Soviet Baby Boomers Uncategorized

Soviet Baby Boomers-Generation as an Analytical Category

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 Uncategorized

Soviet Baby Boomers – The Noise of a Generation

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’, – 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:

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: 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.


Cold War Nostalgia and Memory Soviet Baby Boomers Soviet Era 1917-1991 Uncategorized

Soviet Baby Boomers- What’s a generation?

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.


The meaning of 1991: Some thoughts on oral history

“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.


Calling All Eurasians

To return to a theme from my previous post, I thought I’d mention that the University of Illinois’s Brittle Books Project–a long term initiative meant to save books subject to slow fire and other maladies–has taken a digital turn.  Some of our rare collections in Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies are now being digitized and made available in downloadable, .pdf form (as well as in some other formats).  The focus is on books from the 1900-1950s.  So, for example, if you want the first five numbers of the Evraziiskii vremennik, published in the 1920s, please to the table! And if there’s some text or other you think we might have, and maybe digitized, this is another place to look. I hope that our editions are reliable: at least you know where we are.

Archives Uncategorized

Research Guide to Moscow

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!

Soviet Era 1917-1991 Stalinism Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

“Under the beneficent rays of Soviet national policy…”

I spent some time this past week preparing for my fall class on the Soviet Union.  Each time I’ve taught it here at Hawai’i, I’ve made use of an unique resource at our Library, the “Social Movements Collection,” which is a large group of pamphlets and books that had been collected by Eugene Bechtold, a bookseller and former instructor at the Chicago Workers’ School.  While much of the collection relates to American Communism, anarchism, and peace movements, it also contains a rich source of material on the Soviet Union.


Istochnikovedenie 2012

Digital publishing and distribution are creating a whole new host of issues for historians to deal with, in the realm of source use, authentication, and citation. Obviously, that’s been true for some time now: we’re gradually getting up to speed on how to cite websites properly, for example. Working with scanned .pdfs or images of printed material—such as those provided by JSTOR, Google Books, or the Russian National Library’s Dokusfera project—raises other questions, but I think those are likewise being solved. If nothing else, the credibility of these known organizations can serve as a reference point for believing that the materials they provide are legit and can be legitimately used. (And if one or the other acquires a bad reputation, well then their identity is stable enough that this bad reputation will be useful to scholars, in evaluating whether to use them.)

A third category of questions, it seems to me, arises from the rapidly growing world of BitTorrent scans of major publications, available for download from peer to peer servers and produced by individuals with names like “jbjc2”.

Death and Redemption Uncategorized

Death and Redemption-More on Reforging

I am so enjoying this discussion, and I wish I weren’t leaving for a month (to Moscow, of course) in 2 days. I regret that all the business of getting properly packed has kept me away from this wonderful conversation.

In any case, I have read all the great comments, and what I wanted to talk about is Steve’s focus on Bolshevik ideals and his interest in “reforging.” Until this point I had felt that the Bolshevik ideals had melted away as the expediency of work and plans and then the war took over. I had no idea that the Gulag administrators had held on to these earlier ideals, and even took seriously the type of writing we saw in Belomor. To find out that Steve finds evidence of this sort of talk in the Karlag files is very important. It gives us a glimpse at the work of the political officers who were everywhere in the Gulag. Before this, I never had a feel for their real role aside other than preparing propaganda posters and exhibits.

Reading Miriam’s thoughtful comments made me realize that I too totally buy Steve’s argument that the reason for the existence and even endurance of the Gulag had to have been more political than economic. But like Jeff mentions in his excellent posting, I find this a very difficult point to prove. I mean, it’s fascinating to see that within the walls of the Gulag there were attempts at “reforging” going on, but my question is: to what end? And why do we not see mention of it in the memoir literature? Admittedly, we have all thought about the flaws and drawbacks in relying on memoirs, and I have not read that entire literature, but I cannot recall any descriptions of the actual work that the political officers did with the prisoners, or the results of this work. I would be interested to see that.

The reason I’m thinking about this is that I’ve studied the Chinese Gulag (the Laogai), which has its roots in the Soviet system. All I have been able to find out is that the Chinese imported the Gulag “model” in the early 1950s during the famous period of friendship and cooperation. (My favorite slogan from that time is “Let’s Be Modern and Soviet!”) The two systems are shockingly alike in their structure and function. However, there are definitely differences between the Gulag and the Laogai, the most important of which is that the Chinese Laogai is still functioning and actually producing goods that make money for the Chinese economy. The other difference is that still being a functioning Communist government, they successfully keep a lid on any files or data about the Laogai. It is basically a forbidden topic.

