The Whisperers and digital lives

I am currently attending an excellent (and free) conference at the British Library on "Digital Lives". Lots of excellent things about it, but I did enjoy a talk today by Orlando Figes. From Wikipedia:

"Figes has made a significant contribution to the development of oral history in Russia. With the Memorial Society, he gathered several hundred private family archives from homes across Russia and interviewed thousands of survivors as well as perpetrators of the Stalinist repressions for his book The Whisperers. This represents one of the biggest collections of documents about private life in the Stalin era. Housed in the Memorial Society in Moscow, St Petersburg and Perm, many of these valuable research materials are available on line."

The website The Whisperers: private lives in Stalin's Russia, is an example of why archiving, and oral history, is so important to us all. Orlando Figes told us how, on 4 December 2008, the police raided the St Petersburg offices of the Memorial Society and not only removed the hard disc drives of the Stalin oral history project (also on the Figes website, so in actuality not lost) but all the other archives of this section of the Memorial society. One of these projects is the virtual Gulag. As things stand, the only way your average Russian can find out about the Gulags is the one museum on the topic, which is in the Urals, 150 miles from the nearest large town. The Memorial society was some way along a project to create a virtual Gulag museum, so that all Russians and those in former Soviet Union countries could know about this awful history. No longer, since the December police raid. Orlando Figes told us about the Putin regime's programme to rehabilitate Stalin as a national hero. Chilling. The oral history project in which he interviewed many families about their experiences in that era, however, was the opposite - one is just grateful that there are people around us who are doing this kind of thing.

The Whisperers at Google Books.

Guardian review of The Whisperers.

New York Times review of The Whisperers.

The Times review of The Whisperers.

4 thoughts on “The Whisperers and digital lives

  1. I meant to comment on this post a couple of days ago when I read it. It sounds a fascinating conference and makes me wish, once more, that I lived in London.
    Coincidentally, I was involved in an oral history project in the UK a few months ago. It was to record the voices of people that lived through the second world war in a chemical weapons factory. Although I am sure they didn’t have to endure the atrocities of Soviet Russia, they too had some dreadful tales to tell.

  2. Thank you for bringing this forward. One’s history (both personal and national) is frequently not as pristine as could be desired. Trying to get at the nuggets of reality in between the politically expedient versions is increasingly difficult.

  3. Another interesting project we heard about on day 3 is the Mass Observation project, being done in Sussex. Apparently lots of (self selected!) people in the population are regularly answering questions on a range of topics, and having their answers stored for prosperity. I have to admit that I felt like asking (but did not dare) whether it is like a Radio 4 audience or the letters to the Editor page of a national newspaper – ie. the opinions of those with time on their hands – and hence, a bit of a skewed sample!

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