by Svetlana Alexievich, Fitzcarraldo, £12
The author, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, brings together in this hefty volume dozens of interviews with witnesses and survivors of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In keeping with what has been described as a novel polyphonic literary form, Alexievich seeks to provide a comprehensive and poignant record of how ordinary Soviet citizens were affected (and often traumatised) by the dramatic changes in their country.
This volume should not be regarded merely as a brilliant journalistic account, however detailed, of those turbulent times.
It is meant to be seen as a work of art in its own right, one that combines the testimonies the author has faithfully recorded into a vast chorus, singing the swansong of the Soviet empire in all its many tragic and heart-wrenching registers.
The chapter headings provide a glimpse of the authorial method. Examples include “Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations”, “On the Sweetness of Suffering and the Trick of the Russian Soul”, and “On the Lonely Red Marshall and Three Days of Forgotten Revolution”. They indicate a mixture of authorial irony and insight that has combined to assemble this singular document.
Anybody who is interested in recent Russian history, seen from the perspective of a creative vision that has brought together the accounts of hundreds of random people from all sides of the political spectrum, should read this book.
Does Alexievich succeed in her task? Yes and no. I feel sure her work will take its place as a classic of this new genre, yet in her determination to avoid editing the stories that she records, wanting their rawness and repetitiveness to be retained, she makes it hard for the reader not to suffer from emotional fatigue. How can one cope with so much material?
Some themes do emerge – a conscientious communist distaste for Western baubles; a lament for the loss of a great nation; fear of thinking outside the Party; the gulf between the wartime generation and their children. Communism did not provide paradise on earth – but neither did the gangster capitalism that sought to replace it.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.