Skip to navigation – Site map
Soviet & Post-Soviet Wars: An Oral History Project - Introduction

Soviet & Post-Soviet Wars: An Oral History Project

An Open-Access Oral History Collection & A Participatory Initiative
Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski

Full text

1For some years now, the Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies has introduced in its issues the publication of interviews with veterans, war reporters, or other witnesses of the Soviet and post-Soviet wars. Indeed, it seemed important to us to gather the testimony of witnesses who are still alive in order to shed light on past or current conflicts. Today, PIPSS wishes to intensify the practice of collecting oral testimonies which was initiated in 2011. To mark its 15th anniversary, Pipss is launching an oral history project on Soviet and post-Soviet wars which aims to collect and make available interviews of participants in armed conflicts conducted by researchers during their fieldwork, regardless of the focus of their research.

The Project's Objectives

2This project aims to enhance the value of the corpus collected by researchers in order to open up and create exchanges between disciplines and approaches. These past years, researchers from all disciplines (humanities and social sciences) have increasingly produced and still continue to produce oral sources that are used only to a limited extent in the context of articles. These interviews cover a wide range of themes, focuses and angles. Different approaches are used: open, semi-open or closed questionnaire, with or without interview grids, life course etc. War is sometimes dealt with centrally; sometimes conflict is only approached as a stage in a life course, in a trajectory. Whatever their approaches, they are all of great value to understand wars.

3The aim of the project is to establish a history of the war “from below” and capture the texture of the fighting experience through testimonies; to document past wars, help reconstruct a "history of the people" at a critical time and also write the history of the present day.

4The project aims to establish a corpus to bequeath to future generations of researchers, who will be able to make use of these interviews for their own research.

5The project is open to cross-referencing interviews with documentary sources. Therefore, in addition to oral testimonies, the project will comprise a "documentation" component that will include interactive maps, ego-documents, photos, videos, demobilization albums, brochures, etc. 

Chronological, Territorial and Social Limits

6This project concerns the wars and conflicts which took place on the territory of the Soviet Union and those of the post-Soviet republics as well as all the conflicts that were started by a post-Soviet republic.

7The project is not limited to combatants and veterans of these wars: it also include war correspondents, doctors, nurses, rear staff, members of NGOs, military chaplains, combatants' wives, etc.

8Ultimately, the project's ambition is to document both sides of the wars. Testimonies of the opposite side of the war will therefore be gradually incorporated into the database: for instance Afghans for the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Chechens of both Russian campaigns in Chechnya, etc.

9All languages from the zone covered are accepted.

Technical Restraints & Editing

10Testimonies may be provided in the form of transcripts, video files, sound recordings. 

11The material will be edited as lightly as possible. We wish to render the interview in its most original and spontaneous form. For that reason interviews will be transcribed with a minimum of cuts: only flat breaks, interruptions (by phone calls for instance), repetitions, requests for clarification on a word will be removed, as well as language tics.

12As far as possible, the natural order of the questions will be preserved even if sometimes the rhythm is cut off and the questions redundant.

Ethics

13Witness and witness Protection is our priority. These testimonies will thus only be published with the agreement of the interested parties. Interviews will be published only with the interviewee's authorization.

14Testimonies will be anonymized or pseudonymized at the request of the "witnesses" – with name change, change or deletion of identifying information such as place names to ensure greater anonymity.

15A stronger anonymization may be proposed, for sensitive areas - current or recent wars - through translation of the interview into English or French.

16Prior to each interview, each witness must be briefed on the conditions and purposes of the investigation and presented with an assignment of rights form, which he or she signs at the end of the interview.

17Likewise, transcripts, audio or video recordings must be validated by the witnesses or rights holders.

18The consent forms drawn up by the various researchers during interviews carried out in the context of various research projects will be handed over to our editorial board and will be kept in the journal's archives.

19It is reminded here that Pipss is under creative commons.

In Continuity with Existing Soviet and Russian Projects

20This project is in continuity with the collection of testimonies concerning wars that were initiated at different times in the Soviet and post-Soviet space.

Academic Projects

21The first category of projects consists of projects developed within an academic framework. In particular these academic projects were initiated around the Great Patriotic War.

Stalingrad, 1942 - 1945

22Website : http://stalingrad.rusarchives.ru/​razdely/​stenogrammy-besed-s-uchastnikami-bitvy-iz-arhiva-komissii-po-istorii-velikoy-otechestvennoy-voyny and http://stalingrad.rusarchives.ru/​razdely/​audiozapisi-vospominaniy-zashchitnikov-stalingrada-1943-1979-gg

  • 1 Interview with Jochen Hellbeck, by M. Shapira, "Stalingrad Diaries: The Battlefield Transcripts Sta (...)
  • 2 See Jochen Hellbeck’s project “facingstalingrad.org”.
  • 3 Interview with Jochen Hellbeck, op. cit.
  • 4 Interview with Jochen Hellbeck, op. cit.
  • 5 Cf. A.M. Samsonov, Stalingradskaia Bitva [The Battle of Stalingrad], Moscow, Nauka, 1989.

