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Oral History as the Main Source of Truth: A Panel Discussion When Experiences Become Knowledge Held as Part of the Forum of Oral History of Ukraine in Kyiv


The first panel discussion of the Forum of Oral History of Ukraine, which was held in Kyiv on 10 October at the initiative of the Museum of Civilian Voices of the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation, was devoted to oral history as the main source of truth. The discussion When experiences become knowledge focused on the transformation of documented wartime experiences into knowledge about war, and on how this knowledge later becomes the basis for remembering it.

The speaker Helinada Grinchenko, Doctor of Historical Sciences, head of the Ukrainian Oral History Association, spoke about the challenges that oral history faces today. In her opinion, the most important thing is to observe the research ethics when collecting and using evidence:

“There are three questions that I would advise us to ask ourselves. Why am I doing this and what resources do I have? Who am I and do I have the right to speak on behalf of the narrator in general? Why should my storytellers share their experiences with me?”

Anton Drobovych, specialist in historical memory, head of the Institute of National Memory, singled out four forms of capturing or documenting people’s experiences: oral history as a scientific discipline; journalism and journalistic investigations; justice – gathering evidence in accordance with procedural legislation; and art in a very broad sense:

“Memory is never 100 percent objective. The methods by which we work with memory, selecting evidence, in all these four areas, are aimed at minimizing the subjectivity, randomness, and emotionality of memory.”

Olena Dobrzhanska, Candidate of Political Sciences, Associate Professor, Vice-Rector for Scientific and Pedagogical Work at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, noted that the legitimization of oral history is possible only in a democratic society. She raised a question: what the state narrative will be like after the war? 

“The state always creates the narrative of the winner. What the state narrative of Ukraine will be formed from will also depend on how this war ends for the Russian Federation. Will it take responsibility for the crimes it committed? Then we will come forward with our victory narrative, and Russia will be in shambles with its old narratives.”

Olha Opalenko, head of the evidence department of the Truth Hounds NGO, which collects evidence of war crimes and serious violations of human rights in the context of the war in Ukraine, spoke, among other things, about the importance of the principle of “do no harm” in gathering evidence.

“All our actions are aimed at building a comfortable environment where the witness could begin to overcome his or her trauma. At the end of each interview, we read the text we recorded to the witnesses from the first person. We are sure that this practice allows them to start overcoming their trauma.” 

Agata Tatarenko, head of the Visegrád Group of the Institute of Central Europe in Lublin, emphasized the uniqueness of the situation in Ukraine when testimonies about the war are collected right in the course of the events experienced by a person. She also highlighted the importance of the fact who uses the stories and how they are used.

“In Russia, we can see some perilous examples of personal life stories being used for creating the historical memory. The entire map of documented stories, which are part of oral history built on the collective memory of certain events, depends on how and where these testimonies are going to be used.”

Moderator Nataliya Kryvda, Doctor of Philosophy, cultural researcher, Professor of the Department of Ukrainian Philosophy and Culture at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, wrapped up the discussion with a quote from historian Ernest Renan:

“In the memory of the community, not only the heroic past, great people, and glory, but also numerous victims, sadness, and regrets are preserved. They consolidate society, strengthen a nation’s positive image of itself, and define visions for the nation’s future.” 

The initiative to hold the Forum belongs to the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation’s Museum of Civilian Voices, which documents testimonies of civilians about the war told from the first person. The Museum has now collected more than 85,000 stories. Follow the news about the event on the Museum’s website: