During the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the Soviet political and intellectual elite—including both apparatchiks and dissidents—made up only tiny minorities in a very large and populous country. What was life like for the rest of Soviet society? What was it like for the vast population who usually supported the regime, mostly accepted the rules, essentially internalized the ideology, and generally made the same choices as their neighbors and friends? What was it like to live Soviet?
This project seeks to provide answers to those questions. It is a close examination of a group of the last two Soviet generations from Kharkiv, Ukraine, covering their lives from childhood to the present. The Brezhnev era, when many of them came of age, was arguably the most stable for the Soviet peoples; since then, their world has turned upside-down. During this period, Kharkiv’s military professors and their families—the primary subjects of this project—went from comfortable economic circumstances, professional prestige, and political influence as part of the upper stratum of a superpower, to virtual destitution and ignominy in the mid-1990s. Today, many of them are part of Europe’s largest ethnic minority—Russians in Ukraine. Having always considered themselves Soviets, they woke up one morning to find themselves in the new, “foreign” country of independent Ukraine.
I conducted 65 “life history” and follow-up interviews with this group, as well as 15 interviews with their civilian counterparts, for a total of 80 interviews. The 3,000+ pages of transcripts generated from this research provide the core of my evidence. Supplementing those sources with materials gleaned from personal, family, and institutional archives, I investigate how these families endured shifting social, cultural, and political realities—and show what those experiences have to offer the study of Soviet and post-Soviet history, bridging the borders and boundaries created by the collapse of the USSR and exploring the foundations of 21st-century Ukraine.
The military officers in this study personified the Soviet state’s ambitions—both in the official propaganda and in their own personal identities. From the 1960s on, these officers and their comrades made up a volunteer, professional, and cohesive officer corps that was dedicated to the defense of their state, was highly trained and educated, and was insistent on high standards of performance. These men internalized Marxist-Leninist ideology and were committed to safeguarding the Soviet state, indoctrinating its conscripts, and spreading communism worldwide—the three most important reasons that the Soviet leadership maintained the world’s largest military from 1945 until the collapse of the USSR. These were the New Soviet Military Men, and their lives were so entwined with the state they served that when it fell, so did they. The study of these men, their families, and their contemporaries—as individuals—provides insights into Soviet society and the continuing transition of that society in eastern Ukraine, especially in the areas of gender, ethnicityationality, and religion.
In the mature Soviet Union, women had clearly defined boundaries at home and at work. Transcending those boundaries took skill, extraordinary drive, and a considerable amount of effort—but it could be done, both at the workplace and in the home. In terms of ethnicity and nationality, the individuals described in this study did not move across borders; rather, the borders moved across them. As their history shows, a diaspora is not always created by the movement of people; in post-Soviet Ukraine, it was possible to be a transnational individual without ever travelling. These are not individuals who had to divest themselves of “natural” national feelings; rather, they were supranational individuals who were forced into transnationality by circumstances. In the post-Soviet period, they learned the mentalities of nationalism in response to nationalist initiatives from others. Regarding religion, I argue that the number of believers in the USSR was always quite strong; grandmothers kept baptizing babies and whispering prayers even when the society seemed to be entirely secularized. The secrecy that surrounded religious belief was also quite strong, demanded by an ideology that required an atheistic society.
Overall—both while they were living it and in their memories—life in the Soviet Union was profoundly normal. Joy and heartbreak, triumph and failure, daily life and professional lives—all were experienced not within the framework of Orwellian repression or titanic struggle, but within the framework of daily, normal, Soviet life.