Survivors' stories: Europe's first sound archive of the Gulag

Audio 04:36
Prisoners at the Kengir camp in May 1955.
Prisoners at the Kengir camp in May 1955. CERCEC

In partnership with the French National Centre for Scientific Research, RFI is helping to create the first European sound archive devoted to the experiences of people sent to the Soviet Gulag camps. The archive began four years ago, as a project of RFI journalist Valérie Nivelon.


Nivelon came up with the idea after Russian history specialist Alain Blum told her the story of a babushka, or old woman, he met during a trip to Siberia.

Nivelon found the story fascinating: “It wasn’t her own country. It was a country where she had been deported years ago but she was still living there,” she muses.

But she regretted that Blum hadn’t been able to record this oral account.

“It was absolutely incredible to realise that this story of deportation to the Gulag was not just history that belonged to the Russian people.”

Even to this day it’s part of European history, Nivelon continues, “because in those Gulags there were people from all over Europe”.

She still can’t believe the team of scientists she worked with agreed to take part in her quest to create Europe’s first ever sound archive.

“You know, historians prefer to work on paper which isn’t really the same as oral history," Nivelon reflects. "For once they accepted this idea so I’m proud of that. They turned this sound archive into a scientific project.”

After receiving funding from the French National Research Agency, the project was launched in association with RFI. A dozen researchers helped Valerie Nivelon conduct the interviews throughout 13 European countries including Germany, France, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, Italy and Poland.

The researchers were taught radio interview techniques so as to record the various accounts. “We know how to make sounds and they know how to make stories,” Nivelon says of the collaboration.

Each researcher was attributed to a specific country and from then on would search for its Gulag survivors. Over 250 hours of accounts from 120 Gulag survivors were gathered.

“The point is it’s the first time we do a European archive, because if you go for example to the Baltic countries, they do their own work about that,” Nivelon points out.

She deplores the way in which some countries use these strong “memories” to serve their own political agendas.

“You know this story of deportation, it is not past, it is present and we must be very careful and see what’s happening everywhere. I’m thinking about Iran, I’m thinking about Eritrea for example in Africa, Myanmar, we must be aware and we must think about all those countries where there is real and strong violence from the government… from the state.”

She sees a powerful parallel between these events and the stories of the Gulag: “It’s not past, it’s present, and we must be very, very careful.”

When asked whether she’d like to work on another audio archive, Valérie Nivelon is quick to mention Africa. “I’m not the only one of course here at RFI who loves Africa and who loves gathering the memories of women in Africa, who are the actors of their own history. It’s not only their own history, it's a history we have to share.”

The full archive will be made into an audio book, set to be released at the end of this year.

Listen to Valérie Nivelon's programmes on the sound archive here (in French).

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