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Reading other people’s diaries in Russia

Historian Mikhail Melnichenko runs a digital archive of personal diaries from Russia's 20th century. The result is both an alternative to tightly guarded government archives and an important artistic resource. RU

Mikhail Melnichenko. Photo(c): Katerina Chopenko. All rights reserved.This article is the fourth in our series "Practically about memory". Here you can read about the project.

Mikhail Melnichenko is the creator of the Prozhito project, a digital archive of personal diaries from Russia's 20th cenutry — and he is on a mission to digitise and publish as many as possible. Although Prozhito ("Lived through") was only launched recently, it is already incredibly popular, having zeroed in on the niche of increasing interest in personal histories in Russia. Today, Prozhito features 817 diaries.

You spent a long time researching jokes. When was it that you switched from one “lesser” literary genre to another- that is, when did you switch to diaries?

Mikhail Melnichenko: I spent too much time researching jokes, about a decade, and at some point I exhausted this topic. I realised that I don’t want to write about jokes, because they speak for themselves. The quantity of commentary and analysis is not that important wherein a joke is concerned. A joke needs to be well publicised.

For the last few years during my work on jokes, I merely created a big database of jokes and was cleaning it up. It took me a year to whittle it down into a book, and then I took that book to a publisher and sat down on my couch and had no idea what to do with myself now.

I knew I didn’t want to do research in the classic sense – while I also knew that I like organising big blocks of data. I thought about creating a search tool for scientists in the humanities, a tool that would search dated texts. It seemed it would be simplest to do that using diaries. Besides that, diaries have a special place in my heart; because they were such a good source of jokes, and because they were my favourite things to read at the time.

Archives are still considered a space for the chosen few. Who is your target audience? Is it general or is it more for other researchers like you?

Mikhail: I’m reaching out to both audiences. Prozhito is a project that is targeted at everyone. Its participants are developing it – most of them are not professionals.

We get people who are beginning to untangle their family history, they’ve found a manuscript at home, and we give them recommendations as to methodology and an outlet to publish their work. We also have people who don’t have a family archive but who are interested in working with these texts.

If you want to work with us, you need to know your way around a computer and know how to decipher a text — if not a handwritten one, then at least a typed one. We are just the curators who work on establishing the work of a particular community with texts, but there also important issues for me to reflect on.

Prozhito is a project that is targeted at everyone

I don’t know where to draw the privacy boundaries. As a researcher, I treat a text as a source – I don’t believe in redactions, and I believe in making a text available to everyone. At the same time, I was brought up differently, and I worry that by publishing everything, we could screw things up for some people, especially since we’re getting into recent stories when we work with diaries from the 1990s. Dumping all of that out for everyone to read is dangerous. But at the same time, we can’t get into the mechanics of keeping everything private until 75 years have passed – then there would be no point in starting this project.

I have a feeling that eventually, the project will split into two parts. On the one hand, Prozhito is a publically available site and research tool with texts; on the other hand, it’s an electronic archive mostly made up of diary manuscripts that can be accessed only by curators and professional project members.

How does this filter work?

Mikhail: When we go to publish a text, those who have control over the manuscript – the author or the relatives – have the right to work with the deciphered texts and say what they want to be redacted. Let’s say somebody’s great-grandfather accused a colleague of working for the security services, called someone else an anti-Semite, and then recorded the story of yet someone else’s adulterous affair. We fight for each paragraph, but ultimately, we accept the relatives’ final edit. But professionals who know how to formulate their goals and keep to certain ethical principles have full access to the text.

There are researchers with formal status. But what if I, for example, show up and tell you, “I’m writing a documentary play about the daily life of St Petersburg writers in the 1920s. Give me full access”?

Mikhail: Daily life in 1920s would be a yes. When it comes to diaries of the 1980s and 90s, we have no answer yet. Let’s say you have a person who died in the 1970s, his diaries were found in a dumpster, someone brings them to us and says, “They’re getting wet under the rain, please take them, you’ll be able to preserve them.” We publish the text. Nobody but us is responsible for it – as we take someone’s soft underbelly and expose it to the public. I at least want to be able to save someone’s memory from the so-called wit of bored idiots.

Do you divide project members into curators and volunteers? I understand that the word “employees” is not applicable to Prozhito.

Mikhail: All curators are part of a small inner circle, so they’re basically employees. There are also several high experienced volunteers who work for us like employees would, but they still don’t have full access to materials. We ask people like that to pore over the most difficult works, which need maximum diligence.

If a person isn’t coming to you with their ancestral archive – how do they arrive to the project as a volunteer?

Mikhail: In very different ways. To become a Prozhito volunteer, you need some minimal amount of free time and personal interest. Over the course of three years, we have nearly 500 people take part. I have a spreadsheet of volunteers, number 480 got in touch to join up yesterday.