But, the most important difference is that there exist Laogai survivor memoirs (and there are not anywhere near as many of  them), in which the survivors write a lot about the “reforging” that took place in the Chinese Gulag. The most well-known writer, the Solzhenitsyn of the Laogai, if you will, is Harry (Hongda) Wu. He was arrested as a “rightist” in kind of a mass craziness sort of like the Great Purges called The Hundred Flowers. In any case, in the middle of a mass meeting to criticize him at his workplace, a uniformed Public Security officer appeared to announce: “I sentence the counterrevolutionary rightist Wu Hongda to reeducation through labor.” (45) He was forced to confess that he was indeed a rightist, and once he was incarcerated in the Laogai, he was told that his entire family had denounced him. The political officer then said to him: “You must study Mao Zedong thought very hard, reform yourself diligently, and become a new socialist person.” (57)

Later, after being worked over constantly “to reform his thoughts,” he thinks about the old Chinese custom of footbinding. “We have switched to headbinding…they bind a person’s thoughts instead. That way ideas all take on the same size and shape, and thinking becomes impossible. That’s why they arrested me. That’s why they want to change me, that’s why they force me to reform.” (88)

Has this sort of blatant recording of actual “reforging” or “thought reform” appeared in the Soviet memoir literature? I’m totally ready to believe that I have missed it. But it would be so great to find some accounts of it. As Steve mentions somewhere in his book, the camps were all different, and they changed over time, too, so it seems to me that if this “reforging” work was being pushed at all by the Central Administration, it would show up in some memoir. Anybody?

Note: Citations from Wu, Harry, Bitter Winds: A Memoir of my Years in China’s Gulag (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994).


The Time of Women

The Time of WomenOver 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. 

Closed Cities Cold War Gulag Soviet Intelligentsia Soviet Science Uncategorized

ZATOs In View

A few weeks ago, on March 27, I was at a reception at the Harriman Institute (for Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European Studies) at Columbia University for the opening of a new exhibit entitled ZATO: Soviet Secret Cities During the Cold War. The exhibit, which will be on display until May 22, was curated by Dr. Xenia Vytuleva, an architectural historian who did her graduate work at Moscow State University and is now visiting at Columbia. The exhibit includes images, diagrams, maps, and documents, some of it provided by Richard Pare, the English photographer well-known for his work on Soviet modernist architecture. Dr. Vytuleva has done an exemplary job of visually communicating the essence of the “closed cities” and I encourage all in the New York area to come and see her superb work.

My contribution to the project was to provide the historical text (and context) and to help conceptualize an exhibit ostensibly designed to render visible a phenomenon that was largely about invisibility. I provide here a brief summary of some of my thoughts that fed into the ZATO exhibit and the ways in which we might begin to situate the “secret cities” phenomenon on the social and political geography of the former Soviet Union. On a very cursory level, these cities are no mystery. Consider the official designation that created this typology of urban life: the Closed Administrative-Territorial Formation (Zakrytoe administrativno-territorial’noe obrazovanie, ZATO). All of these words hold certain meanings, but they all communicate a sense of boundaries, demarcations, limitations, and circumscriptions on the social and political geography of the Soviet Union. At a deeper level, the language of secret cities is also one of omission, most starkly demonstrated by the fact that the cities themselves were never shown on official maps produced by the Soviet regime. Implicated in the Cold War posture of producing weapons for the Soviet military-industrial complex, these cities were some of the most deeply secret and omitted places in Soviet geography. Those who worked in these places had special passes to live and leave, and were themselves occluded from public view. Most of the scientists and engineers who worked in the ZATOs were not allowed to reveal their place or purpose of employment. Again, this omission.

