Oral History Studies and East European History: Challenges and Approaches of the Digital Age

Oral History Studies and East European History: Challenges and Approaches of the Digital Age

Gleb Kazakov / Iryna Ramanava, Chair of East European History, Justus-Liebig-University Gießen; Gießen Center for Eastern European Studies (GiZo)
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
08.07.2022 - 09.07.2022
Laura Loew, Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen

An update had been long overdue: since the last conference dedicated to Oral History research of Eastern European history, more than five years have passed.1 The organizers of this workshop took on the task to shed light on the recent developments in the field of this methodological approach to Eastern European history with regard to technical innovation and digitalization. The current crises in (Eastern) Europe – political repression, lack of scientific freedom and a destructive war brought on by an imperialist aggressor – played their part in shaping the presented topics and discussions of the two days.

The workshop started with the presentation of two oral history projects dealing with the issues of selective memory and emotions in oral testimonies. LUCA THOMA (Basel) talked about the mnemopolitically sensitive case of Holocaust remembrance in Poland, whereas JOGILĖ ULINSKAITĖ (Vilnius) presented a zoomed-in examination of emotions in interviews about the social and economic transformation in Lithuania in the 1990s. While Thoma reflected on the intricacies of applying the method of Oral History to an issue that remains the topic of an ongoing political debate and appealed for critical reflection of the intentions of the interviewees, Ulinskaitė spoke about how Oral History interviews also can be analysed in respect to their emotional charge. Both presentations exemplified how historical actors might apply different strategies in order to explain their experience in an interview – a layer that must be carefully deconstructed in the analysis of their testimonies.

GELINADA GRICHENKO (Kharkiv) completed the first panel with her keynote speech on visual presentation of Oral History research. Having fled the bombings of Kharkiv, the researcher currently is located at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum. While the talk itself was less an addition to the methodological discussion as the presentation of an interesting case study, Grichenko also discussed the relation of her recent personal experience with bombardments and flight to her scientific work about World War II in Kharkiv. While her statement that only now, after she had faced similar hardships, she could truly understand the experiences of the world war survivors she had interviewed for her research, was moving on a personal level, it also foreshadowed (and incited) a critical discussion that would be taken up the following day: the effect personal experience and identity has on conducting Oral History research.

The second day began with a topic that makes many historians break out in cold sweat: data management, open access, pre-processing, or metadata are terms many of us probably hoped to avoid forever in choosing to study a humanities subject, but since then, reality (i.e. digitization) has caught up even with those fearfully locking themselves in dark archive cellars. But the panel on digital methods of Oral History presented not only the difficulties of the cyber space as an arena for historians, but more importantly, its potentials.

An exemplary process of publishing Oral History interviews in open access with all its technical and legal pitfalls was presented by ANNA-LENA KÖRFER (Marburg). She talked about disclosing interviews adhering to the principles of the Go-Fair initiative 2, particularly stressing the points of adapted agreement forms for the interviewees and anonymising the data before publication. To facilitate the process of digitization, she called on historians to reflect what influence publication intentions have on the methodology of Oral History, and to think about data management already during a planning phase of a new project.

While Körfer presented the digitization of Oral History interviews as a means of securing cultural heritage, especially in situations like the Russian war against Ukraine, IRYNA KASHTALIAN (Bremen) pointed out the risks of online publication in times of political crises. She shed light on the work of Oral Historians in Belarus, a work that always encompassed digging through at least two levels of societal trauma: the German occupation as well as Stalinist repression – as is the case with many Central-/Eastern European societies. Especially negative experiences with KGB-questioning methods required long trust-building processes with potential interviewees. The progress in Oral History research in Belarus has been harshly interrupted by the most recent wave of oppression following the protests in 2020. Out of fear of persecution of both scientists and interviewees, the web-presence of the digital Belarusian Oral History Archive – an ambitious project that Kashtalian helped create3 – had to be shut down. Despite the difficult situation in Belarus, Kashtalian still ended her talk with a prospect on how to still work with the method of Oral History in Eastern Europe, bypassing war, authoritarian regimes, and repressions, by focussing on exiles and refugees and collecting their testimonies.

The last panellist PHILIPP BAYERSCHMIDT (Erlangen-Nürnberg) mapped out an exciting perspective for the future scientific exploitation of large numbers of online accessible Oral History interviews. He presented a self-programmed tool that with the help of an algorithm evaluates the statistical distribution of words in an interview, clustering them in topics. With the help of this topic modelling programme, researchers would be able to scan interviews for key words relevant for their questions. Bayerschmidt’s presentation, outlining possible exploration methods of future large digital Oral History archives, clearly set the trajectory for the possibilities and developments of the digital future of Oral History.

What this panel exemplified impressively is that we should treat Oral History resources like other archival material that can be used repeatedly and not only by the original creator – since, as Körfer put it, we can’t imagine what potential other researchers might uncover in our material by asking different questions. In this sense of scientific sustainability, to develop interviews from a one-time to a multiple-use source, digital, open accessible and well indexed archives of Oral History interviews are of need.

The workshop was concluded by three presentations of case studies that applied the method of Oral History in projects in or about Eastern Europe, pointing out specific problems that might arise in this specific region.

