The 8th of March, the Soviet history research lab held its first seminar “Questioning the Soviet past: the use of oral history in contemporary Russia and Ukraine”.
During the seminar, each presenter presented very briefly her research and experience of oral history by focusing on the main use of oral history. Moreover, each presenter tried to answer the following questions:
- Which are the main problems encountered in your oral history projects?
- Why there are no interview projects about the socialist past, and particularly about the late Soviet period in Ukraine?
- Which tools and methodological approaches do you use in your interviews?
- Which are the particularities to interview the intelligentsia or the “ordinary” people?
- Which books did (coups de coeur) help you the most in understanding the interviewing or oral history?
- What do you do if you realize that your interviewees lie?
- How does family history play a role in interviews?
- Which were the main “memory knots” in your interviews
First presenter was Nataliya Borys (GSI, UNIGE), who focused on her experience in interviewing Ukrainian Soviet historians. Firstly she discussed and questioned the absence of diaries and memoirs of the late Soviet period. As she noted there are almost no diaries or memoirs left by Ukrainian historians,  compared to their Russian colleagues. As she argues, it can probably be explained by the fact that the writing of diaries requires a kind of self-reflection, as well as the reflection of his historical works in the long durée, something that is crucially missing to Ukrainian Soviet historians. Moreover, to her opinion the legacy of fear still prevails constraining individuals self-censoring themselves by habit or fears. For different reasons, there has been no “easy” social tradition of memoirs writing and the base on which to build oral history. In Ukraine, there are no political repressions anymore, however, still living Soviet historians did not write their diaries.
As some authors argue, the fact of writing diaries is considered as a form of intellectual resistance, as well as the belonging to the imaginary community of the “intelligentsia” and the “community of contemporaries”.  Another aspect to be mentioned, as Sergei Zhuk claims, the absence of left diaries probably can be explained by the fact that authors do not have something glorious to write about, particularly about the period of late socialism. What should they have written about? About their conformity and conservative writing? Only few of them openly objected, while others were not dissent at all. What to do with your whole pan of your life, which you dedicated to the Marxist-Leninist writing, which turned out to be wrong now?
Nataliya also emphasized another interesting aspect of her reflection: few oral memory projects appeared questioning the Soviet period of late socialism; however it remains on the margin of the academic world. Most of them are conducted in Russia and big Russian cities, few of them were conducted in Russian provincial cities. In Ukraine, the sociological surveys about the Soviet past are scarce. She mentioned Eleonora Narvselius interviewed intelligentsia in post-Soviet Lviv and Sergei Zhuk interviewed in the 1990s- 2000s some Ukrainian and Russian historians specialists in the U.S. history. He was without doubt one of the very first to record the memories of the generation, which Donald Raleigh dubbed as « Sputnik generation » and « Soviet boomers» by inspiring the new generation of researchers.
All Nataliya’s interviewees are historians, and all of them are men. They are from the high echelons of Soviet society, if even they often claimed the contrary, they were rather the privileged ones, and they knew it. The difference with the “ordinary people” is that they are used to be interviewed, it was a pleasure for them, and they let them to be interviewed quite willingly.
The main problem that Nataliya faced that the material collected during interviews is processed through various self-censorship filters before, most of historians came with their ready-to-use story of their life.
In her interviews she identified few striking memory knots. While family memory comes first, then the school and University experience are the next big parts of the interview. The family context is very important as it sheds light on the family oral memory, which was perpetuated in almost all interviews. Historians from the Western borderlands were deeply impacted by their family’s memory and their social heritage. If repressions impacted almost all Soviet families, in Ukraine, the Holodomor became the main counter-memory and the reevaluation of the Soviet past, particularly those from the regions, who were impacted by the Famine. Serhii Bilokin’s grandfather died from the Famine in 1933, Leonid Zashkilniak’s grandfather died somewhere fleeing the famine, Leonid Tymoshenko’s grandfather was repressed by refusing to deliver the grain in the 1930s,  while Holodomor became the topic that changed the life of Stanislav Kulchytskyi.
Few other memory knots became evident during the interviews, one of them is the opposition of Soviet/Ukrainian identity, and the complex issue of “becoming Ukrainian” in the Soviet Ukraine. Another rather classic center-periphery contradiction was essential in the interviews and became an important and complicated issue not only in the Soviet Ukraine, but in other republics too. This contradiction in Soviet Ukraine, as well as in Soviet Russia, can be viewed from several angles starting with the marginalization of the provincial city in terms of desired food, goods, and culture.
