Defend Memorial International

Graham Smith writes (31 December 2021), “Three days ago, the Russian courts ordered the liquidation of Memorial International. He argues “that banning Memorial should be condemned by all oral historians“.

Three decades on from the end of the Soviet Union, the Russian state is trying to outlaw historical research into the crimes of Stalinism. On December 28th, the country’s Supreme Court issued a verdict confirming a government recommendation made a month earlier that Memorial be shut down for supposedly acting on behalf of “foreign agents”.

Memorial International, along with its affiliated Oral History Centre, has conducted several oral history projects, including the Ostarbeiter oral history archive, beginning in the 1980s. More recently they have been processing interviews collected between 1991 and 1998 and have identified several subcollections or themes including family history, Perestroika journalists, and Arbat intelligentsia. In addition, Memorial has significant collections of memories of the Gulag and dissent in the USSR, databases of victims of Stalinism, as well as records of more recent human rights abuses. All this is threatened.

Memirial logo

Fourteen years ago, Irina Flige, the chairperson of the St Petersburg Memorial group, was amongst those who were criticising the Russian government for covering up state-sponsored terrorism while emphasising its victory over fascism and the modernisation of the former Soviet Union. In 2008, Memorial made an international appeal in which the Memorial’s leadership complained,

instead of a serious nationwide discussion about its Soviet past, the Soviet State patriotic myth with small changes is reviving. This myth views Russian history as a string of glorious and heroic achievements.[1]

Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation and former KGB officer, has recently accused Memorial of violating its “humanistic ideals” because the organization, had included the names of three Nazi collaborators on its website, an error that was swiftly rectified. Putin’s charge was repeated in this week’s court session when the state prosecutor, Alexei Zhafyarov, pointed to Memorial’s crime of criticising state authorities and distorting the memory of the Great Patriotic War. Zhafyarov further noted that Memorial had speculated about the terrorism of the USSR while rehabilitating Nazi criminals.

Memorial transcript

There will be oral historians who have political differences with Memorial, especially given the connections Memorial’s leadership has with Russia’s liberal opposition. However, this is a key moment in history. The decision to ban Memorial and its branches within Russia is the latest exchange in the long-running history wars that have raged within the country for more than three decades. Memorial was founded in the late 1980s with the aim of uncovering the crimes of Stalinism and the organisation continues to be one of the most obvious targets of the conservative leaders of the ruling United Russia party who have leaned on nationalistic historical myths to maintain electoral support.

The banning is a part of a larger attempt to rehabilitate Stalinism. A failure to support Memorial aids that broader project.

This blog post will be updated considering future developments.

Memorial November statement: http://basees.org/news/2021/11/30/defend-memorial-statement-against-the-intended-closure-of-memorial


[1] For more on the use of Memorial oral histories see the work of Nanci Adler: https://www.niod.nl/en/staff/nanci-adler

Animals in store

Here, Sue Bradley finds some half-forgotten animals and resolves to listen out for more. Sue is a member of the Newcastle University Oral History Unit and Collective and a Research Associate on FIELD (Farm-level Interdisciplinary Approaches to Endemic Livestock Disease) in Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy. Her article, ‘Hobday’s hands: recollections of touch in veterinary practice’ appeared in Oral History, vol 49, no 1, 2021.

By the time I realised my boiler was broken, the papers stored in a carelessly open plastic box underneath were sodden through – heaps of interview extracts that had defeated me years before when editing a book from the British Library’s Book Trade Lives oral history collection.[1]  

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/99/03/2b/99032b30ee103591973ccdd0cd0c0020.jpg

Frank Stoakley, born in 1905, is one of the oldest Book Trade Lives interviewees.[2] In 1920 he started work at Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge, where he later built a science department of international repute. Sometime before the first world war, his father, who ran the family bindery business in Green Street, had been shocked by the loss of rare books after ‘some fool left the tap on’ in rooms above the university’s science laboratories. Together with his brother, an assistant to the professor of chemistry, William Pope, he had gone on to invent a technique for repairing flood-damaged books. This, Frank explained, had entailed bathing them in several solutions to separate and clean the pages before hanging them up to dry. I lifted soft wodges out of the box, peeled the sheets gently apart and pegged them on the washing line. Once dried, the print was blurred but still distinct, and there, exposed by the springtime sun, were animals that had been hibernating all along. I recognised Vicky the terrier, some leopards, and a cat called Bang who had lived with Leonard Woolf.                                     

However hard I tried, I hadn’t been able to fit animals into that book without tagging them on like curiosities. Then, shortly before they re-surfaced, I had begun to read about animal history, a thought-provoking and increasingly influential field.[3] It proposes a shift akin to the move to ‘history from below’ but, rather than hierarchies, it envisages networks where human and animal lives are dynamically interconnected.[4] From that perspective I see that the problem of fit lay less in the structure of the book than in the original interviews, many of which I had been responsible for. As far as I can remember, I rarely asked directly about animals. They were interesting when they appeared but I didn’t understand them to be historically significant, so if they came into the conversation it would be incidentally, not unlike women and domestic staff previously. At one time, oral historians researching home life were advised to ask specifically about the latter, as interviewees might not otherwise think to include them. Oral history has never precluded accounts about those who cannot speak for themselves; one person’s recollections can help us imagine other lives too.