If the secret cities can be seen as a phenomenon of omission, they can also be understood as spaces of exclusion. Much like other social spaces that were highly exclusionary—such as the Gulag—passage in and out of these urban “formations” was very strictly regulated, even for people who lived within. Yet, what made them different from the Gulag was, of course, the intersection of exclusion and privilege. For Soviet intelligentsia—particularly scientists, engineers, and technicians—secret cities represented aspirational spaces, idealized urban formations where the day-to-day amenities of life were seemingly abundant and plentiful. In these markers—exclusion, omission, and privilege—we see the secret cities functioning as metaphors for the place of knowledge in Soviet civilization. Knowledge—and information—was excluded, omitted, and privileged, according the often arbitrary codes of the Bol’sheviks, creating a system of secrecy at the political, social, and cultural levels that affected every Soviet citizen. Activities from the most anodyne to the most dissident acquired and lost meaning when they were confronted with the boundaries of acceptable discourse.

Much of the discourse surrounding the secret cities has centered on Cold War imperatives and pressures; this was a story of the Soviet military-industrial complex.[1. For some useful social science and history literature, see Richard H. Rowland, “Russia’s Secret Cities,” Post-Soviet Geography and Economics 37.7 (1996): 426-462; Ira N. Gang and Robert C. Stuart, “Where Mobility is Illegal: Internal Migration and City Growth in the Soviet Union,” Journal of Population Economics 12.1 (1999): 117-134; Cynthia Buckley, “The Myth of Managed Migration: Migration Control and Market in the Soviet Period,” Slavic Review 54.4 (Winter 1995): 896-916; David Shearer, “Elements Near and Alien: Passportization, Policing, and Identity in the Stalinist State, 1932-1953,” Journal of Modern History 76.4 (2004): 835-881] But an obvious touchstone for the ZATO, especially in terms of secrecy, was the Gulag. Everything about the Gulag, its institutional structure, the scope of its camp system, how it operated, how many prisoners labored as part of it, where it was located—all of these were considered secret. The Gulag archives are, in fact, replete with directives whose sole goal was to ensure occlusion from public view. Like the ZATOs, the Gulag camps that dotted the Soviet landscape were also omitted from official Soviet maps.

Once the ZATOs began to emerge on the topography of Soviet maps in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they immediately became the object of study for Western security studies scholars (interested in weapons proliferation) and environmentalists (who were concerned with the effects of nuclear and industrial waste). Their concerns are certainly legitimate but it has been equally exciting to see humanities scholars and social scientists exploring other aspects of the ZATO phenomenon. New work among others by Victoria Donovan (who is studying migration) and Ekaterina Emeliantseva hold much promise to add to what has so far been a relatively straightforward recounting of facts. Much in the mode of this new work, the Van Alen Institute is hosting a discussion on May 15, 2012 on the theme of “ZATO: Secret Soviet Cities During the Cold War.” Present will be Jean-Louis Cohen, the Sheldon H. Solow Professor in the History of Architecture at NYU, Xenia Vytuleva, Richard Pare, and myself. On the same day, the Harriman Review will issue its Spring/Summer issue containing an essay by me proposing a conceptual framework for the study of ZATOs in the context of the history of secrecy in Soviet civilization. We hope that this will be the beginning of further discussion on the history and urban ecology of the phenomenon of closed cities.


Stalin Cult

In reply to my question about “going toward Hitler,” Plamper writes “Stalin, like the tsars, ensured himself a freedom one might say capriciousness of decision, which must have infused all of the institutions and officials seeking to please him. But that applied to most decision-making at the pinnacle of power in Stalin’s time—in a way, it is the universal definition of despotism.” I am not sure that that is a definition of despotism, though it certainly is a principal characteristic.  And perhaps it does not relate directly to the question of the Stalin cult.  But I was wondering about the modus operandi of Stalin particularly in regard to his image of modesty, and in comparison with other cults particularly Hitler’s ideologically proclaimed leader principle. (pp. 18-19)  In regard to the strategies of the artists or journalists to determine the images and shifts in imagery that Plamper shows so well, was this the result of a message communicated by figures close to Stalin, and/or a process of approximation awaiting higher approval like “going toward Stalin?”  I raise this question by way of clarification not of disagreement.  It may be that the manner of modesty was not only a way to avoid the ideological difficulties of personal rule in a Marxist framework, but also a means of generalizing uncertainty, the signs of approval even being less obvious than in Hitler’s open dictatorial rule.

Imperial Russia Nostalgia and Memory Russia in World History Uncategorized

How “Russian” is Kauai’s Fort Elizabeth?

