Secondhand Time

  • by Svetlana Alexievich, Bela Shayevich - translator
  • Narrated by full cast
  • 23 hrs and 6 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

The magnum opus and latest work from Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature - a symphonic oral history about the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia.
When the Swedish Academy awarded Svetlana Alexievich the Nobel Prize, it cited her for inventing "a new kind of literary genre", describing her work as "a history of emotions - a history of the soul". Alexievich's distinctive documentary style, combining extended individual monologues with a collage of voices, records the stories of ordinary women and men who are rarely given the opportunity to speak, whose experiences are often lost in the official histories of the nation.
In Secondhand Time, Alexievich chronicles the demise of communism. Everyday Russian citizens recount the past 30 years, showing us what life was like during the fall of the Soviet Union and what it's like to live in the new Russia left in its wake. Through interviews spanning from 1991 to 2012, Alexievich takes us behind the propaganda and contrived media accounts, giving us a panoramic portrait of contemporary Russia and Russians who still carry memories of oppression, terror, famine, massacres - but also of pride in their country, hope for the future, and a belief that everyone was working and fighting together to bring about a utopia. Here is an account of life in the aftermath of an idea so powerful it once dominated a third of the world.
A magnificent tapestry of the sorrows and triumphs of the human spirit woven by a master, Secondhand Time tells the stories that together make up the true history of a nation. "Through the voices of those who confided in her," The Nation writes, "Alexievich tells us about human nature, about our dreams, our choices, about good and evil - in a word, about ourselves."

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What the Critics Say

"For her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time." (Nobel Prize Committee)
"For the past 30 or 40 years, [Alexievich has] been busy mapping the Soviet and post-Soviet individual, but [her work is] not really about a history of events. It's a history of emotions...a history of the soul." (Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy)
"Secondhand Time [is Alexievich's] longest and most ambitious project to date: an effort to use an oral history of the nineties to understand Soviet and post-Soviet identity." (The New Yorker)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Wind of Change - Oral History of the Soul


"I follow the Moskva
Down to Gorky Park
Listening to the wind of change."
Scorpions, Wind of Change, 1990.


This book was a brass-knuckles punch to my arrogant American belief that all Russians and Eastern Europeans welcomed capitalism with open arms. This is the incinerating oral history of the the ursine Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc from 1991, the time of perestroika, until 2012. The author is Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel Laureate in Literature from Belarusia. It was published originally in 2013, but translated into English only this year.

The oral history is split into two different periods: first from 1991 to 2001 as the transition from Communism was occurring, and from 2002-2012, which shows, I think, the reverberations of the transformation and transition. This book hits full-throttle from page 1 and is unrelenting until the last page. I've never read anything like it. It's a raw raising of the Iron Curtain to stories of the violence, the attempt to overthrow Gorbachev by the old line communists, suicides and rapes. The first part was taken down while some of the old communists who lived under Stalin were still alive and includes a few jarring jeremiads to solidarity, Lenin, Stalin, and the communistic ideal of heaven on earth.

An example of one of the old Bolsheviks: "You have your own utopia. The market. Market heaven. The market will make everyone happy. Pure fantasy. The streets are filled with gangsters in magenta blazers, gold chains hanging down to their bellies. Caricatures of capitalism. A farce. Instead of the dictatorship or the proletariat, it's the law of the jungle. Devour the ones weaker than you and bow down to the ones who are stronger."

Both parts tell of all the problems in the transition without any planning. People starving. Former Communist apparatchiks who were esteemed scientists who now are unemployed and homeless. Complete overhauls to a way of living from the overnight move from communism to a capitalism-based economy. I plan to read this again because there was so much to digest; the author calls this form of oral history "snatches of street noise and kitchen conversations." I was shocked, for example, to learn of how much the ones interviewed hate Gorbachev now, though they supported him in the early 1990s.

This was like a Thunderbolt thrown into my routine reading. A stunning book that should probably be required reading in any history/civilization type of course.

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- W Perry Hall "One master-passion in the br east, like Aaron's serpent, swallows all the rest. A. Pope"

The mind cannot understand Russia

"Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,
No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness:
She stands alone, unique –
In Russia, one can only believe." - Fyodor Tyutchev

Russia and the spirit and soul of the Russians are very complex at times to foreign minds. My fiance was Russian and left me with so many headaches often trying to understand why she would think a certain way, or always become pessimistic. With this in mind I looked at this book as a way to understand the great change that faced Russia most recently, the collapse of the USSR, the Rise of the Oligarchs, and the Chechen war.

Svetlana Alexievich does a great job of fairly capturing the tragic stories of people from the rural parts to the cities, the staunch communist and the budding democrat and the shock of losing all that they had believed in and worked for during the USSR. Combine this with a growing population ready for freedom but naive and uneducated in what to do in the wilderness of capitalism and tragedy and chaos ensues.

This book is dark and sad. At times, really dark and sad! You visualize the despair and disillusionment as you see another parent drink themselves to death, another wife/husband murdered, a mother telling that she will rejoin her child staying with her aunt hours before jumping in front of a train. You see the depths of depravity as a union of connected countries forced to be brothers are set free and true feelings explode. Through it all, through the carelessness, you see the strength of the Russian soul to persevere through any tragedy, to die before submitting, to dampen desires for love at times, and at times throw their entire family away for a new love. The Slavic soul and spirit is complex and bewildering at times, but this book does a wonderful job of providing context.

For anyone with any interest in Russian/USSR history, interest in learning about the people and culture, or just interest in understanding human psychology at the extremes of hardship, I cannot recommend this book enough!
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- Amazon Customer

Book Details

  • Release Date: 05-24-2016
  • Publisher: Random House Audio