I wish to thank the participants in this discussion for taking time in their busy schedules, not only to read my book, but also to share their impressions of it and to raise questions. I’m honored that such an esteemed cohort of colleagues agreed to take part in this conversation.
In responding to Miriam Dobson’s introductory remarks and Kristin Roth-Ey’s observations, I’ll offer some thoughts on the issue of generation and on my baby boomers in particular.To begin, I want to stress that, collectively, the baby boomers’ life stories do indeed support Alexei Yurchak’s finding that people didn’t expect the end of the Soviet Union, but were ready for it when it came. I greatly admire Yurchak’s prize-winning study; however, I disagree with his point that, if Gorbachev had not opened public space to alternative voices the system could have gone on for much longer. As Dobson noted, my difference with him lies in the fact that he does not account for how the system produced a Gorbachev. His approach yields rich results, but he conflates the entire period from 1950to 1980 and that violates my historian’s sensibilities. As I wrote in the book about the baby boomers, “the strategies they had perfected over the years learning to ‘live Soviet’ contributed to the system’s demise” (362). Let’s take Arkady Darchenko, about whom Dobson wrote, as an example. He loved the Beatles, wore jeans, and took part in socially useful activities organized by the state (“we were just hanging out”), but he rigged his Spidola to catch foreign radio broadcasts, read samizdat (and tons of it in the science city of Dubna), and, like his father (who had worked in the Gulag, where Darchenko was born), consciously refused to join the party. He may not have fully rejected Soviet values, but he certainly questioned them.
Both Dobson and Roth-Ey raise interesting points about generation. In using this analytical category, I drew on writings that argued that positive events serve as the basis for generational experience. I had in mind the expansion of education, more leisure time, economic growth, rising living standards, and a consumerist culture that included growing interest in “western” fashion and music. Dobson rightly asks what is “Soviet” about the baby boomers and Roth-Ey wonders how useful the category of generation is in regard to my cohort, questioning whether they, like baby boomers elsewhere, saw themselves as such. I don’t know if they thought of themselves as such back in the 1960s or 1970s, but they certainly did when I interviewed them—not as baby boomers, to be sure, but as members of the “postwar” generation, as members of the “cynical” generation (as “builders of communism” as some put it derisively), as members of the generation taught by many from the Soviet (and not our) “sixties” generation. Growing up in the long dark shadow of World War II, they appreciated their parents’ sacrifice and suffering; as beneficiaries of all the Soviet system had to offer they nonetheless experienced the resentments that accompany expectations, and, in this case, expectations that the party-state gave rise to. What is “Soviet” about the baby boomers, in other words, is that Khrushchev’s New Party Program, and the promises that communism was just around the corner, framed their childhood and schooldays. Broken promises constrained and enabled their coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s. One more point: I also believe that people are invisible to themselves in the enormous social transformations taking place around them. I’m a baby boomer and a member of the sixties generation, but I did not consciously see myself as such until the media and larger culture pinned labels on my generation.
Kristin Roth-Ey also asks what my Cold War generation would look like “if it included the fridge repairman.” I enjoyed the story about her father’s encounter with one, which reminds me both of how much one can glean from even a single episode of this sort, but also the pitfalls of drawing generalizations based on one, or a handful, of examples. That’s why I created a composite narrative out of sixty individuals’ stories that no single person could tell. Here I would emphasize that some of my baby boomers, like the fridge repairman, cursed Gorbachev and some even harbored racist attitudes. The overwhelming majority applauded the end of communism, but, like the repairman, lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Kristin Roth-Ey’s query, raises the issue of class. Despite its enormous importance, I would argue that ultimately it’s one’s personal qualities and life experiences that shape one’s views. I grew up in a working-class family on Chicago’s South side. I was not only the first member of my family to go to college, but the only one. Today, I have little, if anything, in common with members of my biological family in terms of life styles and political attitudes. What I’m suggesting here is that it’s also possible to encounter a Soviet-born fridge repairman whose outlook, attitude, and more, resemble those of the baby boomers I had the privilege to interview.
Чуть не забыл. In response to Miriam Dobson’s point about social bonds, I’d underscore the nature of friendship in the Soviet Union. Friendship lacks a definition that works for all times, places, and peoples, because the phenomenon is a cultural and historical one that changes over time: the type of society determines the nature of friendships.
I’ll stop here to make a dent in the batch of papers and finals I need to read, but look forward to continuing our conversation. Miriam and Kristin, thank you once again.