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Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

By Svetlana Alexievich. Book Review

The book is a collection of short autobiographies of tens of ex-Soviets, before and after the fall of the USSR.

Book cover
Book cover
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It is important to read their accounts to know the kind of idols people worship that leads them nowhere. Some stories are heartbreaking, some are very familiar. Some claimed communism was great now that they see real poverty in capitalism. Some find those who hail communism as ignorant because they had no idea what was going on under their watch in the name of Stalin and Lenin. The way I read it: they worshiped some idols, then traded them for new idols. None of them was worthy of being worshiped.

Short history

Socialism started with a movement against the Tzar in 1905, which failed. Twelve years later, in 1917, it succeeded. Remember that. It went south as names of people replaced God: Marx, Lenin, Stalin... etc. Then in 1991 West-supported Yeltsin led an uprising that ended in 1993 with the dissolution of the USSR. He replaced communism with capitalism, and drove the empire into civil war, where the human wolves assumed power and money, and left the ex-Soviets who never learned how to live free yearn for scraps. These are the stories of those people who lived under a great empire one day, and in a new country the next day.

Book quotes

In 1968 The Soviet military invades Czechoslovakia in an attempt to counteract the series of liberalizing reforms known as the Prague Spring reforms, sparking off waves of protests and nonviolent resistance

Even the name spring is recycled!

No one had taught us how to be free. We had only ever been taught how to die for freedom.

After the fall of communism and rise of capitalism, the Russians who joined the revolution confessed. This is an eye opener to all of us. Yes it is easy to have a rising against the oppressor, but did we plan for what comes next?

A tiny handful of people resisted openly, but many more of us were “kitchen dissidents,” going about our daily lives with our fingers crossed behind our backs…

The silent majority. Though it shames them, it should not. The best revolutionary change is that carried out by a handful of people. Awareness happens in private kitchens.

Russian novels don’t teach you how to become successful. How to get rich…

How the people changed, even their literature no longer matched their aspirations.

Honestly… It made my hair stand on end. Brother informed on brother, neighbor on neighbor… because they’d gotten into an argument about their vegetable patch, or over a room in the communal apartment.

When they turned people against each other, the sadists had a field day torturing people. The old saying goes: O Pharaoh, who made you pharaoh? This is a recurring event in all dictatorships. Create a scarecrow. Turn people into informants. Enslaved them all.

everyone who’d survived the occupation… were unreliable elements. We were now under suspicion. No one was calling us brothers and sisters anymore…

Another face of the sadistic system. When parts of the USSR were taken by the Germans, they suffered. Then when the USSR army freed them, they suffered again, forever.

Not a single coup in history went off without terror, everything always ends in blood. With tongues torn out and eyes gouged out


I didn’t start a revolution to get my hands on someone else’s dough.

A supporter of Yeltsin regretting it. Sounds familiar? Very.

I remember the city that night, walking together with the book in my purse. We handled it like it was a secret weapon…

Before Yeltsin revolution (or coup). This is what used to happen in the last days of the Tzar. Written words are what made it happen.

Men were digging through the pit with shovels, removing the shoes and boots from the corpses… Taking everything they could find.

When men are stripped off of their basic humanity.

They looked down on us. We were poor, badly dressed. We weren’t like them… we didn’t speak German…

Hamburg jews against Soviet jews! Satan said: I am better than Adam, I was made of fire, he was made of mud! And his sin ever lives. Many times in the book moving to "isr-ael" was mentioned. They do not have my sympathy. When the USSR collapsed, cheap labor suddenly made its way to Palestine, which had just signed a peace treaty with the occupation for the purpose of using Palestinian cheap labor in 1948 captured lands. Shortly after (in 2000), the second Intifada erupted. The occupiers found cheaper labor. The ex-soviets. Nowadays the occupation soldiers are murdering Palestinian left and right, it just so happens that there is an influx of cheap labor from Ukraine. Coincidence?

The only thing we ever thought about was bread, but this person saw that we were capable of thinking about other things as well.

