I’m searching for a language. People speak many different languages: there’s the one they use with children, another one for love. There’s the language we use to talk to ourselves, for our internal monologues. On the street, at work, while travelling – everywhere you go, you’ll hear something different, and it’s not just the words, there’s something else, too. There’s even a difference between the way people speak in the morning and how they speak at night. What happens between two people at night vanishes from history without a trace. We’re accustomed to looking at the history of people by day, while suicide is a night-time state, when a person wavers on the edge between being and non-being. Waking and sleep. I want to understand suicide with the rigour of a person in daytime. Someone once asked me, ‘Are you worried that you’re going to like it?’


We were driving through the Smolensk region when we stopped in front of a shop in one of the villages. What familiar faces (I grew up in a village), how beautiful, how good – and what a humiliating, impoverished life they lead! We struck up a conversation. ‘You want to know about freedom? Have a look around our shop. There’s vodka, any kind you like: Standard, Gorbachev, Putinka; heaps of cold cuts and cheese and fish. We even have bananas. What more freedom could you ask for? It’s enough for us.’

‘Did they give you any land?’

‘Who’s gonna break their back working the land? You want it, you take it. The only guy who took it was Tough Vasya. His youngest kid is eight years old and he’s already out there next to his father at the plough-tail. If he hires you for a job, watch out – you can’t steal, you can’t nap. He’s a total fascist!’

In ‘The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor’, Dostoevsky stages a debate about freedom. Namely, about the struggle, torment, and tragedy of freedom: ‘What’s the point of delving into that damn good and evil when the cost is so high?’ People are constantly forced to choose between having freedom and having success and stability; freedom with suffering or happiness without freedom. The majority choose the latter.

The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ, who has returned to Earth:

Why have You come here to interfere with our affairs? For You have come to interfere with us, and you know it.
For all of Your respect for man, You’ve acted as though You have ceased to have any compassion for him because You have asked too much of him… If You respected him less, You would have asked for less, and this would have been closer to love, for it would have lightened his burden. He is weak and base… Is a weak soul to blame for not having the strength to accept such terrible gifts?
There is no more pressing or torturous task for man, having found himself free, than to seek out somebody to bow down to as soon as he can… someone on whom to bestow that gift of freedom with which this unhappy creature was born…


In the nineties… yes, we were ecstatic; there’s no way back to that naïveté. We thought that the choice had been made and that communism had been defeated forever. But it was only the beginning…

Twenty years have gone by… ‘Don’t try to scare us with your socialism,’ children tell their parents.

From a conversation with a university professor: ‘At the end of the nineties, my students would laugh when I told them stories about the Soviet Union. They were positive that a new future awaited them. Now, it’s a different story… Today’s students have truly seen and felt capitalism: the inequality, the poverty, the shameless wealth. They’ve witnessed the lives of their parents, who never got anything out of the plundering of our country. And they’re oriented toward radicalism. They dream of their own revolution, they wear red T-shirts with pictures of Lenin and Che Guevara.’

There’s a new demand for everything Soviet. For the cult of Stalin. Half of the people between the ages of nineteen and thirty consider Stalin an ‘unrivalled political figure’. A new cult of Stalin, in a country where he murdered at least as many people as Hitler?! Everything Soviet is back in style. ‘Soviet-style cafés’ with Soviet names and Soviet dishes. ‘Soviet’ candy and ‘Soviet’ salami, their taste and smell all too familiar from childhood. And of course, ‘Soviet’ vodka. There are dozens of Soviet-themed TV shows, scores of websites devoted to Soviet nostalgia. You can visit Stalin’s camps – on Solovki, in Magadan – as a tourist. The adverts promise that for the full effect, they’ll give you a camp uniform and a pickaxe. They’ll show you the newly restored barracks. Afterwards, there will be fishing…


Old-fashioned ideas are back in style: the great empire, the ‘iron hand’, the ‘special Russian path’. They brought back the Soviet national anthem; there’s a new Komsomol, only now it’s called Nashi; there’s a ruling party, and it runs the country by the Communist Party playbook; the Russian president is just as powerful as the general secretary used to be, which is to say he has absolute power. Instead of Marxism-Leninism, there’s Russian Orthodoxy…


On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Alexander Grin wrote, ‘And the future seems to have stopped standing in its proper place.’ Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be. Our time comes to us second-hand.

The barricades are a dangerous place for an artist. They’re a trap. They ruin your vision, narrow your pupils, drain the world of its true colours. On the barricades, everything is black and white. You can’t see individuals, all you see are black dots: targets. I’ve spent my entire life on the barricades, and I would like to leave them behind. I want to learn how to enjoy life. To get back my normal vision. But today, tens of thousands of people are once again taking to the streets. They’re taking each other by the hand and tying white ribbons onto their jackets – a symbol of rebirth and light. And I’m with them.

I recently saw some young men in T-shirts with hammers and sickles and portraits of Lenin on them. Do they know what communism is?

Second-Hand Time_150_RGB

Read Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich exclusively on the Juggernaut app here


Leave a Reply