Frank Stoakley with Sue, 1999 © Mie Stoakley.
Frank Stoakley with Sue, 1999 © Mie Stoakley.

The volume I eventually produced contains a bookseller’s description of men at work in the packing room of the London bookshop of Bumpus in the 1950s, where wrapping from in-coming goods was recycled for out-going orders: ‘They would select pieces of paper and corrugated cardboard and make a parcel. It was all done by eye. And they used string in those days. Their packages were beautiful to look at.’[5] A room full of paper and cardboard and string? Why didn’t I think to ask about mice? That might have led to other creatures – a shop cat? A customer carrying a marmoset?[6] If recollections of animals had been embedded in context like that at the interview stage, they would have fitted naturally into the book and, more importantly, broadened the vision of life that the archive collection affords.  

Re-reading Frank Stoakley’s transcript, I am struck by yet another detail. His father, he says, was skilled in cutting images from coloured leathers to decorate the bindings for books of wealthy clients: ‘The racing men wanted their star horse […] and ladies wanted their pet dogs.’ It is a telling picture of the firm’s clientèle and the creatures that they prized.

And the possible cost of this painstaking work? Frank does not mention – nor did I think to raise – the question of anthrax, a lethal disease of animal origin prevalent at the time in the wool and leather-working trades.[7] As Melanie Challenger says, we’re fond of the notion that being human somehow provides ‘a magical boundary’.[8] Yet human life does not exist apart from animals. Imagine the history that hears them in workshops and libraries and senses their traces in vellum and glue.


[1] The British Book Trade: An Oral History, British Library, 2008/2010 was edited from the British Library’s Book Trade Lives collection of audio interviews with publishers and booksellers: https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/oral-histories-of-writing-and-publishing.

[2] Frank Stoakley interviewed by Sue Bradley, British Library catalogue reference: C872/04.

[3] See https://www.britishanimalstudiesnetwork.org.uk/; https://animalhistorygroup.org/; https://networks.h-net.org/h-animal.

[4] For a useful overview see Chris Pearson, ‘History and Animal Agencies’, in Linda Kalof (ed), The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies, 2017.

[5] Michael Seviour quoted in The British Book Trade, 2010, p.72.

[6] Bumpus served a grand and bohemian clientèle at a time when monkeys were not uncommon pets.

[7] See Caroline Steedman, Dust, Manchester University Press, 2001, pp. 23-25.

[8] Melanie Challenger, How to Be Animal: A New History of What it Means to Be Human, Canongate, 2021, p.2.

Podcast Episode – Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart is Curator of Oral History and Deputy Director of National Life Stories at the British Library. In this podcast, she discusses the family history that contributed to her Masters Thesis, how she came to work with the British Library, the process of archiving, and the practicalities of managing the British Library Oral History collection.

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Preserving the voices of engineering: The Common Room of the Great North

The Common Room of the Great North was established in 2017 to manage the redevelopment and refurbishment of The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers in Newcastle. The group was awarded £4.1m from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, plus a further £3m in match funding, to conserve the Grade II*  listed building, refurbish its ground floor reading rooms, securely house its archive and collections and enhance its conferencing facilities. In this Lug post, Programme and Engagement Manager Emily Tench discusses the history of the building, its collections, and the future ambitions of The Common Room.

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The Launch of The Newcastle Oral History Unit Podcast

As Graham Smith wrote last week, we have been devising ways to continue contributing to oral history theory and practise during the Covid-19 lockdown period. One long-term aim that we’ve been able to realise is a new oral history podcast. In this Lug post, Andy Clark talks about the process behind making the podcast and what listeners can expect to hear over the coming weeks and months.

You can listen to the podcast on the following hosting platforms: Spotify; Radio Public; Podbean; Pocket Casts. The RSS Feed for the pod is https://feed.podbean.com/nohuc/feed.xml

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Mutinous Memories and Survivor Memorials: Report on Collective book launch

A sizeable audience gathered in the Armstrong Building on Wednesday 5 June for the joint launch of two exciting new publications by members of the Oral History Unit & Collective: Research Associate Alison Atkinson-Phillips’s Survivor Memorials: Remembering Trauma and Loss In Contemporary Australia (University of Western Australia Publishing) and Reader in Labour History Matt Perry’s Mutinous Memories: A Subjective History of French Military Protest in 1919 (Manchester University Press). Jack Hepworth reports. 

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Oral History in 2018: What did we learn?

The Newcastle Oral History Unit and Collective is celebrating its first full year of operation with our Annual Public Lecture in March. As with any new venture, it has been a year of learning, and an important part of that has been figuring out where we fit into the world of oral history. To help us with that, we made sure at least one member attended each of the four large oral history conferences held in Europe and North America in 2018*, to get a sense of the ‘state of the field’ that we are a part of. So, what have we learned?

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