As I wandered Tashkent’s streets during my dissertation research in 1998, I would furtively peek into the windows of the city’s few remaining tsarist-era houses. I imagined, if I could be transported back a century, what I would ask the “average” Russian settlers who once occupied them. I had heard their voices sporadically in the archives, mediated through police reports and trial transcripts, or sometimes in letters, usually written by scribes. But what stories would they tell me, face-to-face, in their own words? I wanted to hear everyday experiences and encounters from their perspective, to understand their beliefs and feel their emotions. I wanted these people, whose movements and interactions appeared so important to my own story, to be agents in their own history. I hoped to comprehend their sometimes violent actions toward the local population. I resolved to move my next project forward in time, to interrogate my sources, to privilege their voices, experiences, and encounters, with all the opportunities and challenges that oral histories entailed.1
Adrienne Edgar, Ali İğmen, 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 [End Page 227] 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...