The meaning of 1991: Some thoughts on oral history

“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.

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7 Responses to The meaning of 1991: Some thoughts on oral history

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  2. Joan Neuberger says:

    You ask a very interesting question, something I’ve always wondered about as it reflects my own experience. I’ve never done formal oral history interviews, but I always asked my friends and strangers I met around those legendary kitchen tables about their parents and grandparents–just out of curiosity. No one ever mentioned political figures or events. Ever. The only exception was a hazy vague reference to “the war,” which moved people around and reshaped families, but the vagueness was more noticeable than the causality. Because they were talking to a foreigner? Because of some other kind of self-censorship? Because ordinary people –talking not writing–don’t construct their memories around public events? I don’t know. But I’m very curious to hear more about your and others experiences. and to read Don’s book!

  3. Svetlana Rasmussen says:

    Let me make a disclaimer outright – I am a graduate student and all my experience of studying and doing oral history amounts to my individual reading, preparation and one interview I conducted this summer for my project in the history of secondary education. I interviewed a 88-year-old Russian language and literature teacher, who worked at school for 50 years. Her interview produces much the same picture: she made virtually no reference to the political leaders (probably because the school reforms were more numerous than leaders, and not directly connected to them). No reference to the party, either, only after my question about the privileges of membership she told that some people wanted to be in the party, believed in its ideas, and even invited her to join, since she was a prominent teacher at the school, but she always refused. In terms of her identity, what stood out to me was that she identified herself as a Cossack woman as opposed to “Russian” (she grew up in a stanitsa near Stalingrad and attended Stalingrad Pedagogical institute during the war) and was someone who believed in God, even, apparently in the 1940s.

    Again, being Russian myself I don’t remember hearing my parents ever discuss political leaders (this might have to do with their background, too – both of them came from peasant families), but remember my mother’s stories about how my father would “educate” his parents and relatives, telling them they don’t understand the “party and government policy.” The allusions to Stalin’s times would not be connected with his name, but rather with a time, when one “was trembling and was afraid to open the mouth.” One of my mother’s older acquaintances talked about hunger and not having even potatoes after her father was arrested in 1937.

    As for 1991, I barely remember the time, and not as one of immediate change. My friends’ parents, when I asked them about the difference between the early 1990s and the present (it was in the summer of 2008) said that the difference was drastic – the people were dressed poorly and looked tired while riding the bus to work in the morning and that people were doing it even as they knew they were not going to get a lot of salary or that it would be stable. The change seems even now to have been very gradual and coming primarily into everyday life first – more goods started to appear, getting meat became a problem, all kinds of trading organizations mushroomed, etc. – with little awareness of how this change depended on Yeltsin’s administration, or Russia’s economic policy. One exception for me was the day of price deregulation when the price for sour cream doubled, but otherwise it was the same long lines, the need to “hunt” for necessities and dependence on the dacha or village relatives.

    I believe, though that my experience is “gender-rigged,” since men went on and expected to have positions of leadership both before and after 1991, and perhaps, were more aware of the political developments and changes in the country, both on their own and through talks with their fathers. I am also guessing that in the Soviet religious communities men were always looked up to as potential leaders who had to organize their behavior and define themselves in relationships with the party overseers, other church goers, and family and friends more carefully than women, who had less chances to get promoted at work and who potentially had less chances to be ostracized among friends, precisely because their female apolitical friends would not judge them too harshly for going to church.

    As for importance of public versus private events, it seems that private events like birth of a child, marriage, graduation, retirement, and even a birthday were always (and still are) very public. Examples are numerous and many people got an official “congratulation” on February 23 and March 8 – a card, an official expression of gratitude written into a prikaz or even trudovaya knizhka, sometimes with symbolic remuneration from the enterprise to accompany it. New mothers received a card from the party/trade union bureau at work, the trade union organization would be in charge of getting money/present to them, and later they would get tickets and organize other activities for the children. People would get presents from co-workers organized by the trade union for their anniversaries and birthdays, and then in turn would hold a big feast for colleagues whenever they retire. This public organization of important events would accompany a person virtually from kindergarten to their death, with people from the workplace gathering money for the family to help finance the funeral and bringing flowers and wreaths. Cinematic evidence of such activity could be found in Eldar Riazanov’s Sluzhebnyi roman where an all-knowing trade-union activist organizes the funeral festivities by mistake for a person who did not die. Knowing this one can see how a person relied on the local committee, trade-union representative, and party committee to organize their participation in public life (including demonstrations on the important state holidays), and would care little about things that were not presented to them officially, or in the events like Brezhnev’s death, would easily forget about them, once the public mourning is over.

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  5. Alexander S. says:

    I always wonder to the US mass media and historians, who have a strange persistence to identify every fact of Soviet everyday life, culture and history with the Secretary General of Central Committee’s name, or the Cold War. For example, David McFadden, the author of a monograph on Soviet animation, writes about the post-Stalinist animation. I can accept this identification, but with some objections. But I think it is too oddly when the experts name Alla Pugacheva and Yuri Antonov as the singers of the Cold War era. Does anyone in the U.S. call Elvis Presley as a singer of the Cold War era?

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