In my first blog about the oral history interviews conducted as part of my study of Protestant life in the USSR I wrote about the life of Z. who was born in 1925 on the outskirts of Moscow. She came from a poor background but as a young woman managed to establish a stable life for herself: a good job in a factory, marriage to a foreman. Her religious beliefs – as a young woman in the late 1940s, she was baptised – represented a threat to this steady Soviet life, and were the source of conflict with her husband. The protagonist of this second blog is rather different. In the late 1940s, O. was still a child but she had already been separated from her parents and sent, alone, into exile.
Last month I wrote about a great new collection of posters by the Soviet artist Koretsky. The publisher, The New Press, very kindly offered a free copy to be won in a prize draw. On the blog / facebook page we had almost 30 entrants and using a random number generator we found a winner: Aisling H. Congratulations, Aisling – I’ll be in touch!
A few weeks ago I was contacted by The New Press and offered a copy of their new publication, Koretsky. The Soviet Photo Poster: 1930-1984, for a prize draw to be launched from this site. This beautiful edition includes 200 colour images as well as interesting commentaries from Erika Wolf, a visual historian based in New Zealand. If you would like to enter the draw, all you need to do is to read to the bottom and leave a post!
Like most people studying Russian history, I’m sure, I’ve been asked many times what drew me to the subject in the first place. I give different answers depending on my mood and the person asking. They include: TV coverage of the 1989 revolutions, which provoked lots of adolescent questions about why the Berlin Wall had been built and how politics in the communist bloc were different to those in the UK (was Gorbachev left or right-wing, I wondered); an eye-opening school trip to Moscow and St Petersburg a few years later; my passion for Anna Karenina (my well-read copy unravelling to the point it had to be carried around in what my Dad fondly called “Anna Karenina’s body bag”)… But recently I have realized that it all started much earlier.
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.
I am happy to launch the fourth “blog conversation” which will be about Donald Raleigh’s recent Soviet Baby Boomers. His excavation of late Soviet society through the medium of oral history is highly readable and I will be recommending it strongly to my students next year. The work draws on interviews with men and women born in 1949/50 who attended two schools: one in the closed city of Saratov and the other in Moscow. Both were prestigious schools and most graduates went on to college and interesting careers: they make lucid and articulate companions to travel through the Soviet Union of the post-Stalin era. Raleigh’s monograph takes us through the different chapters of their lives – childhood, school, college, adult family life, work – and in doing so traces their attitudes towards Soviet power and the wider world.
“Could you explain in what ways life before and after 1991 was different?” I asked. My interviewee, Z. did not immediately understand my question, even when reformulated in clearer Russian by a native colleague. The question seemed alien to her. “No, no, there was no difference,” she replied firmly.
Two researchers here at Sheffield (Alun Thomas & Oliver Johnson) are designing a guide to help historians arriving in Moscow for the first time. They’ve created a map indicating key landmarks: archives and libraries, but also cafes, art galleries, theatres etc. It’s a work-in-progress so if any of you would like to add favourite haunts, your help will be welcomed!
It’s been pointed out that the translated newspaper article I pasted into a comment at the bottom of a long discussion might go unnoticed, and – given it might be useful to others teaching on the Gulag – I thought I’d add it here as a proper post.
Over the past eighteen months I have come to realise that I’m not an ideal blogger in the sense that I’m not always very good at checking the internet! I’ve been busily writing my first thoughts about Death and Redemption without realizing that the conversation had already started. So here are my reflections about Steve’s book and its contribution to the field of Gulag studies.
Over the weekend I read, and greatly enjoyed, the recent translation of Elena Chizhova’s The Time of Women which won the Russian Booker Prize in 2009. Set in the early 1960s, the short novel tells the story of a “family” struggling to get by. This is not a regular family, but one brought into being by the vagaries of the Soviet housing system: when Antonina and her daughter are given a room in an apartment, the other inhabitants – three elderly women – become full-time grandmothers to the little girl, who understands everything, but does not yet speak; Antonina goes to work in the factory to provide for them all.
