Seth Bernstein on the Sakharov Memoir Database

The Sakharov Memoir Database  was created by the Muzei i Obshchestvennyi Tsentr “Mir, Progress, Prava Cheloveka” imeni Andreia Sakharova.

Seth Bernstein, a doctoral student in history at the University of Toronto, interned with the Sakharov Center in 2004 as a transcriber, and then used their database for his senior thesis.  I interviewed him about his experience using it.


Seth: alright, what would you like to know?

me: What is the center’s web address?

Seth:  For some reason it’s been having problems and trying to go to the search engine doesn’t get you anywhere. [March 2010 – Now it seems that the search function has been removed-AB].

me: It’s a shame that the site isn’t working!  … I’m curious, how representative is the online part of their overall holdings? Do you know if there were many memoirs still unprocessed in their archives? (I see from their site that they now have 827 memoirs).  Do they have a mission to provide 100% of their memoirs online?

Seth: Of course they would like to provide access to 100% of the memoirs but my guess from their selection and my experience with them, is that they take memoirs that were easy to digitize, very famous or unique.  So they have, for example, Anna Larina’s memoir as well as unpublished materials… just based on my searches I found that they have some pretty obscure memoirs.

me: Are the originals accessible at the Sakharov center?

Seth: I’m not sure. I worked with a copy of the handwritten memoir. I imagine that it depends on which memoir you are talking about. They do have an archive there, though.

me: Is the “meta information” about the memoirs complete? (i.e. author, date of submission, any other information that could help contextualize them?).

Seth: This also depends on the author.  Some have really complete biographies and others just have a date of birth and a very brief bio like their profession and maybe one or two cities where they lived.  That said, I found that information sufficient for figuring our whether a memoir would be useful or not at a glance after I did a wider search.

me: I’m curious about your experience using the database for your undergrad thesis.

Seth: at first it seemed difficult to find some kind of organizing principle, so I ended up using the search engine quite a bit.  So, I would search for, say, “Saratov” in the body of the text and then based on their biographical information it would be clear whether they would have relevant information in their writings.  I was interested mostly in people who had been in the Saratov prison in 1937-39.  So if I came up with Solzhenitsyn, who may have mentioned Saratov somewhere in passing, I was pretty certain I could skip him

me: Impressive, that out of 827 memoirs there were a couple who spent time in Saratov prison, 1937-1939.

Seth: Well that’s how I came to the topic.  I wanted to limit my focus to a specific town or region. So I just looked for places which came up with a lot of memoirs and Saratov had a surprisingly large number.  I recall there being 4 who spent some time there and a few others who passed through in transit

me: Just chance that there were so many, I guess?

Seth: That was part of it, but there were other factors that made it more likely that people would generate memoirs from Saratov. For example, many people were exiled from Leningrad after the Kirov assassination to Saratov.

me: When you were using the database for your thesis, was there anything problematic about the memoirs as a source?

Seth: I found that some of the authors stuck to what you would consider the typical tropes of the Gulag. A very romanticized version of interrogation with the interrogator sometimes falling in love with a woman

me: Anything else you would like to add about the online database as a resource for historians?

Seth: I wouldn’t recommend relying on it as the major source of a dissertation (or senior thesis) but the search logic is the same as with any other engine and it’s pretty surprising how much you can turn up and how little effort it takes.

me: By the way, have the memoirs been converted to text then, or can you see images of the original memoirs?

Seth: They are all in the database as text.  It would be great to have the originals, but I’m sure that would take up too much space.

me: Transcribing must be a lot of work

Seth: It is, I got through about 150 pages in the course of a semester, and they only have 4 or 5 volunteers

me: Would you recommend the internship for young enthusiastic Russian learners?

Seth: Of course! It is incredibly helpful for your Russian and you learn how to type in Russian, which is a surprisingly useful skill.

me: I’m going to keep an eye on their site, and try it out once it gets back online.

Seth: I may try to get in contact with them for the year after next

me: Thanks Seth!
Seth: not a problem


June 8, 2009. Archives, Full-text, Interviews, Primary Sources, Stalin Era, Students.


  1. Wilson replied:

    I’ve found the website quite helpful in my own research. For example, when I was researching unescorted prisoners, I searched for “раскон” and came up with, I believe, 39 memoirs. It’s also great for searching for specific camps. All of the memoirs I found pertaining to Siblag are previously published, but I was not familiar with several of the publications.

    • auriberg replied:

      I reviewed the site again, and now it seems as if the search function has been removed, which–if indeed the case–seems to me like a serious handicap for researchers.

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