How I better understood who am I because of the book on Russia

Secondhand Times

Svetlana Alexievich is phenomenal. Her books aren’t readable neither easily either quickly. They offer subjective memories of common “little” people on objectively important or big events. Her books are more than just literature. More than oral history. More than research. Her books are an enormous experience. The kind of experience with goosebumps, with tears in eyes and with a completely new look on war, the explosion of the nuclear power plant and, in my case, why we, the Slovaks, are as we are.

When I grabbed Alexievich’s book Secondhand times: The Last of The Soviets” I have already read out 3 of her other books: Voices from Cernobyl, War’s Unwomanly Face and Last witnesses. I borrowed the book from a library at a time when I was watching  “The Last Czars” on Netflix and finishing an essay for my multicultural competence course with the title: “How is my cultural background and what kind of influence it has over me?”  

I was thinking about e.g. how I lived in 3 different countries without moving away from the same place. I was born in the Czech and Slovak Socialistic Republic in 1980, after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 I was growing up in the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic and since 1993 I’m a citizen of the Slovak Republic. I was thinking about the influence of the years of dictatorship over our lives. Or what kind of impact has had years under the prime ministers Meciar, Dzurinda or Fico. I was dealing with the question of why we are often angry, without self-esteem or always looking for somebody who will “save” us and lead us. 

I was done with the essay when some of my questions were answered by Alexievich. Everything started to make sense when I had refreshed my memories of how had Tsar Nikolaj II. ended up and how was the beginning of Lenin’s era…

People with whom Alexievich had spoken are also thinking about the same issues. Who are we, Russians? Why we behave as we behave? Was it better under the tsar, bolshevik, perestroika or now, when Putin is in charge? And what makes history with the lives of common people? I found in the book a lot of similarities between Russians and Slovaks. Actually, much more than I had originally thought. 

What is different is how we perceive ourselves: 

“A mysterious Russian soul… Everyone wants to understand it… Russia always wants to look like a country in which something important is emerging, demonstrating something extraordinary for the whole world. Chosen people. A special Russian route. “ (Svetlana Alexievich: Secondhand times: The Last of The Soviets, str. 17)

I think, we Slovaks, perceive ourselves differently. As a small nation, we were rattled in historical circumstances by which we don´t have a healthy attitude towards our nationality or patriotism. Nationalism is, for the most part, just an empty and hateful agenda of neo-fascists. 

Self-pitty is the concept we have in common with Russians. Russians probably because the majority of the great Russian ideas were eventually subdued. Slovaks probably because, in our opinion, we haven’t succeeded anything “big” yet. And also because we think we are so small and insignificant.

“There is a whole culture of self-pity and this tradition is carefully preserved, especially in small towns and villages.” (ibid., p. 435)

Russians can’t be happy:

“For us, suffering is a personal matter, it is a“ way to salvation ”… We say very little about joy… about happiness in the world. We do not think this way… ” (ibid., p. 216)

People are run by melancholy and fight. It is important to be in a permanent fight setting, meanwhile, the enemy is changing by the decision of those in charge. Anger is what makes sense to us. To live a happy and satisfied life is considered too little. 

“Father needs a fight. Without it, life has no meaning… ”(ibid., p. 369)

I’m remembering talks with my parents. They were showing me the kindergarten’s building while chatting about how they went to building this place voluntarily during the Saturdays to assure the placement for me.   

Respondents of Alexievich remembered how they had built the Transsiberian railway. In the deep snow, frost, without any proper tools or clothes. Only those who are in fire for the idea, or those who are brain-washed, can go into the wilderness to starve and to get froze. It is fascinating listening to people who went voluntarily and with real beliefs to built something for everybody. And they were dying conducting this task. In some way, we modern people are more concentrated on ourselves and the feeling of belonging into the larger community has been vanishing. 

“We had a huge empire – stretching from sea to sea, from beyond the Arctic Circle to the subtropics. Where is it today?… It was humbled by Her Majesty Salami!… Only bread and games for them! And this is truly the biggest discovery of the 20th century… While we, our generation… We had big plans. We dreamed of a world revolution… We wanted to build a new world in which everyone would be happy. We thought it was possible, I really believed it! Absolutely honestly! ” (ibid., p. 166)

The idea was more than “failures” that came during reaching for aims. Even today the faithful forgive everything their elected representatives. Theft, vulgarity, lies and murders. A tradition that persists across countries and political institutions.

