Don Raleigh’s study of two graduating classes of the late 1960s, one in Moscow, the other in the ‘closed city’ of Saratov, offers uniquely rich insight into life in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. I found it compelling and often moving, not least because the book’s structure allows us to follow this group from childhood to retirement (although the way in which testimony is cited, which I’ll return to below, makes it almost impossible to remember or trace individual life stories across the decades/chapters). And, unlike many oral history studies, this really is a group (or two groups): rather than employing the usual ‘snowball’ method of finding informants, Raleigh set himself the goal of locating as many of these two ‘classes’ as he could, eventually tracking down about half of the Moscow cohort and almost all of their Saratov equivalent. As the book goes on, we start to understand what made this detective work both possible, yet also immensely difficult. On the one hand, friendship bonds between the groups and their memories of their time at school seemed unusually strong and long-lasting, compared with Western ‘baby boomers’. I would have liked the author to investigate these Soviet forms of friendship more fully: there are clear precedents in the Stalin era, on the one hand, and on the other, this cohort bonding and the ‘private’ settings in which it took place seems more important to the processes of post-Stalinist ‘privatisation’ than the ‘nuclear family’ that looms larger in Raleigh’s analysis (indeed, this seems a misnomer given the very high rates of divorce and ongoing dislocation of families that he shows so richly). On the other hand, although the post-Stalin era did see much less dislocation and trauma than the 1930s and 1940s (a stability and ‘normalisation’ which, it is often pointed out here, actually de-stabilised the Soviet Union in the long term), the changes that took place between the 1950s and the start of the 21st century still scattered even this relatively privileged group across the former Soviet Union and across the world. Indeed, as the author argues, it was precisely their high levels of education and unusual access to foreign travel even before the Soviet collapse, which made this sub-group of post-Stalinist society (like several other participants in this debate, I am reluctant to call such a specialised segment of Soviet society a ‘generation’) more likely to leave after 1991.
Category: Soviet Baby Boomers
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.
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 very important issue addressed in Don Raleigh’s book is the relations between Moscow and provincial cities, especially between Moscow and such “closed” cities as Saratov, during late socialism.
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.
One important topic of Raleigh’s book is Soviet patriotism and anti-Americanism of the Soviet baby boomers. This topic with an emphasis on Soviet patriotism and rejection of negative aspects of capitalism prevailed in all student diaries from the early stage of the Soviet middle school (5-7 grades) through the years in the high school (8-10 grades) and the first college years through the 1960s and the 1980s. For the authors of those diaries a Soviet child was a patriot of his socialist “motherland.” Despite the fact of the growing influence of western cultural products, which became available during the détente in the 1970s, and beginning of cultural fixation over such products like movies, popular music and fashion in the last years in high school and the first years in college, the mental construction of the young man in the diaries is still based on the dichotomy of “Soviet patriot vs. western capitalism.”
Another important issue in Raleigh’s book is a role of media in cultural consumption of the Soviet baby boomers especially during the 1970s (pp. 221-223, 275, 299). I will add, which was missing in the book. The détente of the 1970s became a critical period in the westernization of Soviet youth, and various media played important role in this process. Paradoxically, by legitimizing consumption of Western cultural products, the official Soviet policy of détente justified an incorporation of various elements of Western modernity (from the new fashions to a commercialization of popular culture) into Soviet ideological practices of the 1970s that further disoriented and confused both local ideologists and local youth.
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.
Another interesting source for our understanding of the Soviet Baby Boomers Generation is a written correspondence by the western journalists who lived in Moscow during late socialism. Western journalists’ publications were also based on personal interviews. Sometime those publications have more insights and precious information than recent interviews which are distorted by the effect of condensed memory. I would recommend the best book about Moscow in the 1970s, which could be used in our conversation about post-Stalin Soviet generation, Hendrick Smith, The Russians (New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1976).
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.
Soviet baby-boomers were, like their counterparts in the US and Western Europe, what Bernd Weisbrod has termed a ‘noisy generation’. In Russia, the term ‘1970-ers’ is probably more familiar. Among those who have proclaimed the importance of their experience (while branding them, paradoxically, as largely an unsuccessful lot) is the Leningrad/St Petersburg writer and broadcaster Lev Lur’e (see, for example, his piece, ‘How Nevsky Prospect Defeated “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” Square’, http://www.rvb.ru/np/publication/03misc/lurye.htm – in Russian). There are large numbers of memoirists from this generation too (Viktor Krivulin and the compulsive attention-seeker Viktor Toporov are other examples), not to speak of creative writers – as both those named also were, and in the latter case are. One could say that there was ‘information overload’ with regard to those born between 1944 and 1953, at any rate if they lived in Leningrad.
