Adrienne Edgar, Ali Igmen, and Marianne Kamp reached similar conclusions after their successful first projects on early Soviet Central Asia. Their articles in this issue highlight how oral history interviews allow scholars of the Soviet Union access to intimate daily lives and thoughts, broadening our understanding of lived experience. We see Soviet citizens, not to mention the Soviet Union, as complicated. Each voice heard here betrays a thoughtful, considered balancing of lives, relationships, and beliefs with ideas, identities, and policies deriving from a state centered thousands of kilometers away. Each author finds their Central Asian subjects--Uzbeks remembering times of hardship, Kazakhs recounting the naming of their children, Kyrgyz recalling successful lives in Soviet theater--using their interviews to consider compromises between personal hopes and the realities that surrounded them, as they dealt with spouses, parents, collective-farm administrators, and artistic directors, all within the terrain set down by an evolving Soviet regime.
Oral histories have gained acceptance slowly, and somewhat begrudgingly, among historians of the Soviet Union. I recall substantial unease among my academic forebears, social historians who preferred the sanctity and ostensible reliability of the written word, during workshops and conferences in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Documents from aggregate statistics to press reports, instead of individual impressions recorded decades after the fact, were the path to understanding the nature of Soviet society. The 1990s witnessed a rush to the archives rather than, sadly, a rush to interview elderly Soviet citizens--for example, World War II veterans, few of whom are available to researchers today. Lived experience remained secondary to the desire to explore macrolevel controversies and expose the "truth" of the Soviet state. (2) Hopes for such an achievement had faded by the time Donald Raleigh's work on Soviet Baby Boomers demonstrated the value of oral history for an understanding of not only daily life but also mobility, Sovietness, and the relationship between the state and its citizens. (3) His interviews added color to a time--the post-Stalin era--seen then as rather gray and dull by historians, as written sources of the time were filled with the formulaic and often apparently empty discourse of a now mature Soviet state.
Color allowed us to see the nuance in the Soviet world, the absence as well as the presence of the state, the way citizens accommodated, adapted, and resisted words and policies from above. We understand motivations as well as outcomes, and how citizens place themselves within their society. We see the how as well as the why at the microlevel, and how it redounds upward. What led one Uzbek to start eating potatoes in the 1930s, and another to refuse them as haram, forbidden by Islam? Why did one mixed Russian-Kazakh family name their child Tat'iana instead of Akbota? What did that mean to them and their families, and what did that say about the power of belonging and ethnic and related hierarchies? How did one become a "star" in the Soviet Union through the fine arts? Decades later, how do these former actors consider Soviet values, as compared to those they see in play among their successors in modern Kyrgyzstan?
Each of these contributions in turn highlights the power of oral histories to revise our understandings of Soviet life in Central Asia, with ramifications that echo back to the center. Kamp's article uses voices of then-young collective-farm workers to combine social foodways and spatial histories, as potatoes move south and east from Russia at a moment of upheaval and desperation. Her interviews operate on several levels, allowing us to interrogate the causes of the 1933 famine in Uzbekistan itself--certainly, the standard assumption that the imposition of a cotton monoculture conditioned food shortages remains important, but Kamp's subjects note also a more specific wheat crop failure. On a personal level, these stories indicate how signs of famine first became evident--with starving Kazakhs moving southward from their villages and steppe lands--and the resulting, now immediate, pressure to expand their diet. Recollections of parents abandoning children or Uzbeks eating potentially lethal cotton-seed hulls to eke out a few more days, weeks, or months of life provide particular poignancy and importance to a period often seen as an "interim moment" between collectivization and war. We might not be surprised at the end result of Uzbeks choosing to grow and eat the hardier potato or risk starvation, but many of the respondents recalled their initial repulsion at consuming a "Russian food." Potatoes were strange and alien, and they had somehow to be made Uzbek before gaining acceptance as a crop. Uzbeks looked not to the state but to fellow villagers, to people they considered not just leaders but also friends, to pave the pathway toward what became a permanent change in diet. Uzbek communities proved resilient under strain, as new hierarchies of privilege developed in the aftermath of famine to legitimize this new, alien food.
