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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).

secondhand-time

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.

Notes

(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.

Historical Lens: The Past and the Present

19 Jun

As regular readers may recall I have a deep love for both historical and modern literature, with a particular soft spot for travel writing or for literary memoirs.  Good travel writing, I find, delves not just into the adventures or mishaps of the writer and the contemporary individuals that they bump into but also of the cultural, geography and history of the places that they visit, as and where necessary.  That there is a sense of the present, but also links to the past and the lure of the future.  As many readers may also know that there have been a lack of posts over the past half a year or so due to a number of factors.  I do apologize, but I have at least managed to read a good many books that may also interest some readers here!

In particular I have recently rekindled a love of Russian literature through the acquisition of the recently published English translation of Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, by the humorist writer Teffi (the pseudonym of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, 1872-1952).  The memoir recounts her 1919 flight from her home in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) to Moscow and then onto to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey), in the Ottoman Empire, following the twin revolutions of 1917 with the Bolshevik rise in power and the subsequent Russian Civil War (1917-1922), which tore apart the Russian Empire and ended the rule of the Tsar.  The outcome of the civil war resulted in the birth of the Soviet Union (1922-1991).  It is out of the scope of Memories but Teffi moved to Paris, France, and joined the émigré Russian cultural circle there, a city where she remained for the rest of her life never to return to Russia to write or perform.

Nadezhda_Teffi

Humourist ‘Teffi’, the pseudonym of the Russian writer Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya. Image credit: Wikipedia.

It is an illuminating read and one that richly rewards the reader with Teffi’s sense of humanity and humour in each line of text.  I had not heard of Teffi before I happened to come across and read a review of the book in a newspaper, but this is perhaps not unusual as she has been rarely published into the English language following her death in 1952 and the once-famous poet and feuilletonist, who at one point was read by both Tsar and Lenin, had largely disappeared from sight under the blanket of history.

Memories strongly reminded me of another book of reportage that I had recently completed, Dispatches from Syria: The Morning They Came for Us by the journalist Janine Di Giovanni, which documents her experiences of reporting the unrest on the ground following the Arab Spring protests that rocked the country in early 2011, and a host of others in the Middle East and North Africa from late 2010 to mid 2012, and her experiences of the early stages of the Syrian Civil War (March 2011 – present).  Both Teffi and Giovanni each respectively document the individuals involved in the fighting, the civilian and soldier alike regardless of the faction that they are fighting for or fleeing from.

Acknowledging the Past, Documenting the Present

This blog has always had a relatively humanist core running through the posts that I have published here, and this continues to be the case.  Archaeology though, as a discipline, is never a static subject of study.  This is the case in fact of the archaeological material itself, both through the associated site formation processes at play and through the prism in which researchers view said archaeological sites and their material accumulation.

We are informed of the past through the lenses of our personal bias, cultural bias, and material survivor bias.  The good researcher can recognize these bias, and their filtration into the analysis and research produced, and integrate or parse them aside as necessary, or at least acknowledge them as such.  The great researches uses their bias to illuminate the effect that they can have on the understanding of the nature of the material under study.  This isn’t just limited to researchers though – the artist, the writer, the director, these and others from many different creative fields influence and and document the times and cultures that we both experience and know of.

Memory As Written

Therefore I am always intrigued by travel and memoir writing, by the documentation and views of the traveler writing in depth on the culture and history of a time they knew, how history is contextualized.  One of my most treasured works that I have come across is the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom’s Roads To Berlin: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History Germany, which documents his experiences working and travelling throughout the country and its capital city within the greater history ans culture of Germany.  Perhaps I am biased as, having visited Berlin in college and having spent an extended time on a European Union funded archaeology placement in Magdeburg, I have a love for the country and its peoples.  (Alas however as my tongue is no good with languages!).

This could be a matter of mere exposure to something different, something beyond the everyday interaction of your own expected experiences.  There is learning to be had in expanding your literature horizons, however.  I’ve yet to truly delve deep into German literature, but I think I know where I’d like to visit next on my mental map of cultural investigations.

