- Soviet Baby Boomers. An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation
Donald J. Raleigh has shifted periods and methods. Moving from archival based regional study1 to oral history of a generation, he has joined the growing group of scholars working on what is variously called “late” or “mature” Socialism. The history of a generation is the prism through which Raleigh glances at Soviet society during the relatively tranquil years after Stalin’s death. The “baby boomers” were born in 1949/50, the first more or less “normal” post-war year. Consistent with his earlier work, Raleigh is more interested in experience than discourse, trying to uncover “what it meant to ‘live Soviet’ during the Cold War,…what constituted the ‘Soviet dream,’” and who or what shaped the hopes, expectations, and worldviews of this generation (p. 5).
Raleigh selected two groups with similar backgrounds: the graduates of a Moscow and a Saratov magnet school. These were, in the apt description of one of his interviewees, “schools for gifted parents” catering, by and large, to white collar families. They provided excellent education, including, crucially, training in English, which would shape both the outlook and the life chances of these graduates. Raleigh’s interviewees, then, were far from “typical” Soviets, a fact he makes no effort to hide: his study tells the story “of the upper strata of the entire Cold War generation that lived through the USSR’s twilight years” (p. 11).
Raleigh approaches the question of who or what shaped this generation’s worldview from a realist perspective: rather than the “Soviet state,” the “Soviet polity,” or even “Soviet discourse,” he posits that it was the family which, first and foremost, raised young Soviets. Far from unambiguously supporting an ideologically pure upbringing, families served as “repositories of information that might confirm or challenge official histories” (p. 16). The baby boomers, then, entered school not as blank slates on which the Soviet authorities could inscribe their ideological blueprints, but as pre-configured human beings bearing the history of their families and their milieu. Here, the focus on the elite somewhat blunts the analytical possibilities of Raleigh’s study. Eighty percent of these children had at least one parent in the Communist [End Page 315] Party, at a time when only four percent of the population were “Communists.”2 Already confirmed as the new elite by the time the baby boomers were born,3 their families would subsequently move into private apartments once those became available. They were, thus, among the first beneficiaries of the expanded consumer possibilities under Khrushchev. That most of these elite children believed that they lived in the best country in the world, then, might not surprise. Although, they could see that not all was right, but at first they blamed individual “bad people” rather than the system for these short-comings. As time went on, however, a subtle shift took place: under Brezhnev, an increasing number of elites began to see the problem with parts of the system itself. Once Gorbachev came to power, then, the baby boomers were ready for his perestroika.
Raleigh found few “true believers” in this cohort. Rather than ideological warriors, even the most well-educated citizens were chasing the good life rather than utopian redemption. Most joined the party for pragmatic reasons at a time when, in the words of one of his interviewees, “everything was already obvious to normal people” (p. 359). Communism, which the baby boomers were told was just around the corner, was a place where normal families would be able to live normal lives. The “Soviet dream” consisted of a good job, a loving spouse, and healthy children, the family living in its own apartment, owning a car, books, quality clothes and basic household items, and being able to afford regular holidays both in the Soviet Union and abroad. This vision did not fundamentally differ from the aspirations of many in the capitalist world: Raleigh’s Soviets are not strange and incomprehensible “others”; they are, indeed, just like...