In her PhD research, oral history was both the subject of her research and a technique she used herself. Her topic of research was non-professional dissident historians in the Soviet Union who wrote about past crimes of the regime. Since these were non-professional researchers, they could generally not access archives and therefore had to use oral testimonies as an important basis for their research. A prominent example was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which was written on the basis of around 250 testimonies of former Gulag prisoners.
Reliability and lies.
However, she showed in her thesis that there were pitfalls to this kind of research, the most obvious being the issue of reliability. She identified that there were two different uses that could be made of oral testimonies by these authors: some of them used oral testimonies to fill the gap in the archival record, which means that they were looking for specific information, and this is where it could be most difficult to use testimonies in a reliable way, because human memory is not entirely reliable, and people can lie for various reasons. Solzhenitsyn, however, mostly used testimonies in a way that is closer to our modern understanding of oral history: to paint a general picture of a phenomenon, through an accumulation of testimonies of various people. This is what he did in relation to the history of the Gulag. Here the issue of reliability is not so crucial, because the truth emerges from an accumulation of different voices, not from a single testimony.
She also mentioned an interesting case, when two dissident authors, Solzhenitsyn and Roy Medvedev, argued over the use of the testimony of one person, which they both used for their works. Medvedev accused Solzhenitsyn of distorting this testimony and even obtained from him that changes be made in further editions of The Gulag Archipelago. But all of the historians she studied were accused at some point of making mistakes, relying too much on testimonies which proved incorrect, etc. At the time there was a lot of suspicion towards oral history, and of course, part of these accusations were justified.
As she mentioned, ideally, it would be good to interview the same person several times. A lot of factors can influence what people remember at a given moment: how tired they are, for example, but also many other things.
Barbara also shared her experience of conducting interviews. She said that
“I don’t use any specific methodological approaches, I do unstructured interviews and I adapt the questions to the person I interview. Every time it demands careful study of available documents before formulating the questions. Questions have to be open, to stimulate discussion, and should be worded in the most neutral form possible, so as not to influence the answer. Careful preparation is therefore important, but I think the most important process takes place during the interview.”
The self-censorship and controlled narrative.
The shared point with Nataliya was that she I have dealt with people who are used to controlling the narrative, and this poses some problems. Many of them have done oral history, so they find it legitimate for me to record the interview, to use it, etc. But when it came to publication of the book, some of them felt that the interviews had to be reworked because they were imperfect. As she said
There was a paradox: this group of historians had never wanted to write about their own history, but when someone else came from the outside and started doing it, they felt ambivalent about it, as if we were dispossessing them of their history, taking control over it.
She shared her trick to get historians out of their prepared narratives:
And at first I felt that I heard from them a prepared narrative, because they had been interviewed so many times, but since I dug much deeper than newspaper interviewers, they were forced to rely on their own memories of the past.
Barbara tries to figure out what to do if a person lies from her experience:
Sometimes it’s just impossible to check information, and you’re left to your own devices: either you trust it, because it seems credible, but then you should tell your readers “this person claims” or “according to this person”, or you don’t trust the information and leave it out. It’s a complex process.
And what’s about main memory knots?
I don’t think I can talk about memory knots in my research, because I focused on biographic trajectories and these are to a large extent unique. The people I interviewed were also from two different generations: the older historians, born in the 1920s, and the younger ones, born in the 1940s. So their experience were quite different. A common experience, but again, not for all of them, were the political repressions of the Stalin era, and of course all of them were shaped by de-Stalinization. But these were always unique trajectories.
Oksana Myshlovska “Micro-memory study of dealing with the past across the former imperial border”
Oksana Myshlovska presented her ongoing research in the framework of the Transcultural Contact Zones project based at the University of St Gallen. Her research is a micro-memory study of a former interstate borderland area in Western Ukraine. It is a comparative study of two towns – Volochysk and Pidvolochysk – that have common history and were divided during the first partition of Poland between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, and then after an early 20th century turmoil were incorporated into interwar Poland and Soviet Ukraine respectively and finally “reunited” in the wake of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
The study aims to understand how the historical legacies of belonging to different states have shaped the ways the two towns have dealt with the past during the post-Soviet period. It focuses on several most contested historical narratives and memories between the two towns such as the legitimacy of Soviet rule and the national-liberation struggle and studies how the contestation and meaning-making have evolved since the late 1980s.
In terms of sources and data, the study relies on the two local newspapers, local history narratives by local historians, materials concerning local commemorations, monuments, expositions, discussions, conferences, information brochures, museums and rituals by local memory entrepreneurs such as local historians, museum and library workers, local administration officials, journalists and teachers and oral history interviews with local memory entrepreneurs and ordinary people.
