Soviet Baby Boomers-My Differences with Sergei Zhuk on the Methodology of Oral History

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.


This is how I use them and this is why they appeal to me, especially because, in the Soviet Union, ideology replaced memory.  As Russian historian Darya Khubova put it:  “It is sometimes said, and is almost true, that ‘for us the documents are subjective, and the only things which might be objective are the memories.’”   The highly intelligent and well-educated people I interviewed structured their responses with a high degree of integrative complexity (here I drew on a scale used in the medical profession, particularly in gerontology, which increasingly relies on oral interviews).  To be sure, I confirmed or suspected in my informants’ responses errors, conscious silences, exaggerations, inventions, and the co-opting of others’ stories, and, when I did, I mentioned this.  I wish to stress, however, that memory is an interpretation of life events rather than a chronicle of the past.  In other words, statements can be factually “wrong” (e.g., when someone remembered taking part in a school Beatles-group), but nonetheless psychologically true, because people often act on the basis of how they understand life events rather than on the events themselves.


To repeat:  I consciously privileged the oral interviews and have no regrets about doing so.  I also drew on decades of reading in the secondary literature, but I did not assign myself the task of “confirming” facts as the baby boomers’ remembered them.  When all is said and done, I would emphasize that oral history is not that different from other kinds of history I have written:  as a historian, I composite.  I create a coherent narrative out of fragments.  In this case, I constructed my own narrative out of the oral evidence (and not only), one that is more instructive than any single reality can be.  I used the narratives to create a story that no lone individual could tell and to embed it in larger historical narratives of Cold War, de-Stalinization, “overtaking” America, opening up to the outside world, economic stagnation, dissent, emigration, the transition to a market economy, the transformation of class, ethnic, and gender relations, and globalization, among others.


Interestingly, one reviewer recently wrote that she regretted that she didn’t hear more of my voice in the book.   I found that remark surprising.  After all, I selected the baby boomers’ words to convey my viewpoint.   Borrowing a phrase from historian Kenneth Kann, I see my book as a collection of voices in my own “choral arrangement.”

One reply on “Soviet Baby Boomers-My Differences with Sergei Zhuk on the Methodology of Oral History”

I agree with Don’s point of view, but personally I prefer to check interview’s information in other available sources, including archives, periodicals, memoirs and persoanal diaries

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