Totalitarianism through human destinies: French academics study the tragic experience of Eastern European nations

Millions of the lives ruined by tyrannical regimes should in no way remain in the memory of descendants as mere “statistics.” Otherwise, there will be a danger of the rebirth of the “seeds of hatred” which inflicted so many irreparable losses on many nations in the 20th century and are still doing so at present.

Experts at such an internationally reputed institution as the Paris-based French Center for Russian, Caucasian, and Central European Studies (CERCEC), namely, Professor Alain BLUM, director of the center, a well-known historian and demographer; the center associates Catherine GOUSSEFF and Marta CRAVERI, as well as a group of the center’s other researchers, have done extremely important work to carry out the project “Audio Archive of the European Gulag.” This project is aimed, firstly, at publishing the interviews conducted with the people who suffered from communist repressions on the territory of Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Rumania.

Incidentally, the project authors emphasize that they use the term “Gulag” in a very broad sense to mean all forms of repressions – prison camps, deportations, and internal exile. And, secondly, it was important to find the common features and differences in the whole tragic experience and trace the “trajectory” of the repression victims’ relocation and study the process of their release and further life. There were 170 interviews recorded not only in the abovementioned countries, but also in Russia, Kazakhstan, Germany, and France. The so far preliminary results of the study made it possible to publish a book in France.

The French researchers, accompanied by their good friend and colleague, Den’s regular contributor, Doctor of Sciences (History), Professor Yurii SHAPOVAL, have visited our newspaper and told us about their project, the goals of and achievements in their work.


Yurii SHAPOVAL: “In addition to (and on the basis of) the project ‘Audio Archive of the European Gulag,’ our French colleagues have established an online museum of Gulag victims.

This project is being carried out by a scholarly institution that has existed in Paris since 1957 and is currently known as Center for Russian, Caucasian, and Central European Studies.

Professor Alain Blum is serving a second term as director of this institution.

“The name of the project developed by our guests contains the word ‘Gulag’ which is not so much a precise term as a symbol of the totalitarian system. I want to emphasize that this project is being carried out on more than modest means.

The project ‘Audio Archive of the European Gulag’ is an example of how experience should be handed down to future generations.”


Alain BLUM: “Let me tell you in brief about the essence of our project. We aimed, above all, to set up an ample audio archive which could generalize the Gulag experience on a proper scholarly level. The Europeans often think that Gulag was an exclusive tragedy of the ex-USSR society, but we wanted to collect evidence not only from the people who were born in the USSR, but also from those who, by force of historical circumstances, became citizens of that state in 1939. We paid special attention to those who were deported in the period between 1939 and 1953. This is the first and most important topic of our study.

“So we formed a team of 12 researchers who had command of 11 languages of East-European countries so that we could interview people without an interpreter. We worked in the Baltic countries, Ukraine (first of all, in its western part), Poland, Slovakia, Italy, Germany, and, naturally, France (there was a huge flow of the deportees in the latter). Besides, we worked in Siberia and Kazakhstan because we also needed to have anecdotal evidence from those who had remained behind there. There are very many Ukrainians among them.

“We recorded a total of 170 interviews, each lasting from 90 to 300 minutes. It was important for us to show how these people had lived before the deportation and how they joined society mainstream after being released.

“It was decided in the course of time to set up an online museum that would display anecdotal evidence, video footage, and a documentary archive. What presented a special problem for us was selection of the languages for the website. As a result, we created the site in four languages: French (because it is our mother tongue), English (because it is the language of worldwide international communication), Russian (the language of deportation), and Polish (the most widespread language among all the deported nations).”


Marta CRAVERI: “Working on the project, each of us tried to avoid pure theorization and, instead, focus on the accounts of quite concrete human destinies of the deportees.

The book’s chapters were centered on the destiny of a certain nation that suffered from deportation: there is a ‘Lithuanian,’ ‘Ukrainian,’ ‘Polish,’ ‘Jewish,’ and other parts. Some fragments of these interviews were broadcast over Radio France Internationale.”



Ihor SIUNDIUKOV: “As our guests have already stressed, the interviewed victims have very different experience. But there must obviously be something common and universal in all this. What could you say about this?”


