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Wiktoria Kudela-Świątek. Odpamiętane: o historii mówionej na przykładzie narracji
kazachstańskich Polaków o represjach na tle narodowościowym i religijnym.
Kraków: Universitas 2013, 372 pp. + CD


Wiktoria Kudela-Świątek_logo



The book titled: UNREMEMBERED... An oral history. Example narrations of Poles from Kazakhstan about the repressions over nationality and religion is an attempt to use the modern methodology of oral history in practice, until now marginalised by historiography. It attempts to abandon the trend of placing individuals in an impersonal group of “witnesses of history”, instead considering them as one of many sources of knowledge about the past.

In my considerations I put the narrators at the centre of attention and consider them the creators of autobiographical narrations. I am interested in the human being, who, through the narration, seeks the meaning of his or her own life, and discovers or sometimes indeed shapes his or her own identity. Thus I am interested both in the process of creating the narration and the contents and poetics of the narration. Another  aim of his book is to present the methodological considerations related with running oral history research in communities for which this experience is not new (i.e. the narrators would usually have already had several experiences of a similar character). I have decided to illustrate my theoretical reflections with examples of my own research, undertaken in a community of Kazakhstani Poles, exactly because of their wealth of experience in talking about their traumatic past and the numerous identity related dilemmas it has caused.

The source material of my dissertation consists of 51 interviews collected in the North Kazakhstan and Akmola Provinces (in the following places: Oziernoye, Stepnoye, Petropavlovsk, Tayinsha, Chkalovo, Krasnokyevka, Novoberezovka, Podolskoye, Kellerovka, Dragomirovka, Donetskoye, Litovochnoye and Shchuchinsk) between July and August 2009.

I will also refer to the results of field research (32 narrative interviews) that was run by the Warsaw centre KARTA among the same community a year earlier. Additionally I am using authorised interviews with repatriates living in Krakow that had been recorded during my earlier projects. A special place in my book is reserved for the narrations collected in the course of the project titled  Z ziemi kazachskiej do Polski…[From the Kazakhstani land to Poland...], led by the inhabitants of the social support centre ”Pod Debami” in Krakow. As a result of this research, two books documenting the project have been published[1].

The most important aim of the above project was to discover elements of collective memory which laid the foundations of the Polish expatriates’ community in Kazakhstan. This was based on the memories of people who had experienced the deportations within the USSR territory in the 1930s. The participants of the project were also interested at that time in changes of national self-identification after their return and settlement in the land of their forefathers. In the present book I often refer to the results of this project. The implementation of several projects on similar topics among members of the same community has forced me to strongly rethink my research methods and influenced the reflective character of my book. It has, in a sense, become a summary of the journey I have been through as a researcher, working as an oral historian for the last 8 years.

In the search for an appropriate research approach  I have often wondered, whether, by dissecting the experience of repression into primary particles until the rules that organise past reality , the world of my narrators can be ”cracked into” enough to allow me to present it to my readers in a clear and understandable way. However, in order to understand the experiences of my narrators and the importance of them, I had to decide on a consistent approach. In fact, the urge to better understand my interlocutors has prompted me to use the modern paradigm of oral history in my research practice. I present my considerations in 11 topical chapters that are an attempt to address my research questions, and each of these chapters is a closed entirety. The content of the books present only a part of the discussed subject which can be conveyed by the approach I have taken. It is, however, nearly impossible to present in full the plenitude of the recorded narrations, due to the nature of their transcribed form; therefore I have opted  to attach the analysed fragments of recordings to the book in CD form.

The aims of this book required one initially to encompass a wide scope of historical background in order to enable further dissertations. This subject is tackled in Chapter I The historical contexts of the narrations. The suggested historical outline is necessary especially for readers only now discovering the specifics of repression of Kazakhstani Poles.

In Chapter II The beginning of the research adventure: between convention and uniqueness, I briefly describe the sources and literature which shaped my image of Kazakhstani Poles before I started recording narrative interviews. Here I also present the elements which are considered essential for understanding the socio-cultural context they are entangled in.