Hopping Aboard A Russian Ark

So, having just ordered a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, I am taking a break from the world of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle cycle of books (after recently and ravenously finishing the fourth volume) and instead jumping from the Scandinavian literary scene to the Russian world once again.

On a related side note, I’ve also somewhat belatedly realized during the writing of this post that the banner photograph that I chose for the blog back in 2011 is by the photographer Alexey Titarenko.  It is a detail taken from a single photograph from one of his City of Shadow series (1992 to 1994) which documented life in St. Petersburg at the fall of the USSR, and transition into the Russian Federation, and capture the chaotic political changes and economic upheaval that this brought with it.

This is all really tying in quite nicely with the interest that I have developed in Russia and the country’s history through its literary giants.  Finally, and to complete the cultural immersion of the photographic, literature and film mediums, I am off to watch Sokurov’s majestic Russian Ark, a 2002 film that promises to present a fantastical portal into the imperial history of Russia taken in one stupendous long shot.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Chandler, R. 2014. Stepping Across the Ice: Teffi (1872-1952). Article published September 25, 2014, in The New Yorker. (Includes excerpts of Memories).

Di Giovanni, J. 2016. Dispatches from Syria: The Morning They Came for Us. London: Bloomsbury.

Nooteboom, C. 2012. Roads to Berlin: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Germany. Translated from the Dutch by L. Watkinson. London: Maclehose Press.

Russian Ark. 2002. [Film] Directed by Alexander Sokurov. Germany/Russia: The Hermitage Bridge Studio (St. Petersburg) & Egoli Tossell Film AG (Berlin).

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

Titarenko, A. 1992-1994. City of Shadows. [Photography]. Nailya Alexander Gallery.

Literature Travels

28 Aug

In a brief aside from osteoarchaeology, I thought I’d focus a quick entry on what I’ve been reading lately as I wait for my arm to heal.  I have a particular soft spot for travel literature, so I’ve been delving into some classic books from the 20th century.  Among these are American writer John Steinbeck’s 1962 travelogue Travels with Charley, Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s 1943 autobiography The World of Yesterday, and the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s 1959 memoir Arabian Sands.

By chance my current haul of literature deals with the themes of cultural change (and, in the case of Zweig’s, the devastation of his previous way of life with the rise of Nazism in Europe) and the beauty of the natural landscape in their respective environments.  Thesiger, for instance, relates his constant worries of the impact of petrochemical prospection and development in his beloved and desolate deserts in Saudi Arabia and Oman and the anticipated effects on the Bedouin (Bedu) way of life.  Steinbeck, meanwhile, mourns a population that he barely knows any longer, even as his magnificent and diverse body of work champions their history and lifestyles.

I’m currently in the middle of Thesiger’s memoir detailing his epic 1945-1950 explorations in Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) and the Empty Quarter in Arabia (Rubʿ al Khali, one of the largest sand deserts in the world spanning parts of Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Yemen and Oman).  I’m struck by his lucid description of Bedouin life, of their harsh but close living environments and tight social structures.  As with reading any literature endeavor care must be taken in understanding the motives of the writer, but it is clear that Thesiger held the Bedouin close to his heart and set about emulating and living their lifestyle as close as he could and was allowed to.

During his numerous journeys into the Empty Quarter Thesiger often acted as an impromptu medic, dispensing medicines he had brought with him to his guides and friends as needed.  In one scene he highlights the use of old remedies that have been passed down in Bedu culture:

During the days that I was at Mughshin my companions often asked me for medicines.  Bedu suffer much from headaches and stomach trouble.  Sometimes my aspirin worked, but if not the sufferer would get someone to brand him, usually on his heels, and would announce a little later that his headache was now gone, and that the old Bedu remedies were better than the Christian’s pills.  Bedu cauterize themselves and their camels for nearly every ill.  Their bellies, chests, and backs are often criss-crossed with the ensuing scars.” (Thesiger 2007: 112).

