Home Introduction Archive Access Images Links



Remembering the past in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia

Memory in the sense of political history had a central place in Soviet culture from the beginning: ‘revolutionary traditions’ were supposed to be honoured and emulated, ‘progressive’ tendencies in past generations noted and admired, and the heroic dead commemorated with pomp. The famous ‘Plan of Monumental Propaganda’ created in 1918 listed figures from the past due their own memorials, and from an early stage, the history of the Russian Revolution was strictly controlled by the Party History committee (Istpart) [Corney]. Personal history in the sense of autobiography had a strictly defined role: loyal citizens of the Soviet state were supposed to recite their lives (whether out loud or on paper, as part of the process of attestation that went with obtaining access to higher education, to employment, or to membership of the Party or other public organisations). Life histories were also collected in order to buttress the official aetiology of the Soviet state – eyewitness testimony, suitably choreographed and edited, was a major resource of Istpart, and the enormous History of Factories and Plants [Istoriya fabrik i zavodov] initiated by Maksim Gorky generated a massive effort to record testimony from ordinary workers, who once again were encouraged to observe well-defined canons in what they set down [Zhuravlev]. In later decades of Soviet history, much testimony relating to experience of the Second World War was also collected: publications of note included a collection of women’s memoirs from Smolensk [Zhenshchiny rasskazyvayut] and Daniil Granin and Oles Adamovich’s anthology of testimony about the Leningrad Blockade.

The uses of autobiography

The results of this process of selective collecting and filtration were to marginalise testimony that recorded practices, processes, and ‘inner experiences’ (perezhivaniya), rather than events. Ordinary Soviet people learned to think of life writing or life narrating in certain constrained contexts. Autobiography might form part of a ‘transformation narrative’ (the former self reshaped, negative phenomena identified and attacked, as in the biographies collected from trainee nursery teachers by the First Experimental Station of Narkompros in the 1920s, or the autobiographies written by new entrants to the Party at the same period [Halfin], or the diaries produced by ‘conscious’ workers and members of the Soviet intelligentsia in the 1920s and 1930s [Hellbeck]). Autobiography might also be a resource used to construct a protective alternative identity, as when those with politically suspect antecedents simply remade the ‘file selves’ that were required from them as they progressed up the educational and professional ladder [Figes; Fitzpatrick]. Whichever way, the notion that someone might simply be asked to record for posterity what they remembered about the past was alien, and to this day it is common for informants to protest that ‘nothing interesting’ happened in their lives and that these are not worth remembering. In a society that placed so much emphasis on the ‘bright future’ also, negative experience was often difficult to express. Though in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a brief period when the Soviet era was the subject of stringent criticism, by the late 1990s the wave had passed, and people often felt that they should defend or even celebrate what they thought had been lost since 1991, particularly communitarian values [Bertaux, Thompson, and Rotkirch; Baiburin and Piir]. Two phrases frequently used in oral testimony at this period were ‘Well, not everything was bad’ (Ved’ ne vse bylo plokho) and ‘Why remember sad things?’ (Zachem vspominat’ o grustnom?).

Oral history in the post-Soviet period

Since the early 1990s, oral history has become a central genre of historiography, both inside and outside Russia. Important early publications included Barbara Engel and Anastasia Posadskaya’s collection of testimony by women, A Revolution of One’s Own, and Mariya Vitukhnovskaya’s anthology Na korme vremeni. Important work has also been done on the specific methodological issues relating to the collection and analysis of oral history [e.g. Meshcherkina, Antropologicheskii Forum 4]. By and large, however, emphasis continues to be placed on witnessing events, as in the large-scale project devoted to testimony of the Leningrad Blockade at the European University, St Petersburg (http://www.eu.spb.ru/oralhist/project2.htm), or the study by Orlando Figes of families’ experience of the Terror, or Catherine Merridale’s use of the testimony of war veterans for Ivan’s War, or Elza Guchinova’s work on the forced exile of the Kalmyks during and after the Second World War. Conversely, oral history with a broader remit has tended to focus on socially specific groups: the pupils at Model School No. 25 in Moscow [Holmes], the graduates of a comparably high-profile provincial ‘special school’ in Saratov [Raleigh], gentry families in Leningrad [Chuikina], Moscow working dynasties [Bertaux]. Alternatively, it has been conducted within one particular city, as in the study by Ekaterina Gerasimova and Sofya Chuikina of Leningraders’ relationship with social spaces, or Alexandra Piir’s work on the Leningrad courtyard, or has been devoted to specific areas of the countryside [e.g. Paxson; Granitsa i lyudi]. There is little work that facilitates comparative studies of life in different cities, or a broad understanding of different experiences in cities, small towns, and the countryside. There are also restrictions, in an overall sense, in terms of the topics selected for micro-studies. For example, much excellent work has been done on the communal apartment [see particularly Utekhin], but there is considerably less material available on worker barracks, or on hostels (obshchezhitiya), which constituted the communal experience for many people, or on the private houses that remained the experience of some in provincial cities and small towns right into the late twentieth century.


Mariya Akhmetova, Mikhail Lurye, ‘Materialy bologovskikh ekspeditsii 2004 g.’, Antropologicheskii forum. 2005. No.2. Pp. 336-57 (see also Forum for Anthropology and Culture. 2005. No. 2).

