The Right to Testify. The Public Status of the Witness in Times of Social Change
The conference will reflect the productivity of applying Western conceptualizations of testimony to the discussion of specific circumstances of the Soviet political and legal system. It aims to achieve a more nuanced understanding of Soviet practices and forms of witnessing and testifying.
Following the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 and German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s acknowledgment of the moral responsibility for the deaths of the victims of National Socialism, testimony has been a key topic of European humanist thinking. In the Soviet Union, work on testimony was hampered by state censorship that sought to ensure that information on the Second World War and the Stalinist terror was not made public. Journalists and intellectuals, particularly writers, had to comply with the “socialist realist” worldview and its respective moral and aesthetic norms. This meant that traumatic experiences of war and repression were barely made public and only in compliance with the official discursive norms. In the West, especially in West Germany, growing public and media interest in German crimes against humanity led to a surge in witness accounts and testimony. In the Soviet context, however, the restricted public sphere helped the state in its repression of the body of testimony, resulting in the emergence of a semi-public or informal sphere. The lack of evidence, however, should be investigated not only as a result of the state’s repressive policy, but also with regard to the language of public representatives which lacked the proper vocabulary and terminology for testimony. What is at stake, then, is the justifiability of a right to testify altogether. In other words: At a time when Europe was experiencing “the era of the witness” (Annette Wieviorka), testifying and witnessing in the USSR remained a dangerous endeavor that always came at a high degree of personal risk.
In recent years, with the opening of borders and the translation of Western scholarly writings into Russian, the field of memory studies gained a foothold in the historical and literary research in the former republics of the Soviet Union. Studies on Soviet testimonies, however, received only very little scholarly attention, even though the use of documents in literature became an increasingly important political concern since the late 1960s, starting with the works of Sergei Smirnov and Ales Adamovich to the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. It was especially Varlam Shalamov who attracted academic attention, whereas, from a methodological point of view, translations of works by Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Primo Levi, and Giorgio Agamben have had the greatest influence. Research has focused on the witness as a survivor, the witness as a victim of political violence, and on the impossibility of full-fledged testimony, discussing topics such as its insufficient language, pseudo-testimonies, or the witness as a substitute for those who did not survive. Other, though less popular, approaches to testimonies include the study of testimonies as narratives and discussions of the interactions between “document” and “testimony.” However, these works tend to focus on the ethical and political issues related to testimony, with little consideration of the social status of the witness.
Recent research from Germany is devoted to Soviet and post-Soviet trials, especially to their staging. Additionally, court records by writers and dissidents of the 1960s receive increasing attention. Taking these works as a starting point, the conference aims to enhance the discussion into three principal directions; first, we want to expand the focus from the period of the 1950s and 1980s to a broader historical perspective that also considers the 1930s and 2020s, as well as contemporary phenomena. Second, we will address the all-too-narrow perspective that has so far focused mainly on cases from Moscow and Leningrad to include the public sphere in different republics of the Soviet Union; and third, by shifting our attention to trials and courtrooms, we want to highlight their importance as the actual place for the emergence of a broader semi-public sphere which enabled the development of new patterns of social behavior.
A collaboration between The Federal Foundation for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Eastern Germany and the ZfL.
Fig. above: From the collection Third Sakharov Hearings, Washington D.C., 1979, Andrei Sakharov Research Center for Democratic Development.
Thursday, 22 Jun 2022
- Olga Rosenblum (ZfL): Welcome and introduction
Chair: Katrin Trüstedt (ZfL)
- Aurélia Kalisky (Centre Marc Bloch, Berlin): The Multidimensionality of Testimony. From Ukraine to Syria and back
Testimony on/in Situations of Violence: Exemplary Trials in the USSR during the 1930s (Belarus and Russia)
- Anne Hartmann (Bochum): Witnesses of the Prosecution. Testimonies by Western Intellectuals on the Moscow Show Trials
- Lorenz Erren (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, online): Legitimate by due procedure? The Role of Testimonies in Political Trials under Stalin
- Iryna Ramanava (Justus Liebig University Giessen): Testimony at Show Trials in Agriculture in the BSSR (1937–1939)
Friday, 23 Jun 2023
Testimony on the Holocaust, the Holodomor, and the Repressions of the Stalin Era in the Literature of the 1950s: Ukraine and Russia
Chair: Giulia De Florio (University of Parma)
- Viktoriya Sukovata (V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University): Partisan Doctor Albert Tsessarsky and his Testimony on the Holocaust in Ukraine
- Anna Krasnikova (Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan): The Editorial Evolution of Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows
Testimony on the Repressions of the Stalin Era in the Context of the Repressions of the 1960s: Russia, Varlam Shalamov
Chair: Ann Komaromi (University of Toronto)
- Franziska Thun-Hohenstein (ZfL), Luba Jurgenson (Sorbonne University): Perspectives on Reading Literary Testimony on the Gulag: Biography, Context, and Literary Strategies using the example of Varlam Shalamov
- Elena Mikhailik (UNSW Sydney, online): A Letter to an Old Friend — who is it addressed to?
War Testimony in the Literature of the 1970s: Belarus, Ales Adamovich
Chair: Anika Walke (Washington University in St. Louis)
- Nina Weller (ZfL): Telling History from Below. On the Concept of Living Testimony in Ales Adamovich’s Work and in the Discourse on the Shestidesyatniki
- Philine Bickhardt (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin): Ales Adamovich’s Documentary Prose: A Comparison of Khatynskaya povest' (1972) and Karateli: Radost' noža ili žizneopisanie giperboreev (1981)
Witnesses of the New Generation. Literary and Other Spaces for Testimony in the 1950s and 1980s: Russia
Chair: Olga Rosenblum (ZfL)
- Natalia Borisova (University of Tübingen): In Search of Reality: Andrei Sinyavsky’s A Voice from the Chorus
- Maksim Lepekhin (Technische Universität Dresden): Testifying in the Presence of the Other: The Soviet Subject on Trial
- Tatiana Voronina (University of Zurich): Testimony as a Political Act: Leningrad Survivors’ Societies and Soviet Memory Politics
Saturday, 24 Jun 2023
Testimony and/as Dissidence in the 1960s–1970s: Russia
Chair: Zaal Andronikashvili (ZfL)
- Ann Komaromi (University of Toronto): Dissident Memoirs as Testimony
- Olga Rosenblum (ZfL): Testimony and its Absence in Dissident Open Letters and Trial Transcripts
Testimony on/in Situations of Violence: Past and Present in Today’s Belarus
Chair: Nina Weller (ZfL)
- Anika Walke (Washington University in St. Louis): Witnessing Genocide in the Age of Authoritarianism: Holocaust Testimony in Belarus
- Iryna Kashtalian (University of Bremen): In the Hope of a Fair Trial: Oral Testimonies on the History of the Crimes committed by the Lukashenka Regime in Belarus
Testimony on/in Situations of Violence: Present and Past in Today’s Russia and Ukraine
Chair: Matthias Schwartz (ZfL)
- Giulia De Florio (University of Parma): The Right to Tell the Truth: Defendants’ Last Words in Present-day Russian Court
- Daniel Schwartz (McGill University/ZfL): Did I Hear Right?: Resounding Archival Images in Sergei Loznitsa’s Babi Yar. Context (2021)
- Sandra Frimmel (University of Zurich): Theatrical Testifying. Instructing Witnesses from Early Soviet Mock Trials to Pyotr Pavlensky