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Regular version of the site

Historian and Demographer Focuses on the Role of Forced Displacement in Population History

On Tuesday, May 19, at 6.00pm, Alain Blum (Centre d’études franco-russe de Moscou, INED and EHESS in Paris) will give a talk at the International Research Seminar in Sociology (School of Sociology (Myasnitskaya 9/11, room 424)) called ‘Forgotten stories of deportees in the USSR — The multiple lives of a single individual’. Ahead of his lecture, he agreed to speak with the HSE news service on a variety of topics, including his experience as a demographer, his transition into Soviet history, and his upcoming research plans.

— What triggered your devotion to Soviet history? 

— It’s difficult to say... I was working in demography and population history when I first came to Moscow in 1984. I was interested in demographic trends when many data were not available (especially concerning mortality). Then, as a statistician (I'm both a statistician and historian) it was very interesting to try to reconstruct data, where many were missing. In 1988-89, when archives began to be opened, I wanted to see how statistical data were built and maintained.

I discovered the richness of archival materials, and saw how it was possible to understand, on this basis, the complex relation between the state and society, a topic that had always interested me. Since that time, I have never left the archives, but didn’t forget my initial statistical interests (and the macro analysis of questions).

— You have been researching and writing on World War II, the Gulag, migration and ethnic issues in the Soviet Union. What are your research methods? Do you work in different archives or meet with survivors?

— I try to mix a macro and micro approach, working with statistics, global politics, state decisions (at different levels) on the one hand, and, on the other, I try to reconstitute individual trajectories of people who were subjected to these different experiences and constraints. 

Let's take the example of my last research project, which concerns the history of forced displacement from western territories of the USSR, as well as from Eastern and Central European countries between 1939 and 1953 and their return after 1953.

People want to know the truth and understand that this truth led to all national history being re-evaluated. People want to have a critical point of view on it, including in a comparative perspective.

To do this I'm working in different archives. In Moscow, of course, there is material at the macro level, but unfortunately a lot of material at the micro level is not available, and even a lot of material at the macro level isn’t either. In more local archives in Russia (in Irkutsk), as well as in Ukraine and Lithuania, there is more local material. There is also open material in these countries that remains secret in Moscow, such as numerous NKVD decrees, reports, etc., along with material at the micro level, i.e., individual files, etc.

Moreover, I am working on the basis of interviews with survivors. I coordinated a project where we gathered about 200 interviews in many countries and regions where there is an interest in these questions: the three Baltic countries, Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic, etc., but also in Siberia (Irkutsk Region), Kazakhstan, etc.

The method involves linking all these sources, trying to compare individual data coming from different sources, articulating them together, and articulating state decisions and individual life trajectories.

— How would you assess the interest in these issues in today’s Russia and in Europe? Do people want to know the truth in general?

In Europe, at least in the countries I know well, interest is important, both among historians –not only historians working on these countries, but also historians working on such questions as forced displacement and confinement in a comparative perspective – but also among the general population. It seems to me that in Europe there is now increasing interest in contemporary European history, including, of course, Soviet and post-Soviet history. There is a kind of understanding that history cannot be national  but rather must be understood in a global context. And that European history during the 20th century is very complex. In this overall frame, the issues I'm studying are important and very present in the debate. People want to know the truth, the truths I would say, and understand that this truth led to all national history being re-evaluated. People want to have a critical point of view on it, including in a comparative perspective.

In Russia, when this debate was growing, it was a very interesting period. Now it has been partially stopped, and interest has decreased. It's also due to the attempt to limit debate.

In Russia, the situation is more complex. In one way, there is a real interest, and the importance of relations between some Russian historians working on these questions and European historians is a good proof of that. In another way, it’s true that interest, unfortunately, seems to be weaker nowadays than 10 years ago. It's rather strange, because in France, for example, interest in our blind spots in history (colonialism, collaborations, etc.), you see constantly increasing interest and increasing debate. In Russia, when this debate was growing, it was a very interesting period. Now it has been partially stopped, and interest has decreased. It's also due to the attempt to limit debate.

— How did you begin working with HSE?

— I have many colleagues whom I knew before the creation of HSE, ones whom I had met in Paris and Moscow, and at scientific conferences in different countries, and who began to work at HSE. My French colleagues, who worked in the centre I headed for 12 years – the Centre for Russian, Caucasian and Central European Studies at Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), also had many connections with people now working at HSE. There was also many connections between HSE and other French colleagues at Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (sociologists, historians, etc.).  Finally, since 1984, I have been working with demographers, and the majority of those with whom I began to work are now at the HSE Institute of Demography. You see, it was a very natural place to work with.

— What is next on your research agenda?

— I want to finish (and begin...) a book on forced displacement from the western borders of the USSR, the result of my last seven years of research. It's more accurate to say ‘the result of seven years of collective research’. It's the result of many discussions and collective interrogation through this collective project. Now, all participants are working on their own questions. But the collective aspect remains. For example, I'm not writing this book alone, but with another participant in the project. We'll emphasize the relation between life trajectories and political context. We are trying to understand the diversity of people who went through collective traumatic experience. 

When the book will be finished, I'll see... There are many unexpected turns in research. It's not possible (fortunately!) to plan research over the medium term.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service 

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