One first thought by me was the fact that branding would certainly make you forget about headaches quickly!

However it also reminded me of perhaps the most famous iceman in Europe, Ötzi, an individual who lived and die around c.3300 BC during the European Chalcolithic period.  Ötzi, whose naturally mummified body represents the oldest so far found in Europe, has evidence for many distinct line and cross tattoos across his preserved body.  The location of the majority of his 50+ tattoos could possibly be related to the underlying pathologies that are present on his bones.

Radiological investigations have highlighted evidence for osteochondrosis and spondylosis in the lumbar (lower back) region, knee and ankle joints in Ötzi’s skeleton, whilst microscopic analysis of his gut has highlighted evidence for a whipworm (Trichuris trichiura) infestation (Dorfer et al. 1999: 1024).  It has been suggested that the tattoos could relate to an early form of acupuncture to help with the pain, or aches, that Ötzi probably felt (Dorfer et al. 1999: 1025), rather than the tattoos reflecting, or assuming, a purely decorative or ritual form (Scheinfeld 2007: 364).

In the case of the brandings that Thesiger describes in his travels with the Bedu above it is obvious that they have a functional aspect in their use as a treatment for illness, but it is likely that there is deeper meaning ascribed to them.  As such I should probably head back to reading the book!

Bibliography*

Dorfer, L., Moser, M., Bahr, F., Spindler, K., Egarter-Vigl, E., Giullén, S., Dohr, G. & Kenner, T. 1999. A Medical Report from the Stone Age? The Lancet. 354 (9183): 1023–1025. (Open Access).

Scheinfeld, N. 2007. Tattoos and Religion. Clinics in Dermatology. 25 (4): 362-366.

Steinbeck, J. 2000. Travels with Charley. Penguin Modern Classics.

Thesiger, W. 2007. Arabian Sands. London: Penguin Classics.

Zweig, S. 2014. The World of Yesterday. London: Pushkin Press.

* Publication dates are for modern editions.

Guest Blog: ‘Petra Impressions’ by Franciso Peres.

13 May

Francisco Peres is a University of Hull graduate in History and Politics.  He can often be found loitering around Porto, Portugal, although his wanderlust carries him far.  Adventures in South America, the African Coast and the Near East have inspired his imagination and fed his hunger for humanitarian causes.  His observations on life, both the countries he visits and the people he meets, can be found here at Swinging for Compass.


It’s six thirty in the morning and we are the first people through the gates of Petra.  I walk down the red gorge, flanked by the old aqueducts and carvings of camels and old, forgotten gods.  I am submersed in the silence that is broken only from time to time by doves and sparrows flying around or peeping through little nooks, warbling welcomes to the new day.

Their songs ring out and echo for now.  In a couple of hours, nothing can be heard but the stomping of marching feet, the hammering of hooves, the guides and the peddlers competing to shout over each other.

Monastery of Al Dier at Petra (Tillman 2012).

When building the city of the desert, the Nabateans mimicked the architecture of other peoples of their age.  Archaeologists identified influences of trading empires from the eastern Euphrates to the westernmost Mediterranean Sea.  The locals say that when the men of merchant kings arrived here, they would want to spend more time and money on their sojourn in this home away from home.

There is an almost-Greek amphitheatre, the almost-Roman arches…

Two thousand, two hundred years later, the Swiss and American hotels serving continental breakfasts, the rooftop bars for the affluent and the basement pubs for the British all continue, I suppose, the original principle.

But the Greeks have run out of money and the Romans seem to be heading that very same way.

On Travel Writing By Paul Theroux

23 Apr

Lake Palace, Jaipur. Photograph by Norman Koren 2004.

“And then, after lunch one day in Jaipur, I decided to leave.  Thanks to the train, it was easy to do.  I went to the station, where the train was waiting.  I got on.  The train left.  I simply evaporated.”

Quoted from ‘Ghost Train to the Eastern Star’ by Paul Theroux.