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How useful is oral testimony for a historian studying the Era of Stagnation in the Soviet Union?

Contents
Introduction. 3
Identification and evaluation of sources. 3
Reflection. 5
References. 6





Introduction


This study will answer question «How useful is oral testimony for a historian studying the Era of Stagnation in the Soviet Union?». I want to investigate the difference in everyday lifestyle in the USSR during the rule of Brezhnev,[1] and compare it to the Thaw. I will use interviews with my family members who lived through this time period as a primary source. I want to ask them about their memories, knowing that they are not likely to remember a lot of political events, but they can show lifestyle and mindset.


I have chosen to investigate this question to talk to my grandparents about their lives from an unusual perspective. I have chosen to investigate this time period because the period of Khrushchev thaw changed popular culture in the USSR and modern Russia forever, giving birth to popular stars like Vladimir Vysotsky, who is often referred as «Bob Dylan of the Soviet Union»[2], Bulat Okudzhava, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Bella Akhmadulina. When the era of Stagnation enforced censorship, the momentum was hard to stop, and texts were spread across the USSR in samizdat copies. Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky left the USSR, but kept on writing and publishing. Brezhnev was limiting the freedom, which is shown by the Bulldozer exhibition.[3]

Identification and evaluation of sources


The first source I have selected for the detailed analysis is the oral testimony of my grandfather Valentin Runov and my grandmother Galina Shtinova. The origin of the source is an informal interview. Before the talk I said that it will be recorded and used for my history research. From this we can deduce its purpose is to share the memories. On that basis it is valuable for the investigation of the key question because they show memories of real people who experienced this time period, and is more objective than newspapers which are likely to hide any problems in aims of propaganda. Nevertheless the source does have some limitations. These memories cannot show the full picture and likely to be misleading because of these gaps in content. The potential problem with this interview is that it’s very close to the events in personal lives, so memories can be more positive because of the nostalgia for a younger age. The original language of the interview also causes some limitations, because some meanings might be lost in translation.


The second source is a book The Soviet Union 1917-1991 by Martin Mccauley[4], who is a modern British historian, specializing in Russia and China. From the origin of the source we can deduce its purpose is to evaluate events of the Soviet History from the Russian Revolution and Civil War until the end of USSR. On this basis it is valuable for an investigation of the key question because it was published in 1993, after the Soviet Union collapsed, so it will not be greatly affected by the Cold War mentality, and the historian will have a view of the outsider, which will be more objective and especially useful to compare. Content of this source is useful and reliable because it is based on the historical investigation. Nevertheless the source does have some limitations for this particular investigation because the Cold War mentality still have some effect on the interpretation.



Investigation


With regard to censorship, I found that interview matched very closely to other sources. All of them showed that short liberalization led to increasing interest to poetry and literature, which became available in journals[5]. However, the party was still in control over literature, so «anti-Soviet» books were strongly criticized, and Pasternak was forced to refuse from the Nobel Prize for «Doctor Zhivago».[6] After Brezhnev came to power, censorship became stronger, and samizdat gained popularity. From the interview with my grandmother I got a sense of difference. She talked about famous poets and their role in the society: «I used to like poetry. Once Evtushenko and Achmadulina came to our city to read poetry, answer questions and talk to people. It was really popular, they were like celebrities», however, this perception of a great interest to the poetry is caused by personal interest, because the historical sources talk about hockey players and actors being popular rather than poets.[7] The interviewee commented: «It was impossible to buy any translated literature, even if it wasn’t banned. When Brezhnev came to power, there were a little good books in shops. There were plenty of books by Brezhnev, Marx and Lenin.»,and explained why it was easier to find books before: «Many of those, who were later considered «anti-Soviet», could print their books in the journals . Later we were reading samizdat books, «Master and Margarita» by Bulgakov, Mandelshtam and Evtushenko. It was impossible to buy these books, but we still tried to reprint them illegally». Such strong censorship might be caused by chaotic nature of the instruction from the Politburo, supported by the following quote “was not restrained by provisions of law and hence was arbitrary and not accountable to anyone.”[8]


General overview and evaluation of this time in the interviews is that there was too much propaganda everywhere, but it was considered normal and lost most of the meaning. In the interview, my grandmother said: «Joining Youth Organisation could give some privileges… And being involved was obligatory». The second interviewee supported this evidence: «A child was supposed to be educated within this system. They were doing good things, like recycling, but there were too much ideological meaning.». Both of the interviewees agreed that the reason for joining youth organisations[9] was not ideological, but practical. The historical evidence supports that being in the party or in Komsomol was giving advantages, such as sport events, career growth[10] and Student Construction Brigade[11], a paid work experience: «When you graduate from school, you need to build you careers, and it’s much easier to do within the party. You could have some privileges». The Komsomol was a strong tool of propaganda, even though the ideological aspect did not always fully involve its members, the membership was essential for the career, and the Komsomol was under control of KGB, which planted secret agents to the leading positions in the organisation, which is clear from primary documents.[12] However, the interview concentrates on cynical attitude to propaganda, which could develop if people have critical thinking skills, and leaves out stories when children were brainwashed, like Pavlik Morozov[13] who became the subject of songs, poems, opera and six biographies.[14] Even though Stalin’s cult of personality was attacked by Khrushchev, the story of Pavlik still influenced generations of children and encouraged them to inform the authorities about their parents[15], and it was not criticized mid-198os, when Yuri Druzhnikov published an investigation about him.[16]