In the early years of the Russian American Company, there was an odd incident that led to establishment of three “Russian” forts on the island of Kauai.  The reasons for that are somewhat complicated (and the study of several interesting books [1. Most recently, Peter R. Mills, Hawai’i’s Russian Adventure: A New Look at Old History, (Honolulu, 2002)]), but the physical evidence of the venture is the Hawaiian state park at the site of the “Russian” Fort Elizabeth.  When I first arrived at the site as a tourist, my first thought was that this was not “Russian” at all.

Russian American Company flag
Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

New Teaching Russian History Blog

Karl Qualls Associate Professor of Russian History at Dickinson College and author of From Ruins to Reconstruction: Urban Identity in Soviet Sevastopol after World War II (Cornell, 2009) has just launched Teaching History, a new blog that will focus heavily on teaching Russian history among other topics. Karl plans to invite guest posts from specialists to discuss their approaches to teaching particular topics in Russian history.

The first topic discussion is devoted to teaching the Gulag. The two invited specialists are myself and Wilson Bell, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Dickinson and a participant in our blog conversation on Gulag Boss here at Russian History Blog. Wilson and I will be sharing our thoughts on teaching the Gulag to undergraduate survey courses, topical seminars, and junior high/high school courses. Our first posts are now up. I have shared some of my goals when teaching the Gulag and will follow that up with posts that share audio-visual and print resources that I find particularly useful. (Obviously, my Gulag history website, Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, will be prominently featured.) I hope you’ll join this particular conversation and follow Karl’s new blog on a regular basis. I also hope you’ll consider how you too might contribute to the open access conversation on Russian history.

Post-Soviet Russia Uncategorized

Parodies of the Putin Spectacle

On Friday, I gave a talk called “Putin: Spectacle and Anti-Spectacle” with several clips from some amazing videos.    Here’s a really funny one that RH readers might enjoy:  “I work in United Russia”    

It is clearly a spoof on the Russian leader learning that he is being called a thief and immediately blaming his subordinate.   The video then goes on to show scenes from United Russia juxtaposed against scenes from Soviet life.


Aloha from Hawai’i

My name is Matt Romaniello, and I’m excited to be joining the Russian History Blog.  I’m an assistant professor of history at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and the associate editor of The Journal of World History. I specialize in the Russian Empire, and comparative empires more generally.  While my research has focused on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I’ve followed the history of the Russian Empire into the post-Soviet era to see how relations between Russia and its non-Russian subjects have, or have not, changed.

Digital Russian History Uncategorized

Open-Access and the General Public

I have written here and elsewhere on the reasons I decided to launch the Russian History Blog. One reason is a commitment to open access scholarship–to make the products of our scholarly research freely available to the general public. Most academic journals sit behind the pay walls of JSTOR, Project Muse, and the myriad other non-profit and for profit academic databases. As such, they are virtually invisible in the internet age, when not only students and the general public but also policy and opinion makers rarely venture beyond what is quickly and freely available online. I was shocked to read recently that JSTOR turns away 150 million attempts to access articles each year. Clearly, our scholarship would have a reading audience if only we would make it available!


Aleshka the Baptist

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.

Gulag Gulag Boss Russian Literature Uncategorized

A guard’s perspective: Dovlatov’s Zona

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. 

Digital Russian History Imperial Russia Russia in World History Uncategorized

Imagining the Petersburg-Moscow Road in the Late 18th Century

How do you imagine what a road was, historically?  Quite often, histories of transport describe histories of surfaces: the evolution of building techniques, say, from wooden planks to macadamized stone to modern asphalt or concrete.

Novgorod Province, Postal Map (1808)

Alternatively, roads are presented as transportation networks or ‘scapes’: that is, as a series of junctures (like the famous Moscow Metro Map) that permit traffic to flow from stop to stop to stop. Yet however important construction- or traffic-based approaches are, one thing they don’t capture is the way that human community is arranged in support of roads, and why. What are the social ‘moorings’ that sustain roads: that service their surfaces and also their travelers, and thereby make transportation along their elaborately constructed landscapes possible at all?

I’ve been trying to visualize an answer to this question, for one of Russia’s most famous roads: the Petersburg-Moscow corridor, in the late 18th century.  In what follows, I sketch some initial results; I’d be happy for your thoughts on it.