Soviet baby Boomers – Some thoughts on oral history and memory

Don Raleigh’s study of two graduating classes of the late 1960s, one in Moscow, the other in the ‘closed city’ of Saratov, offers uniquely rich insight into life in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. I found it compelling and often moving, not least because the book’s structure allows us to follow this group from childhood to retirement (although the way in which testimony is cited, which I’ll return to below, makes it almost impossible to remember or trace individual life stories across the decades/chapters). And, unlike many oral history studies, this really is a group (or two groups): rather than employing the usual ‘snowball’ method of finding informants, Raleigh set himself the goal of locating as many of these two ‘classes’ as he could, eventually tracking down about half of the Moscow cohort and almost all of their Saratov equivalent. As the book goes on, we start to understand what made this detective work both possible, yet also immensely difficult. On the one hand, friendship bonds between the groups and their memories of their time at school seemed unusually strong and long-lasting, compared with Western ‘baby boomers’. I would have liked the author to investigate these Soviet forms of friendship more fully: there are clear precedents in the Stalin era, on the one hand, and on the other, this cohort bonding and the ‘private’ settings in which it took place seems more important to the processes of post-Stalinist ‘privatisation’ than the ‘nuclear family’ that looms larger in Raleigh’s analysis (indeed, this seems a misnomer given the very high rates of divorce and ongoing dislocation of families that he shows so richly). On the other hand, although the post-Stalin era did see much less dislocation and trauma than the 1930s and 1940s (a stability and ‘normalisation’ which, it is often pointed out here, actually de-stabilised the Soviet Union in the long term), the changes that took place between the 1950s and the start of the 21st century still scattered even this relatively privileged group across the former Soviet Union and across the world. Indeed, as the author argues, it was precisely their high levels of education and unusual access to foreign travel even before the Soviet collapse, which made this sub-group of post-Stalinist society (like several other participants in this debate, I am reluctant to call such a specialised segment of Soviet society a ‘generation’) more likely to leave after 1991.

 

To the best of my knowledge, there are only very few studies of this period based entirely on oral history, although most new scholarship on the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras makes at least some use of interview materials, to compensate for gaps in the archive and also to gather the testimony of surviving but rapidly ageing witnesses to an extraordinary (if also surprisingly ‘ordinary’) period of Soviet history. Iurii Aksiutin’s interview-based study of the Khrushchev era presented surveys of popular opinion of almost every event of that decade, but seemed more interested in generating (rather questionable) quantitative data than in exploring the problems of memory and its narrativisation. Other qualitative analysis of interview materials has often investigated the relationship between official myths and individual experiences, of phenomena such as war, mass death and mourning (Cathy Merridale), or large-scale post-Stalinist construction projects such as the Baikal-Amur Mainline (Tania Voronina).  Alexei Yurchak’s interviews with the ‘last Soviet generation’ offer one of the most subtle and suggestive analyses of how Soviet citizens (albeit a younger ‘generation’ than Raleigh’s) negotiated official discourse and rituals in the same period which this book views as the ‘turning point’ in intelligentsia attitudes to the Soviet system (by learning to ‘live Soviet’ in the 1970s, Raleigh argues, they came to question a system that required such complex survival techniques because it had failed to deliver the ‘Soviet dream’).

 

However, although Merridale acknowledges the phenomenon of ‘confabulation’ between individual memories and state narratives, and so too does Raleigh here, much post-Soviet oral history still seems to be animated by the impulse and the belief that the ‘truth’ of private experience can and must be excavated after decades of silence or falsification by the Soviet authorities (see also the work of Irina Sherbakova and Nanci Adler). I was struck on reading this book, as with other oral history studies, by a disjuncture between an initial acknowledgement of the problems of memory and narrativisation, on the one hand, and the subsequent citation of testimony as not just (or not primarily) narrative shaped by hindsight, but as relatively unproblematic evidence of experience, and especially political attitudes, at the time. The ambitious scale of this project (in terms of time period covered and large number of informants) means that informants’ testimony is rarely cited at greater length than a few lines at a time, and even these short citations are rarely subjected to critical analysis, but rather used to add detail, colour and nuance to the author’s much broader narrative of Soviet history (broadly, of intelligentsia disillusionment with Soviet power). What is promised in the introduction—an exploration of how people narrate and reimagine their memories over time, and under the influence of shifting public narratives—thus recedes into the background during the remainder of the narrative. Perhaps by reading Raleigh’s previous book, The Sputnik Generation, alongside this new and much broader account based on the testimonies in that book as well as dozens of others, we can ourselves conduct the kinds of close analysis of the ‘layers of memory’ (Elizabeth Jelin), which this study, perhaps inevitably, does not.

 

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One Response to Soviet baby Boomers – Some thoughts on oral history and memory

  1. A comment from potential subject of such studies (I and most of my friends and relatives graduated from Moscow and St.P magnet schools):

    The fact that these were magnet schools is extremely important. Friendship bonds between us cannot be compared to those between American baby-boomers graduating from the school which they shared just because they lived in the same school district, you have to look at comparable types of schools: magnet schools like Latin Academy or Stuyvesant. Russian tradition of magnet schools has survived the Stalin regime, and blossomed in late 60th – 70th.

    While I share in general your skepticism about memory and narration, I think that political attitudes are somewhat different in this situation because of the dangers associated with expressing them at that time: there was definite external pressure to select your friends among those who shared your political views, and magnet schools in Russia in all times were notorious for what A.N. Krylov calls in his memoirs ‘the spirit of false interpretation’

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