A while ago, I posted about organizing my grandmother’s papers. I’m still working on that, and on some other related things. Collectively they’re all going to be a part of a larger project I’m working on in my self-appointed role of family archivist.
I’ve avoided posting about my most recent efforts because I wanted them to be a Christmas surprise for the family, but now that Christmas is past and the surprise has been revealed, I can write about it here.
In 1980, my maternal grandmother embarked on a project to interview her husband on tape about his early years in Odessa before, during, and shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. In 2006, we got those audio tapes remastered and burned on CD. There are seven focused on my grandfather and one focused on the elder of his two sisters, who was about four years his junior.
The interviews are by no means professional. Crosstalk is rampant, and there’s an entire disc of Grandma reading sections aloud from a missionary’s account of a visit to Odessa in 1911 and asking Grandpa if he remembers X or agrees with Y. She gets stuck in what I call “thought eddies,” and like those water phenomena, circles around a particular topic for a while until something bumps her loose. She had a highly romanticized idea of the final Tsarist years, and seems to have had trouble when Grandpa’s recollections didn’t match her picture.
That said, it’s an amazing historical document, both for our family records and potentially for researchers. It’s a child’s memory of middle-class life in Odessa before WWI and before the revolution, which means everyday details. While Grandma might have had some romanticized notions about that world, she does get details out of Grandpa that are remarkable. He describes the cobblestones in the streets, the summers spent outside the city, and what the peddlers in the streets were like. He speaks about the docks in Odessa, and going with his friends to buy watermelons straight from the ships only to sit down and eat the fruit right there. He tells stories about his schools, his classmates and teachers, the subjects he studied, and how shy he was in class. He describes going to the candy factory his father managed, and watching the women who wrapped each chocolate by hand.
As the discs progress, the world in which he lived changes from the golden childhood years before the war to the growing fear and unrest between 1914 and 1917, and then he speaks of the post-revolution world in which they all found themselves. I could wish for more details of the revolutionary period itself, but I recognize that some subjects can be too difficult to revisit. It’s also possible that he didn’t remember much. He was only twelve when the revolution took place, after all. In the recording there are many points at which he claims he doesn’t remember, and I have no way of knowing which are real and which are shying away from memories that are too difficult. At times it also seems as though my grandmother, the primary interviewer, also shies away from subjects that are too dark or too emotional, instead of pressing for answers.
It’s been nearly 35 years and both are long gone now, so the recordings are what they are.
What I’m doing, though, is creating a proper oral history document for these remarkable stories. I know there are probably tens of thousands – if not more – stories like this out there, but somehow it’s different when there are relatives involved, and the details are impressive. With microhistory becoming more popular, though, firsthand accounts with this level of detail are important.
Anyway. My Christmas surprise was a transcription of the seven discs featuring my grandfather. It ended up at 140 pages, which is incidentally the longest document I’ve ever typed. I now have greater respect for those who do NaNoWriMo! I’m not done, though. I still need to transcribe the disc of my great-aunt Jeanne, I’ve got to index the whole thing, write abstracts and biographical summaries, and figure out the complicated copyright problem of who actually owns these interviews, given three of the four participants have passed on. One of the challenges in transcription I’m still facing is the geographical issues of the Soviet Union – my grandfather uses Russian names for places that are about a century old, and one of the frustrating things about the whole Soviet period is the fact that many places changed names, some more than once.
It’s a fascinating project, and it’s nice to put my professional skills to use during this seemingly endless unemployment period. Eventually it’d be nice to have a full finding aid for my grandmother’s letters alongside this oral history document. And it’s got me wanting to sit down with pretty much all of my relatives to get THEM on tape!
I should probably finish with this one first, huh?