Story Time

In my postings up to now I’ve talked about what I spent the vast majority of my time doing in Russia – painting. But no less important to my project, though it took up much less of my time was the oral history project I conducted with artists at the Academic Dacha. That’s what I proposed at the outset – to go paint with artists, and interview them about their lives and their art.

In our guidelines for posting we’re encouraged to give insight into the struggles, and failures of research as well as the successes. I’m in the long process of transcribing and translating interviews now, and I can see how it could seem to someone reading through my translations or listening to my interviews that I did a good job – that I got a lot of good material. What I hope I can convey instead, is just how little of the history that’s out there my interviews represent. I hope that I can get across, through the interviews I have, the magnitude and importance of the interviews I don’t have – how much more there is to know about these artists and their tradition.

For me, of course, it’s no struggle to see that I didn’t get much. I spent nearly every day talking with Russian painters about their lives and art – only a few hours of which I have recorded. As an oral historian you can’t walk around all day with a tape recorder and turn it on when things are getting interesting. For one thing, it’s considered unethical to record a subject when they’re unaware – and rightly so. But also because typically people don’t go on for hours about their life, history, and everything that they value in a cohesive way, and so you have to set up an interview.

Russians, however, aren’t “typical” people. Professor Ginzbursky-Blum said on the last day of our Russian Myths and Legends class that the last real remnant of Russian folk culture is talking. At the time it was a kind of cryptic if-you-don’t-know-you-don’t-know sort of comment, but I can see now what she meant. There were quite a number of instances when over tea, or in a restaurant, or in a long slow drive on barely passable dirt roads, painters would produce without provocation long oral essays – an hour without interruption –  on the history of art and patronage and how it has changed since the fall of the USSR, or about the effect of World War II on Soviet artists. And I would sit in the backseat totally fascinated and also completely miserable – wishing that I could get what they were saying on tape.

It’s difficult to reproduce the kinds of circumstances that induce people to talk so freely. Sitting over a microphone, reading dense legal jargon about various rights to ownership of recorded material and publishing and confidentiality, the atmosphere is stiff. The controlled environment puts the subject on guard. More so in my case because the concept of a release form was foreign to all of my interview subjects. After reading the form, everyone I interviewed just set it aside without signing it. I’d have to explain that they needed to sign it before I could record them, which seemed at best like a joke and at worst like a kind of insult – to treat them so impersonally. Then, after having completely sabotaged any sense of ease I might have managed to create with a teapot or cookies, I start asking questions in broken Russian, eroding their confidence with each mispronounced word that I will understand any of their answers. Why should they bother to tell me the details of their life if I can’t even understand them?

And so any success I had in my work I owe entirely to the graciousness of my subjects. For being willing to talk to me, to accept the strange documents I produced, and to somehow entrust their stories to me knowing that I wouldn’t fully grasp them until months after our conversation when I finally had them translated.

So that’s in general how I feel about how the interview process went. What is probably more interesting to anyone reading is what specifically happened. Here’s an example:

I schedule a time to interview Ivan Kugach – the youngest of the Kugach family. I have a list of questions for all interview subjects, but I write out a few more, meant specifically for Ivan. On the day of the interview, Ivan shows up a half hour before the agreed upon time with his entire family. We are not interviewing Ivan anymore. We’re interviewing his father, Mikhail Kugach at their house. Feeling completely unprepared, I slip on shoes grab my recorder and all of my papers and pile into the car with Ivan his wife, his two children and my brother. We arrive at the Kugach house and are greeted by Mikhail and his wife.

We all sit down at a table with tea and cookies. All eyes are on me as I open the case to my recorder. Thankfully, as we start going over the release form the kids get bored and run off and their mother follows, thinning my audience, and I open with “Where and when were you born?” From that point on Mikhail does almost all of the talking, hitting every point I had hoped to address and more with only two or three other questions from me to guide the interview. He discusses his parent’s time in the Surikov, his memories from the dacha as a child, his teachers, the evacuation of all Soviet artists to Samarkand during WWII, the formation of various artist groups, his feelings about the state of art today, his hopes for the future of realism and a number of other things with a great deal of animation. Things could not have gone better – only longer, but tea has to end sometime.

Later this semester when I am done translating and transcribing the interviews I’ll post a link to them here, for anyone digging through old postings.

Below is a picture of Mikhail Kugach and my brother at a monastery we visited. You can’t see it in the picture, but he is in the process of telling us a long and interesting story, one of the many that didn’t make it back to America.