Emigration, Generation, and Collective Memories: The Presence of the Past for Emigrants from the Former Soviet Union

Research on memory of public events consistently reveals generational effects, where individuals remember best the events from their “critical years” of adolescence and early adulthood—a phenomenon attributed to privileged encoding or retrieval of memories due to primacy of experience. Prior research, however, has not decoupled the youthful period from transitional experiences more generally, raising the question of whether primacy generated by important transitions not tied to youth—such as emigration from one country to another—might also enhance memories. Survey data are used to examine effects of generation on collective memories of public events among a sample of mostly Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union and its successor states. Evidence points to persistent generational effects, linking memory to adolescence and young adulthood specifically, rather than to primacy of transitional experiences in general. Perspectives that emphasize adolescents’ agentic interpretation, construction of meaning, and decision-making suggest reasons for the link between memories and youth.