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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.

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Classical Art: A Portal To The Past

21 Jul

During a Sunday house clean-up my parents found my copy of Classical Art: From Greece to Rome by Mary Beard and John Henderson (2001), a lovely introductory book on art (including architecture, portraiture, and sculpture) from the classical ages of ancient Greece and Rome, sitting somewhat unloved on a bookshelf.

The book contextualises the main masterpieces of the periods, their form, origin and meaning, and explores their influence on the history of art within Western culture, and the origins of art history more generally.  Further to this the publication manages to present an impressive array of information from the archaeological, historical and geographical contexts of the art works, and provides a thorough grounding on the various examinations and interpretations of the motives and representations of why and how the art was produced.  It is, if I may borrow one more review trope, also a thought-provoking piece, not content to provide an overview of the art context and the constant cannibalization and exploration of those forms that went before (Roman of Greek art, Renaissance of Classical, etc.), but one that questions the reader’s understanding of what they think they knew of Western culture and the differences in social structure and expression.

mummy of artemidorus2

The well decorated mummy case and detail of the portrait of Artemidorus, from Roman-period Haware, Egypt, AD 100-120. Artemidorus was a male individual who was aged between 18-21 years old at the time of death, based on CT scans of his skeletal remains in the coffin. His impressive funerary artefacts and context helps to highlight the mix of cultural styles present during this period and location – the coffin details traditional Egyptian funerary motifs and symbols, the individual has a Greek name, and the portrait is Roman-style in style. As Beard & Henderson (2001: 232) highlight, the rituals of death and burial have preserved a wonderful collection of  personal portraits in funerary contexts (on coffins, etc.) from Fayum and other areas of the Roman province of Egypt, where this style of commemoration was practiced. However, it is debated whether these portraits, as a whole, capture the person at the age at death or, as in some cases, represent the individual at a different point in their life. The face, and the head, are strong focuses of artwork, both sculpture and portraiture, in the ancient Roman world.  The Roman period Egyptian tradition of painting portraits on linen and wood echoes vibrantly across the centuries due to the vitality and likeness of the person’s image. As Beard & Henderson comment, ‘the challenge to figurative art is to metaphorize human beings convincingly’ by using whichever medium (marble, wood, or pigment on wood and linen, etc.), and that ‘the ideology of the portrait depends on this ability to carry (the) conviction’ of its representation (2001: 233). Image credit: the British Museum (main) and Invision Free (inset).

 

I got a copy of the book for a module I studied in my first year at undergraduate level, one entitled cities and civilizations if I remember correctly, that studied the origin and influence of art at certain periods in European history (the Geek and Roman classical worlds, Gothic architecture in Western Europe in the Medieval period, the art of the Italian Renaissance, etc.).  It was an enlightening module, one that made me think deeper on the artistic expression of society within a cultural milieu.

Towards the end of the publication there is a fascinating discussion on the use of the portrait in forming an image of an individual, in this case the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates as described in a series of pen portraits and dialogues by his pupil Plato.  Socrates, who died (in the words of Plato) a ‘martyr for the truth’ in Athens in 399 BCE, has become of the most sought after face of Antiquity when, after comparing the many statues of him that survive (which include the ‘type A’ and ‘type B’ heads from Italy and the damaged statues from Athens), that at least one of these portraits ‘taps into first hand acquaintance with the fifth-century guru’ (Beard & Henderson 201: 236).

Socrates pupil Plato posits, in a pen portrait that emphasizes each aspect of his master throughout his dialogues that, ‘feature by feature’, sets him apart from humanity and creates the paradox of Socrates, the ‘wisest of men’, compared with the bestial nature of his physical representation.  The last point concerns the nature of reality and its images; that Plato encourages us to ‘imagine what Socrates was like, but at the same time radically undermines the status of anything in our visual world‘ (Beard & Henderson 2001: 237, emphasis mine).  The authors indicate that this is the paradox on coming face to face with one of the most ‘individual physiognomies of them all, yet also being confronted with a portrait  that was designed to remind us just how contested the relationship is between how people look (or are made to look) and how they ‘really’ are’ (Beard & Henderson 2001: 237).

Necessarily this raises the question of what is captured by art, how and why?  What are these representations of and in what context are they represented?  These are basic questions that a researcher must always bear in mind when dealing with both the artistic artefacts and documents of the past.  For the archaeological researcher they too are fine guiding questions to consider when analyzing the physical material remains of the historic and prehistoric past.  How are they represented and why?

24/07/15 Update

By happenstance I have come across a lovely cheap paperback book of Socrates’ Defence by Plato in the Penguin Little Black Classics series earlier today, in which Plato recreates the dialogue of Socrates defending himself at trial in 399 BC.  Socrates’ Defence is taken from Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates.

The Little Black Classics series covers many renowned writers, bringing their fiction or non-fiction work, or extracts of their work, together in small volumes at affordable prices (in the UK they retail at only 80p or $2 CAN.  I shall update this entry as soon as I’ve read it and had time to digest it.  Perhaps unwitting the above fits quite nicely into my current long read (books that I am taking my time with), which include Albert Camus’s The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus.

Bibliography

Beard, M. & Henderson, J. 2001. Classical Art: From Greece to Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Plato. 2015. Socrates’ Defence. St Ives: Penguin Classics.

AJA Report: ‘Archaeological Site Looting in “Glocal” Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency’

5 Jan

There is an open access article in the latest American Journal of Archaeology by Blythe Bowman Proulx (2013: 111-125)  entitled ‘Archaeological Site Looting in “Glocal” Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency’, that debates the nature of archaeological looting on a global scale.

The abstract of Proulx’s article is below:

“The looting of archaeological sites undermines the preservation of cultural heritage. The purpose of this study is to broaden and refine our understanding of the nature, geographic scope, and frequency of looting and archaeological site destruction and to place looting in global perspective. Situated within a “glocal” (global and local) context, this study focuses on a large sample of field archaeologists working throughout the world and their opinions about and personal encounters with looting. Some key findings are presented: first, that the overwhelming majority of surveyed field archaeologists have experienced looting firsthand on more than one occasion; second, that archaeological site looting is in fact a globally pervasive problem and is not limited to certain parts of the world to the exclusion of others. The paper ends with a consideration of the implications of such findings for the broader cultural heritage debate.”

egyptian-museum-artifacts-looted-damaged-mummies_31830_600x450

The after effects of looting, in this case the desecration of two mummies, at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo during the Egyptian uprising in January last year. Whilst highlighting the effects of looting, it is also good practice to show the response to it, in this case members of the public and professionals of the city forming ‘a human chain’ around the museum to protect the artefacts and heritage inside the museum (Source: National Geographic/AP).

Context is king, and without this we risk losing cultural heritage and understanding on a massive scale due to the looting of archaeological artefacts and sites worldwide.  This is a strong article helping to document first hand experience of looting at archaeological sites from around the world.  It is well worth a read and presents a recurrent archaeological problem in careful consideration of the world wide context.  Proulx’s (2013: 123) devastating conclusion is that:

“archaeological site looting is a globally pervasive, commonplace, iterative, and not decreasing appreciably is a critical finding.  Looting- and, consequently, the role it may play in the antiquities trade- can no longer be dismissed as simply exaggerated, nor can concerns about looting be cast off as mere products of scaremongering archaeologists with overblown imaginations and thinly veiled preservationist agendas.”

Bibliography:

Proulx, B. B. 2013. Archaeological Site Looting in “Glocal” Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency. American Journal of Archaeology. 117: 111-125.