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Graduates of the Cold War

By Donald Raleigh


Until recently, my office on the fourth floor of Hamilton Hall at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, was the only one along the corridor not occupied by someone affiliated with Carolina’s distinguished Southern Oral History Program (SOHP). I must have walked past promotional posters and announcements about SOHP activities thousands of times over the preceding decade during which I researched and wrote a book on the Russian Civil War in Saratov province, a project for which I spent each summer sifting through voluminous archival collections in the Volga city.

Saratov School no. 42, graduation night, 1967

By the time I had finished the difficult to research monograph, I was itching to tackle something altogether new for me, but also felt an intense attachment to Saratov. One day the inspiration came: why don’t I write an oral history? Back then, I could count on one hand the number of books in Russian history based on this methodology. But I had never read a work of oral history. Besides, what would I write about? I answered my own question while attending the graduation from Knox College — my alma mater — of magna cum laude graduate Anna Obraztsova, whose parents and Moscow family I have known since 1976.

Over the years Anna’s mother, my dear friend Lyuba, shared stories of attending Moscow’s prestigious magnet School No. 20, which offered intensive instruction in English, and of her friends, now scattered throughout the world. After picking up Lyuba in Chicago, we drove to Galesburg, Illinois, for Anna’s 2001 graduation. At some point that weekend I asked Lyuba, “Lyub, why don’t I write my next book about your graduating class?” When I realized that a comparable school had existed in Saratov, I knew I had a topic, and one that appealed to me at that. There’s a story behind the making of each book, and this is mine.

Soviet Baby Boomers traces the transformative developments of the second half of the twentieth century that brought down the Soviet empire through the life stories of the country’s first post-World War II generation. The sixty individuals I studied graduated from high school in 1967, from Moscow’s School No. 20 or from the provincial city of Saratov’s School No. 42, newly opened “magnet” schools that offered intensive instruction in English.

Although most members of this cohort still live in Russia, others have emigrated to the US, Canada, Israel and Western Europe. Several are dead. Part of the USSR’s “Sputnik generation” that began school in 1957, the year the country lifted the first artificial satellite into space, grew up during the Cold War, but in a Soviet Union that increasingly distanced itself from the “excesses” of Stalinism. Unlike earlier Soviet generations, whose success in transforming the country into the other superpower was tempered by nagging shortages, deprivations, famine, arbitrary terror and a horrific war, the Cold War generation benefited in untold ways from decades of peaceful, organic, evolutionary development that predated — and perhaps even determined — M. S. Gorbachev’s coming to power in 1985.

During this generation’s childhood and young adulthood, the Soviet leadership dismantled the Gulag, ruled without terror, promoted consumerism and opened the country in teaspoon-size doses to an outside world that feared Soviet-style Communism. Reaching their prime during the Gorbachev era, these Soviet Baby Boomers today constitute elements of Russia’s, and the professional urban class of diaspora countries.

Saratov School no. 42, class of 1967, pioneer day

These Baby Boomers are a critical generation of people who had remained largely faceless and unstudied up until now. I selected this group of individuals not only because of its manageable size, but also because its members are historically connected, well educated, articulate and remain loosely networked. Between 1965 and 1982, 12 million Soviet citizens graduated from college — including all of those whom I interviewed. In that regard, the 1967 graduates’ collective story tells the larger story of the ‘upper’ strata of the entire Cold War generation that lived through the USSR’s twilight years. That they attended specialized schools is likewise important since their very appearance symbolizes the country’s cautious opening to the outside world amid the changing battlefields of the Cold War and a domestic climate of heady optimism. Finally, I feel an affinity toward my informants since I belong to this age cohort, and also graduated from high school in 1967. Because Moscow enjoyed a privileged economic and cultural position within the USSR (and within the historiography on Russian history), I made my project comparative by including a similar cohort from a large provincial city. Saratov proved to be an ideal choice: like much of the country — but unlike Moscow — it was physically closed to foreigners and to many direct outside influences until 1990.

Assuming that an individual’s values and beliefs evolve owing to personal experience and changes within a larger sociohistorical context, I acknowledge the inherent element of historical revisionism in oral narratives: people tell their stories in different ways throughout their lives. My study, then, is not only about specific historical events, but also about what they meant to the Baby Boomers when I interviewed them. Exploring the margins among the political, the personal and the professional, I seek to answer five wide-ranging questions.

First, what and who shaped my informants’ world views while they were growing up? Second, what do my Baby Boomers’ life stories tell us about what constituted the “Soviet dream,” and ultimately about the relationship between the expansion of the private sphere after 1945, the delegitimization of Communist ideology, and the fate of the Soviet Union? Third, how have my informants negotiated the challenging transition to a post-Soviet Russia following the collapse of communism in 1991? Fourth, how have their lived experiences both reproduced and transformed Soviet and Russian society after 1953? Finally, how do the life stories of those who grew up in Moscow differ from those raised in a “closed” provincial city?

I searched for similarities, differences and contradictions among many people’s narratives to find patterns across a number of lives and therefore to get more than one side of the story. In sum, I created a composite narrative out of the Baby Boomers’ individual stories that no one person could tell. I embedded it in larger historical narratives of Cold War; the de-Stalinization of Soviet society after 1953; Khrushchev’s “overtaking America” and opening up to the outside world; economic stagnation and dissent during the Leonid Brezhnev years from 1964 to 1982; the transition to a market economy during and following the collapse of the Soviet union; emigration; the transformation of class, ethnic, and gender relations across this broad swath of time; and globalization. People are invisible to themselves in the enormous social transformations taking place around them. As a result, I looked for the connection between biography and history. I wanted to provide insight into how these historical developments were experienced by those living through them and to suggest, through these life stories, how Cold War Russian society functioned at a quotidian level.

Selecting the Cold War generation’s words to express my own viewpoint, I see my work as a collection of voices in my own “choral arrangement,” to borrow a phrase from historian Kenneth Kann. This arrangement underscores the revolutionary impact of what I call the quiet revolution, of decades of peaceful, evolutionary, organic development after WWII in transforming the Soviet Union out of existence, in changing it from a state that mobilized society to accomplish ambitious goals into a modern, highly literate, urban society that lost its coherence as the Stalinist economic model exhausted its potential, and along with it, the Soviet dream.

An economy of scarcity under Stalin had made the new Soviet man, Homo Sovieticus, a peculiar kind of consumer, then the rise of modern consumerism after World War II made him over into a consumer with expectations. While the Cold War generation grew up, systemic problems and a measured opening up of the Soviet Union to the world promoted private over collective values and this, in turn, exacerbated the troubles that increasingly made reform the order of the day. Deficits in what might be called the ‘Soviet myth’ economy aggravated economic shortages: the Soviet Cold War generation grew up believing it lived in the best country in the world, but this perception came under assault when it reached adulthood and sought to find its own niche within it. My arrangement of voices also highlights the Baby Boomers’ agency in participating in and constructing a new society and their own lives. Shaped fundamentally by their families, they lived remarkably “normal” lives in a society quickly losing its uniqueness.Their lives aligned fully with the social rules and norms of Soviet society that, ironically, included forces that eventually subverted the system.

This article originally appeared on Berfrois.

Donald Raleigh is Jay Richard Judson Distinguished Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research and teaching interests focus on twentieth century Russian history. As a political and social historian, he wrote extensively on the Russian Revolution, with a particular emphasis on local history (the Saratov region). He is the author of Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation.

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