The Voices of the Unheard

26 June 2012, 18:05

It is well-known that Herodotus, the “Father of History”, wrote his narratives about the Greco-Persian Wars, based on accounts, which remained in the memories of eyewitnesses. Speaking in modern terms, he applied a methodology, which today’s scholars call oral history. The practice of including oral testimony as a source, when writing history was quite widespread until the mid-19th century and it was only after it was transformed into a scientific discipline that scholars began to lose interest in information, which was kept in people’s memory. They dedicated most of their attention to written sources.


The transformation of oral history into a separate area of historical knowledge began in the 1930-40s in the USA and was completed in the 1960-70s, at a time when fundamental changes were taking place in the field of humanities. Postmodern philosophy, the so-called “linguistic turn” and structural anthropology,to a large extent, promoted the formation of “new historical science” and of history becoming an anthropological science. All these changes led to the emergence of a movement for “history from the bottom” and interest in related oral history in the countries of Western Europe. From that time on, the center of attention of oral historians was transferred from the history of well-known individuals to that of simple people and social groups that were discriminated against.

Scholars turned their attention to the fact that the testimony of various people on one and the same event, reflect a difference in its perception by representatives of individual age-specific, ethnic and social groups. Quite often, the history that is kept in people’s memories differs from the official version. As Paul Thompson, a theoretic in this field, remarked: “oral history challenges generally accepted myths of history and the interference of authoritarian judgment in its tradition”. Clearly, the extreme assertions of the adherents of oral history that they had discovered “true” as opposed to “official” documentary history, were met with skepticism in academic circles.

The means by which oral history won its place in the academic environment of individual countries differed. A common trait for all was possibly that its institutionalization generally took place in so-called “new universities” and public organizations. To a large extent, this was promoted by the characteristic, that oral history was involved in the study of such historic events, which by their nature, did not leave behind an adequate amount of documentary sources. For example, in Great Britain and Italy, these were culture and the way of life of the working class, in Germany, where the coming into being of oral history took place later than in other Western countries, – the experience suffered under Nazi dictatorship. A powerful impulse for the development of oral historic research was provided by interest in the research of the problems of historic memory, initiated by French scholars. Quite a few studies were dedicated to commemorative practices, ceremonies and places within the framework of this trend, with the aid of which, society is trying to preserve its memory about the past. In the view of researchers, the coming into being of oral history as a separate direction of historic research was completed in 1996, with the establishment of the International Oral History Association (IOHA).

In spite of its initial marginal status, oral history was closely related to social life and fulfilled an important social function. A significant role played in this, was the social activism of historians themselves, who tried to influence the social situation in their countries and saw not only research objects in their respondents, but also partners and co-creators of historic narratives, followed by the inclusion of a wide range of societies of history buffs, students and schoolchildren. In conjunction with this, oral history also started to play an educational function. This practice was widely used in Germany, where students and schoolchildren were enlisted to learn the traumatic experience of Nazism. Expositions, exhibitions, radio and television programs etc. have been created on the basis of materials collected during the course of the implementation of these projects. Thus the youth of today are not only consuming a historic product, but also directly participating in its creation.


The methodology of oral history research only came to Ukraine in the 1990s, as did most products of Western historiography. It was at this time that scientific projects were initially implemented. It is characteristic, that they were initiated by western scholars – the American researcher, William Noll and Harvard graduate, Borys Gudziak.The subject of their research was related to traumatic experiences suffered by Ukrainians. During the period 1992-1995, within the framework of the “Transformation of Civil Society” (An Oral History of Ukrainian Peasant Culture of 1920-1930), William Noll recorded close to 400 interviews with peasants from Central and Eastern Ukraine, who had experienced the collectivization process. At the very same time, Borys Gudziak, on the basis of the Institute of Church History in Lviv, which he founded, began the implementation of a large-scale project, dedicated to the underground phase of the history of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.The Institute’s archives currently contain 1,800 interviews and a significant number of documents. Although the active phase of the work has already been completed, the project has yet to be completed and its archive is constantly being added to.  

The subsequent development of oral history in Ukraine was largely conducted in this mode – the study of events of a traumatic nature. Throughout the last twenty years, key positions were held by the problem of World War II, first and foremost, the research of the groups of people who were “deprived of their own voice” during the post-war period: ostarbeiters and prisoners from concentration camps, whose histories did not quite fit in with official Soviet discourse. In many cases, the initiative and financing of such research came from foreign foundations and organizations. This was a significant motivation for the development of oral history in Ukraine.

Thus, in 2005-2006, on the initiative of the German Federal Foundation, “Remembrance and Future”, a large-scale project was conducted on former ostarbeiters (more than 550 oral interviews were recorded). The Center for Educational Initiatives and the Kowalsky Eastern Ukrainian Institute participated from the Ukrainian side. In 2006-2007, the “Dachau Forum” expanded the operations of the international project entitled “Names Instead of Numbers. Remembrance Book for the Prisoners of the Dachau Concentration Camp”. Seven working groups were established for its implementation; in Vinnytsia, Kyiv, Lviv, Pereyaslav- Khmelnytsky, Poltava, Simferopol and Kharkiv. Its participants – pupils from senior secondary grades and university students, took 60 interviews from former inmates of this camp and wrote their biographies. These materials became part of the above-mentioned exhibition, which in 2010-2011, was also demonstrated in Ukraine. In addition to all-Ukrainian projects, there were several that were also implemented on the regional level.