We are working on decentralising the project in order to create working team

The number of working volunteers changes – people come and go. The average one stays for a few months. All are motivated by their own story. We have a lot of students. There are lots of people who studied the humanities, who have been separated from the things they are interested in by work, but are still driven to work with texts. We have some people who moved abroad, and for them, Prozhito is a way to reach out, to deal with nostalgia, to work with language. There are those who are not interested in research, but have a lot of time and curiosity. Or else we have readers who are on parental leave or between jobs – and they spend that time with us.

We are working on decentralising the project in order to create a working team. We have several long distance working teams, where two or more people work together very well.

In Russia we have the obvious problem of the nationalisation of memory. Government archives are either closed, or just halfway open. Do you ever see Prozhito as an alternative in light of that?

Mikhail: I know what it’s like to work in a government archive. I left there with an internal conflict brewing: I had the “protectionist” archival logic, but I also had a researcher’s need to have access to everything. Today, the researcher in me is winning.

As I’ve discussed many times with friends, if we can’t change a massive, inert institution, then we can create alternatives. This is both simpler and more difficult. Prozhito is precisely this kind of means of creating a modern digital archive with a human face.

If we don’t want to play by the rules that have been forced upon us, we will create our own history. If the government archive won’t let us in to digitise, we will take the time to work on family archives, whose owners are more flexible.

Prozhito has become a de-facto platform for alternative voices not heard anywhere else. That wasn’t originally part of the plan, was it?

Mikhail: The plan to give voice to the unheard was a conscious decision. The diaries of unknown, unnoticed people interest more than “first league players,” because those are the people who will, sooner or later, find their own diligent publishers.

There are manuscripts that can’t be fully published in a classical format, they can’t become books – they may be too long or too complex. We want to work with absolutely everything. We don’t care about the author’s social trajectory, we don’t care about the diary themes, we will take reading diaries as well as diaries of observing a child grow, and even the kind of pensioner’s diary where the author basically spends fifteen years transcribing the newspapers.

If we can’t change a massive, inert institution, then we can create alternatives. This is both simpler and more difficult

Diaries are not just important because of the facts they contain – their very language is a sphere of research. Computer linguist Natalia Tyshkevich, who joined Prozhito after the project was re-launched, showed us that we created a serious linguistic framework – and the wider our authors’ circle becomes, the more interesting the results of working with our database be.

How many diaries do you have that have not yet been digitised and published?

Mikhail: We have two types of materials: those already published and those that are our own manuscripts. 400 texts are in the publishing queue. As for the manuscripts, those are more or less annotated. I have about ten manuscripts that don’t have descriptions, because they are quite weird or complex, that’s something to get done. It’s always a matter of a few weeks. Several people do irregular copying work for us. My colleague Alexey Senyukhin, the editor of Prozhito, and I are the two people who work directly with originals – because it’s dangerous to hand that stuff over to volunteers.

We have the fairly sad story of the People’s Archive, created by Boris Ilizarov at the end of the 1980s. Today the archive has drowned in the swamp at the Russian State Archive of Newest History (RGANI), where it’s being eternally inventorised. Were you thinking of that precedent, did you take what happened to the People’s Archive into account?

Mikhail: That’s a very important story for me. What happened to the People’s Archive is very painful and very educational. Prozhito is a step in the direction of the People’s Archive, but we are taking that step while making note of what happened.

In order to create archival institutions, one needs a certain resource of stability. This is the most precious resource, and we have a deficit of it. If you create analog storage with the right temperature, the right level of humidity and a tonne of documents, you are always going to be in danger: the more important this burden is for you, the more compromises you will make in order to save it. But if you create digital cloud storage, everything is simpler.

Prozhito accepts diaries written before 2000. Photo CC BY 2.0: Barry Silver/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Prozhito doesn’t have the physical anchor that the People’s Archive had. We take originals, copy them, and create a cloud that has several independent, synchronised copies. Even if something happens to one cloud, are terabytes are safe in another. And if you have a branched out community of volunteers, motivated only by their interest and interested in working with the texts, things are easier.

My ultimate goal is not to gather and publish all diaries, my ultimate goal is to create a People’s Archive in new form. So that it can be accessed from anywhere, and so that there were places where people could bring manuscripts left over from their grandmothers and grandfathers, as well as suitcases full of papers that they find in the garbage.

And so that in these places, the manuscripts were digitised and that everything is at least minimally annotated and inventorised and that we create these digitised “stocks” of people both known and unknown. That’s our model, the digital archive of Prozhito and its apex, the digital publishing platform, both of which work closely with one another.

But you guys also do something unexpected for an archive: you conduct workshops. What is the Prozhito workshop’s place within the structure you have imagined for yourselves?

