Pádraig Murphy at The Dublin Review of Books:
A striking element in the book, which is referenced all through it, is the extent to which the quality and the availability in the shops of what we call salami was a gauge of quality of life for people in the Soviet generation. As Alexievich puts it, giving voice to a common view in most of this generation (this is not her own view), “the man who chooses from a hundred different varieties of salami in the shop is freer than the man who chooses from ten varieties”. (She adds, provocatively and controversially, freedom also means “to be unwhipped, but we can never expect an unwhipped generation; the Russian doesn’t understand freedom, he needs the Cossack and the lash”.) There can be little doubt that the salami question points to a significant reason for the failure of the great experiment in transforming human nature. A striking example of its centrality is provided in the report of Yeltsin’s visit to the US in 1989. He toured a medium-sized grocery shop in Texas. Leon Aron in his Yeltsin biography quotes one of the entourage: “For a long time, on the plane to Miami, he sat motionless, his head in his hands. ‘What have they done to our poor people?’ he said after a long silence.” The accompanying official went on: “On his return to Moscow, Yeltsin would confess the pain he had felt after the Houston excursion: ‘the pain for all of us, for our country so rich, so talented and so exhausted by incessant experiments’.”
This very question of the place of salami in an ideal society will, like a revenant, persist in those who come after the collapse of the Soviet system, as an index of where each situates himself or herself in relation to that vanished past. Most have become totally cynical. One businessman diagnoses “a mental revolution of one hundred and eighty degrees”. There is now no talk of the Gulag or anything like it.