Catherine GOUSSEFF: “Naturally, there are some common features, for example, the evidence of people who were children at the time (they are the vast majority). It is a very specific look at those tragic events: ‘the children of deportation’ give a detailed account of what happened to their parents. Even more astonishingly, none of the researchers saw that any victims, no matter what nation they belonged to, strove to put the blame for totalitarian crimes on the Russian nation. This is also a common feature.”

Vadym LUBCHAK: “To what extent is it important today not only to know ‘dry’ facts about the repressions, but also to hear the testimony of and see these people?

“A question to Professor Shapoval: what hinders the Ukrainians from establishing an archive that could project a generalized image of the repressed Ukrainian?”

M.C.: “Before getting down to this project, we worked fruitfully with archival documents. And we began to set up the ‘audio archive’ immediately after the seven-volume History of the Gulag was published. We should begin to do this work today because there will soon be no witnesses to those tragedies among the living. Eyewitness accounts impart human features to history. I do not think that one thing should hamper another. The Gulag archives are written in a turbid bookish language. They mostly contain precise data and figures. You can hardly see a living human, with his or her ordeals and pain, in all this.”

C.G.: “Video footage that shows people who experienced the Gulag is a more effective way for young people to understand the tragedy. We even invited eyewitnesses from Latvia and Poland to Paris to show them to the French.”

Yu.Sh.: “As for the possibility of such initiatives in Ukraine, we still do not have, unfortunately, a well-thought-out policy of memory. It is, above all, the job of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory which is now being reformed. But this may also be an initiative of some concrete researchers who will decide on a project like this. Something has been done, of course. For example, there is the Museum of National Liberation Struggle in Ivano-Frankivsk. It has a large section, ‘Gulag Women,’ that displays photographs, embroidered items, and personal belongings. The Kyiv History Museum also used to have a big exposition devoted to concrete Gulag human destinies. Naturally, we need support from the state – the Audio Archive of the European Gulag was supported by the French government.”

A.B.: “The problem is that all countries strive, first of all, to research national history and build national memory, bypassing the history of the neighboring countries. It is a mistake to nationalize the memory of this period. In Vilnius, they know their own history but are saying nothing about Latvia and Estonia, even though they have a common history which must not be studied out of the context.

“Or take the history of France. The first debates on World War Two collaboration began after an American historian had written a book on this topic. It was a ticklish matter…”

I.S.: “History decreed that France and Russia should have special relations. President Charles de Gaulle used to say that there is eternal France and eternal Russia. Does French society view the history of Ukraine’s tragedy from the angle that we are discussing here? Or does it dissolve this in the idea of Russia and the ‘Russian World’ of which the history of Ukraine is just a part?”

C.G.: “In my view, the situation has changed now. The USSR was once perceived as sort of a continent with various regions. But people are aware now of the Baltic countries, Ukraine, etc., existing separately from Russia. But it will take years for this idea to become deep-seated. It is only clear that society knows about the existence of Ukraine and is beginning to get acquainted with its individual history. Incidentally, what had a negative effect on the studying and understanding of Ukraine’s history is debates on the Holodomor: there were a lot of extremist interpretations.”

A.B.: “It seems to me, a Westerner, that it is difficult for all the post-Soviet countries to come to grips with their own history. Take, for example, the Holodomor disputes: some countries recognize it, others do not. This shows that the appraisal of your own history still remains an unresolved problem.”

Anna CHEREVKO: “You spoke about searching both common and different features in the lives of the repressed people. Can you say that differences depend on the victims’ ethnicity? Is there any difference in the post-Gulag life of people from different countries?”

C.G.: “Everything depends just on the victims’ place of deportation and the epoch. For example, the experience of the Poles deported before and after World War Two is absolutely different. Differences depended not only on the republic in which the deportees were stationed – there were also differences in the experience of those who worked in the mountains and those who worked in the forests. These circumstances had a more profound effect on the life of people than their ethnicity.”

A.B.: “Differences also lie in the further integration with society. For example, there are people who managed to achieve social mobility and get Sovietized. There also are those who, on the contrary, failed to overcome the stigma of having been deported. We are firmly convinced that ethnicity is not the main criterion for distinguishing people. The main thing is personal experience. If the deportees were still children and went to Soviet schools, they had an opportunity to join social processes in the future. But it was much harder for those who were over 20 at the time of deportation: they lost everything and had to go back to square one.”