Chapter III Taking a shortcut... Methodological searches and inspirations, illustrates the research dilemmas connected with running oral history researches at the present time. Here I also discuss the specific research methods which have become an inspiration to dissertations presented in this book.

During my work on the book I realised that opportunities granted to the historian by a meeting with the narrator and co-creating the (auto)biographical narration are connected with a number of research limitations. I return to my thoughts on this subject in Chapter IV Pygmalion and his Galatea – or what happens when the historian creates the historical source which concentrates on the formal aspect of using oral sources in historical research. I am especially interested in the problem of the limitations of the researcher’s interference in the creation of the source while preparing the transcription (in my case it referred to choosing the quotations as during the analysis I was working solely on phonic sources) and my translation of fragments of dialogue which are quoted in this book. Of what I managed to retain in the adaptation and translation, and what has been irretrievably lost, I write about in the final part of this chapter.

The next problem which pervaded my work both during field research and at the stage of narration analysis, was the specific bond between the historian and the research participants. I have therefore decided to devote a separate chapter to this interaction (Chapter V Dialogue or duet? The researcher and the experiences of his interlocutor). Here I discuss the question of the influence of my personality on the interview process and on the interlocutor, including the way in which my personal experience of the past might have determined the interview and the final results of my research. The matter lies in the fact of my coming from a family of Ukrainian Poles − often repressed due to their nationality and religion. My great grandfather, Jan Radzicki, was executed in 1936 as an enemy of the state. His two brothers, Antoni and Franciszek, were that same year deported to Kazakhstan with their families. In the meantime, my whole family shared for many years the fate of many similar, hostile to the Soviet system, Polish nationals. A fate which lasted until the fall of the Communist regime. In the aforementioned chapter I also discuss a number of ethical problems connected with running narration and biographical interviews during short-term field research.

In Chapter VI The autobiographical relations of Kazakhstani Poles, I confront the results of my field research with the records collected by the Warsaw centre KARTA. Comparing the two research perspectives has allowed me to gain a  much deeper evaluation of my field research and the analytical potential of collected narrative material, thereby demonstrating the unstable character of narrative sources.

Chapter VII The recipe for biographical stories, signifies the stage of my dissertations in which I separate and analyse the basic strategies used by my narrators. I also discuss the narration patterns which my interlocutors followed in creating their life stories and ponder the genre of stories I have heard.

In Chapter VIII The linguistic image of repression in the narratives of Kazakhstani Poles, I discuss the manner in which my interlocutors understand and interpret the terms ”repressions”, ”freedom” and ”prosperity”. An analysis of these terms allows us to present the way in which the linguistic image of coercion among Kazakhstani Poles, as Russian speakers or people using the expatriate Polish language, has been shaped.

In the next chapter (Chapter IX Impressions on the subject of coercion) I concentrate on the analysis of the content of recorded narrations. Here I discuss the personal attitude of my interlocutors both to the experience of repression and to talking about it. The subject of my analysis are the descriptions of biographic events described by the narrators themselves as repressions − an element of the USSR’s government policy. This leads me to Chapter X To discover in the narrator a unique person..., to reflect on a way of presenting the day-to-day biographical experience (mainly the functioning person inside a kolkhoz settlement) by my narrators, and on the manner in which they judge their lives from the perspective of years gone by.

The vast majority of the narrators were constructing their life stories around reflections of their own identity as well as the identity of other members of the community. The narrations I have listened to have also revealed the difficult choices faced by Kazakhstani Poles as a result of their Polish identity. The dissertations  on this subject I have placed in the final chapter of this monograph (Chapter XI To be or not to be... Identity dilemmas in the narrations of Kazakhstani Poles). By asking the question “where is the fatherland of Kazakhstani Poles?”, I attempt to shed light on the main identity-related dilemmas of my narrators and on the way in which they were affected by their biographical experience.

