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.
I thank Miriam for returning to the issue of class and to my terse remark about it in my posting in response to Catriona’s comments. I apologize for not being clear: I did not intend to suggest that class is unimportant. Indeed, I make the case in Soviet Baby Boomers that the people I interviewed undoubtedly had different expectations and life experiences than less educated, less well-connected, and rural elements of Soviet society. I claimed that, as a critical component of the country’s urban professional class, the baby boomers are inseparable from the Soviet mass intelligentsia whose size grew exponentially in the decades following Stalin’s death. In that regard, I maintained, the 1967 graduates’ collective story tells us the story of the upper strata of the Cold War generation that lived through the USSR’s twilight years.
Catriona raised some interesting points that I’d like to address. As she suggests, the uniqueness of oral testimonies lies in the fact that the investigator, in collaboration with his/her subjects, creates the sources—not the memories—upon which the historian’s work is based. During my research, many of my interviewees wanted to know why I didn’t plan to interview the graduates of my secondary school, too. Doing so would have added another decade of work to the project, owing to the large size of my high school graduating class. Moreover, the schools I attended were not ones for the “children of gifted parents.” Besides that, I know little about American history; I just live through it. Yet, in the course of my work, I sometimes wondered what my informants’ lives would look like if I had placed them within larger personal networks. This is especially the case in regard to the baby boomers’ children. I found it fascinating that my interviewees harshly criticized young Russians today, but not their own children. This leitmotif runs through just about all of the life stories.
I wish to thank the participants in this discussion for taking time in their busy schedules, not only to read my book, but also to share their impressions of it and to raise questions. I’m honored that such an esteemed cohort of colleagues agreed to take part in this conversation.
In responding to Miriam Dobson’s introductory remarks and Kristin Roth-Ey’s observations, I’ll offer some thoughts on the issue of generation and on my baby boomers in particular.