“Son: You lived among murderers… Father: We did not ask such questions! We just dreamed of a world without the rich and the poor. We died for the revolution, we died full of ideals. Completely without interest in money… ” (ibid., P. 167)

It is paradoxical how tremendously some people trust politicians. They will not admit any of their mistakes. Even though one person’s trust in another has almost completely disappeared. We may still trust family members or close friends, but believing that someone can selflessly do anything for you is minimal. Why is it so? Why do many believe in exposed social figures but not own neighbours? Why do helplessness and inaction often paralyze us? Why are we so little socially involved?

“We are not trusting people, we have gone through too many things…” (ibid., p. 420)

“I have no desire to go out and try to achieve something. It is best not to do anything. Nothing good or anything bad. What is good today will prove to be bad tomorrow… ” (ibid., p. 295)

The transition from one social establishment to another also meant that financial profit became the main mantra. For the chosen, related to political leaders, but also for commoners, “a million people”. Today, it is a shame to be poor. Money is a new religion. A person, who did not get rich enough, seems to be worthless.

“The first thing that disappeared was a friendship… Suddenly everyone was busy. They had to go and gather money. Before, it looked like no one needed money at all…. It didn’t matter to us. Suddenly everyone noticed the beauty of green papers… ” (ibid., p. 159)

“There are many kinds of salami in the shop, but no happy people. I don’t see any more people with sparks in their eyes. ” (ibid., p. 176)

“What’s out there? Victory of mammon! There are no more values ​​left except for the power of the wallet… ”(ibid., p. 256)

Politics are everything, it divides family, friends and society. And it is desirable. The population employed by the frog-mouse wars does not have time to properly control the administration of public affairs. Divide and rule were once and are still true. The search for potential enemies, threats to our values ​​and culture works in both countries.

As I was reading the following extracts, I remembered an old conversation about the fact that democracy is simply not for everyone and cannot be automatically transferred from one country to another. At that time I perceived it as a rather provocative idea. Nowadays, I already believe that everything has its time and place. The people who won democracy for us in 1989 might have been more personally free than many of us today.

“The last thing our people need is freedom. They screw it all up!… We need fear. Without fear, everything falls apart in the blink of an eye!” (ibid., p. 266-267)

“The thing is, you can’t buy democracy for oil and gas. You can’t export it as bananas or Swiss chocolate. The presidential decree will not secure it… You need free people for it and we don’t have any. We still don’t have any of them in here… ” (ibid., p. 385)

Memorial optimism and a short historical memory accompany people in both countries. Displace what is negative, forget the hard and selectively choose what suits us. In Slovakia, the 60+ generation often glorifies communism. I understand that adaptation to new situations at a certain age is a big challenge. During the “commies” times, they had known how things are, they had known how to walk in it. Then came a period that no one knew:

“About our lost generation – communist education and capitalist life.” (ibid., p. 164) 

“Protect God if you were born in the Soviet Union, but you live in Russia!” (ibid., p. 358)

By organizing my thoughts on a computer, I recall an essay on the influence of my origin on my actions. I wrote about how distrustful I am, how I need a clear vision of my life and a plan, and how changes worry me. Especially when I seem to be losing my home.

You may find this blog strange. However, thanks to the book about Russia, I understood Slovakia much better. And I wouldn’t have thought about it if I still live in my home country. 

Alexievich is not for everybody. However, if you decide to read her books, it will be a disturbing experience.

2 Comments

  1. Your post made me really interested in this book! It certainly deserves to be read. Svetlana Alexievich is from Belarus just like me and her style is so touching, especially for those who are from the former USSR. I have recently read her book “Wars unwomanly face” and it left me so impressed and made me reflect on the legacy we have and the attitude to it from different sides. I wish they read this book at schools in Belarus…

    1. Thank you, Alina! Yes, you are completely right about her style and I truly recommend reading all her books. I would not be capable of even choose which one of them I liked the most. It’s always sad to hear that such a great author is prohibited in her own country. Hopefully, the change is about to come <3

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