Soviet Baby Boomers

Soviet Baby Boomers – Other Sources

As far as I know, Donald Raleigh’s book is the first known Soviet oral history study by a western scholar that is based exclusively on personal oral interviews as only primary sources and uses only the oral history methodology in presenting and explaining these interviews. Apparently this project began as an extension of a book – Russia’s Sputnik Generation: Soviet Baby Boomers Talk about Their Lives, Translated and edited by Donald J. Raleigh (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006) – which contained only Saratov’s interviews, the former graduates from Saratov’s school No. 42. Some of the major characters from the first book and their interviews, like Aleksandr Konstantinov (pp. 24-54), Aleksandr Trubniukov (pp. 220-252) and Gennadii Ivanov (pp. 253-280), still play the important role in this new book as well. What is more original in the new book is an addition the interviews with Muscovites, which create an important social and cultural dimension of historical comparison of two different, but elitist cohorts of the Soviet students from two elite schools specializing in English – one from the “closed” Soviet provincial city of Saratov, and another from the center of Soviet civilization, a capital city of Moscow.

Even for people, like myself, who grew up in the former Soviet “historical space,” Raleigh’s study is a fascinating book, which provides a unique nostalgic portrayal of the everyday life of the Soviet post-Stalin generation. The book is full of the fresh insights and interesting ideas, like the notion of the “two Wests” in the Soviet historical imagination (pp. 155-156), and many others.

Still, I have some comments about the book and its material. First, I have some doubts about a reliability of the personal interviews as only one, primary source for the historical study. In this case we deal with a chronological problem which I call “the effect of condensed memory,” when interviewee tried to “condense” information about the past, sometime confusing and mixing together historical events, which took place in different periods of time. As a result in the book we have a situation when interviewees mixed the very different cultural stages in book reading practices (pp. 129-131) from Krushchev’s thaw and the Brezhnev era mixing this with data from perestroika. Different cultural practices and forms of cultural consumption became mixed together disorienting the readers. This happened with a book’s description of the Soviet reaction to the American western (cowboy) movies (pp. 133-135). The Magnificent Seven movie, which was released in the Soviet Union in 1962 and was the last time shown in 1966, and Czech parody of the American westerns Lemonade Joe (shown in the Soviet Union during 1964-1970) were in the text mixed together with a phenomenon of the Brezhnev era a movie McKenna’s Gold, released in the Soviet Union in 1974 and shown widely till 1980. The simple checking of the local periodical newspaper (like Vecherniaya Moskva) about film shows in the local movie theaters could help to correct this confusing situation and give a historical perspective to the interviews’ material. [Compare with my material about a popularity of the American western films during the Brezhnev era in my Rock and Roll in the Rocket City: The West, Identity, and Ideology in Soviet Dniepropetrovsk, 1960-1985 (Baltimore, MD: the Johns Hopkins University Press & Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2010), 126-138]. Another example of chronological confusion and misunderstanding is an interview material about the beginning of Beatlemania in Moscow. One interviewee (on page 141) provides the very dubious information that he became a Beatles fan as early as 1962, when he and his friends formed a beat-group. We have now the growing recent research on the roots of rock music in Moscow, and numerous publications of various studies (including my own research) and memoirs (including those by Aleksandr Gradskii, Aleksei Kozlov, and Andrei Makarevich) about the beginning of Beatlemania in the Soviet Union, which challenge such claims. The first information about the first beat bands in Moscow referred to the year of 1964 with such groups like Sokoly (near metro station Sokol), Slaviane, Mify and others. Nobody heard about the beat band created by Andrei Rogatnev and Vladimir Glebkin (p. 141-142), described in the book. Moreover, according to the photo on page 141, the musicians of this band were dressed and seated on this picture following fashions and style of later period, 1965, or 1966, but not of 1962.

And I can continue with other examples of the similar chronological confusion created by the “effect of condensed memory” in other interviews, cited in this book. I think that pure “oral history” based only on interviews cannot provide us with reliable historical information. That is why we need to combine analysis of interviews with other available sources – archival documents, memoirs and mass media. Another interesting source which could be used for Donald Raleigh’s oral history project is personal diaries of the contemporaries. We have a good collection of private diaries from the 1960s and the 1970s in Moscow archives, I used such documents for my own study of cultural consumption in Ukraine during the Brezhnev era. Analyzing the published “personal stories of the Soviet experience,” Irina Paperno noted that those memoirs always emphasize “the negotiation between the self and community,” and “define themselves as accounts of lives embedded in a social matrix.” And she continues, diaries, in contrast to memoirs, “are produced through day-by-day writing, and do not necessarily have an addressee… The diary allows for a continuous report on a shifting self, and for the perusal of such a report by the author or another in later reading. In this way, both diaries and memoirs help the writer and his or her reader to attain knowledge of the self and knowledge of the (culturally specific) temporality. Diary and memoir are two different templates for tracking the self in time, for meditating between the past, the present, and the future. Both allow the self to be linked to the evolving historical time.” As some scholars argue, “personal narrative analysis demonstrates that human agency and individual social action is best understood in connection with the construction of selfhood in and through historically specific social relationships and institutions. Second, these analyses emphasize the narrative dimensions of selfhood; that is, well-crafted personal narrative analyses not only reveal the dynamics of agency in practice but also can document its construction through culturally embedded narrative forms that, over an individual’s life, impose their own logics and thus also shape both life stories and lives.”  Such mental construction of the self is especially apparent in diary writing.

