November 4, 2014

A Chance to Understand the Common Russian

“Many received truth and freedom as an enemy.”

Svetlana Alexievich, “Second-hand Time” (Pruugitud aeg (Punainimese lõpp) in Estonian; Время секонд хэнд in Russian). Translated into Estonian by Veronika Einberg. Publisher: Tänapäev, 2014. 492 pp.
The President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, has achieved record popularity following the annexation of Crimea. In mid-summer, his actions were supported by more than 85 per cent of the residents of Russia, according to the Levada Centre. The understanding that “the Crimea has historically always belonged to us” is expressed by various population groups in conversation. A young banker educated at Harvard Business School, who usually treats programmes on Russian national television with intelligent scepticism, privately admitted that, although he does not like the Kremlin supporting East Ukrainian separatists, he is grateful to Putin for conquering Crimea. How is that possible?
Sociologists say that the method of governing the Russian state has always fluctuated between two phases: regular and extraordinary circumstances. And the circumstances are extraordinary right now. Since March, Russia seems to have been in the grip of total war hysteria. In extraordinary times, a society will accept power that uses extraordinary measures.
Svetlana Alexievich’s “Second-hand Time” creates a sensitive and detailed context for the hysteria prevalent in Russian society today. The book’s publication has been timed well, and it was expediently translated—the first edition of the Russian original came out in Moscow only a year ago. The translation is nimble and fluent—even the Estonian title is a good match.
Alexievich’s book gives us the opportunity to understand what is happening beyond the eastern border of Estonia at the grass roots level. The book is an emphatic tale about the common Russian. There are those who let the Kremlin confuse their mind, and those who cancel their television subscription to reduce the influence of propaganda and receive information instead from the Internet-based television channel Dozhd. The author has used the working methods of an anthropologist and written down many stories. She relays them word for word, only adding a few notes. These are the stories of common people. The monologues in the book have been written during ten years of travels in Russia; they are quick-witted and, at times, concerned observations about people who have been compelled to learn to live in an entirely new way after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“Second-hand Time” provides a good overview of what people felt and thought about the end of the USSR. For many, it is a painful subject: “When we meet with our friends … not a word is spoken of politics. … We have an agreement that we won’t touch [on] those subjects … won’t hurt one another. There was a time when we argued, stopped socialising with one another. But that passed … Now we only talk about children and grandchildren … the things we grow in our summerhouse gardens.” This resonates with the current situation in Russia, where close family members, relatives and acquaintances have been known to fall out with one another irreversibly when talking about Ukraine and the Crimea. In order to avoid this, the subject is now avoided.
Alexievich creates new interpretations of the past and brings to light various accounts people may remember of a single event. This is a story of common soviet people who have common soviet life stories. They started to believe in communism after Yuri Gagarin’s flight in space. These are Russians who were repressed, but who still believed in communism and wanted their party membership cards back. Why? Because if they had stopped believing in communism, they would probably have lost everything: their friends, family, meaning of life, and values.
One of the possible explanations why today’s Russian society is so receptive to Putin’s propaganda is related to not speaking honestly about the end of Soviet times—an opportunity lost when Boris Yeltsin was in power. It seems that an official assessment has not been given of the subject that is so painful for the Russian people. There has been no honest and open debate in society on issues like what was the Soviet Union and why did it dissolve?; what was communism and what is it inheritance?; what was the KGB and what do we do with it? In the words of Lennart Meri, communism is dead but no one has shown me its corpse.
Why were these painful issues not discussed at the right time? Liberal Russian reformers have recalled that the economic situation was so poor in the 1990s that there did not seem to be a burning need to create a public narrative and assess the past. There was a Marxist understanding about changing society in the circles close to Yeltsin—they believed that economic reforms would change everything, and that this would suffice.
The stories in Alexievich’s book give a human voice to this memory: “I remember Gaidar speaking on television: he said to learn doing business … [the] market economy will save us … Buy a bottle of mineral water on one street and sell it on the next—that’s business. People were listening with concern.”
The Marxist reformers may indeed have been right—first and foremost, common Russians needed to recover from the economic collapse. Assessing the past was of secondary importance.
Svetlana Alexievich finds that “The disappointment settled in later, after perestroika. Many received truth and freedom as an enemy. People read newspapers and magazines and were overwhelmed with a sense of dread: ‘How can we live with this? Where is the freedom? Did we even want such freedom? There is only demeaning poverty all around.’”
Russia’s internal conclusions on dealing with the demons of the past needed to mellow. These kinds of understanding shape society. The West was not prepared to discuss these topics with Russia in the 1990s either. Maybe it would be prepared to do so now, but Russia no longer wants to listen to foreign voices.
Merle Maigre is a security specialist and book enthusiast. This article reflects the author’s personal opinions.

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