Mikhail: The workshop format is one we adopted quickly, all thanks to Ilya Venyavkin, who came up with it. I am very attracted to going down these academic rabbit holes, while Ilya was the first one who saw Prozhito as a project for volunteers. We gained strong volunteer numbers quickly and it became obvious that the system was too vertical – there was the coordinator and volunteers who are not connected to each other, which is not a very stable system. In order to be stable, a project must continue even if any person who is part of it leaves. You can only achieve that with good horizontal ties between people.

The first workshop Prozhito in Irkutsk, September 2017. Photo: Mikhail Melnichenko. All rights reserved.At first we staged public readings in which anyone could participate, they were created in order to popularise our project. The workshop program is our main program on how to work in the Russian regions. We just did workshops in Irkutsk and Perm, we will soon have them in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. We hope that eventually the workshop format will become totally independent from us and that any cultural institution, upon discovering a diary manuscript, stage a public event where absolutely anyone can take part, and then share their results with us or use them for their own needs.

At the Moscow workshops, half of the people are regulars, the other half are newbies. It’s important to me that people communicate with each other at these events.

You’ve been quoted as saying, “A diary is a sign of difficult or hard times.” Yet you guys work with materials from different eras. So why do people really keep diaries?

Mikhail: This is one of the most difficult questions for me. I know why I keep a diary.

You keep a diary? You write it down in a journal?

No, I write it on the computer. I’ve kept a diary since I was 21, I never did it as a child. For me, keeping a diary is like maintenance work. It’s important for me to talk things out, to write out the facts of my life. And because I can’t remember anything, I can’t tie facts with chronology otherwise. I also think of a diary as a very strong therapeutic exercise and a very good tool to deal with stress and come out of depressive episodes.

I think the majority of people who take up this genre are in a similar place. We have an enormous amount of diaries that began in the summer of 1941 and petered out in 1945 – they are these complete war diaries, we can’t tag them in any other way. When things are stressful, people need to talk to themselves, tell themselves everything. And then there are those who get used to having a diary and it becomes part of their daily life. We have a lot of these diaries, that won’t be interesting to a wide audience, written by archivists, museum workers, and people prone to systemising everything.

We have a diary that someone kept for 30 years. Every day is recorded according to a strict formula – the weather, followed by what the author did and whom he saw that day. This is an amusing diary, because for three years in a row you have 365 entries, and then you get a leap year, and you have 366. A person lives according to their own life table and the diary is a part of that table. I am saying this with some admiration, I am also prone to this, it’s easier for me to live according to this scheme.

We must look at complete diaries that were being kept not for a person’s entire life, but during a certain period in that life. I see this now – people often start keeping diaries when they are growing up. The diaries of children and adolescents are complete and independent works. If a person keeps a diary as a child, they usually abandon it at some point, and then begin keeping a diary a few years later, when they are different. I think that’s a different variety of the genre. There are war diaries, travel diaries, it’s important for people to let out the emotions they have from encountering a lot of new things, and maybe there are other pragmatisms of diary-keeping, but I mostly work with the diary as a form. I am less self-assured when it comes to talking about what diaries mean.

Director Anastasia Patlay, curator of the Archaeology of Memory theatre workshop at the Sakharov Center, used a part of the diaries that you have published for the dramaturgical material. Have the diaries been used by others in similar ways?

Mikhail: Yes, this is happening more and more now. Sometimes we are not even told that our materials are being used, and I see this as perfectly normal, because we are, overall, for the free distribution of information.

Of course we are very inspired when we find out that our materials are being used to create something interesting, worthy, beautiful.

Popular publications featuring our materials have been popping up regularly for a while, but now a wave of theater-related interest has begun. I know of three separate theater workshops using our materials.

Besides the Archaeology of Memory, there is the theater studio of Valery Karavayev, where older people learn to act. A few days ago I was the Theater Na Naberezhnoi, which is interested in topics that are close to what we do: they’ve put on a production about Varlam Shalamov, and productions based on the personal histories and family histories of children who go to a club at this theater. This theater is interested in the diaries of teenagers from the 1930s and 40s that we have, and may launch a production using these diaries.

When we first began, we were just like this tightly packed tin, full of diaries. We had 100 diaries with thirty thousand daily entries, which is very little, and visitor weren’t exactly sure of how to use our site. Now we have over 260,000 entries and over 800 diaries, we have quite the impressive collection. And you can find something almost on any topic.

I want us to be a tool that people use in their work. Call us the Prozhito hammer. Available to all.


About the author

Mikhail Kaluzhsky is Lead Russian-Language Editor at oDR. He is the author of Music Repressed (2007) and many documentary theatre projects. In 2012-2014 he curated the theatre programme at Moscow's Andrei Sakharov Center. He can be found on Twitter via @kaluzhsky. 

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