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Introducing ‘Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets’ by Svetlana Alexievich

24 Dec

As longtime readers of this blog may know I have an interest in both the literature and history of Russia over the past two centuries.  For example, in a day or two it is my hope that I may be gifted a copy of the dystopian novel We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which was published in English in 1924 and is a novel which was a precursor and prime influence on George Orwell who went on to write the arguably more famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, itself published in 1949.  I think it would be fair to state that not many countries have such a strong entwining of literature, outspoken authors and profound political changes as Russia has had, particularly so throughout the turbulent 20th century.  Recent geopolitical events throughout 2016 have again seen a rise in Russia as a dominating global player, but it is important to note that it is China, who early on implemented its own flexible version of the political philosophy of Marxism-Leninism under the umbrella of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which is seen in the ascendant as a major world economic and potential geopolitical player in the 21st century.

International politics has, of course, become both profoundly depressing (for some, not all) and seemingly impossible to avoid with the upcoming inauguration of the 45th American president.  World politics aside (and having read a few pages of Wikipedia I am rather stumped at how little modern Chinese history I know), I’ve started reading a recent English translation of Belarusian non-fiction prose-writer Svetlana Alexievich’s latest publication, Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets.  In a kaleidoscopic approach that crisscrosses a population to reproduce the individual testimonies of witnesses, Alexievich presents numerous viewpoints on the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its transition from a socialist union into a country (the Russian Federation) that embraced capitalism through rapid cultural and economic change.  This separation of the population from the communist ideology, which had provided immense belief in the Soviet republic, and it had a profound social and economic effect.  The implementation of perestroika (reformation and restructuring within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and the policy of glasnost (openness, or transparency) under Mikhail Gorbachev during the 1980’s, foregrounded the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the USSR itself in late 1991 (Applebaum 2013, Merridale 2013).


Front cover of the Penguin edition of the Second-Hand Time publication, the subject of this entry. Image credit: Penguin Random House.

Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015 and it is not hard to see why upon my initial forays into her latest publication.  Second-Hand Time follows on from her previous investigations into Russia’s past and exposes the soul of the country.  Chapters are divided and sub-divided throughout the work, each taking on their own aspect as to who the author was speaking to and the setting of the conversations themselves.  The volume works as an oral history, with Alexievich dedicating her time and resources to note conversation between friends, family and individuals scattered across the former USSR, allowing extended monologues to unfurl and discussions to bubble up from personal perspectives.  The volume intricately and expertly develops the emotional wrenching that took place, the confusion, anger and hope intertwined as events developed day by uncertain day.

In one such example Elena Y, in conversation with her friend and the author, remembers and describes the general confusion during the Mikhail Gorbachev years during protests and riots in the latter years of the USSR:

We were preparing for world war to break out … Our greatest fear  was nuclear war – we never saw our own nation’s demise coming.  We didn’t expect it… not in the slightest… We’d gotten used to the May and October parades, the posters, ‘Lenin’s Work Will Live On For Centuries’, ‘The Party Is Our Helmsman’.  Then suddenly, instead of a procession, it was a primordial mob.  These weren’t the Soviet people any more, they were some other people we didn’t know.  Their posters were totally different: ‘Put the Communist Scum on Trial!’, ‘We’ll Crush the Communist Scum!’.  I immediately thought of Novocherkassk… The information was classified, but we all knew what happened there…  How during Khrushchev’s time, hungry workers had protested and were shot.  Those who didn’t die were sent off to labour camps; their relatives still don’t know where they went… And here… it’s perestroika.

Elena’s friend Anna I recalls a slightly different viewpoint during the late 1980’s protests:

Our faith was sincere… naive… We thought that any minute now… there were buses idling outside waiting to take us away to democracy.  We’d finally leave behind these run-down Khrushchyovkas and move into beautiful houses, build autobahns to replace these broken-down roads, and we’d all turn into respectable people.  No one searched for rational proof that any of this would really happen.  There was none.

– The above quotations are taken from Alexievich (2016: 96-102).

In another example N., an individual who presents a rare Kremlin insider view at the time, spoke to the author after much persuasion and delivers his thoughts on the 1991 version of events.  He highlights the fickle nature of truth:

I’ll tell you something else: witnesses can be manipulated, too.  They’re not robots.  They are manipulated by television, newspapers, friends, corporate interests… Who has the real truth?  As far as I understand, the truth is something that’s sought out by specially trained experts: judges, scholars, priests.  Everyone else is ruled by their ambition and their emotions.  [A pause].  I’ve read your books…  You shouldn’t put so much stock in what people say, in human truth.  History records the lives of ideas.  People don’t write it, time does.  Human truth is just a nail that everybody hangs their hats on.

