Monday, May 07, 2018

What follows exploded ideals and lost empire

The other day, along with the news that internal scandals and squabbles had deterred the Nobel Prize Committee for Literature from picking a winner this year, commentators explained that the groups' founding charge was to choose the finest literary oeuvre of “an idealistic tendency” anywhere in the world. (The description of the committee's work at the link is quite interesting.)

I hadn't known their charge. In fact, I hadn't much thought about why they choose the authors they have named.

But then, when they chose the Belarussian/Russian writer Svetlana Alexievich in 2015, like most English speakers, I'd never heard of her either. Reviewers in the US refer to her as an analogue to Studs Terkel, a careful listener who shapes interviews with multiple subjects to construct a panorama of life in post-Soviet Russia and its borderlands. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, the final text of a five volume series, consists of vignettes from the Gorbachov, Yeltsin, and early Putin eras (1985-2010). From her introduction:

Communism had an insane plan: to "remake the old breed of man, ancient Adam. And it really worked. ... Perhaps it was communism's only achievement. Seventy plus years in the Marxist-Leninist laboratory gave rise to a new man: Homo sovieticus. ... I feel like I know this person; we're very familiar, we've lived side by side for a long time. I am this person. And so are my acquaintances, my closest friends, my parents. ...We're easy to spot! People who've come out of socialism are both like and unlike the rest of humanity -- we have our own lexicon, our own conceptions of good and evil, our heroes, our martyrs. ... Back then, we didn't talk about it very much. ... I'm piecing together the history of "domestic," "interior" socialism. As it existed in a person's soul. ... It's where everything really happens.

In this book there are the harrowing stories of people who came back from Stalin's murderous Siberian labor camps; and of traumatized guards who moved west or lived on out on the vacant steppe. There is much from survivors of the Great Patriotic War (World War II for us), the deep well of Russian national pride derived from surviving and defeating Hitler. The thaws and perestroika of late Soviet time are captured as eras of remembered kitchen table discussions of literature and philosophy. In Moscow, such discussants thrilled to protect Yeltsin from a Communist Party counter-coup which might have overthrown Russia's emerging "democracy," only to discover all they've got out of capitalism and imitating the West was stores full of cold cuts and vodka, and always, blue jeans. Alexievich writes of hunger and murders, of suicides and marriages, and of refugees from parts of the old Soviet Union whose birthplaces are now new countries which have spit them out to live as undocumented refugees in today's Russia. These are not easy stories; the implosion of a state is a miserable thing for people involuntarily living through it.

I asked everyone what "freedom" meant. Fathers and children had very different answers. Those who were born in the USSR and those born after its collapse do not share a common experience -- it's like they're from different planets.

For the fathers, freedom is the absence of fear; the three days in August when we defeated the putsch. A man with the choice of one hundred kinds of salami is freer than the one who has only ten to choose from. Freedom is never being flogged, although no generation of Russians has yet avoided a flogging. Russians don't understand freedom; they need the Cossack and the whip.

For the children: Freedom is love; inner freedom is an absolute value. Freedom is when you are not afraid of your own desires; having lots of money so that you'll have everything; it's when you can live without having to think about freedom. Freedom is normal.

... In the nineties ... yes, we were ecstatic; there's no way back to that naïveté. ...

I recently saw some young men in T-shirts with hammers and sickles and portraits of Lenin on them. Do they know what communism is?

I would not describe this volume as having "an idealistic tendency" according to the Nobel committee's injunction. Do truly great writers ever let their readers off so easily? While we're once again being encouraged to suspect and even hate Russia (most likely with cause), I particularly recommend Secondhand Time. Russians are people, survivors of a painful, complex, sometimes idealistic, sometimes brutal, history. We're better people when we open ourselves to what understanding we can of different histories and lives. Alexievich offers us a window.
As is often the case, I read this massive book by ear (22 hours worth!). I would highly recommend absorbing it in that way; the audiobook is a performance in many men's and women's voices, increasing the immediacy of the individual narrators. Another reviewer had a different plausible suggestion: just open this enormous volume anywhere and read a few pages at a time. It's not really chronological; I can imagine it holding a honored place in a bathroom reading rack.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

Interesting. I recently watched Five Came Back on Netflix, based on a book. The documentary is about 5 influential directors before WWII and their war experiences. The film footage was amazing about the war and what its aftermath meant for Americans with the influence of those men and the ideas that changed from being in the war. Because I was born during WWII, it much influenced my life in subtle and not so subtle ways.

Film making is something to never forget how it can propagandize us and we don't even know it's happening. Some of the war footage and the aftermath in terms of documentaries, like on PTSD, the federal government suppressed for many years-- didn't fit the rah rah theme. Not much has changed with how that happens other than with social media they find it harder to do. And that isn't just one party

One important part to the documentary, and the reason I mention it here, was the films of the Holocaust. I wonder if these people here, proud to call themselves neonazis, would be so proud if they looked at what that mentality led to in Germany. It was hard to watch but like with Russian history, a part of our human story that it's important not to forget.

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