I know I won’t shock anyone by admitting that I often ask myself “why?” when reading an academic monograph: why this topic, why this approach and yes, why this book? Reading Don Raleigh’s Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation was, for me, the very opposite of that experience. In fact, the book got me right from the cover, with its charming, evocative photograph of two Soviet teenagers in a phone booth circa 1966. Something about the expression of the girl in the photo—I suppose it’s the way her mouth is half-opened, and the knowingness in her eyes—tells us she has something to say; the crisscrossed metal bars of the phone booth (and, in another way, the impinging presence of the boy beside her) suggest her limits.
In Soviet Baby Boomers, Raleigh has given her the opportunity to speak, forty plus years on and better late than never. There is no question that documenting the life story of this Soviet girl and of her cohort is a worthwhile project, intellectually and ethically. Raleigh’s book is both a goldmine of information on everyday life in the final decades of the Soviet Union and a powerful gesture of respect for the people who lived those lives. It is also immensely interesting. I would, nonetheless, like to raise a few questions about some of its key categories of analysis: generation, baby boomers, and history.
As I was reading Soviet Baby Boomers, I was reminded of a time when my father visited me in Moscow in 1993. My father was a decade older than Raleigh and the cohort he interviewed (and a self-described “baby boomer”—more on this later), but he, too, grew up with a grim fascination of the Reds. He spent much of his time in Moscow agape – in his words, “I can’t believe we were actually terrified of these people when they can’t make decent toilet paper”—and pestering me to translate conversations with friends and strangers. He was especially interested in people his own age and, as was his bent, with working-class men. When the fridge in my apartment broke down and a fifty-something repairman came by to juice it up with Freon, I wound up brokering a lengthy, vodka-fuelled Russo-American summit. Yes, there was much mutual appreciation of the Beatles and condemnation of war, griping about demanding wives and daughters, and generalized scorn for the powers-that-be. But in many ways, I had a hard time imagining that these two men were of the same generation—and this, I remember, was my father’s impression as well. He told me Russians his age reminded him of his parents, both in their affects and in the way they talked about their pasts. They seemed so old, he said, cautious and narrow-minded. And although the specifics of the conversation are lost to me now, I do recall that the fridge repairman cursed Gorbachev and was openly racist. However much he loved the Beatles, he had not been ready for, and did not welcome, the collapse of the USSR.
What would Raleigh’s “Cold War generation” look like if it included the fridge repairman? Surely, he and students at elite Moscow and Saratov schools did share common life circumstances (the peace and comparative prosperity of the postwar period, along with the USSR’s relative opening up to the non-Soviet world, glasnost, collapse, etc.) But would the repairman recognize himself in the group portrait Raleigh has painted? Would he see a generation where Raleigh does? Would Raleigh’s interviewees include the repairman in their understanding of their own generation? (And we might ask similar questions about Miriam Dobson’s Baptists.)
My father, as I said, self-identified as a “baby boomer” and, perhaps even more, as a child of the sixties. He, like so many Americans and western Europeans his age, experienced a profound psychological rupture with his parents and what he saw as their outmoded worldview, and bonded intensely and self-consciously with his generation. Indeed, one of the standard tropes of the “baby boomer” generation in the West is its self-consciousness and self-importance, fuelled and, many people argue, generated by mass marketing and by that other great boom of the postwar decades—mass media culture, particularly television. I do not detect this extraordinary sense of self in Raleigh’s interviewees; I doubt it would register if the interview sample were broader. What does come through loud and clear, however, is a sense of cohort, or in-group exclusivity (as might be expected of former “children of gifted parents.”) Their memories, while interesting and viable, are not, to my mind, generational, and certainly not in a transnational sense (baby boomers), even with the universal Beatles fascination. As the discussion develops, I hope we can turn to the third category I mentioned at the onset, history, and to the relationship between memory and history in the book.