So what is the virtue of looking at this generation again? One answer is that interviews, on which Don Raleigh’s book is based, produce a different view: more informal, perhaps less likely to reproduce the tropes familiar from written memoirs. (They may reproduce others, and I personally wouldn’t have minded seeing a little analysis of this set of perceptual and verbal stereotypes in Don’s book, though I sympathise with his commitment to retrieving areas of the past that are very hard to get at with any other source.) Also, interviews are a way to recognise the experience of people who would never write their own memoirs, because they simply don’t see their lives as interesting. In the words of one of my informants, not a baby-boomer (but in this case I’m not sure there’s a big difference): ‘Well, what is there to say? It wasn’t as though anything burned down or something’ (pozharov ne bylo: this has the ring of a set phrase, but is used also in concrete, everyday contexts, reporting that there really were no fires: the incendiary traditions of Russian society live on, and one learns from the Internet that it can be news to say that, for instance, there were no fires in Samara for an entire day: press.ru/Sluzhba_informatsii/Za-sutki-v-Samare-pozharov-ne-bylo28778.html).
Moving neatly back from that digression: I think Don’s book does work as a demonstration of the virtues of oral history, though naturally one is left with questions. Mine would include what would happen if you interviewed several members of the same family. This particular cohort must have been strongly affected by the war, about which they may well have heard their parents’ stories – but then again, maybe not. Reporting combatant experience seems to have been some kind of a barrier, not just in Russia, but in, say, Britain as well. (See the broadcaster Chris Tarrant’s comments on how his father’s memories of the war skipped a generation, coming to rest with his son: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/dec/01/chris-tarrant-my-family-values). It doesn’t even have to be confessions about, say, killing others that don’t get aired: we’ve surely all had that experience of having a son or daughter sit in on an interview and say afterwards, ‘s/he’s never told me any of that’ — less resentfully, usually, than wistfully.
I suppose what I am trying to say by this is that in an oral history one always has a sense of that further audience, to which one (as the researcher) may be assimilated. People don’t just have life trajectories, they have entire webs of relationships and memory dialogues. So perhaps we need to fill that in. I wonder whether Don has had any reactions from his informants, or members of their families, since the book was published? We have had a plan for a while at the journal Antropologicchesii forum to do a round-table where people talk about their experiences of being interviewed; some associates have been quite wary of that one, and of course it would have to be a certain type of informant (back to the question of how to get beyond/supplement the reminiscences of noisy members of noisy generations). But it would produce an alternative, and interesting, type of memory dialogue. Lur’e, in the piece that I’ve just cited, talks about generational conflict in terms of ‘a squabble with our elder brothers’ – by which he means the ‘1950ers’, or the politically active generation that ‘noisily’ preceded them.
These constant references to Leningrad may strike a grating note. After all, wasn’t that different (a place with a strong local identity)? I must say that work on an individual city has made me convinced ‘localness’ was a major feature of the post-Stalin experience – ‘localness’ that was of course coloured by the way in which the central leadership conceived of the role of the regions. But both Khrushchev’s idiosyncratic conception of democracy, and Brezhnev’s policy of ‘stability of cadres’ had important consequences for experience across the Soviet Union. One gets less sense of that, maybe, in a generational study that is focused on life trajectories (and that tracks a high degree of personal mobility) than one would with a different set of questions, tracing how people identified themselves (or didn’t) with the place where they were born.
I think that’s about all I want to say for the time being; I’ll follow this discussion as much as a heavy academic and practical schedule in St Petersburg (skidding over ice makes every walk at least 50 per cent longer..) may allow.
I know I won’t shock anyone by admitting that I often ask myself “why?” when reading an academic monograph: why this topic, why this approach and yes, why this book? Reading Don Raleigh’s Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation was, for me, the very opposite of that experience. In fact, the book got me right from the cover, with its charming, evocative photograph of two Soviet teenagers in a phone booth circa 1966. Something about the expression of the girl in the photo—I suppose it’s the way her mouth is half-opened, and the knowingness in her eyes—tells us she has something to say; the crisscrossed metal bars of the phone booth (and, in another way, the impinging presence of the boy beside her) suggest her limits.
In Soviet Baby Boomers, Raleigh has given her the opportunity to speak, forty plus years on and better late than never. There is no question that documenting the life story of this Soviet girl and of her cohort is a worthwhile project, intellectually and ethically. Raleigh’s book is both a goldmine of information on everyday life in the final decades of the Soviet Union and a powerful gesture of respect for the people who lived those lives. It is also immensely interesting. I would, nonetheless, like to raise a few questions about some of its key categories of analysis: generation, baby boomers, and 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.