Two poor girls selling knitted shawl to a customer, who offered them with Let me cut you a bouquet. This is one of the most touching stories in the book. This woman recalls that moment as fresh air in a time of misery. She kept planting flowers for as long as she lived. They teach us that people move when their bellies are empty. But this story proves there is something much more powerful than food for the hungry. Justice! Seeing people as humans.

I don’t know when a person stops being human. Do you?

On recollecting stories of torture. Inhumane torture to drive their victims to give away names, which they did, they gave away everybody's names. The sadists must have enjoyed it. But Allah does not forget.

And Azerbaijani cognac.

Those were supposedly Muslims. The rift after the fallen USSR occurred between all different community segments. But it irritated me how the Muslims came across. They only remembered their differences when it fed the rift and the civil war. How can a cognac be Azerbaijani?

everyone worshiped denim back then!

After the fall of the USSR and rise of capitalism. This depicts the true nature of fallen societies. God does not take sides, you want His help? You worship Him alone, otherwise, you are on your own. The term worship was used so often I would cringe every time the author used it. I see people who worship Pepsi too!

A true patriot can only hope for Russia to be occupied. That someone comes and occupies it…

Whomever said that deserves what comes upon him! I cannot think of any excuse for him. It also shows how his dictators convinced him that Russians, all 143 million of them, are not good for the job! Sounds familiar?

they slaughter their sheep right under my windows. Why not on Red Square then? The cries of the poor animals, their blood gushing everywhere

On sheep slaughtering during Eid. Ignorance is not something time can fix, and it breeds racism. The poor animals? Same of which you enjoy your Salami?

It’s pure pride. Where there’s no submission, there is always another force present. An evil spirit is involved.

Someone comments on the story of an arrogant woman, who falls in love with a man who appeared in her dreams when she was 18. She went on telling everyone about it. She married two men notifying them ahead of time that once she was to meet that man, she would marry him. She was beautiful, generous, light spirited, and had three children. Her second husband was practically a human angel. She let go of all of it to marry the man she finally met. He was a prisoner for life for a murder he committed. The story goes that he killed a man to prove his unconditional love for his girlfriend: I can kill a stranger for you! Now this woman lives at the edges of nowhere, to be close to her incarcerated, demanding husband, serving in a church. She wishes to be dead. Serves you right. This comment is dead on.

sold out to the Yankees

They would describe the kids who went out in Belarus at the end of 2010. Just about the same time of the Egyptian uprising. They took the kids into trucks, crammed them together and beat them for a month before setting them free. You sold out to the yankees, is as bad as it gets, and as good as their imagination could go. Sounds familiar?

We chased out one group of bastards, and another group of bastards took their place.

On Yeltsin. On every failed coup, or revolution without awareness.

Russians love misery, yes they do

The gods of communism

Someone protested on this known stigma about Russians and how much they love darkness. She narrated her story from miserable communism to miserable capitalism. After reading all those short autobiographies, my verdict: yes they do. The amount of darkness they drive themselves to, I sometimes did not have any sympathy. I know that sounds harsh and judgemental. You have to read it yourselves. I read accounts of Syrian people, and Gazans, and Palestinians. I read accounts of Iraqis before and after the American invasion. I read accounts of Egyptians in dungeons. None of them have this dark outlook on life. None of them invited misery into their houses.

Russians drank! They drank a lot. If they were not oppressed, they were the oppressor. They submitted to pain, and made everyone's lives as painful.

Women specifically were drawn in every story to their own demise. One person describes that as a psychological need to heal others. Another was the other extreme. She took no pity on those women. She found herself a rich married man, and had his baby. None of these women was particularly high-principled. They wanted life. They got nothing instead.

What if Vodka was not allowed? How would those stories have turned out instead?

Making peace is harder than making war.

I still cannot understand how people easily turn against their own neighbor just because they are made of mud, while we are made of fire. They took the easier option. Lazy bastards.


The book is an art piece. Full of small autobiographies, well written. The author remained non judgemental throughout. The author wrote several books using the same strategy. She has a nobel prize in literature. I would give it 4.5 stars out of 5.