– The above quotation is taken from Alexievich (2016: 190-191).

In chronicling the demise of the Soviet Republics, Alexievich presents what it was like to live in the decade that came after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991; with both the rise of the oligarchs that dominated the economic and political scene, following the rise of Boris Yeltsin taking on the role of the first President of the Russian Federation in the 1990’s, and the associated rise of so-called crony capitalism.  This is discussed alongside the profound impact that the stripping away of a social-political identity had on the population at large, and on a deeply personal level, as indicated above.  I’m currently only a part of the way through this 600+ page tome but it has made for enlightening and fascinating reading on what it was like to live in the USSR, to live through such historic periods as the late 1980’s and 1990’s and to watch your country completely change, or to invest your time and energy into thinking that your country will completely change only for it to not appear as expected or as hoped.

The parallels with today could be made but… well reader do I need to tell you?  This would be incredibly lazy of me however as the topic of Second-Hand Time is not comparable, at least directly, to the modern machinations of politics in the United States of America or of the United Kingdom.  Although the shock presidential election and its outcome has led to much soul-searching within the United States of America, the political process and social fabric has not changed currently – it is still firmly a democratically ran country.  The outcome of the United Kingdom’s European Union membership referendum mid-way through 2016 was, again, another shock political result and although, as with the result of the American election, the political, social and economic ties may be re-assessed, in the short-term it remains the status quo.  It is instead distinctly Russian and although the ideology that guides the country as it is known today is firmly different from the ideology that underpinned the USSR, the history of Russia and its people must be taken in the long view.

This blog entry started by my open enthusiasm of Russian literature and history, and the related bibliography that bookends this post represents some of the volumes I have read within the past few years.  You’ll notice however that they are largely not Russian or Slavic authors (bar the classic novels or accounts that I’ve read by Bulgakov (1), Gogol, Platonov, Sholokhov, Solzhenitsyn, Teffi, Tolstoy, etc.), that the research has largely been either primarily written in English or translated from the Russian sources.  This is largely due to the availability of such volumes, my inability to read in any other language, and my knowledge of such volumes.  As such I’d ask that if you have any recommendations of history books, or collections of the testimonies of the populations that lived in the USSR, translated into English then please do let me know in the comments below.


(1). Bonus osteology points: writer, physician and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940), author of the sublime novel The Master & Margarita (finally published in 1966), described the pathological effect and characteristic morphology that the sexually transmitted disease syphilis had in its later stages on human bone, particularly in the thinning of the anterior aspect of the tibia (saber shin in congenital syphilis) and in the general appearance of abnormal osteophytes.  In the Soviet republics this was called Bulgakov’s Sign, which is also lovingly known as bandy legs sign in the West.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Alexievich, S. 2016. Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets. Translated from Russian by Bela Shayevich. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Applebaum, A. 2004. Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps. London: Penguin Books.

Applebaum, A. 2013. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. London: Penguin Books.

Chandler, R. (ed.). 2012. Russian Magic Tales from Puskin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

Merridale, C. 2013. Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History. London: Allen Lane.

Teffi. 2016. Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea. Translated from Russian by R. Chandler, E. Chandler, A. M. Jackson & I. Steinberg. London: Pushkin Press.

Infectious Disease Part 1: Treponemal Disease & Smallpox

5 Oct

The following two posts deal with biomolecular approaches and research studies in detecting the presence of infectious diseases in human bone from archaeological material.  The recent coming of age of biomolecular techniques, as applied to archaeological material, has provided a rich and complex source of information in helping to uncover how infectious diseases spread in the historic and prehistoric past.  Whilst it has help clear some mysteries up, it has unleashed others.  The first post, here, describes recent research focused on Treponemal diseases (including Yaws, Syphilis and Pinta) and Smallpox.  The second post can be found here.


