University of Basel, Switzerland
Report – 8-9 December 2022
This final project workshop saw scholars from different disciplines present their original research on the individual and collective experiences of ageing in the Soviet Union. The event opened with a panel on the representation of old people in the late Soviet period. Dagmar Gramshammer-Hohl examined representations of the older woman in literature and Viktoriya Sukovata focused on masculinity and the image of the older man in cinema. Their papers explored ideas about generational conflicts and loneliness as a female experience. Discussant Polly Jones connected some of the themes in the papers to demographics, issues of marginalisation, and memory and material objects.
In the next panel Ekaterina Kulinicheva analysed ageing in late Soviet fashion media and Tatiana Smorodina examined representations of older people on Ukrainian television in the 1980s and 1990s, with a case study of the ‘Nadverchir’ya’ programme. The panel tackled issues about ageing and gender, urban/rural contexts, and definitions of old age. In her commentary, Cara Fallon made several important connections between the two papers, including the reproduction of stereotypes and ageism through different cultural agents. In his keynote lecture, David Troyansky delivered a fascinating paper about ageing in the shadow of revolution. The lecture raised salient questions about symbolism and representation in old age, the role of the state (as opposed to a particular regime) in maintaining social and political attitudes to the welfare of older people, and the intersections between older people’s memories of their lives and events.
On the second day Alissa Klots presented a paper about active retirees and ‘communist upbringing’ in the Khrushchev period. The paper foregrounded ideas about collectivism, retirement, and the nexus between the state and the individual in instilling communist values in young people. In response Magali Delaloye discussed ideas about identity, relationships and personal experiences for older people. The discussion drew attention to ableism discourses, ideas around upbringing, and the role of organisations in fostering communities for older people. In the next session Jane Gary Harris presented her paper on the fragility of memory in older male-authored life narratives in the 1970s and 1980s, while Dinara Assanova examined the life story and memories of Gulnar Dulatova. These papers interrogated ideas around ageing and memory, the experience of ageing, moral responsibility, as well as Soviet repression and generational experiences. Discussant Claire Shaw raised several important questions, including the role of the narrative voice in these texts.
In his paper Konstantin Galkin assessed collective farm care homes for older people in Vologda and Archangelsk provinces in the 1940s-1960s while Susan Grant examined the experiences of living together in Soviet care homes for older people in the 1960s-1989s. The panel raised questions about older people in rural areas, care homes as reflections of wider Soviet society, and care homes as social and medical spaces. In her comments Elena Zdravomyslova drew attention to regionalism and poverty, questions of ambivalence, medical regulation in homes, and ideas of collectivism and the Soviet experience. In the final panel, Botakoz Kassymbekova examined silence, stigma, and old age through the lens of ‘sama’, Tetiana Pastushenko analysed strategies for overcoming stigma in old age with a focus on the experience of victims of Nazism in Ukraine, while Aliya Bolatkhan assessed the concept of being ‘kariya’ in Soviet Kazakhstan. The panel addressed the individual and collective experience of ageing in the Soviet Union with a focus on relationships, generations, and repression. Melanie Ilic discussed the idea of echoes of the past and supressed trauma, silencing, and stigma.
In the final roundtable Botakoz Kassymbekova, Cara Fallon, and Elena Zdravomyslova discussed significant themes emerging from the conference. Cara Fallon drew attention to ‘building foundations’, for example, through physical spaces such as care homes for older people or through cultural media, representations, and imaginaries. She also recognised the complexities (for example, in relation to gender or historiography) in the study of growing old and the associated challenges that such complexities present in building a coherent narrative. Elena Zdravomyslova highlighted the important role of Soviet social gerontology and its relationship to the wider study of gerontology, for example, with disengagement theory and ideas around active ageing. Finally, participants joining in the discussion identified salient issues, including: Soviet exceptionalism, the impact of ageing scholarship on contemporary thinking (demographics, pandemics), the role of memory in people’s lives, intersections with disabilities institutions and institutions for the mentally ill, questions about ‘modernity’, synergies between disciplines, disentangling the trauma or melancholy of old age from the Soviet experience of illiberalism and repression, and scholarly and practical interest in geriatrics and gerontology.