Diary writing became the model of construction of the Soviet self from the early childhood during the period of late socialism. As an intellectual exercise, the diary writing was introduced in the secondary school by the Soviet curriculum. The model for this writing was based on the popular literature for children, which became obligatory for reading by all students of the Soviet middle school (from the 5th to 7th grade). As early as the beginning of the 1950s, Soviet teachers at this school level started to recommend their students to write their every-day diaries. Usually, every May before the school breaks the teachers of literature announced the list of books they suggested to read during the summer. At the same time they gave special instructions how to write a diary, what kind of the events the students were supposed to describe in their journals. During the 1960s and 1970s, Russian language teachers encouraged their students to write personal diaries, especially during summer school breaks. Sometimes they suggested the students to write a “diary of books.” Teachers expected students had to write down brief summaries of each book they read. In some schools in Soviet Ukraine students began these diaries in the fifth grade. Most students hated keeping reading lists. However, a few of these students kept writing their “books’ journals” for many years. These book records are a unique source of information not only about book consumption, but also about a construction of the intellectual self among the Soviet youth.

But the common practice in a majority of the Soviet urban schools was recommendations to write just “a summer diary of the adventures.” Sometimes teachers required from their students to write these diaries as a method of collecting the necessary material for the first literary composition with a title “How I spent my summer break?” during the first classes in the fall. Teachers recommended using as a model for a student’s dairy the cultural practices which were described in the popular novels written by a famous Soviet writer Nikolai Nosov. As one eleven-year-old student from small town in Soviet Ukraine noted in May of 1970, “I used Tatiana Petrovna’s suggestions about Nosov’s books. So I started with re-reading’s his stories about “Vesiolaia semeika,” “Dnevnik Koli Sinitsyna” and of course, I began his new book about the adventures of Vitia Maleiev, which our teacher strongly recommended to read. Now I use all these Nosov’s stories as a model (obrazets) for my own diary writing.” Many student’s diaries from the 1970s mentioned a model role for a writing the personal journal provided by Nosov’s characters such as Kolia Sinitsyn and Vitia Maleiev. Later on some of these middle school students ignored Nosov’s “patterns” and emphasized other influences on their writing style. As one of them wrote in 1971, “why should we imitate those childish stories by Nosov in our diary writing? I will learn how to write a personal journal using some ideas from my favorite Quadroon novel by Mayne Reid or other adventure stories.”

For many Soviet students it became the important part of their everyday life – to write the events of their life. The writing helped them not only to articulate their thoughts and make notes about the remarkable events in their life (especially during their summer breaks), but also to construct their own intellectual self. And in this process the authors of these diaries followed to some extent to traditional topics that their teachers recommended to address. With the age some of these topics disappeared from the diaries, but many of them were still present in implicit or explicit forms in their narratives. All these topics reflect the interesting moments in a construction of the Soviet self in the writing of these Soviet students. As some scholars argue their personal narratives in so-called “summer diaries” became “documents of social action and self-construction.”

Paradoxically, other primary sources (including personal diaries and periodicals), in addition to the interviews, could enhance and enlarge the informative value of Donald Raleigh’s study. But despite my comments and suggestions, Raleigh’s book is still the most interesting, original, pioneering, scholarly experiment, which analyzes Soviet history of everyday life after Stalin through the prism of the real actors in this life, giving us a unique opportunity not only to listen to their voices but also to see their pictures.



By Sergei Zhuk

A former Soviet expert in US history, especially in the social and cultural history of colonial British America, Dr. Sergei Zhuk, moved in 1997 to the United States, defended his new (now American) Ph.D. dissertation about imperial Russian history at Johns Hopkins University in 2002. Now Sergei Zhuk is Associate Professor of Russian and East European History at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. His research interests are knowledge production, cultural consumption, religion, popular culture and identity in a history of imperial Russia and the Soviet Union.

One reply on “Soviet Baby Boomers – Other Sources”

[…] Sergei Zhuk and I have a different take on the purpose and merits of oral history.  As he put it, “I have some doubts about a reliability of the personal interviews as only one, primary source for the historical study.”  Such a perspective was certainly widespread when the practice of oral history was in its infancy.  Back in the 1980s, for instance, when oral history was under the influence of the social sciences, particularly sociology, its practitioners maintained that, if one could strip the interview of bias, one could get at the “objective” truth.  In other words, above all the question of “reliability” concerned them, as it does Sergei.  Since then, however, the discipline has fallen under the influence of the so-called European school, and of sister disciplines, resulting in a shift away from sociology toward anthropology and issues of collective-memory and subjectivity.  In sum, oral testimonies became memories and increasingly became seen as interpretations of lives, not chronicles of the past. […]

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