Interview with Donald Raleigh, author of Pushkin Prize 2013 shortlisted book 'Soviet Baby Boomers'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

How did you first become interested in Russia?

The same age as my interviewees, I grew up in “Dr. Strangelove’s” America, when the perceived Soviet menace helped fashion my generation the way the threat of terrorism defines today’s. The Chicago public schools that I attended deserved top marks for subjecting the young and impressionable to frequent “duck and cover” air raid drills launched by a piercing siren blast, owing to the “Soviet threat,” which I, for one, took seriously. Our humorless physical education teacher at Mark Twain Elementary, Mrs. Dickman, supplemented the drills with mandated and improvised fitness regimens and nagging reminders that we should “eat bread, not candy,” so that we might be as strong as the Russians. Then there were the countless hours I spent in church praying for the conversion of the atheist Communists. I had to know who these people were who wished me harm.

Why did you decide to write Soviet Baby Boomers?

Until recently, my office at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was the only one along the corridor not occupied by someone affiliated with the Southern Oral History Program. I must have walked past promotional posters about the program’s activities thousands of times over the preceding decade during which I researched and wrote a book on the Russian Civil War in Saratov province. By the time I finished that difficult-to-research monograph, I was itching to tackle something altogether new for me. One day the inspiration came: why don’t I write an oral history? But what would I write about? I answered my own question while attending the graduation from Knox College of Anna Obraztsova (today an architect in New York), whose parents and Moscow family I have known since 1976. Over the years Anna’s mother, Lyuba, shared stories of attending Moscow’s School No. 20, and of her friends, now scattered throughout the world. At some point during graduation weekend, I sounded out Lyuba on the idea. When I realized that a comparable school offering intensive instruction in English had existed in Saratov, I knew I had a topic, and one that appealed to be at that. There’s a story behind the making of each book, and this is mine.

What is the strongest message that emerges from the book?

The 1967 graduates’ collective story tells the larger story of the upper strata of the Cold War generation that lived through the USSR’s twilight years. The Soviet propaganda state provided its citizens with facts and frameworks with which to think and with an ideological language rich in boilerplate metaphors, dogmas, and slogans; however, it ultimately could not dictate what its subjects thought. Understanding freedom as the range of choices from among which to pick, the Baby Boomers led remarkably “normal” lives in a society quickly losing its uniqueness and had a great deal of space for agency and moral choice. Lacking their parents’ fear, these “unconscious agents of change,” as one of them so aptly put it, became far more demanding of the Soviet system and therefore were more open to transforming it. Owing to their experience “living Soviet,” they were ready for perestroika even if they had not anticipated it, and, despite the hardships many endured during the tumultuous 1990s, they thought they were “worth it.” The Soviet system gave this generation, and this cohort in particular, all it had to offer, yet that was not enough: the overwhelming majority rejected it when the opportunity to do so arose.

What was the greatest unexpected revelation during your research for it?

I had visited the Soviet Union and Russia approximately thirty times between 1971 and 2001, when I started the project, and therefore no single bit of information surprised me. But when I told the cohort’s collective story, this changed. The most unexpected revelations are that only a handful of those I interviewed attended state-run daycare facilities (a “last resort” for most families) and that all of the Moscow Baby Boomers and almost all of the members of the Saratov cohort traveled abroad to Eastern Europe in the 1970s. I’d also highlight the degree to which the terror touched all families in some way; the level of official anti-Semitism; the manner in which trade unions subsidized Saratovites’ shopping trips to Moscow and other better-supplied cities; and the fact that the Baby Boomers did not know any committed Communists in their age cohort. Oh, and one more thing: without exception they were highly critical of the younger generations, but not of their own children.

Did you find as many common themes as differences between Soviet and US Baby Boomers?

Despite the pronounced differences between the two systems, I found some remarkable similarities, undoubtedly owing to the emergence of an incipient global youth culture at the time. What most readily comes to mind in terms of popular culture is love of the Beatles and other groups as well as similar tastes in clothing and hairstyles—again, when taking account of the profound differences between a socialism of deficits and a capitalism of abundance, at least for many. In interviewing people my age, I also came to appreciate the extent to which we shared life cycle issues specific to particular age cohorts: establishing careers, marriage and divorce, raising children, dealing with ageing parents, etc.

What do you think of current western attitudes to Russia?

My experience has been that, in dealing with Russia, we see what we want to see and respond accordingly. Given Russia’s political culture, the Putin phenomenon, for instance, is not that surprising. That said, we need to keep the focus on our own values and to deal with Russia in light of them.

What plans do you have for another book?

After finishing Soviet Baby Boomers , I began working on a biography of Leonid Ilich Brezhnev, general secretary of the CPSU from 1964 to 1982. To date, no academic biography of Brezhnev exists, although several historians, both in Russia and abroad, have launched similar projects. It turns out that Brezhnev kept a diary. Three Russian historians and a German historian have invited me to join them in preparing the diaries for publication. That project has all of my attention at the moment.