I teach an MA class which explores Soviet identity from Stalin to Gorbachev in a whistle-stop tour over five weeks. Not all students have studied Russian history before which can sometimes make it challenging, but it does ensure that a comparative approach is both possible and productive. In the last week of the module I asked the members of the group what conclusions they wanted to reach. One student, who specializes in modern British history and was new to studying the USSR, answered that she was struck by how political everything was. Even when readings seemed to be examples of social or cultural approaches to history, discussion of the Soviet state and its ideology was never far away. Is this because of the nature of Soviet society, or a reflection of the literature? We didn’t reach any firm conclusions, but it has stayed in my mind as I’ve been thinking about this blog and the place of oral history.
The oral history movement, in its origins, was about capturing the voices of those usually excluded from the historical record: women and the working-class in particular. For the British case, for example, we might think of Elizabeth Robert’s classic A Woman’s Place: An Oral History of Working Class Women 1890-1940 (1984) which examined the working and domestic lives of women in three northern cities. Don’s book is also about capturing the voices of those who might not otherwise contribute to the historical record. It’s true that there is a wealth of autobiographical literature from the last Soviet generation, but I am not sure that many of those he interviewed would have taken the time to record their stories without an interested historian and tape-recorder to hand. (Don, I am curious to know if any of your interviewees have, either before or since, written memoirs of any kind?) As Catriona noted, one of the real strengths of Soviet Baby Boomers is that it gives such a vivid picture of life in one of the Soviet Union’s closed cities; the comparative element also helps by extenuating what is “local” and what is part of a more general “Soviet” experience. And in tracking down as many members of the 1967 class in both his chosen schools, Don includes the accounts of women and men evenhandedly (and he is certainly alert to the way gender shaped their experiences). For me, though, the class question is one that warrants attention, not just in terms of this blog conversation but also in the growing literature on the post-Stalin generation more broadly.
In his first blog entry, Don argued against the importance of class, but I am not sure I would agree it matters quite as little as he suggests. This is not a criticism of Soviet Baby Boomers: for me, the book offers a wonderful portrait of a particular cohort within a generational group, but I am not sure that it can tell us about the whole generation. For me, they are representative of the “intelligentsia” if we use the term in its broadest definition. They were not all members of the creative or scientific elite; and certainly not all had affinities with the dissident movement. But they were all well-educated and engaged in white-collar rather than manual labor; almost all had higher education. Surely the fact that these were prestigious schools plays a part in the kind of trajectories the pupils’ lives then took and, as a result, the political beliefs and social attitudes they later embraced? Wouldn’t those who had gone to a trade school, or worked in a factory, even within the same city of Saratov and born in the same year, have articulated rather different life-stories and perspectives? My feeling is that there is some way to go in the historical literature on the late Soviet period before we can answer this properly. I would be interested to know whether there are oral histories focusing exclusively on working-class communities underway in Russia. This would make a very useful point of comparison. (I am relatively new to oral history so would appreciate any pointers!)
Whilst I’m posting this blog, I’ll also take the opportunity to probe a couple of other questions. The issue of memory has been raised in passing a couple of times. Don, I know that you were a regular visitor to Saratov for many years before researching and writing the book: How do you think the interviews would have differed had you conducted them ten or fifteen years earlier? Or would the stories have essentially been the same?
And a final question which also comes from discussion with my MA class this year. My students were surprised that at least some dissidents defended Marxism, rather than leaping to embrace alternative political ideologies. In reading Soviet Baby Boomers, I found myself wondering how far the growing passion for Western products and the escalating frustration with the inadequacies of the Soviet distribution system translated into support for capitalism per se? Did those interviewed think that if they wanted an improved consumerist experience, they needed capitalism to make it possible? My impression is that this leap was not commonly made, but I would be interested to know what Don, and indeed others, think.