Adrienne Edgar, like Kamp, shares stories whose poignancy derives from a different source: intimate marital and familial relationships, placed by her subjects at the foundation of broader identities. Edgar finds mixed-race couples recalling the process of naming their children with alacrity. Amid an extremely happy occasion, it was a moment fraught with pitfalls. Then-new mothers and fathers highlighted not only each other's character traits at the time but also the character of their relationships, with each other as well as with elder family members who believed that they had a role to play in naming their nieces, nephews, or grandchildren. On reflection, subjects tied their choice of name to their own personalities, as well as to calculations on what they thought would give their child a positive path in life. Their stories are intimate and the state distant. Oral histories allow Edgar to see the process as well as the result of everyday (or perhaps here, extraordinary day) decisions, and to impute historical significance to the results. Interviewing different generations also allows Edgar to trace change over time. She sees naming becoming more a result of negotiations between husband and wife than among family members, which she credits to Soviet Kazakhstan joining a modern, urban world in the last decades of the USSR.
Ali Igmen's deep interactions with select female leaders of the Kyrgyz SSR's national theater opened wellsprings of emotions. His subjects revealed the nuanced and sometimes challenging balances between personal and public lives and among values considered Kyrgyz, Russian, and Soviet. They recalled the psychological and practical importance of mentorship and mutual support, as well as the common respect shown for hard work and professionalism. These women expressed an intense personal pride in their success and their craft. Igmen sees, through these encounters, a Soviet path toward not just individuality but also individual heroism, beyond the more obvious, male-dominated spheres of politics, sports, or the cosmos. Soviet heroism could also be Kyrgyz heroism; in their memories, these actors see themselves as tacking between family, national, and all-union values; they seem fluent in what Igmen called, in his last book, "speaking Soviet with an accent." (4) His subjects, along with Edgar's, echo those interviewed by Raleigh and others who have allowed us to revise our view of the late Soviet Union. Precepts of stagnation have given way to those who now see significant mobility and transformation--personal, professional, and social. (5) In the seeming chaos that ensued after the USSR's collapse, values such as respect and hard work, and the prestige of cultural institutions, became recognized as at once Soviet and truly Kyrgyz, even as--or especially as--they are, according to Igmen's subjects, disrespected in a now-independent Kyrgyzstan.
Taken together, the articles underscore the unique value of oral histories in Central Asia, where voices of Russians, who dominated capital cities and occupied key administrative voices, were privileged in written sources; Soviet documentation and record keeping undervalued the personal; and non-Slavic national groups were often stereotyped, even among those residents of the region themselves. (6) Interviews allow us to understand, and expose, complicated actors as agents, navigating authority related to or beyond the state--from an understudy actor to a daughter-in-law. We see multiple hierarchies, but also how lines of power can be negotiated and how individual lives change along with societal transformations. The voices or views of these articles' protagonists--average and mostly illiterate collective-farm workers; parents, whose intimate decisions held no interest for scholars and record keepers at the time; and Soviet-era actors whose achievements have been forgotten in today's Kyrgyzstan--would otherwise be hidden from history. We see through their eyes how ordinary citizens--the backbone of the Soviet state--understood or, in fact, participated in changes in their own lives and broader society. (7) Listening to them allows Edgar, Kamp, and Igmen to reenvision Soviet Central Asian personhood as well as regional histories.
The three authors respect that oral histories allow an unprecedented degree of agency to historical subjects as they tack between past and present, directing discussion as well as responding to questions. Emotions run deep in every article, as subjects impress on the interviewer what they recall feeling as well as experiencing, and how each influenced the other. We see how historian and post-Soviet citizen alike use the oral history process to draw meaning from the past, in a dialogue that illuminates the relationship between then and now.
