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The Oxford archive: Rationale

The work behind the Oxford archive is intended to complement work that has been carried out by other scholars, or that is currently in progress. Our remit is broad – this is intended as a modern equivalent of the Harvard Interview Project or the Soviet Interview Project, but focusing on testimony from Russians who are still living in the country rather than émigrés (though a specific study of émigré experience is also part of our work; see further below). We also take a different approach to recording testimony from that adopted as part of the Harvard Interview Project, being less concerned to record ‘what really happened’ under Soviet power, and more concerned to assemble a wide and varied range of memories of the Soviet past, and of the post-Soviet years. We have tried to give emphasis to the memories of those who have not customarily left written autobiographies, and who have sometimes fallen outside the purview of those collecting oral testimony, particularly members of the urban working classes and young people, whose autobiographies are different from those of the middle-age and elderly, including more concrete detail and fewer set-piece narratives (baiki, memoraty).

Material has been collected in Moscow, St Petersburg, Perm, Taganrog, Vorkuta, and two rural sites – a settlement in Leningrad province that is the site of a good deal of in-migration from other parts of rural Russia, and a village in Novgorod province whose largely settled population was well-developed.

Themes and methodology

The material collected so far has been gathered in the framework of two different projects:

      Childhood in Russia, 1890-1991: A Social and Cultural History, sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust (Grant no. F/08736/A) (see www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/russian/childhood). (October 2003-October 2006).

This material consisted of around 140 life-history interviews with a focus on childhood experience conducted with both ‘family’ children and those brought up in orphanages. About fifty interviews were conducted, using a different questionnaire, with teachers, orphanage supervisors, paediatricians, a policewoman with experience of the ‘children’s room’ facility run by the local police, and other professionals working in the field of child care.

      Russian National Identity from 1961: Traditions and Deterritorialisation, sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Grant no. AH/E509967/1) (see www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/russian/nationalism). (September 2007-September 2010).

The work for this project is concentrated in North-Western Russia. Several different interviewing initiatives are taking place:

a)      A life history study in St Petersburg, concentrating on ‘cultural memory’ and family traditions. In total, around 150 interviews will be conducted. The questionnaire was designed by Catriona Kelly and Albert Baiburin. The interviewers are Svetlana Amosova, Alexandra Kasatkina, and Irina Nazarova, of the European University, and Catriona Kelly (University of Oxford).

b)      A study of Russian émigré experience in the UK, with especial reference to family traditions (Andy Byford, University of Oxford).

c)      Interviewing on traditions relating to food and eating (by Anna Kushkova, European University, St Petersburg, as part of a project on food traditions). (St Petersburg, also rural sites and Ukraine).

d)      Interviewing in Novgorod, Pskov, and Vologda as part of work for a doctorate on cultural memory in these three ‘Old Russian’ cities. (Victoria Donovan, University of Oxford).

e)      Interviewing related to a project on the Soviet and Russian passport. (Albert Baiburin, European University, St Petersburg).

f)        Interviewing related to a project on Russian youth culture in St Petersburg and Vorkuta. (Elena Omelchenko, ‘Region’ Centre, Ulyanovsk, and Smolnyi College, St Petersburg; Hilary Pilkington, University of Warwick).

In the case of the interviews about childhood experience and of a) and b) in the Russian national identity project, we have used a semi-structured format beginning with questions about the informant’s experience of childhood, and allowing a good deal of time for general reminiscences about life history. This method has advantages when working with people who are not used to telling their life history as a matter of course, since starter questions of the kind often recommended for oral history work (‘Tell us everything about your life that you remember, beginning with the earliest period’) can cause informants who think that they have ‘nothing to say’ because they do not remember any notable events uncertainty and embarrassment. Similarly, informants are routinely asked follow-up questions about concrete details of everyday life that they may not have mentioned (‘Did your family have any pictures on the walls?’ ‘What was the district that you lived in like at that time?’) in order to act as prompts to testimony about the past. In the case of the interviews related to food, the passport, and cultural memory in Old Russian cities [topics c), d), and e)], a more concentrated approach is adopted (the questions are more closely focused), but informants have the opportunity to expand and digress as they consider appropriate.

The material collected can be analysed from a large number of different angles: it provides information about everyday life (e.g. domestic practices, child-rearing, youth culture) and about family relationships; it presents views of collective identity in more considered and extended form than is possible in questionnaires; and it supplies abundant evidence of issues such as self-presentation, autobiography as performance and as dialogue, and the characteristics of what Nancy Ries has described as ‘Russian talk’. While some of our informants were reticent in the interview situation, many relished the attention and provided abundant detail about the topics of discussion.

Output

The material collected for ‘Childhood in Russia: A Social and Cultural History’ has been used in Catriona Kelly’s Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890-1991 (New Heaven: Yale University Press, 2007), in her Comrade Pavlik: The Rise and Fall of a Soviet Boy Hero (London: Granta, 2005) and in a number of her articles. Work using this material is also being carried out by Dr Sarah Turner (formerly of University College, Oxford, now at the University of Waterloo, Canada), by Aurelie Dekoninck (a graduate student in History at Merton College, Oxford), and by Jonathan Brunstedt (a graduate student in History at St Antony’s College, Oxford).

 The planned output for ‘Russian National Identity’ using interview material includes Catriona Kelly’s monograph on modern St Petersburg, Albert Baiburin’s monograph on the Soviet and post-Soviet passport, Anna Kushkova’s studies of Russian food, and Hilary Pilkington and Elena Omelchenko’s articles and books on Russian youth culture.

 

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