish by academics who fail to incorporate the human side of history into their rational, intellectually-driven takes on the subject. This is not to say that Suny’s history is bad or worse. It offers an important perspective as….....

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Alexievich, Svetlana. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets. NY: Random House, 2007.

Alexievich, Svetlana. The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. NY: Random House, 2017.

Suny, Ronald. The Soviet Experiment. UK: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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