In 2006 and 2007, the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies, with the support of the Hanadiv Charitable Foundation, conducted two all-Ukrainian summer schools entitled “The Holocaust Through the Eyes of the Non-Jewish Population (Russians, Ukrainians and Crimean Tartars) Based on the Example of Villages on the Crimean Peninsula” and “The History of the Holocaust on the Territory of the Khmelnytska Oblast: Witnesses and Survivors”. The listeners at these schools – schoolchildren, students and university graduates recorded nearly one hundred interviews, which were transferred to the center’s archive.

Together with the issue of the war, other problems, which are generally ignored by academic historiography, are also being studied in Ukraine with the help of oral history methodology. First of all, this pertains to the history of women. Such research was initiated by the “Spadshchyna” (“Legacy”) women’s center, which in 2003 put together the collection volume “Oral Ukrainian History: The Return”. It includes the oral history of women from various regions of Ukraine aged 70-90. In 2003-2006, Lviv-based scholars conducted a research project entitled “20th Century Ukraine in Women’s Memories”, having recorded 30 biographical interviews with elderly women in Lviv, Kharkiv and Simferopol.  

A singular thematic continuation of William Noll’s research was the all-Ukrainian project, the “Oral History of Decollectivization in Ukraine in the 1990s: Rural Perspectives and Experiences”, initiated by the Center for the Study of Ukrainian Heritage at the University of Saskatchewan. The active phase of its implementation was 2007-2008, when working groups were established in different regions of Ukraine, which gathered material for the study of the experience of the social changes, taking place in the Ukrainian village as a result of the collapse of collective farms.

The expansion of the chronological and subject field of oral history research was accompanied by their institutionalization – in October 2006, The Ukrainian Association of Oral History was established on the basis of the Kowalsky Eastern Ukrainian Institute. Its creation was dictated by the necessity of bringing together specialists from various social and humanitarian disciplines, which share the principles and approaches of oral history. This also made it possible for Ukrainian researchers to join the world community of oral historians – the International Oral History Association.


In spite of the fact that the coming into being of oral history in Ukraine took place many years later than in the West, it followed a similar scenario. First of all, Ukrainian realities are such, that a certain non-perception and the slow recognition of the fruits of oral history on the part of the academic community, is also characteristic. Although traditional historians have come to terms with the existence of oral historical research and do not even deny their use when writing scientific works, however the lack of scientific interest is manifested, particularly in the existence of only one PhD thesis, based on oral history material. The fact that until now, not a single academic institution in Ukraine has established a department or at the very least a center of oral history, is also indicative. At the same time, it is being institutionalized, based on a scheme that is similar to that in the West: oral history is largely developing within the framework of civic organizations and universities.

In the almost twenty years that have passed since its emergence in Ukraine, in spite of certain difficulties, oral history is gaining ever more recognition and circulation. The problems it faces includes the chronic shortage of funds, the reason for which is not the lack of budget financing, but the absence of humanitarian foundations, which would stimulate scientific, including research with the use of oral history. 

Another problem is the low academic culture of many of those, who are involved in oral history. From amateur-regional ethnographers, who feel that a simple conversation with a participant of an event is already the application of oral historical methodology, to public officials, who manage the execution of one state action on the gathering of testimony or another, delivering their results as oral history. A vivid example of such ignorance was the establishment of the “National Book of Remembrance for the victims of the Holodomor of 1932-1933 in Ukraine”, when the desire to question everyone and the excessive temptation to use administrative leverage led to the concealed sabotage and a reluctance to duly conduct these tasks in the regions, rather than the normal financing of research groups and compliance with methodological principles. 


Nevertheless, the development of oral historical research in Ukraine has colossal prospects. This is largely related to the social experience of Ukrainians in the newest age, which is filled with very varied and rich events. On the other hand, the live testimony of people shows a somewhat different perspective of the perception of events, rather than the one used by historians and the one proposed by politicians. The human experience that has been lived through and reinterpreted during the course of oral narratives, shows that in actual fact, the world is much more complex and diverse, as opposed to simplified, which is how official propaganda generally likes to present it.

In addition, rich foreign experience, first and foremost German, shows that oral history is an efficient means for educating young people. The involvement of young people in conducting oral interviews is not just a means for learning lenience and tolerance. It helps in the establishment of connections between generations and if not the transfer, then at least the recognition of the experience of the older generation. In the Ukrainian dimension, the involvement of young people in oral historical projects could become a powerful instrument for desovietization, without which, the building of a true civilized civil society is impossible. It is desovietization, which, of course, only young people are capable of doing, which could be the antithesis of this neo-soviet discourse, that is currently being actively promoted by the government and which, by accenting attention on old historic myths, often prevents the adoption of the values of the modern world. And in this case, oral history can undoubtedly be of service.

Incidentally: The “Book of Remembrance of Dachau Prisoners” project can serve as one of the numerous illustrations of a pedagogical approach in oral history, realized by the “Dachau Forum” civic organization in 1999-2009. The principal work on taking oral interviews and writing the biographies of former inmates of the concentration, camp was conducted by young people, first and foremost schoolchildren and students, who assisted in augmenting the museum’s display on the territory of the former concentration camp and the creation of a mobile exhibition, which was demonstrated in seven countries of the world during the period 2007-2009. Another example is the activity of the “Documentary Center of the Gunpowder Factory” (Dokumentationsstelle Pulverfabrik) in the German town of Liebenau. Forced labor was used at this factory during the war years, including that from Ukraine. The Center is trying to create an international museum-educational complex, having actively engaged young people.  

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