Treponemal Diseases

Roberts & Manchester (2010: 216) note that infectious diseases are ‘not solely microbiological entities but are a composite reflection of individual immunity, social, environmental, and biological interaction’.  The study of treponemal disease, in particular, is fraught with controversy and stigma, both in the modern and historical contexts (Lucas de Melo et al. 2010: 1, Roberts 2000), and in the nature of its spread and transmission.  However the combination of molecular pathology, phylogenetics, and palaeopathological studies, are helping to produce a clearer genetic origin of the disease and the impacts that this disease had, and continues to have, on the world at large (Hunnius et al. 2007: 2092).  Typically the bacterial diseases of the genus Treponema are split into different forms; pinta (T. carateum), yaws (T. pallidum subspecies pertenue), endemic syphilis (T. pallidum subspecies edemicum) and venereal/congenital syphilis (T. pallidum subspecies pallidum) (Table 1; Lucas de Melo et al. 2010: 2).  The four forms were, until recently, indistinguishable in physical and laboratory characteristics (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 207), whilst the pinta strand does not affect bone (Waldron 2009: 103).  DNA analysis of the bacteria of venereal syphilis has shown a difference between it and the non-venereal types; although it is noted that there is no change in the clinical presentation of the disease (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 207).

Table 1. Geographic location, transmission and whether bone is affected for treponemal disease (after Waldron 2009: 103).

Yaws was likely the first disease to emerge, probably from an ape relative in Central Africa, whilst the endemic form of syphilis derived from an ancestral form in the Middle East and the Balkans at a later date, whilst T. pallidum was the last to emerge, probably from a New World progenitor, although the issue is still highly contentious (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 212, Waldron 2009: 105).  Gaining virulence at a dramatic rate in the 15th and 16th centuries AD in Europe, venereal syphilis affected a large section of the population due to its mode of transmission.  It should be noted, however, that bone changes in syphilis are rare in the early stages but common in the tertiary stage of the disease (Roberts & Manchester 2010).  It has also been noted that there could be a back and forth transmission, from one treponemal disease to another, within intra-population groups changing from one environment to another; that ultimately it’s possible that each social group, or population, has its own treponemal disease suited to its ‘geographic and climatic home and its stage of cultural development’ (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 213).

However, this infectious disease, in its venereal form, is particularly hard to locate and identify in archaeological populations; the limitations of biomolecular palaeopathology have become clear (Bouwman & Brown 2005: 711, Hunnius et al. 2007, Lucas de Melo et al. 2010: 10).  Bouwman & Brown’s (2005) experiment, and Hunnius et al. (2007) subsequent paper, have highlighted the difficulties in amplifying T. pallidum subspecies T. pallidum, even in highly suspected bone samples.  Bouwman & Brown (2005: 711) tested 9 treponemal samples using the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests, optimized to highlight ancient treponemal DNA.  This resulted in poor amplification of  treponemal ancient DNA (aDNA) from human bone, even with bone of varying origins (geographic, social and climatic samples).  3 outcomes where postulated; the bones were either not suitable for aDNA retrieval, treponemal aDNA was present but the PCR was not sensitive enough to be pick it up, or there was no treponemal DNA in the bones (Bouwman & Brown 2005: 711-712).  Subsequent investigations and phylogenetic approaches have highlighted that the disease invades different parts of the body at impressive rates, but in the later stages of the disease, the organism’s DNA is not present in the actual bone itself, just at the stage when an osteologist can identify it macroscopically (Hunnius et al 2007: 2098).  Phylogenetic evidence supports evidence of variations in the virulence of syphilis, and the support of a more distant origin, possibly around 16,500 to 5000 years ago, but where exactly remains unsolved (Lucas de Melo et al. 2010: 2).  Interestingly, in the early 20th century P. Vivax (the main causer of malaria) was used as a treatment for patients with neurosyphilis in a procedure by the physician Julius Wagner-Jauregg; it was injected as a form of pyrotherapy to introduce high fevers to combat the late stage syphilitic disease by killing the causative bacteria (Wagner-Jauregg 1931).


The Smallpox virus is particularly devastating and disfiguring disease, but thankfully no longer an active infection in the modern world (Manchester & Roberts 2010: 180).  Although kept only in laboratory samples now, there is an ongoing concern regarding whether it could be a danger to modern archaeologists dealing with infected material (Waldron 2009: 110).  The disease, once contracted, either leads to recovery with lifelong immunity or death.  The severe form is called variola major and is documented in the Old World with a 30% death rate once contracted, whilst its less virulent form, named variola or alastrim minor, is found in Central America and has a mortality rate of 1% (Hogan & Harchelroad 2005, Li et al. 2007: 15788).  Smallpox, the strictly human variola virus pathogen, is found in literature and documentary records during the last 2000 years (Larsen 1997), yet an osteological signature is not present or identifiable in infected individuals (Waldron 2009: 110).  Therefore to find out the origins of the disease, Li et al. (2007) used correlated variola phylogenetics with historical smallpox records to map the evolution, origin and transportation of smallpox between human populations.

