This past week I’ve been reading Svetlana Alexievich’s book Second-Hand Time for which she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. Alexievich is a Belarussian investigative journalist who spent more than a decade interviewing the citizens of the former USSR – most of whom were previously card-carrying members of the Communist Party – about how they feel about post-Soviet freedom.
Every night, since beginning to read the book, I have gone to bed in a pique, caught somewhere between shock, horror and a deep, deep despair.
Because their ideal was beautiful.
“Houses made of crystal and aluminium… Crystal Palaces! Lemons and orange groves in cities. There are almost no elderly, people get old very late in life because life is so wonderful. Machines do all the work, people just drive and control them. The machines sow seeds and knit… The fields are thick with verdure and bounty. Flowers as tall as trees. Everyone is happy. Joyful. Everyone goes around in fine clothes, men and women alike, leading free lives of labour and pleasure. There’s enough space and work for everyone…”
And what they did to achieve it was grotesque.
“I met my old comrade in prison… Nikolai Verkhovets, a [Communist] Party member since 1924. He taught at a worker’s school. He’d been among friends, in a tight circle… someone was reading Pravda [the newspaper] aloud, and it said that the Bureau of the Central Committee had held a hearing on the fertilisation of mares. Then he went and made a joke about how the Central Committee had nothing better to do that worry about mare fertilization. They came for him that same night. Slammed his fingers in a door and broke them like they were pencils. They’d keep him in a gas mask for days at a time. I don’t know how to talk about these things today… All in all it was barbarism. Humiliating. You’re nothing but a piece of meat lying in a pool of urine.”
The book documents more and more horrors of indivduals sacrified for the ideal.
A Ukrainian woman who ate her own child after the Ukrainians were sieged into famine for refusing collectivisation of the farms.
The account of an old Jewish man who, as a child, had escaped from a mass grave where his fellows were being buried alive. Moscow saw the Jews as traitors. They were to be annihilated.
And betrayal after betrayal of family, neighbours, friends who believed in the dream of a future, better, wonderful society, more than they believed in family ties, loyalty and neighbourliness.
Most disturbing of all, is how many of those, whose lives were destroyed in the name of the ideal, continued to believe in it. And still do.
“I spent almost a year in prison… And then they released me, dismissing all the charges… They called me into the district Party committee. ‘Unfortunately we will not be able to return your wife to you. She’s died [She had also been imprisoned as a so-called counter-revolutionary]. But you can have your honour back.’ And they handed me back my Party membership card. And I was happy. I was so happy…”
[Here the writer comments that she can never understand him – never.]
“You can’t judge us according to logic. You accountants! You have to understand. You can only judge us according to the laws of religion. Faith! Our faith will make you jealous. What greatness do you have in your life? You have nothing. Just comfort. Anything for a full belly…”
Alexievich’s book has made me reflect deeply on the ideals that I hold.
In South Africa, we have been working towards the ideal of non-racialism, and this book has forced me to contemplate: who is being sacrificed for this ideal? Is there someone whose life is worse off, because of this ideal?
Recently I interviewed a young woman active in the #FeesMustFall student protests.
“I hate non-racialism,” she said, explaining how she views any attempt to turn a blind eye to race in South Africa as an attempt to ignore the injustices that have created a legacy of economic inequality.
Her hatred of this ideal disturbed me, but as I reflect on the Soviet dream, and what was done in its name, I am forcing myself to ask: what is being done and perpetuated in the name of non-racialism?
Mandela drew a line in the sand and said we could start afresh from here. We wouldn’t look back. And this past week I have found myself wondering: who is sacrified when we push away the past and ask that everyone forgets about it and moves on?
The ideal of apartheid was swiftly followed by the ideal of non-racialism. But the past is a poltergeist. It is there and not there. It continues to hurt the living every day.
What ideal do we serve when we look away when another child is born into poverty in the township? What ideal do we serve when we dismiss the fact that another young man, without a decent education or decent prospects, has joined a gang and committed rape?
What are our ideals worth if they are more valuable to us than the present lives of our fellow man?
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