All three articles lack an explicit framing of oral history strategies. Each author obtains information in different ways but tells the reader little of their method, including interviewing techniques or decisions, and their bearing on interpretation and analysis. Do we trust experienced historians to weave through the thicket of methodological challenges surrounding oral histories, or should we expect an open discussion of their choices and approaches? Is there, and should there be, more of a burden among oral historians than those of the written word to explain how they turn raw material into historical evidence? At the least, readers, along with the author, need to consider how complicated oral histories can be--these complications produce undeniable value but impose difficult considerations, especially as they become digested down to virtual "sound bites" that allow their reproduction in a short article. Kamp's oral histories stem from a larger project recording the memories of collective-farm workers. As she writes, a large international team of scholars fanned out in the early 2000s to interview over 100 Uzbeks and Tajiks of 75 years of age and above. What effects do age and generation have on interviews? How might the fact that these interviews were recorded affect interviewer and interviewee alike?
Edgar's interviews took place in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Her silences on method prompt questions. The tone of the interviews--and the fact that these are mixed marriages, apparently overwhelmingly between Slavs and Central Asians--lead us to believe that these are largely urban families, likely to be somewhat privileged, whose position would permit them to participate in what the author shows as an international process of movement toward a nuclear family. Some allowed their real names to be used, and others did not. Does the appearance of greater familiarity with the interviewer, or the desire to participate in a Western academic endeavor, influence the level and quality of detail given in what was, as Edgar shows, a highly personal and emotional decision? Are memories more or less reliable as sources when recalling a decision whose potency prompts a vivid recounting? How do we consider Igmen's interviews, where he traces the careers of women over several years-and when the interviews themselves are taken over several years? Can we have a full view of these interviews without explicitly describing the present(s) that these interviewees live in? Can we interchange information from an interview in 1997 with one in 2012? How self-conscious should authors be of their own choices in gathering oral evidence, and how, or should, this be revealed to the reader?
Such questions have preoccupied oral historians for decades. We agree that the format and the relationship between interviewee and interviewer matter--how we account for it is another question. It is virtually certain that Kamp's Uzbek collective-farm workers would give different answers to a local interrogator, in particular if they were from the same village or region, then to an American. A young woman interviewer will almost certainly elicit different responses than an older man. A subject who likes the interviewer or, say, might be simply well-fed or in a good mood might dwell longer on their answers than one who is annoyed by the person sitting across from them or is hungry or bored. But how do we know which answers are affected, and how?
We can soften this conundrum somewhat through the consensus that the oral histories we work with are narratives, not scripture. They are performative in nature. Historians could say this about any source, of course--every document, just like every interview, is enacted with a specific audience in mind and expressed at one certain point in time. Every document, like every interview, is transcribed--to varying degrees--following, instead of contemporaneous to, an event it discusses, within the context of a certain body of knowledge. We generally extract our own citations from documents, just as we take bits and pieces from interviews--the choices of what to take, and how to contextualize these extractions, are among the most important and subjective choices for professional historians, regardless of type of source. I agonized over the process of turning my own oral histories into products--book chapters, journal articles, and eventually a book. Until I performed interviews, I had no idea how multilayered they were. Subjects contradicted themselves--tacitly or consciously--over the hour(s) we talked. Some answers were highly personal and nuanced, given after a pause for thought. Others were formulaic, with subjects almost robotically mimicking official discourse of the time. Certain questions elicited silence or annoyance. Subjects might describe events at times and places at odds with the historical record. I wondered if the only "honest" thing to do was to publish interviews in their entirety, perhaps annotated with my impressions and analysis. I comforted myself in the knowledge that such an approach would violate our university's Office of Research Ethics' regulations, making it too easy to identify a subject.