The study shows that the dominant ways of public representation have remained the glorification and heroization of past struggles (both the national-liberation struggle and the Great Patriotic War against “fascists”). The new heroic narratives such as the Euromaidan and ATO heroes have been integrated into the same genre. At the same time, the new narrative of victimization reflected in the commemoration of the Day of mass repressions and holodomors was coupled with the delegitimization of Soviet rule in Pidvolochysk as the period of occupation, however, did not gain such association in Volochysk.
As noted by one of the most renown scholars of memory studies, Wolf Kansteiner, the predominant focus of memory studies has been on the top-down policies aiming to shape history and memory perceptions, while the reception side has largely been ignored (Kansteiner, Wolf. “Finding Meaning in Memory: A Methodological Critique of Collective Memory Studies.” History and Theory 41, no. 2 (2002): 179-97). Oral history with ordinary people allows to investigate memories that remain in the private domain and do not find expression in the public domain, and to assess how the meaning-making by national and local memory entrepreneurs is perceived and appropriated by individuals. Oral histories collected so far in the framework of the study include among such silenced memories the nostalgia for the Soviet period and narratives of forced deportees from Poland in the postwar period in Pidvolochysk and the recruitment of locals without any military training and equipment during the final stages of the Second World War and the Ostarbeiter narratives in Volochysk.
Finally, the study also looks at the borderlands as areas that suffered disproportionately from state-sponsored and communal violence during major periods of crises in the first half of the 20th century. As noted by Semelin, borderlands as “buffer zones between two worlds, between two or more empires, would indeed appear fragile, if not uncontrollable. The melting-pot situation whereby populations mix and mingle constitutes a factor of uncertainty and of potential risk of violence, whether on the part of some community groups or of neighboring nations” (Semelin, Jacques. 2007. Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide. New York: Columbia University Press, 118). It investigates how memories about the groups that became the victims of violence have been reconstructed at the local level in the post-Soviet period.
In relation to oral history methodology, it was noted that the work at the local level showed difficulties of signing written consent forms with the informants. The solution has been to take additional time at the beginning of the interview to explain to the informants the ethical requirements for the interviewing process and the interview protocol and obtain only an oral consent registered on the recorder.
Furthermore, another issue has been the insider/outsider perceptions. It was easier to establish trust with the interviewees in Pidvolochysk as they perceived the interviewer as “insider”, originally from the same region.
Finally, on the issue of reliability of memory, self-censorship and deliberate silences, it was noted that it was important to take our cues from Luisa Passerini, Alessandro Portelli, and Michael Frisch, who have argued that the alleged unreliability of memory is also its strength that allows understanding the meaning of historical events. As argued by Portelli, “…errors, inventions, and myths lead us through and beyond facts to their meanings” (Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1991, 2).
General discussion and conclusions.
Nataliya and Barbara had the same interviewees’ pool: the historians, and could find many similar and divergent points. One of the similitudes was in the fact that historians liked to be interviewed and knew how to use it. The shared point was that they dealt with people who are used to controlling the narrative, and this poses some problems. Many of them have done oral history, so they find it legitimate for me to record the interview, to use it, etc.
The difference laid to the audience, if Barbara dissident historians “spoke” to the West, Nataliya’s did have this audience, if best, they spoke only to the local journalists. Thus their narrative differed as the audience was not the same. If Barbara’s historians were rather talkative, Nataliya’s spoke readily about themselves but not about their vision of the Soviet past and their role as historians.
Both researchers noticed the generational split, who experienced the different experience. If Barbara’s historians were shaped by political repressions and Gulag, Nataliya’s intelligentsia had its Ukrainian option: the Holodomor. Holodomor is strikingly present in her interviews, except in those from Western borderlands, mainly Uzhgorod region. Obviously here the Holodomor is used at the top level: as the top-down narrative. But both emphasized the difference in generation, if even in Nataliya’s interviews it was less clear.
Also Barbara’s historians were impacted by the destalinization, one of the strongest moments in her interviewees’ life, while Nataliya’s historians passed this issue as almost unnoticed.
Lie or not to lie?
All researchers emphasized the challenge to discover the lie and to handle it. How to find out if the information is reliable or not? However, as some participants mentioned it, it is necessary to contextualize the lies and try to understand why people lie? What is the meaning of lying? Even the fact of lying tells us already a lot, the solution is to find the key to unlock the lies.