Archive for July, 2020

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This book is non-fiction yet reads like fiction; a work that is historical and at the same time, philosophical. The book consists of interviews with several people from the erstwhile USSR, conducted over twenty years from 1991 to 2012. These are all first-person narratives and the author doesn’t appear anywhere except for some remarks about the narrator. As you read through the stories of the people that came out into the streets to topple the mighty Communist machine, you realise that they weren’t against the ideals of Socialism, they did not want Capitalism, they wanted to hold on to the dream of equality and fairness; yet the cruelty and oppression of successive authoritarian regimes starting with Stalin, made them do it. Mindless, unspeakable cruelty meted out in the name of an ideology that was supposed to be one of the most humanitarian. In my assessment, the revolution of 1991 was not against Communism but against corrupt, authoritarian rulers like Stalin.

Yet, no sooner had they toppled Socialism, than they were faced with the beast they had unleashed – Capitalism. People were like deer caught in the headlights of a car, with no experience or knowledge of how to live in a strange and harsh world they found themselves in. Ultimately, there were no winners, only victims. They caused a revolution and the new system did not do anything to help them; nothing changed for most and life became worse for many, some wanted the old system back, some felt there was no difference.

The human being is a very complex and often difficult to understand entity and that comes through clearly in many of the stories. How does one understand a factory director who was jailed and tortured by the Stalin government for ten years but whose one fervent wish, after being released, was to somehow get back into the membership of the Communist Party; a mother who thinks that the Party was right in sending her son to prison because he made a casual remark against the State. Raw stories of broken people, maimed for life, hollowed out frames; in short, a modern-day Gulag Archipelago. People suffered before the revolution and after the revolution; Communism was gone and Capitalism was in but people continued to suffer as before, their lives and dreams shattered.

Svetlana Alexievich deserves great credit for this book. She is a presence throughout the book, but she hardly intervenes. There are no interview questions and the stories are set as monologues. Of course, the author must have selected the interviews she wanted to record and reproduce and the order of the narratives carefully. The book is quite big (about 560 pages) and I read a review which said that it could have been made shorter by skipping some of the stories, but I felt that all the stories were required. Some of them felt similar but they really drove the point home; you had no escape, they were drilled into you. Overall, a very good book!