Antonina and the three babushki are desperate to protect Suzanna from the institutionalization they fear will be her fate if the authorities realize her “muteness.” Instead of sending her to nursery, the babushki spend their days reading to her (in Russian and French) and talking about their own unhappy lives under Soviet power. They secretly christen her Sofia and teach her about their Christian faith, despite the crack-down on religious practice in these years.
This short blog is just to share what was – for me at least! – a fascinating intersection of different research interests. A number of years ago, when I was researching my PhD on the impact of de-Stalinisation, I worked with files from the archive of the ‘thick’ journal Novyi mir. I found readers’ letters in response to the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich a particularly rich window through which to explore popular attitudes towards the Gulag, the terror, and the processes of release and rehabilitation which had been under way since Stalin’s death in 1953, and wrote an article using them.
After a slightly longer blogging ‘vacation’ than I had intended, I used some of the Christmas break to catch up on the posts I missed. Like many others, I particularly enjoyed the Gulag Boss discussion. It motivated me to start re-reading one of the few other texts I know written from the perspective of a camp worker, rather than a prisoner: Sergei Dovlatov’s wonderful The Zone.
Dovlatov’s work relates to his time he served as prison camp guard as part of his military service in the early 1960s. It masterfully integrates extracts from his (allegedly) incomplete manuscript full of rich anecdotes from camp life, and correspondence with his editor about how such material should be treated.
In my first blog I wrote about the film The Way Back and the question of authenticity in memoirs. In the one of the responses which followed, I was directed towards Forgive Me, Natasha by Sergei Kourdakov. At first glance, one of the most incredible elements of this memoir is the fact that a Soviet naval officer managed to jump ship off the coast of Canada and swim ashore to start a new life. As the cleverly titled 2004 documentary Forgive me, Sergei shows, however, other parts of the story turn out to be more questionable.
Over the Easter weekend, I was reading The Guardian and came across a full-page photograph taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson on a visit to the Soviet Union in 1954. This stunning photograph was used the following year as the front cover of Life magazine.
To me the image is of a balmy Moscow day. Two pretty young girls are being eyed up by soldiers. People are waiting for a trolley-bus to take them home. A man is selling ice-cream, or maybe kvass, in the background.
This is just a short blog to point any interested readers to the interview I recorded with Sean Guillory for his recently launched New Books in Russian Studies. I was pleased that my Khrushchev’s Cold Summer could still count as a new book, even though it was published in 2009. After a break of more than two years since I dispatched the final proofs back to the publisher, it was strange, but enjoyable, to find myself talking in depth about issues which had been the focus of so much attention for so many years.
In the autumn I attended a conference on “Unthinking the Imaginary War: Intellectual Reflections of the Nuclear Age, 1945-1990” in London. The very same weekend another cohort of academics were attending a conference on “Accidental Armageddons: The Nuclear Crisis and the Culture of the Second Cold War, 1975-1989” in Washington. The Cold War is a hot topic at the moment. Increasingly scholars are taking interdisciplinary approaches, using film, novels, and art, to explore how this ever-looming, but unconsummated, conflict was imagined, and the emotions it generated. In London I learned how peace activists, scientists, politicians, and the general public reacted to the nuclear threat, with papers on a range of countries including Germany, Britain, France, Japan, and the USA. Curiously, the Soviet Union, the red menace behind so many of these anxious projections, often seems to be missing. The question of how Soviet society regarded its adversaries in the capitalist world, and how fears of nuclear annihilation were handled, is nevertheless a fascinating one and some interesting work is beginning to appear.
Just before Christmas I saw the newly released The Way Back, in many ways a typical escape story. Directed by Peter Weir, the film tells the incredible story of how a young Polish officer, arrested in 1939 and sent to the Siberian Gulag, plots his escape – and with a small band of fellow inmates – manages not only to make it out of the camp, but also through Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayas to India. Along the way they face many of the knotty moral issues characteristic of the genre: Should they wait for weakened members of the group? When must they rest, and when battle on? And can they risk letting a newcomer – in this case, a young girl Polish also on the run – join them? There are some nice touches: I particularly like the way the girl acts as a go-between, passing on information about the men which they are too buttoned-up to share amongst themselves.