“Could you explain in what ways life before and after 1991 was different?” I asked. My interviewee, Z. did not immediately understand my question, even when reformulated in clearer Russian by a native colleague. The question seemed alien to her. “No, no, there was no difference,” she replied firmly. It was true that life for her had been transformed dramatically in the late 1970s and 1980s, but perestroika has nothing to do with it, she said. The year of great change had been 1976: the year her husband had died. It was only then that she could become an active member of her church community and pursue the spiritual life she craved, and which her husband resented.
During the interview, Z. needed little prompting to tell us about her life and her story offers a fascinating window into the life of a believer in the USSR. What is striking is how absent Soviet power is from her account. Key dates in Soviet history – 1937, 1953, and 1991, for example – do not appear as important here (the end of the War in 1945 perhaps the only exception). In well over an hour, there was no mention at all of Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev or Gorbachev. This is not to say that political change had not played its part of course: Z. spoke at some length, and with evident joy, about the construction of their local church in the 1990s and of her own evangelical work at the hospital; neither of these would have been possible without the ousting of the communist party. But it is her relationships with her husband, children, and God which shape Z.’s life-story.
The interview with Z. was the first I carried out and, for a number of reasons, I found it both fascinating and moving. Before embarking on my new project, I had tended to privilege written texts over oral ones. When studying the return of prisoners from the Gulag in the 1950s, I worried that an oral history approach would overly privilege the political prisoners, particularly members of the intelligentsia, with whom, I suspected, I would find it easier to make contact than with the non-political prisoners I saw as being central to the story.
Despite this lack of hands-on experience, I had, however, taught one-off classes on oral history, at both undergraduate and MA level, and reflected on the relationship between memory and the past. I found Alessandro Portelli’s The Death of Luigi Trastulli – a text we use in Sheffield on our Historians and History module – particularly persuasive. In this essay, Portelli stresses the way in which individuals and groups can radically misremember past events in order to make them more coherent in terms of the speaker’s current situation. In interviewing volunteers as part of my project on Protestantism in the USSR, and working through the interviews afterwards, I have therefore been particularly alert to the ways in which post-Soviet life might shape the interviewee’s relationship to the past. As I began work, I expected to find significant difference between the ideas, tone, and language used in my interviews, as compared with the letters, petitions, and legal statements, written decades earlier, which I was unearthing in the Soviet archives. But now I wonder: what kind of break was 1991, and what exactly did it change? Was Z. typical in asserting there was no “difference” between life pre- and post- 1991?
My other interviewees so far have been men, and all of them highly educated, life-long members of the registered Evangelical Christian-Baptist church. As such they tend to stress the opportunities for worship that were possible within the USSR and the vibrancy of their religious life, rather than focusing too much on the state’s repressive policies. But the very fact of belonging to a defined religious community – even one that was not in open conflict with the state – encouraged them to think consciously about the relationship between their identity as believers on the one hand and their identity as Soviet citizens on the other. As a result, they seemed comfortable talking about what it meant to be a believer within an atheist state and articulate in their explanation of how the collapse of the communist project had changed religious life in the country.
But in terms of age, sex, and educational level, Z. was probably more typical of the congregants who filled Protestant churches every Sunday. Because communist power was so interventionist, it is easy to assume that Soviet citizens were constantly aware of the unusual political context in which they lived, whether they found it terrifying or exhilarating. In her Stories of the Soviet Experience, Irina Paperno speaks of the “historicism” of many Soviet men and women, arguing persuasively that they viewed their lives – including their suffering – in terms of an unprecedented historical process. But Z., at least, is an exception to this. One of the things I found so fascinating about her interview is her refusal to acknowledge any political or historical context to her life and – despite my leading questions – to resolutely situate her life story in relation to her family and to God, rather than to Soviet power or its successor.
It’s early days in the project, but I am keen to hear other people’s thoughts on the way political ruptures such as 1991 manifest themselves in life narratives. And an early heads-up for those interested in oral history that there will be a blog conversation on Donald Raleigh’s Soviet Baby Boomers in December.