Home > Memoirs as a Source for Teaching about the Soviet Era

Memoirs as a Source for Teaching about the Soviet Era

Artemy M. Kalinovsky and Isaac Scarborough

The memoirs and other sources held in the Central Asian Memoirs of the Soviet Era collection are primarily intended for researchers who are able to access these sources in their original languages. The following translated excerpts, by contrast, are largely intended for use in courses on the history of the Soviet Union or modern Central Asia. The use of first-person accounts has become standard in courses on the history of Russia and the USSR. Most of the sources that are available in English, however, are either translations from Russian or were written in English by Russian emigres. The sources presented here provide a new geographic and linguistic perspective on otherwise familiar topics that a student is likely to encounter in an undergraduate history course.  They thus provide the opportunity to think more deeply and broadly about Soviet history.

Consider, for example, the Great Terror. Many undergraduates are likely to have encountered Ginzburg’s harrowing account Into the Whirlwind, or perhaps documents translated and published as part of Yale’s series. Few students, though, would have access to sources that give a sense of how the Terror was experienced outside of Russia. The excerpt from Khursheda Otakhonova’s Dil mehohad ke guiam va giram [My heart wants me to speak and to weep] provides a unique account of what was a widespread phenomenon: the arrest of a Tajik communist who had joined the Party soon after the revolution, at a time when it was far from certain that Soviet rule would last, and whose wife had been one of the first to unveil and was an activist herself. Otakhonova was a child when her father was arrested and a teenager when he was released; her account tells us little about the reasons behind his arrest, but it gives us a privileged view into the effect her father’s arrest had on her family, as well as the heartbreak and confusion caused not just by the material hardships that accompanied these events, but also the emotional dislocation for the arrestee and those left behind.

If Otakhonova outlines a new perspective on a familiar topic, Ashur Haydarov’s account of his experiences during the Second World War recounts an experience very few undergraduates are likely to hear about. Haydarov was a junior officer who was taken prisoner early in the war and recruited for the Turkestan Legion – a force composed of POWs largely from Central Asia and led by an anti-Soviet emigre originally from Tashkent, Veli Qayyum. Haydarov explains his decision to join the legion as well as how he uses his position to help partisans in Poland and his eventual escape, with 49 fighters, to join the partisan forces. While there are now plenty of translated diaries, contemporary interviews, and memoirs that provide glimpses of the perspective of soldiers and civilians during the war, there is little that one could use to explore questions of collaboration, let alone the experiences of a Central Asian soldier who experiences the war as a Soviet officer, a POW, a collaborator, and then as a pro-Soviet partisan. 

All of these excerpts come from memoirs, and students assigned these texts should be encouraged to think about both the benefits and pitfalls of such sources. These include the usual problems of distance and the fallibility of memory: Otakhonova first wrote about the terror in the late 1980s, nearly fifty years after the events described; Haydarov wrote his memoir around the same time. There is also the problem of perspective: like many escaped POWs, Haydarov spent nearly a decade in the Gulag camp, and although he went on to have a successful artistic career, it was only in the late 1980s that he was officially rehabilitated. He lived in a society that valorized veterans, but either pretended collaborationists did not exist or portrayed them as traitors almost worse than the Nazis themselves. The account needs to be seen, among other things, as an attempt to clear his name.  Finally, Haydarov’s memoir, like some others in the collection, was unfinished at the time of his death. This leaves the memoir with gaps and internal inconsistencies.

More broadly, there is the question of voice and audience in these memoirs. As we argue in a forthcoming article, “Progress, Time, and Nation: Central Asian Memoirs of the Soviet Era” [Kritika, winter 2020]:

Questions about voice and agency raised by the post-colonial critique do apply to first person accounts from Tajikistan and Central Asia more broadly. Even memoirs produced after 1991 draw substantially on Soviet narrative models, which in turn take their inspiration from earlier forms of Russian autobiographical writing. The Soviet legacy is particularly evident in the ways that memoirists evaluate Soviet conceptions of the nation and of historical progress, and their own lives within that history. Whether they take a critical stance towards the Soviet Union or are apologists for it, they largely subscribe to the idea of a “Tajik” nation (largely in the ethno-linguistic terms defined by the USSR), and variously praise the USSR for advancing its development or blame it for hindering its progress.   At the same time, these autobiographical forms have allowed their authors substantial room to interpret their past and present in significant ways: to see themselves as pieces of a greater history of “national” development, whether positive or belabored with struggle. Collectively, the works provide a record of the experiences, networks, and values of a class of Tajikistani writers, intellectuals, and politicians, as they balance between local conceptions of nation and republic and the broader Soviet superstructure of socialism. These memoirs, in other words, continue to be shaped by the contradictions of the “Affirmative-Action Empire,” and the attempts to effect de-colonization within a revolutionary socialist state on the territory of imperial Russia.

Notwithstanding these concerns, we believe that these memoirs, like many other ego documents, valuably expand students’ access to a variety of viewpoints on the Soviet era.  First person narratives are accessible to students in a way secondary sources often are not, and the broadening of perspectives beyond those produced in Russia helps to resituate the teaching of Soviet history across the wider geography of the USSR.  With this in mind, the excerpts presented here were selected for translation with a view as to how they might be used in an undergraduate course. They are generally about 1000-2000 words in length, and they sometimes skip over parts of the narrative for the sake of efficiency. Teachers may choose to use these translations to supplement existing modules (i.e. on World Word II, the Terror, the war in Afghanistan, etc.) or for a targeted module on Central Asia in the Soviet era.

Select translations:

A Tajik translator among Soviet advisers in Afghanistan

Soldier, legionnaire, partisan: A Tajik’s experience of the Great Patriotic

A Tajik student in Moscow during the 1950s

The terror in Tajikistan

Child labor and the grey market during the Great Patriotic War