Therefore it became possible to grasp the present judgement of the past made by the interlocutor (in the story the narrator describes their past experience from the point of view of the present). It seems to me that perceiving the narration as a kind of auto creation does not limit the researcher to only studying the biographies of his or her narrators. He or she also gains the opportunity to analyse the contents in the aspect of the storyline and the genre of the narration. These tools are, however, insufficient for studies of identity which has been pinpointed as one of the main factors leading the narrations of Kazakhstani Poles. Therefore it appears equally important to study the linguistic aspect of the narrations, as during a spontaneous conversation the narrator is more likely to reveal his or her true identity by using statements and opinions rather unacceptable in writing, or indeed even after a minutes reflection.

For the majority of my narrators the story about repressions over nationality and religion was the main interpretative basis of their own biography, broader family history or that of the Polish minority in Kazakhstan. The majority of most narrations were memories of the deportation of 1936, considered a prelude to the real suffering: adaptation to new living conditions. Other elements of repression were presented − events connected with difficult living conditions in the kolkhoz, the discipline of commanders and other ways of restricting citizens’ rights. In some narrations, the disdainful attitude to educated people who were not members of the Communist Party was listed as an element of oppression, as well as those who manifested their religious beliefs. In other words, the collected narrations are the narrators’ interpretation of the subject of my research.

The stories of the Kazakhstani Poles which I have recorded are quite alike as regards topic and grammar structure. The narrators were using a similar set of narration patterns, and regardless of their individual biographical experiences were creating their stories around the same events which had become the topics forming the general framework characteristic of the whole group. The narrations of my interlocutors consisted mainly of bringing up memories of dark events and images of suffering and reflected the hardships of everyday life; overcoming or surviving was a value by itself. By phrases such as ”we made it”, ”we have survived”, “afterwards it became much easier”, ”that’s what our parents went through”, etc., the narrators were trying to tackle their own experience of repression and interpreted their past by labelling specific events as examples of an open or hidden discrimination due to their national and religious identity. When the presented experiences were put into a narrative form, however, they bore more resemblance to paintings than photographs. In the majority of cases they are completely unrealistic, refined, devoid of emotions (shame, embarrassment, anger, despair, bitterness) − feelings that were undoubtedly present ”there and then”, but which during the conversation, put into words, were lost in the formalised genre of (auto)biographical narration. Often the narrators had to use gestures or voice modulation to persuade me about the scope and authenticity of their suffering, to convince me of their righteousness. These attempts, however, were not always successful, i.e. sufficiently convincing and vivid. It depended mainly on the individual oratory abilities of the given narrator.

In all narrations, however, the memory of repressions over nationality and religion which affected the group appears as a legitimisation of their Polish identity. They think: if we were being repressed as Poles, there should be no doubt we are Poles This was, in fact, why I wanted to reach outside the social pattern in my dissertation and present my interlocutors as not only people suffering and tried as Poles, but who also deal with the usual human dilemmas and problems and are not necessarily morally beyond reproach. It was not my intention to whitewash anyone’s past as a Communist Party member in justifying it by talking of their difficult living circumstances, or to diminish people’s suffering by avoiding presenting Kazakhstani Poles as martyrs. In my opinion, this perspective was achieved by revealing the technical aspect of my research and presenting all the research methods I have used, and by revealing to the readers my own identity.

The above factors have allowed the book to take in some parts the stylistic form of a research diary, in which factual solutions are accompanied by a deep reflection over the methods which led to these results. On the one hand, I present in this manner the journey I have made as a researcher while working on this monograph. On the other, I often allow myself to add loose ad hoc remarks and comments which present the evolution of my research views; I also often reveal my own feelings regarding the stories I have heard.


[1] See.: W. Kudela, Z ziemi kazachskiej do Polski..., vol. I: Deportacje Polaków z obwodu winnickiego Ukrainy Sowieckiej w latach 30. XX wieku, Kraków 2007; Z ziemi kazachskiej do Polski..., vol. II: Wspomnienia repatriantów z Kazachstanu, wysiedlonych w latach 30. XX wieku w głąb ZSRR, ed. by W. Kudela, Kraków 2008.


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