Li et al. (2007: 15787) state that no credible descriptions of the variola virus have been found on the American continent or sub-Saharan Africa before the advent of westward European exploration in the 15th century AD; suggesting that with European exploration and expansion came the virulent waves of smallpox that helped to decimate the existing Native American populations, who previously had no contact or natural immunization with such a highly virulent disease.  It is worth noting here the disease has been used in warfare as a chemical weapon surprisingly early.  During the 18th century American colonial wars between the French, British and the Native Americans, the British forces stationed in America actively infected items of clothing that were given to the Native population to help aid the spread of the disease among the Native Americans , who at that time were largely allied to the French.  This weakened the Native American population dramatically during the various colonial wars and subsequent colonial expansion westward; it’s estimated nearly half of the American Native population died from smallpox alone and its naturally rapid commutable spread of smallpox through human populations (Hogan & Harchelroad 2005).

Li et al. (2007: 15787) note that there are ambiguous gaps in the evolution of smallpox disease itself however.  Li et al. (2007) initiated a systematic analysis of the concatenated Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNP’s) from the genome sequences of 47 variola major isolates from a broad geographic distribution to investigate its origins.  Variola major has a slowly evolving DNA genome, which means a robust phylogeny of the disease is possible (Hogan & Harchelroad 2005).

Firstly, the results showed that the origin of variola was likely to have diverged from an ancestral African rodent–borne variola like virus, either around 16,000 or 68,000 thousand years ago dependent on which historical records are used to calibrate the molecular clock (East Asian or African) (Li et al. 2007: 15791).  Taterapox virus is associated with terrestrial rodents in West Africa, and provides a close relationship with the variola virus.  It is entirely possible that variola derived from an enzootic pathogen of African rodents, and subsequently spread from Africa outwards (Li et al. 2007: 15792).  Secondly, evidence points towards two primary clades of the variola virus, both from the same source as above, but each represent a different severity and virulence of the variola virus.

The first primary clade is represented by the Asian variola major strains, which are the more clinically severe form of smallpox;  the molecular study of its natural ‘clock’ suggests it spread from Asia either 400 or 1600 years ago (Li et al. 2007: 15788).  Included in this first primary clade is the subclade of the African minor variation of the main Asian variola major disease.  The second primary clade compromises two subclades, of which are the South American alastrim minor and the West African isolates (Li et al. 2007: 15788).  This clade had a remarkably lower fatality rate in comparison to the above clade.  The importance of phylogeny analysis is that it highlights areas of disease prevalence and virulence that can be missed, or indeed entirely absent, from the osteological and archaeological record (Brown & Brown 2011).


Bouwman, A. S. & Brown, T. A. 2005. The Limits of Biomolecular Palaeopathology: Ancient DNA cannot be used to Study Venereal Syphilis. Journal of Archaeological Science. 32: 703-713.

Brown, T. & Brown, K. 2011. Biomolecular Archaeology: An Introduction. Chichester: Blackwell Publishing.

Hogan, C. J. & Harchelroad, F. 2005. Smallpox. Emedicinehealth. Accessed at on the 29th of April 2012.

Hunnius, T. E., Yang, D., Eng, B., Waye, J. S. & Saunders, S. R. 2007. Digging Deeper into the Limits of Ancient DNA Research on Syphilis. Journal of Archaeological Science 34: 2091-2100.

Larsen, C. S. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Li, Y., Carroll, D. S., Gardner, S. N., Walsh, M. C., Vitalis, E. A. & Damon, I. K. 2007. On the Origin of Smallpox: Correlating Variola Phylogenics with Historical Smallpox Record. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. 104 (40): 15787-15792.

Lucas de Melo, F., Moreira de Mello, J. C., Fraga, A. M., Nunes, K. & Eggers, S. 2010 Syphilis at the Crossroad of Phylogenetics and Palaeopathology. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.4 (1): 1-11.

Mitchell, P. 2003. The Archaeological Study of Epidemic and Infectious Disease. World Archaeology. 35 (2): 171-179.

Roberts, C. & Manchester, K. 2010. The Archaeology of Disease. Stroud: The History Press.

Wagner-Jouregg, J. 1931. Verhutung und Behandlung der Progressiven Paralyse durch Impfmalaria.  Handbuch der Experimentellen Therapie, Erganzungsband Munchen.

Waldron, T. 2009. Palaeopathology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.