Gulag Voices: Oral Histories of Soviet Detention and Exile (2011), edited by Jehanne M. Gheith and Katherine R. Jolluck, brings interviews with Gulag survivors to English-speaking audiences. In an interview with Gheith, she reflected on how she began her research on the Soviet forced labor camps called Gulags, ethical complications and different kinds of research opportunities for students.
In the early 1990s, Gheith taught a Gulag memoir to Duke students and realized that while students are aware of the Holocaust, their knowledge on Gulags is limited. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s, it was possible for Gheith to interview Gulag survivors. She and her co-editor, Katherine Jolluck, connected ten years later when Jolluck was a professor at Stanford. Jolluck had published Exile and Identity: Polish Women in the Soviet Union During World War II, a book about Polish women in the Gulag, the two embarked on a collaborative partnership. Taking the interviews Gheith had conducted, she and Jolluck added archival sections and reviewed the interviews.
Memoirs and scholarly works differ from collections of interviews. Gheith felt it was important to conduct a project where she and others could hear the stories of survivors. An influential source that she consulted was the The Gulag Archipelago 1981-1956 (1973) by Nobel Literature Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago covers three volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s personal experience in the Russian Gulags and his critiques on the Stalin regime.
To find interview subjects for the oral project, Gheith contacted the Russian civil rights organization Memorial. She also interviewed people outside of Memorial using what she described as a “snowball sample.” To piece together the fragmented memories of survivors, Gheith listened and transcribed the stories in the order they were remembered with connecting passages of text. Though time can lead to the misrepresentation of facts, Gheith said, “the facts may be wrong, but you can get to emotional truths.” People may incorrectly recall small details due to numerous factors – nevertheless, through Memorial, Gheith and Jolluck were able to verify key records of camp survivors, showing the years they were in the camps and the kinds of work they did there.
There were ethical complications Gheith had to surmount – participants could be reluctant to speak about their experiences and expressed surprise that audiences were interested in their memories. Some interviewees were fearful of the Gulag re-occurring and needed to be connected to support resources upon being asked about their encounters.
Gheith also needed to be vigilant about the context and history surrounding Gulags. Because Gulag survivors may have been forced to sign false confessions in the labor camps, Gheith had approval from the Institutional Review Board to secure verbal agreements on tape in lieu of consent forms.
For students conducting interviews, Gheith suggested reading an oral history, communicating with experts and beginning with a smaller project. Additionally, she had two key points: 1) it is crucial to gain approval from the Institutional Review Board to work with human subjects and 2) if conducting research in a foreign language, the choice between a translator or transcriber should be carefully made, as a translator may shift the relationship dynamic.
In the future, Gheith will be connecting her clinical work to Russian literature and culture. She believes that for students interested in medicine, the arts and humanities have a significant connection to scientific research. Storytelling is also a key part of law and policy, and as students begin to conduct studies in these fields, they are likely to find that the ability to weave a narrative is an indispensable skill. Gheith said she would be happy to talk about the connections between story and medicine with any interested students.
By Ameya Sanyal