It took me a long time to read Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets. The only thing that took longer was posting a review. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the book. Not only did it easily made my year-end Favorite Nonfiction list but I also declared it my favorite work of nonfiction read in 2019. But why did things take so long?
Let’s start with why it took so long for me to read it. Strangely enough, it’s not a long book. The Kindle edition I borrowed form Overdrive is a shade under 450 pages. While not short, it’s not exactly a tome either. But Secondhand Time is a book of substance and you don’t read books of substance. You savor them. One cannot fully understand today’s Russia without an in-depth exploration of the Soviet state that preceded it, how it collapsed and the fractured world left in its wake. Alexievich does this by masterfully weaving together a tapestry of oral histories drawn from a deep well of post-war Russian history. From Stalin’s reign of terror to the hopeful early years of Gorbachev’s Presidency and the chaos and uncertainty that followed it, a diverse spectrum of voices chime in Russia’s past and present. Many lament the passing of a once mighty superpower that commanded the world’s attention and for the most part kept its citizens fed, housed and employed even though civil liberties were scarce. Yes, under the Communists the shelves were bare but what good is it to have stores full of quality groceries and merchandise if you’re too broke to buy any of it, complain others. In the past party apparatchiks ran the country and enjoyed special privileges while today mobsters and billionaire kleptocrats live like potentates.
Great books always intimidate me, which is why it took me so long to post my impressions of Secondhand Time. Not only did this book make every notable best book of the year list on the planet, but its author Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for literature! The authors of two of favorite book blogs, Howling Frog Books and What’s Nonfiction both raved about Secondhand Time and rightfully so. There’s probably nothing I could say about this book that hasn’t already said more intelligently and beautifully by someone else. So just go read it and you’ll know what I’m talking about.