23The project “Stalingrad” was initiated during the Great Patriotic War. The decision to conduct interviews with combatants was taken by Moscow historians as early as 1941 in order to "document the Soviet effort of war in its totality, and from the ground up"1. The Commission of the USSR Academy of Sciences on the History of the Great Patriotic War recorded these interviews. This commission was established in January 1942 and worked until December 1945. Its purpose was to collect the testimony of heroes. As the historian J. Hellbeck2 states in an interview to the Haaretz newspaper: "The interviews were conducted by historians from Moscow who responded to the German invasion in 1941 with a plan to document the Soviet war effort in its totality, and from the ground up". From 1942 to 1945, were interviewed close to "5,000 people – most of them soldiers, but also partisans, civilians who worked in the war economy or fought in the underground, and Soviet citizens who had survived Nazi occupation. These historians hoped that the published interviews would mobilize readers for the war. They also wanted to create an archival record for posterity"3. Unfortunately none of these interviews were made public: "The testimonies were too truthful and multifaceted for their times, and Stalin forbade their publication, not least because he alone claimed full credit for the victory at Stalingrad"4. Stenograms and recordings exist. From the 1950s to the 1980s, they became accessible to historians but on limited scale5. They were most widely used in the last decade. The publication of Jochen Hellbeck of Rutgers University has made it possible to disseminate this material in the academic community, in particular 215 interviews with Stalingrad defenders found in the archives of the Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences. These testimonies are available in the form of transcripts and in audio form. One of the limitations to these interviews is that there is no list of questions available. Presently, there are only 7 interviews available on the Stalingrad.rusachives.ru website. The others can be found in the archives.

“From Soldier to General” (От солдата до генерала), 2003 – 2016

24Website: http://www.ainros.ru/​toma.htm?ser_id=1

25The project "From Soldier to General" was born in 2002 in the run-up to the 60th anniversary of the Victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany. Based on the observation of the "lack of testimonies of WWII soldiers and the need to educate the youth and train the next generations to serve the Fatherland", the Vice President of the Academy of Historical and Military Sciences, Yevgeny Ivanovich Shol', the President of the Council of Veterans of the 4th Army, Vladimir Parkhomenko, the Chairman of the Interuniversity Centre for Historical Education in Technical Universities of the Russian Federation Viktor Porokhnia establish the Moscow branch of the Academy of Historical Sciences which will become the architect of a vast project of collecting testimonies from veterans of the Great Patriotic War. The testimonies are collected and edited by young high school students from technical schools and published in large volumes with 600 copies each (including 100 for the veterans interviewed and the students who worked on the texts; 500 for the libraries of universities, museums and veterans' organizations, military commissariats in all regions of Russia). Gradually the collection campaign is extended to all the Soviet wars (Angola, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Afghanistan etc) and then to post-Soviet wars (Chechnya, Georgia, Syria...). Today 18 volumes of interviews have been published and are available online in direct access. Like the "Stalingrad" project, no list of questions was ever published.

Enthusiasts

26The second category consists of projects developed by amateur historians, “enthusiasts” as they are called in Russian.

“ Soldierly Reminiscences” (Солдатские Мемуары), 1976

27Website: https://shtab.su/​video/​sssr/​velikaya-otechestvennaya-vojna/​konstantin_simonov_soldatskie_memuaru_smotret_online.html

28In 1974 the Soviet writer and war poet Konstantin Simonov, who during the Great Patriotic war was war correspondant for Krasnaia Zvezda, conducted filmed interviews with war veterans. From this project was born a documentary film in 4 parts: the film is based on the conversations between the writer Konstantin Simonov and holders of the Order of Glory.

  • Part 1-I. "Tank fighter Mikhail Petrovich Badigin” - On the participant of the Great Patriotic War, the commander of the gun, Commander of the Order of Glory of three degrees Mikhail Badigin. Included film and photo shots of the Great Patriotic War and mid 70's.

  • Part 2. "Infantryman Vasily Alekseyevich Alifanov” - On the participant of the Great Patriotic War, an infantryman, Commander of the Order of Glory of three degrees Vasily Alifanov.

  • Part 3. "Connector Habibulla Hayrovich Yakin” - On the participant of the Great Patriotic War, Commander of the Order of Glory of three degrees of communicator Habibulla Yakin.

