In November 2004, Nona Panova was being interviewed by a researcher from the Russian human rights organization Memorial, working under my direction on an oral history project about private life in the Stalin era. Nona, a 75-year-old woman whose father had been arrested during the purges of the 1930s, had been talking for several hours about her upbringing in St. Petersburg and her family when she saw the tape recorder with its microphone. The conversation went like this:
Panova: So that's how it was.… [Notices the tape recorder and shows signs of panic.] Are you recording this? But I'll be arrested! They'll put me into jail!
Interviewer: Who'll put you in jail?
Panova: Someone will.… I've told you so much; there's so much I've said.…
Interviewer: [Laughs.] Yes, and it was very interesting, but tell me, who today would want to put you in jail?
Panova: But did you really make a recording?
Interviewer: Yes, don't you remember? I warned you at the start that our conversation would be recorded.
Panova: Then that's it. It's all over for me -- they'll arrest me.
Interviewer: So where will they send you then?
Panova: I don't know -- no doubt to Kolyma, if I don't get killed before.
Panova: Very soon.
Interviewer: What are you saying?
Panova: I won't be able to sleep tonight; I won't sleep.
Interviewer: Just because you told so much to me?
Panova: Of course!
Interviewer: But you know that I've come from Memorial.
Panova: Well.… But maybe you … maybe you're not from the true Memorial.
More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet regime, it was not unusual to find people of Nona's generation who were still afraid to talk about their private lives during the Stalinist period. Growing up in the 1930s, they had learned from an early age to hide their feelings and opinions -- people were arrested "for their tongue" -- and were still afraid of getting into trouble if they said too much to a stranger. The microphone was a device associated with the KGB.
In the interviews, we were entering a forbidden zone of memory. For though a wide range of new material has become available since the glasnost era of the late 1980s -- newly published diaries, memoirs, and letters -- there is much we still do not know, and it remains unclear what to make of this new material even now, two decades after the Soviet collapse. At the heart of this historical debate is a question: Did Soviet-era subjects allow themselves a private life at all?
That was the issue we wanted to approach in our interviews. All in all, we interviewed 454 people. Like Nona, many were reluctant to talk or very anxious about our conversations. At best, they were reflecting on traumatic events that had occurred several decades before, when most were no more than teenagers. The problems of memory and interpretation were daunting. But it seemed a worthwhile project. Today, more than half of those we interviewed just a few years ago have passed away, and most of the rest would now be too old or frail to answer intimate questions of the sort we asked. The door is closing on the last living sources of information about what it was like to survive in Stalin's Soviet Union.