Fashion in the USSR was rejected by the party, because it was considered to be anti-communist,[17] so there were no remarkable change in fashion between the Thaw and the Era of Stagnation, however the interview gave slightly different angle on fashion depending on the region. Even though the fashion slightly changed, it was made on the same factories using the same templates: «Everyone in the Soviet Union used to wear the same cloth, because the same cloth was produced»[18]. There were some people who tried to look different. Stilyagi[19] were a subculture of young people, who were trying to follow American or European fashion, and were attacked by the soviet media[20] or forced to stop wearing «provocative outfits» by the DND[21], which faded out to the middle 60-s. From the interviews I made a conclusion that there were different ways to be one of them in different region. In Sverdlovsk «stilyagi» were making their outfits by themselves: «My friend had homemade jeans. Teachers used to blame him for it. Your grandfather was one of them too, he made a tie from the belt his sister’s dress, platform shoes and sewed fairy lights with a battery to his trousers»[22]. Even though «stilyagi» were trying to follow the western fashion, it converted to an exaggerated form of fashion because of the lack of information about the subject. My grandfather, who lived in Ukraine, argued and talked about them with a slight hostility because of their mostly privileged background which gave them a possibility to get American jeans, but shared the same desire to look different: «Their parents could be diplomats or international sailors who could bring some fashion magazines. Young people wanted to look different. And that’s when the black market appeared. They met tourists and made deals. In Odessa, some people could have American jeans. They wanted to buy these things in any possible way. We had everything in Soviet Union, so having this outfit was a luxury». It is supported by the historian McCauley, who said that the komsomol leaders benefited most and some party officials started wearing jeans.[23][24] This example shows that one person cannot see a full picture, and the experience might not be true for different regions.


This study provided evidence and research which allows to conclude that the culture and fashion of the Era of Stagnation showed increasing interest to the western way or life, mostly generated by the short liberalisation during Khruchew’s Thaw, but control of the party over the society was too strong for visible changes, however, the underground culture, black markets and samizdat developed to keep the momentum of creativity.


Reflection


Oral testimonies are valuable for the historian because they help to take a personal angle, and be more involving. I realized that I like talking to my family about historical events. However, it causes the limitation, such as inability to see the whole picture and inaccuracy. My interviewees tended to give vague timeline, saying, “it happened when I was in high school… Or maybe in university”, and there was the same problem remembering specific places. This type of study might be useful for understanding the mindset and giving a personal angle, however, it might not be reliable for recalling specific facts and making conclusions. It can be useful in studying the regional differences, but it is really hard to reach a general conclusion and it is likely to be shaped by the personal perception. This investigation also proved the difficulty of reaching general conclusions in a society that was large and complex, which I tackled trying to conclude if the youth organizations and poetry were popular. One issue raised by this study relating to the methods used by historians is the challenge of translating the sources from different languages. I tackled this issue by translating the oral testimonies recorded as a conversation. In terms of this particular study, this issue manifested itself as a real difficulty, because some words are impossible to translate accurately, as well as the tone of speech and intonations.




Word count: 2 198

References


Ball, A. (2003). Imagining America. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.
Countries.ru. (2016). Наука и культура в период «оттепели». [online] Available at: http://www.countries.ru/library/countries/russia/dolgov/history2_18.html [Accessed 3 Sep. 2016].
Economist.com. (2016).
The music of Vladimir Visotsky: Russia's silenced voice of the people | The Economist. [online] Available at: http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2011/12/music-vladimir-visotsky [Accessed 3 Sep. 2016].
Karpova, Y. (2009). The Stilyagi: Soviet Youth (Sub)Culture of the 1950s and Its Fashion.
Nevergoodbyefilm.com. (2016).
Articles about the "Bulldozer Exhibition". [online] Available at: http://nevergoodbyefilm.com/Never_Goodbye/Articles_about_the_%22Bulldozer_Exhibition%22.html [Accessed 3 Sep. 2016].
Richmond, Y. (2003).
Cultural exchange & the Cold War. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
the Guardian. (2014).
Bulldozer: the underground exhibition that revolutionised Russia's art scene. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/17/bulldozer-underground-exhibition-revolutionised-russian-art [Accessed 3 Sep. 2016].
The Nation. (2016). Uncertainty and Anxiety: On Khrushchev’s Thaw. [online] Available at: https://www.thenation.com/article/uncertainty-and-anxiety-khrushchevs-thaw/ [Accessed 3 Sep. 2016].
Witness. (2014). The Khrushchev Thaw.
Youth in the former Soviet South. (2012). London: Routledge.
Yurchak, A. (2006). Everything was forever, until it was no more. Princeton, NJ: PrincetonUniversityPress.
Журнальный зал. (2016). Кто на пьедестале, а кто в толпе? Стиляги и идея советской «молодежной культуры» в эпоху «оттепели». [online] Available at: http://magazines.russ.ru/nz/2004/4/ra4.html [Accessed 3 Sep. 2016].