  • Part 4-th. "Bomb Disposal Squadron Ivan Alexeevich Rastyagayev" - On the participant of the Great Patriotic War, sapper, Commander of the Order of Glory of three degrees Ivan Rastyagaev.

“I remember” (Я помню), 2000

29Website: https://iremember.ru

  • 6 He is also the author of collections of interviews with veterans of the Great Patriotic War, a comp (...)

30Artyom Vladimirovich Drabkin (born July 25, 1971) is Russian public figure and writer6. He is the Head of the Internet project "I remember" launched in 2000. Interviews and memories of war participants are available on the website: full transcripted testimonies, extracts of audio-archives, letters from the front can be found. Testimonies are organized by type of army and battle.

« Allies and Opponents » (Союзники и Противники)

31Website: https://frontstory.ru

32Since its creation, the website “I remember” has been extended with an “Allies and Opponents” part which aims to gather the testimonies of the Second World War participants: Germany, OUN-UPA, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Palestine, Serbia France, Poland, Romania.

“The Contemporaries” (Современники)

33Website : https://veteranstory.ru

34A third project was quickly added to the “I remember” one: the collect of testimonies from soldiers who fought contemporary wars such as Korea, Angola, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Syria.

NGO

"The Other Side. Oral History of Prisoners of War and Osterbaiters” (та сторона войны. Остарбайтеры и военнопленные в Германии и СССР), 2016

35Website: https://tastorona.su/

36“"The Other Side" is an online archive of interviews with former “Ostarbeiters” (eastern workers), prisoners of war in German Camps and prisoners of war in the USSR and a place for publication of materials related to this topic. The project is focusing on the "other side" - outside the official celebrations, pages of textbooks, movements of troops - the lives of ordinary people who found themselves in the orbit of the most tragic event in world history. The project is based on the archive of the "Memorial" society and conducted in collaboration with the German Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future (EVZ). The archive contains more than 300 multi-hour interviews, recorded from the late 1980s to the very last time, and about 400 thousand letters of former ostarbeiters, which reached the then newly emerging society in 1990-1991. Especially for "The Other Side" a system of publishing text sources "Archivist" was developed, which allows to conveniently mark transcriptions, creating different types of indexes and auxiliary dictionaries. Careful processing of interviews allows transforming scattered (and often contradictory) stories into a single memory base for a whole generation of people. Using the search engine, you can understand which topics are covered in each interview and go directly to the parts of interest.”

Veterans’ Associations

“The Echo of the Afghan War”, 2018

37Website: https://bbratstvo.com/​war

38The “Echo of the Afghan War” (Эхо Афганской войны) project is carried by the Veterans’ Association “Combat Brotherhood” (Боевое Братство) and implemented in the framework of the “Memory of a Stronger Time” project, with the help of a grant of the President of the Russian Federation for the development of civil society provided by the Presidential Grants Fund. Approximately 325 have been conducted to this date. The interviews that last on average 10 to 20 minutes are video recorded and posted on the Boevoe Bratstvo site as well as on Youtube.

PIPSS' Contribution

39The “Soviet & Post-Soviet Wars: An Oral History Project” will

  • provide lightly edited interviews in the form of transcripts, audio or video files, in any language of the zone covered;

  • publish testimonies of combatants, veterans as well as medical and logistical personnel, military chaplains, military advisers, and extend to the civil society that has been involved in these conflicts: NGOs, wives of combatants who have served as smugglers, children, etc.

  • include archives, photos, ego-documents;

  • document, with time, both sides of the war;

40Hopefully in a near future, the construction of a dedicated platform will allow an efficient indexing of the interviews.

Top of page

Notes

1 Interview with Jochen Hellbeck, by M. Shapira, "Stalingrad Diaries: The Battlefield Transcripts Stalin Deemed Too True to Publish", Haaretz, 9 September 2017, https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium.MAGAZINE-the-battlefield-transcripts-stalin-deemed-too-true-to-publish-1.5448814

2 See Jochen Hellbeck’s project “facingstalingrad.org”.

3 Interview with Jochen Hellbeck, op. cit.

4 Interview with Jochen Hellbeck, op. cit.

5 Cf. A.M. Samsonov, Stalingradskaia Bitva [The Battle of Stalingrad], Moscow, Nauka, 1989.

6 He is also the author of collections of interviews with veterans of the Great Patriotic War, a compiler of a series of books memories of veterans "Soldier's Diaries" and "Trench Truth and author of scripts for documentary films and series.

Top of page

References

Electronic reference

Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski, « Soviet & Post-Soviet Wars: An Oral History Project  », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 20/21 | 2019, Online since 24 March 2020, connection on 07 August 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/pipss/5856 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/pipss.5856

Top of page

About the author

Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski

PIPSS & EHESS

By this author

Top of page

Copyright

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Top of page