In This Review

Stuck on Communism: Memoir of a Russian Historian
Stuck on Communism: Memoir of a Russian Historian
By Lewis H. Siegelbaum
216 pp, Northern Illinois University Press, 2019
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Remembering Leningrad: The Story of a Generation
Remembering Leningrad: The Story of a Generation
By Mary McAuley
256 pp, University of Wisconsin Press, 2019
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These two memoirs are both written by respected left-wing scholars of Russia, but they differ in the extent to which their authors immersed themselves in Russian life. Siegelbaum entered Columbia University in 1966 and chose to study the Soviet Union because of his communist leanings. His memoir reads like a bildungsroman: Siegelbaum describes his early years as a child of “a Red” (his father joined the U.S. Communist Party in 1939), his participation as a young Marxist in the 1967–68 student protests, and his subsequent development into a Russian labor historian schooled in Marxist theory. As labor history receded in importance, his somewhat reluctant shift toward cultural and material history proved fortunate: his history of the Soviet automobile was awarded two prestigious prizes. Siegelbaum’s memoir is also a chronicle of the trends and debates in his field from the 1970s until his retirement in 2018, with a special focus on the new research opportunities that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, as archives were opened and collaboration with Russian colleagues became possible. Apart from Russian historians, informants, and landlords, however, Siegelbaum mentions almost no encounters with the people of contemporary Russia. A Russia that had “shed its Sovietness and other-worldness” apparently lost its attraction for him. 

McAuley’s memoir, by contrast, is strongly focused on the Russian people and mentions her academic career only in passing. When she came to Leningrad as an Oxford student in the early 1960s to write a thesis on the settlement of labor disputes in industrial enterprises, she immersed herself deeply in Soviet life and personal friendships. She spent a lot of time in conversation with her Russian friends, shared the hardships of daily Soviet life, went camping, and attended drunken parties. In the early 1990s, she ventured into buying an apartment—just as the Soviet housing system was opening up to private real estate. She tells the story of the Soviet Union and modern Russia through the experiences of her close friends: the hopes and dreams of the thaw that took place under Nikita Khrushchev, the dullness and demoralization of stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev, the enthusiasm of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, and the sweeping and often shocking transformations of post-Soviet Russia. Her deep embeddedness in Russian life has never interfered with her position as a shrewd outside observer: in the early 1990s, when so many firmly believed that Russia was on the way to democracy, she noted the low interest in politics, the lack of political language, the naive belief in the market, and the persistence of Soviet practices.