Matthews, M. (2011). Education in the Soviet Union : policies and institutions since Stalin : Routledge Library Editions: Education. Routledge.

McCauley, M. (1993). The Soviet Union. London: Longman.

McCauley, M., 2007. The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union. London: Routledge
Chernyshova, N. (n.d.). Soviet consumer culture in the Brezhnev era.

Figes, O. (2007). The whisperers. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Журнальный зал. (2016). Катриона Келли, Павлик Морозов и Лубянка. [online] Available at: http://magazines.russ.ru/voplit/2006/3/dru12.html [Accessed 10 Oct. 2016].


[1]which lasted from 1964 to 1982
[2] Economist.com. (2016). The music of Vladimir Visotsky: Russia's silenced voice of the people | The Economist. [online] Available at: http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2011/12/music-vladimir-visotsky [Accessed 3 Sep. 2016].
[3] Nevergoodbyefilm.com. (2016). Articles about the "Bulldozer Exhibition". [online] Available at: http://nevergoodbyefilm.com/Never_Goodbye/Articles_about_the_%22Bulldozer_Exhibition%22.html [Accessed 3 Sep. 2016].

the Guardian. (2014). Bulldozer: the underground exhibition that revolutionised Russia's art scene. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/17/bulldozer-underground-exhibition-revolutionised-russian-art [Accessed 3 Sep. 2016].
[4] A British historian and former senior lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, at University College London. He is a member of the Limehouse Group of Analysts and a regular commentator in the media on Russian affairs.
[5] «Noviy mir» and «Yunist», which led to re-discovery of poets who were not published during the rule of Stalin, like Yesenin, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, and the begging of the career of the new generation of poets, Yevtushenko, Rozdestvenskiy and Voznesenkiy.
[6] Countries.ru. (2016). Наука и культура в период «оттепели». [online] Available at: http://www.countries.ru/library/countries/russia/dolgov/history2_18.html [Accessed 1 Sep. 2016].
[7] Holmgren, B. (2003). The Russian memoir. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.
[8] V. D. Stelmakh, “Reading in the context of censorship of the Soviet Union”, Libraries and Culture 36:1 (2001), pp. 143–150, p144.
[9] the Little Oktebrist, Young Pioneer and Komsomol organisation
[10] Matthews, M. (2011). Education in the Soviet Union : policies and institutions since Stalin : Routledge Library Editions: Education. Routledge.
[11] Youth in the former Soviet South. (2012). London: Routledge.
[12] Blogs.bu.edu. (2016). The Komsomol | Guided History. [online] Available at: http://blogs.bu.edu/guidedhistory/russia-and-its-empires/sigalit-vasilver/ [Accessed 29 Sep. 2016].
[13] Pavlik Morozov was known for supposedly denouncing his father to the authorities for the corruption, happened to 1932 and appeared to be a myth, but it still had a great impact on the culture and morality.
[14] Журнальный зал. (2016). Катриона Келли, Павлик Морозов и Лубянка. [online] Available at: http://magazines.russ.ru/voplit/2006/3/dru12.html [Accessed 10 Oct. 2016].
[15] Figes, O. (2007). The whisperers. New York: Metropolitan Books.
[16] Журнальный зал. (2016). Катриона Келли, Павлик Морозов и Лубянка. [online] Available at: http://magazines.russ.ru/voplit/2006/3/dru12.html [Accessed 10 Oct. 2016].
[17] Yurchak, A. (2006). Everything was forever, until it was no more. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
[18]From the oral testimony
[19] Karpova, Y. (2009). The Stilyagi: Soviet Youth (Sub)Culture of the 1950s and Its Fashion.
[20] Журнальный зал. (2016). Кто на пьедестале, а кто в толпе? Стиляги и идея советской «молодежной культуры» в эпоху «оттепели». [online] Available at: http://magazines.russ.ru/nz/2004/4/ra4.html [Accessed 6 Aug. 2016].
[21]Komsomol Voluntary People’s Druzhina
[22]From the interview
[23]McCauley, M., 1993. The Soviet Union 1917-1991. London: Routledge
[24] McCauley, M., 2007. The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union. London: Routledge