Recording Europe's first sound archive of the Gulag

Prisoners at the Kengir camp in May 1955.
Prisoners at the Kengir camp in May 1955. Cercec

The story of the Gulag first captured journalist Valérie Nivelon's  interest when historian and academic Alain Blum told her about an old woman, a babushka, whom he met on a trip to Siberia. Sent to a labour camp in the mid-20th century, she had never returned  to her homeland but built a new life in the far-off region.



“It wasn’t her own country," she says. "It was a country where she had been deported years ago but she was still living there."

But she was sorry to find that Blum hadn’t been able to record this oral account.
The experience inspired her to gather more stories, which now form the basis of the first-ever Europe-wide sound archive on the former Soviet Union’s prison camps, known as the Gulag. The project is a collaboration between RFI and the French national research institute, CNRS.

She and her team of 12 researchers went on to meet people who had been sent to Siberia from 13 European countries, which had either been incorporated into the Soviet Union or invaded by the Red Army.

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

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," she says. "For once they accepted this idea, so I’m proud of that. They turned this sound archive into a scientific project.”

The researchers travelled to Germany, France, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, Italy and Poland.

They were taught radio interview techniques so as to record the various accounts, combing radio journalists’ and historians’s skills.

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

“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 believes that some east European governments are today exploiting the memory of the Gulag for their own purposes. Some Baltic states to have the deportations labelled genocide and Hungary has its own anti-Communist museum, the House of Terror.

And she believes it has lessons for today.

 “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, a speciality of the radio she works for.

“I’m not the only one of course here at RFI who loves Africa and who loves gathering the memories of women and men 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 our Culture in France programme on the Gulag sound archive here.



Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Keep up to date with international news by downloading the RFI app