From The New York Times:
InCity Book Review
Secondhand Time, The Last of the Soviets
By Svetlana Alexievich, (2016, Random House, 470 Pages)
Reviewed by Steven R. Maher
If Americans want to know why Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is so popular among his own people, they might want to read Svetlana Alexievich’s “Secondhand Time,” subtitled “The Last of the Soviets.” It’s an oral history of what happened in the former Soviet Union after the 1991 collapse of the Communist state.
In 2015 Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her previous books were first person accounts of the Soviet Union’s unsuccessful war in Afghanistan, suicide by old-line Communists after the Soviet Union disappeared and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Secondhand Time is the latest in this genre.
While a history buff, this writer has not read a lot books of disparate “first person” accounts. This book is different. In Secondhand Time, Alexievich breaks the book down into readable blocks. She interviewed former Soviet citizens about aspects of how they handled the transition to democracy and free enterprise capitalism. She puts in well placed chapters, quoting newspaper articles, citations from books and other sources to create a refreshing change of narrative. The terrible difficulties faced by the average Russian at the grass roots level during the great transition to a Western style political and economic system are at the heart of this book.
The phrase “Average Russian” well sums up life in the Soviet state. Except for those who worked in the “nomenclature” – the Bolshevik bureaucracy – the best most citizens could aspire to was being average. Ordinary Russians could expect to live on a subsistence diet in substandard housing. But for a people who had known nothing better, this system provided for their basic needs, and made the Soviet Union into a superpower many Russians took pride in.
This all changed when Michael Gorbachev become ruler of the Soviet Union. When he introduced the “perestroika” policy of restructuring Soviet society, Gorbachev gave impetus to a flood of reform that he soon lost control of.
While Gorbachev remains an esteemed figure in the West, in Russia today he is a reviled figure, held responsible for collapsing the socialist economy before he found something to replace it with. There was no subtlety to what happened. There was no managed transition to a market economy. One day the Soviet currency was devalued, and within days ordinary Russians lost everything.
Russians had no idea what to do, or how to function under lassie faire capitalism. What entrepreneurial skills and drive they once possessed, had been killed by 74 years of Communist rule. Their bank accounts reduced to nothing, they searched their homes for anything of value to be sold at hastily built kiosks. Highly educated Russians with PHDs and doctorates found themselves washing dishes, digging ditches and cleaning toilets. Many could not find work at all.
The lucrative state monopolies, such as the oil companies, were divvied up among the Soviet leadership, who overnight went from being supposed Communist egalitarians to capitalistic oligarchs. Large, organized crime syndicates sprung up across the nation to shake down newly ambitious small capitalists, murder ordinary Soviet citizens and feed like vampires off the populace.
Crimes rates soared. Russians who lived in a safe society found themselves coming across corpses of murder victims while walking down streets. Raw and ugly racism emerged. Tajiks – a Central Asian, dark skinned people – became the African-Americans of Russian society, manhandled by law enforcement, discriminated against in housing and jobs, and exploited for their cheap labor. The number of Russians who benefitted from the change to a market economy were few and far between.
This all took place in a society where there was no safety net for the unemployed, the old or the ill. It took Americans two hundred years to develop social security and Medicare. No wonder many Russians yearn to go back to the old USSR. These people were derisively called “Sovoks.” In America, they would probably be called “deplorables.”
Preparation for Putin
Particularly chilling to read were the cries for a Stalin-like strongman to “make Russia great again.” The recount of terrorist attacks by Chechen Islamic terrorists in Moscow reminds one of 9/11. There are sections about mothers burying children killed in Chechnya, reminding one of American mothers doing the same for offspring killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Alexiewich sees this as being within the Russian tradition of having strong Tsars. History has prepared the Russians for a leader like Vladimir Putin. It’s no wonder he has such widespread approval among the Russian public at large.
The book has several flaws. Some of the chapters are too long, and an index would have helped. Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, this book’s subject matter is difficult to get through. But if you want to know why Putin is so popular in today’s Russia, reading this book would be a good place to start.