Until recently, Svetlana Alexievich was little known outside the world of Russian studies. That changed last October, when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first ever Belarussian and the first non-fiction writer since Winston Churchill to receive it. Since the start of her publishing career in the mid 1980s, her theme has been the tragic past of the former Soviet Union, as recounted by multiple individuals in their own voices. Hundreds of subjects are interviewed at length, some repeatedly and over many years. The resulting transcripts are edited down to anything from a one-line snippet to a chapter-length monologue and presented to the reader with minimal biographical information and little or no authorial comment.
Best known abroad of Alexievich’s books is Zinky Boys, the title taken from the zinc coffins in which Soviet soldiers killed in the Soviet–Afghan War were transported home. Most recent is Voices from Chernobyl, which gathers together first-hand accounts of the nuclear disaster. Ten years in the making, Second-Hand Time is her longest and most ambitious work to date. Her subject, she explains, is the Homo sovieticus or, pejoratively ‘sovok’, meaning someone ineradicably formed by the Soviet Union. ‘People who have come out of socialism’, she writes, ‘are both like and unlike the rest of humanity – we have our own lexicon, our own conceptions of good and evil, our heroes and martyrs. We have a special relationship with death.’