Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Author: Ameya Sanyal

Oral Histories of the Gulag

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.

Dr. Jehanne M. Gheith, Associate Professor of Russian Culture at Duke University and Licensed Clinical Social Worker for Duke Hospice

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

New Blogger Ameya Sanyal: Freshman Inspired by 'Kitchen Experiments'

Hello! My name is Ameya Sanyal and I’m an incoming Trinity Freshman. While I’ve lived in Madison, WI for the past 12 years, I was born in Roswell, NM. I use she/her/hers pronouns and live with my parents, Amit and Paulomi, my younger sister, Anika, and my goldendoodle, Zain.

When I was little, my dad used to host “Science Sundays.” From vinegar volcanoes to Dr. Seuss’s “oobleck,” I was captivated. These hands-on-activities — which I fondly called “kitchen experiments” — were only the beginning of my interest in science.

A man and three woman smiling.

My family and I experimenting with our camera.

Throughout elementary and middle school, I eagerly awaited science class. I loved to learn about real-life examples; projectile motion came alive with classroom rocket demonstrations and nitrogen fixation took on meaning with a field trip to a teacher’s farm.

In high school, I became frustrated as the science classes seemed to only cover core concepts. Although I recognized the importance of building a strong foundation in biology, chemistry and physics, I wanted to know more about the applications of basic scientific principles.

At this juncture, my interest in social studies began to grow. I joined various activist and leadership groups and explored the link between people and social change. In electives such as Government & Politics and Psychology, I could immediately see how skills such as knowing my rights and understanding my behavior in a nature-nurture context were valuable.

In the future, I’d like to become an activist-doctor and interact directly with patients while uniting with other physicians to pursue social change. Consequently, I hope to pursue an interdisciplinary major combining political science and medicine.

Three women in traditional Indian clothing.

My family and I celebrating Diwali, the festival of lights.

At Duke, I’d like to explore how communication across disciplines can result in increased health and wellness. As an aspiring Global Health and Biology double major, I am excited to think critically about the driving forces between social inequities and brainstorm how new scientific discoveries can be utilized in finding a solution to public health crises.

I am looking forward to writing about the impact of social determinants on health and wellness and emerging healthcare research and technologies. Apart from being a member of the research team, I hope to get involved with GlobeMed and the Hindu Students Association. If you see me volunteering in the Durham community or at Hindu celebrations, please say hi!

Post by Ameya Sanyal

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