Antropologicheskii forum. 2006. No. 4 (‘Forum 4’, pp. 7-128) (see also Forum for Anthropology and Culture. 2006. No. 3).

Albert Baiburin and Alexandra Piir, ‘When We Were Happy: Remembering Soviet State Holidays’, in Marina Balina and Evgeny Dobrenko (eds.), Happiness Soviet Style (London: Anthem Press, 2008).

Daniel Bertaux, Paul Thompson, and Anna Rotkirch, On Living Through Soviet Russia (London and New York, 2004).        

Sofya Chuikina, Dvoryanskaya pamyat: “byvshie” v sovetskom gorode (St Petersburg: Evropeiskii Dom, 2006).

Frederick Corney, Telling October: Memory and the Making of the Bolshevik Revolution. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).

Barbara Engel and Anastasia Posadskaya, A Revolution of Their Own: Voices of Women in Soviet History (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1998).

Orlando Figes, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (London: Allen Lane, 2007).

Sheila Fitzpatrick, Tear Off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Ekaterina Gerasimova and Sofya Chuikina, ‘Ot kapitalisticheskogo Peterburga k sotsialisticheskomu Leningradu : izmenenie sotsialno-prostranstvennoi struktury goroda v 30-e gody’, in T. Vikhavainen [=T. Vihavainen] (ed.). Normy i tsennosti povsednevnoi zhizni: Stanovlenie sotsialisticheskogo obraza zhizni v Rossii, 1920-1930-e gody  (St Petersburg, 2000), pp. 27-74.

Evgeny Golovko, Nikolai Vakhtin, and Peter Schweitzer, Russkie starozhily Sibiri: Sotsial’nye i simvolicheskie aspekty samosoznaniya (Moscow: Novoe izdatelstvo, 2004).

Daniil Granin and Ales' Adamovich, Blokadnaya kniga. (Moscow: Sovetski Pisatel', 1982).

Granitsa i lyudi: vospominaniya sovetskikh pereselentsev Priladozhskoi Karelii. Sbornik materialov. Ed. Ekaterina Melnikova, Sergei Shtyrkov (St Petersburg: Evropeiskii dom, 2005).

Elza-Bair Guchinova, Pomnit nelzya zabyt : Antropologiya deportatsionnoi travmy kalmykov (Studies in Soviet Politics and Society Band 20) (Stuttgart: Ibidem Verlag, 2005).

Igal Halfin, Terror in My Soul. Communist Autobiographies on Trial (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003)

Jochen Hellbeck, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

Larry Holmes, Stalin’s School: Moscow’s Model School no. 25, 1931-1937 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999).

 Catriona Kelly, ‘“The School Waltz”: The Everyday Life of the Post-Stalinist Soviet School’, Forum for Anthropology and Culture. 2004. No. 1. Pp. 104-55.

Catriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890-1991 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

Catriona Kelly, ‘‘Good Night, Little Ones’: Childhood in the “Last Soviet Generation”’, in Stephen Lovell (ed.), Generations in Europe (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007).

Catriona Kelly and Svetlana Sirotinina, ‘“Bylo smeshno i neponyatno”: Pozdnesovetskie prazdniki i ikh vospriyatie detmi’, Antropologicheskii forum 8 (2008), forthcoming.

Pamyat o blokade. Svidetelstva ochevidtsev i istoricheskoe soznanie obshchestva. Materialy i issledovaniya. Ed. Marina Loskutova (Moscow: Novoe izdatelstvo, 2006).

Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War: The Red Army 1939-1945 (London: Faber and Faber, 2005).

Elena Meshcherkina, Ustnaya istoriya i biografiya--zhenskii vzglyad (Moscow: Nevskii proctor, 2004).

Margaret Paxson, Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village (Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Indiana University Press, 2005).

Alexandra Piir, ‘Dlya chego nuzhen dvor? Vozrastnye soobshchestva leningradskikh dvorov’, Antropologicheskii forum. 2006. No. 5. Pp. 345-78.

Donald Raleigh,  Russia’s Sputnik Generation. Soviet Baby Boomers

Talk about Their Lives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).

David Ransel, Village Mothers: Three Generations of Change in Russia and Tataria (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).

Nancy Ries, Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation During Perestroika (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).

Traditsionnyi fol’klor Novgorodskoi oblasti. (Poslovitsy i pogovorki. Zagadki. Primety i pover’ya. Detskii fol’klor. Eskhatologiya. Po zapisyam 1963-2002 gg.. Ed. M. N. Vlasova, V. N. Zhekulina (St Petersburg: Tropa Troyanova, 2006).

Ilya Utekhin, Ocherki kommunalnogo byta (2nd edn.; Moscow: OGI, 2004).

Mariya Vitnukhovskaya, Na korme vremeni: intervju s leningradtsami (St Petersburg: Neva, 2000).

Zhenshchiny rasskazyvayut: Vospominaniya, stat’i (Smolensk: Knizhnoe izd., 1959).

Sergei Zhuravlev, Fenomen “Istorii fabrik i zavodov”. (Moscow: Institut istorii RAN, 1997).


Home Introduction Archive Access Images Links

© University of Oxford. All rights reserved.
Revised: October 15, 2007