MARGARITA PAVLOVA (Gießen), who is researching the history of the Perestroika in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) from the point of view of local environmental and urban preservation activists, reflected upon her interview experiences. She shared her difficulties, such as not recognizing and breaking through rehearsed narratives of the interview partners or the universal experience of Oral Historians, especially in post-communist countries, of unwillingness of historical actors to share with researchers. This latter problem is evidently multiplied in authoritarian regimes repressing freedom of speech, such as Belarus or, in her case, present-time Russia. Nevertheless, even or maybe especially in such circumstances, Oral History can fill the gaps that are left by the lack of access to archival sources. But even in case of their availability, they are not able to grasp all “intricacies of the past”. Therefore, Pavlova appealed for a combined use of both archival and oral sources in order to analyse the interactions and tensions between public and individual memory.

While Oral History had initially mostly been a method applied in research on World War II and the Holocaust, its focus has been enlarged in the recent years. Many researchers of Central and Eastern European history began to explore the details of daily life under state socialism in the post-war era applying this method. The presentation by MARTA HAIDUCHOK (Lviv) adhered to this new tendency, as she talked about Soviet underground and dissident culture in Soviet Ukraine, namely in the city of Lviv. She especially stressed the importance of getting into and connecting with the community one is researching. Conducting the interviews in places important to the historical actors, such as specific bars or cafés, did not only help in stimulating memory, but also in building trust with the community members, resulting in a snowball-effect-increase of her potential interview partners. During the discussion of her project, the question Grichenko had risen the day before emerged again, namely, what influence sex, age, cultural background, and other factors might have on conducting Oral History research. In the debate, the participants of the workshop reflected on how their identity might have influenced the process of their own interviews.

The importance of considering the effect of the researcher’s background while analysing the gathered data was stressed once more in the final talk. DANIEL GEBEL (Oldenburg) spoke about his experiences of interviewing Russian-German and Soviet-Jewish immigrants in Germany about their everyday life practices and habits (their material and immaterial “Soviet baggage” in the words of the presenter) after migration. His difficulties reached from the beforementioned discomfort in official questioning situations of people with a Soviet experience to unwillingness to share information out of fear of antisemitism or anti-Russian discrimination, the latter appearing only since the beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine. His interviewees with a Russian background were even more hesitant to agree to conversations, worrying about having to justify themselves and their opinions. Gebel also reflected on pros and cons of being part of the “in-group” of the interviewed community and its implications. While it sometimes might simplify getting in touch with the target group, on the other hand a researcher coming from one’s own community might be considered a “sell-out”. These considerations of the last panel led to a productive discussion on Oral History methodology with regard to researcher’s identity, including such aspects as gender, age and cultural background. It was suggested that possible (negative) effects of those factors could be negated by conducting interviews in pairs with a balanced composition.

The workshop had the goal to discuss the methodology of Oral History with the regional focus on Eastern Europe as well as the possibilities offered by the digital developments in recent years. It did in fact shed light on specifics of post-communist countries, such as strong mistrust in official interview situations and difficulties for Oral Historians resulting from the current crises in the region. Nevertheless, it’s discussions cannot be dismissed as merely area specific, as many of the discussed aspects have a universal importance for Oral History, such as the role of emotions in oral testimonies as well as the influence of one’s own identity on the conducted interviews.

The workshop has also underlined that making interviews freely available in online Oral History archives will result in countless new possibilities for researchers. Especially considering the source problems that historians of Eastern Europe are facing due to the ongoing war and authoritarian regimes in the region, the digitalization of Oral History resources will surely prove fruitful and will undoubtfully contribute to the preservation of the cultural heritage of the region.

Conference Overview:

Gelinada Grinchenko (V. N. Kazarin National University, Kharkiv): To make your book sound and visual: oral histories and book teasers

Panel 1: Mnemopolitics and oral history interviews: methodological observations
Chair: Iryna Ramanava (European Humanities University, Vilnius)

Luca Thoma (University of Basel): Cui bono? Oral history between memory and mnemopolitics

Jogilė Ulinskaitė (Vilnius University): Searching for emotions in interviews about the post-communist transformation in Lithuania

Panel 2: Oral history in the digital world
Chair: Gleb Kazakov (Justus-Liebig-University, Gießen)

Anna-Lena Körfer (Herder Institut Marburg): Publishing oral history interviews open access: A case study on 'Ukrainian Polesia as a Nuclear Landscape and the Transformation of Local Identities, 1965-2015'

Iryna Kashtalian (University of Bremen): Challenges in Oral History Research in Belarus: Internet Project “Belarusian Oral History Archive”

Philipp Bayerschmidt (Friedrich-Alexander-Universität, Erlangen-Nürnberg): Digital exploration: Cross collections topic modeling in Oral History

Panel 3: Oral history of late socialism
Chair: Thomas Bohn (Justus-Liebig-Universität, Gießen)

Margarita Pavlova (International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture, Gießen): Theory and Practice of doing Oral History of Late Socialism: the Case of Leningrad Underground during Perestoika

Marta Haiduchok (Ukranian Catholic University, Lviv): Youth countercultural space in Lviv in 1956-1985

Daniel Gebel (Carl von Ossietzky Universität, Oldenburg): Everyday Life and Memory. Russian-German and Jewish “Soviet Baggage” after Migration

1 See the announce of the conference “Oral History and politics of memory in Eastern Europe” held in Marburg in 2017: https://www.hsozkult.de/event/id/event-81735 (17.10.2022).
2 FAIR is for “findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable”, see: GO FAIR Initative, https://www.go-fair.org/go-fair-initiative/ (17.10.2022).
3 See its brief description on the Digital History Network: https://about-history.info/en/organizations/52-belarusian-oral-history-archive/ (17.10.2022).

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