Soviet baby-boomers were, like their counterparts in the US and Western Europe, what Bernd Weisbrod has termed a ‘noisy generation’. In Russia, the term ’1970-ers’ is probably more familiar. Among those who have proclaimed the importance of their experience (while branding them, paradoxically, as largely an unsuccessful lot) is the Leningrad/St Petersburg writer and broadcaster Lev Lur’e (see, for example, his piece, ‘How Nevsky Prospect Defeated “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” Square’, http://www.rvb.ru/np/publication/03misc/lurye.htm – in Russian). There are large numbers of memoirists from this generation too (Viktor Krivulin and the compulsive attention-seeker Viktor Toporov are other examples), not to speak of creative writers – as both those named also were, and in the latter case are. One could say that there was ‘information overload’ with regard to those born between 1944 and 1953, at any rate if they lived in Leningrad.
So what is the virtue of looking at this generation again? One answer is that interviews, on which Don Raleigh’s book is based, produce a different view: more informal, perhaps less likely to reproduce the tropes familiar from written memoirs. (They may reproduce others, and I personally wouldn’t have minded seeing a little analysis of this set of perceptual and verbal stereotypes in Don’s book, though I sympathise with his commitment to retrieving areas of the past that are very hard to get at with any other source.) Also, interviews are a way to recognise the experience of people who would never write their own memoirs, because they simply don’t see their lives as interesting. In the words of one of my informants, not a baby-boomer (but in this case I’m not sure there’s a big difference): ‘Well, what is there to say? It wasn’t as though anything burned down or something’ (pozharov ne bylo: this has the ring of a set phrase, but is used also in concrete, everyday contexts, reporting that there really were no fires: the incendiary traditions of Russian society live on, and one learns from the Internet that it can be news to say that, for instance, there were no fires in Samara for an entire day: press.ru/Sluzhba_informatsii/Za-sutki-v-Samare-pozharov-ne-bylo28778.html).
Moving neatly back from that digression: I think Don’s book does work as a demonstration of the virtues of oral history, though naturally one is left with questions. Mine would include what would happen if you interviewed several members of the same family. This particular cohort must have been strongly affected by the war, about which they may well have heard their parents’ stories – but then again, maybe not. Reporting combatant experience seems to have been some kind of a barrier, not just in Russia, but in, say, Britain as well. (See the broadcaster Chris Tarrant’s comments on how his father’s memories of the war skipped a generation, coming to rest with his son: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/dec/01/chris-tarrant-my-family-values). It doesn’t even have to be confessions about, say, killing others that don’t get aired: we’ve surely all had that experience of having a son or daughter sit in on an interview and say afterwards, ‘s/he’s never told me any of that’ — less resentfully, usually, than wistfully.
I suppose what I am trying to say by this is that in an oral history one always has a sense of that further audience, to which one (as the researcher) may be assimilated. People don’t just have life trajectories, they have entire webs of relationships and memory dialogues. So perhaps we need to fill that in. I wonder whether Don has had any reactions from his informants, or members of their families, since the book was published? We have had a plan for a while at the journal Antropologicchesii forum to do a round-table where people talk about their experiences of being interviewed; some associates have been quite wary of that one, and of course it would have to be a certain type of informant (back to the question of how to get beyond/supplement the reminiscences of noisy members of noisy generations). But it would produce an alternative, and interesting, type of memory dialogue. Lur’e, in the piece that I’ve just cited, talks about generational conflict in terms of ‘a squabble with our elder brothers’ – by which he means the ‘1950ers’, or the politically active generation that ‘noisily’ preceded them.
These constant references to Leningrad may strike a grating note. After all, wasn’t that different (a place with a strong local identity)? I must say that work on an individual city has made me convinced ‘localness’ was a major feature of the post-Stalin experience – ‘localness’ that was of course coloured by the way in which the central leadership conceived of the role of the regions. But both Khrushchev’s idiosyncratic conception of democracy, and Brezhnev’s policy of ‘stability of cadres’ had important consequences for experience across the Soviet Union. One gets less sense of that, maybe, in a generational study that is focused on life trajectories (and that tracks a high degree of personal mobility) than one would with a different set of questions, tracing how people identified themselves (or didn’t) with the place where they were born.
I think that’s about all I want to say for the time being; I’ll follow this discussion as much as a heavy academic and practical schedule in St Petersburg (skidding over ice makes every walk at least 50 per cent longer..) may allow.