Kamp, Edgar, and Igmen use other pieces of historical evidence to contextualize their subjects' words and experiences. Kamp's significant archival work traces state awareness of famine and instances where the potential of growing potatoes reaches the highest level of Soviet power. Edgar opts for transnational comparisons, apposing her subjects' words to evolving efforts at naming in North America and Western Europe, especially in cases where a name might be considered to mark segregation or assimilation into a dominant culture. Igmen frames his work alongside those of other oral historians who trace important, sometimes traumatic, transitions in their own work. He notes that even in harsh terrains of memory and experience--including surrounding the Holocaust--interviewees tend to stress positive experiences and relationships. Difficult ones are always more challenging to discuss, especially with strangers. Such patterns render Kamp's interviews all the more moving, given the emotional weight the stories she was told carry, even if they occurred decades earlier.
Multisource "triangulation" strategies better allow readers to evaluate oral histories as evidence. I concluded also that my job as a historian was to make sense of these narrative performances, with all the tools in my professional toolbox. Historians are agents, as much as our subjects. Oral historians are (or should be) intimately aware of this agency, from their choice of questions (and follow-ups), to the way they interact with interviewees, to the time they take to get to know them. What we expect to hear and then do hear, what we plan to write and then actually write, shifts. Kamp revisited interviews taken over a decade earlier to ask new questions, in line with food history's rise in multiple fields, including Russia and the Soviet Union. She locates important responses, as well as finding new gaps--in this case, not asking questions in her larger, initial interview set about typhus, which she now saw as tied to Uzbek struggles with famine in the 1930s. Edgar focuses on a select portion of broader interviews, with a topic that may have emerged as potentially "publishable" only after the passion and detail evoked in her interviewees' responses. She then seeks to connect select answers to larger arguments-choosing to highlight the evolution toward a nuclear family and the tension between separation and assimilation in spheres where Russian is considered a more prestigious, or more useful, identity. Igmen weaves parts of interviews conducted over years to tell, as we all seek to, a coherent story about the past: to examine, in his case, the nuanced efforts of these women to balance ideas of Kyrgyz tradition and Soviet modernity, of personal satisfaction and professional success, as the Soviet era is considered against the present of independent Kyrgyzstan.
Igmen's work is the only one to address the issue of nostalgia for the USSR, a theme so common in accounts of interviews and encounters with post-Soviet citizens to have become virtually cliche. (8) Igmen notes here that his subjects are quite aware of their positive feelings for the Soviet past, which they employ strategically. (9) In the Soviet Union, theater professionals received nice apartments. They trained with leading professionals in Moscow as well as with their colleagues, and performed in well-funded productions. The Soviet system, they believed, rewarded an appropriate blend of talent and hard work, without the same daily stresses and demands that are ubiquitous in contemporary Kyrgyzstan. But they recognize--though Igmen chooses to not to privilege--corruption, censorship, and other pressures that challenged their work as Soviet actors, and perhaps their professional lives.
Igmen recognizes the connections between the self-portrayals of his interview subjects and broader ideas of Soviet heroism. He notes that these women still hew to state-initiated discourses of the era. Kamp and Edgar do not address the issue of collective memory specifically. How do individuals engage with broader societal and state discourses, then and across years and decades? Which stories and thoughts appear and disappear, individually and collectively? Kamp notes one example in which a grandson--presumably from previous story tellings--helps his grandfather fill in gaps of a narrative that occurred decades before the grandson's birth. I wondered if Edgar's positioning of Central Asian mixed families moving toward a modern society centered on the nuclear family appeared almost too neat, adhering to formulaic Kazakh and Soviet trajectories from backwardness to modernity. I do not question the genuine nature of the emotions or memories, but subjects make choices to create their own story for the interviewer, and is it not easier to replicate a collective one?