V.L.: “You mentioned the Ivano-Frankivsk museum and touched on a very interesting topic – woman and the Gulag. Does your project highlight any gender-related aspects? How many women were there among the 165 persons you interviewed? Can we speak in generalized terms about repressions against women?”

M.C.: “The gender aspect is of paramount importance for us. Alain created a special room, ‘Woman’s World,’ in our online museum. According to official statistics, the number of male and female deportees was the same. But eyewitnesses say that most of the deportees were women and children. There were almost no men left, even among the local population, after the war. Fathers of the family were often sentenced to serve in prison camps, while their wives and children were given the status of ‘special settlers.’ A female deportee told us that most children had never seen or remembered their parents. She said that after the war, whenever a man came to the settlement, all the kids would come running to him in a crowd, crying out: ‘Daddy!’”

A.B.: “Among those we interviewed, women account for about 60 percent and men for 40 percent. I must also add that it often happened when father was banished to one place and his wife and children to another. For example, we were told that a faher who stayed in Vorkuta searched for his family in Uzbekistan.”

Yu.Sh.: “Our French colleagues also traced the deportees’ relocation pattern in their project. In other words, it is not just the description of a certain period in someone’s life but the full picture of his or her destiny: where from and where to they were deported, whether they returned to their homeland or went on living in the place of exile, etc. Therefore, the project followed the path of human destinies [see the relocation map on the museum’s website – Ed.].”

I.S.: “Could you say what you felt when you studied these extremely hard destinies of people?”

A.B.: “I think this experience is very important for all the people who did this research, including myself. Although the life of these people is very tragic, they bear no grudge against anybody, nor are they saying that the Russians are bad. I remember almost everybody I met. What made a special impression on me was the meeting in Pereiaslav-Khmelnytsky. It changed my vision of history and the way I would like to look into it.”

M.C.: “For me, saying goodbye to people was the most distressing moment. After a two- or three-hour-long interview, when the individual has exposed to you the history of his or her incredible life, it is very difficult to tell them that it is time to go and meet somebody else. All our witnesses are elderly and, in many cases, lonely people, and we know how difficult it is to them. We are planning to continue our project: we will be interviewing fewer people, but are bound to see again those we have met before.”

V.L.: “To what extent were the people willing to expose the personal pages of their past? Were there many refusals?”

M.C.: “There were no refusals at all. There was a situation in Kazakhstan, when the children of a woman to be interviewed did not want her to meet us – they were afraid this would stir up too much emotion. We usually contacted eyeball to eyeball. Speaking to us, the people were so frank and sincere that they allowed themselves to burst into tears.”

Yu.Sh.: “What really matters is the way you speak to people. You may conduct the interview in such a way that all the Russians turn out to be scum and Stalinists or that all the Ukrainians are collaborationists and traitors… So we still have to learn to interview people.

“I would love this book to be translated into Ukrainian.”

A.Ch.: “What kind of response has your project received?”

A.B.: “It has undoubtedly aroused interest. A publishing house very quickly showed interest in our book. We took part in eight radio programs. There were many – mostly positive – reviews of the book and the website in major French newspapers. The only question is how to continue all this.”

V.L.: “Is the world prepared today to honor the memory of the victims of political repressions?”

C.G.: “There are countries that have been more actively discussing this for a long time, such as Poland which started this process back in the 1970s, Hungary… We should not forget about the time factor which plays an important role in the final analysis.”

A.B.: “In this respect, Poland has really made progress against the backdrop of the other post-Soviet countries.”

V.L.: “Is Russia prepared to duly honor the memory of those who suffered from repressions?”

A.B.: “There are a few groups – narrow circles and experts – that are debating on these subjects. At the same time, the majority in society is only beginning to fathom the scope of the tragedy.”

I.S.: “Unfortunately, the Ukrainian realities are as follows: there is a Communist faction in the Verkhovna Rada, which quite openly positions itself as Stalinist. Frankly speaking, it is very difficult to imagine at present in what way Ukraine will clean itself from this.”

A.B.: “Naturally, democracy is a very important point, but it will not solve everything. France has begun to speak frankly about colonization only now. The question of the French colonial empire, especially the Algeria War question, began to be discussed 50 years after that war. But, still, France is a democracy. In other words, democracy is important, but it cannot, unfortunately, resolve everything. In my view, the role of historians is extremely important in this case.”