Challenges aside, we should recognize the multifaceted value of these articles for the study of Soviet Central Asia. Each offers a ground-level view of what it meant to become, or to be, Soviet. Kamp notes a suspicion in Uzbek villages of all things foreign, at a time when the Soviet idea had yet to be formed. Survival more than preference accompanied early moves to adopt foods that the center saw as useful to grow, but "Russian" foods eventually became central to their Soviet, and now post-Soviet, diets. Edgar's article works as a bridge as Soviet--or perhaps we might just call them modern, urban-values infiltrate postwar Central Asia, at least among those involved in mixed marriages. Traditional roles allocated to members of extended Kazakh families fade before greater independence for mothers-to-be within a tighter nuclear family. What we do not read directly about is potential or real discrimination against mixed couples or their children, as ethnic biases grew in the late Soviet Union. (10)
Edgar does show a "normal" modern Soviet society, where challenges move from acquiring basic goods and services to one where parents make decisions from positions of relative comfort. They responded matter-of-factly to power imbalances and a Kazakh "inferiority complex" that led them to consider Russian names, although only if they could envision a child passing for Russian ethnically. They hoped that their child might gain the advantages that accrued to the "elder brother" in the friendship of peoples (druzhba narodov). The level of effort expended to consider this question is a remarkable nugget that oral history gives us. Equally common appeared to be a trend toward names that could be seen as neutral in ethnic terms or somehow "international." Even as these parents operated in a field set by a Soviet state, where, in Central Asian cities at least, Russia and Russians remained a privileged identity, the state hardly ever appeared in their narratives. Oral histories show average citizens considering their scope for agency and making pragmatic calculations, on their own terms, toward what they see as an "easier life" or a Soviet path to heroism.
Hard work, talent, and dedication characterized ideal Soviet and Kyrgyz behavior for Igmen's theater actors. Unlike a name, where one decision seems to set the stage for a lifetime, these actors recounted over time their ability to meld personal, national, and Soviet identities. The interviews express a somewhat parochial viewpoint from these actors, with the theater as its own world, both a strength and a weakness of oral history. We understand the experiences of these citizens in all their richness, but it is difficult to gauge how broadly, in this case, such state largesse could spread.
We see in these oral histories how people make their lives their own, from times of near tragedy to prosperity. As historians, we can provide social context and we can see where the state intervenes in efforts--here, often successfully--to set national, Soviet, and other identities, as well as practices of everyday lives. But this terrain still allows a wide degree of personal choice, has poignant personal effects that reverberate throughout society, and, taken at the macro level, can change politics.
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(1) Jeff Sahadeo, Voices from the Soviet Edge: Southern Migrants in Leningrad and Moscow (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019).
(2) For one view on the rush to the archives, see Sheila Fitzpatrick, "Celebrating (or Not) the Russian Revolution," Journal of Contemporary History 52, 4 (2017): 816-31.
(3) Donald Raleigh, Russia's Sputnik Generation: Soviet Baby Boomers Talk about Their Lives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).
(4) Ali Igmen, Speaking Soviet with an Accent: Culture and Power in Kyrgyzstan (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).
(5) See Dina Fainberg and Artemy Kalinovsky, eds., Reconsidering Stagnation in the Brezhnev Era: Ideology and Exchange (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), reviewed in this issue of Kritika.
(6) On the difficulty of finding subaltern voices in Soviet archives in Central Asia, see Jeff Sahadeo, "Without the Past There Is No Future: Archives, Authority, and History in Uzbekistan," in Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, ed. Antoinette Burton (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 44-67.
(7) Paul Thomson, "The Voice of the Past: Oral History," in Oral History Reader, ed. Robert Perks and Alastair Thompson, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 34.
(8) See, e.g., Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001); and Maria Todorova and Zsuzsa Gille, Post-Communist Nostalgia (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010).
(9) See Sergei Oushakine, "We're Nostalgic but We're Not Crazy: Retrofitting the Past in Russia," Russian Review 66, 3 (2007): 451-82.
(10) See Jeff Sahadeo, "Black Snouts Go Home: Migration and Race in Soviet Leningrad and Moscow," Journal of Modern History 88, 4 (2016): 797-826.
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|Title Annotation:||Forum: Oral History and Memory in Soviet Central Asia|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
|Next Article:||Hunger and Potatoes: The 1933 Famine in Uzbekistan and Changing Foodways.|