Imagine the pages of your ancestors’ diaries were uploaded to an online database for the world to see. Since 2015, archivist and historian Misha Mel’nichenko has been working to do just that, through his digital repository project, Prozhito (www.prozhito.org). Last week, Mel’nichenko discussed this project at Hunter College in New York City. Since its inception, Prozhito has compiled over 35,000 entries from Russian and Ukrainian diaries, most dating to the Russian Civil War and the Great Patriotic War.
Using this digital historical tool, users can search for entries by author, time, location, gender, age, language and subject matter — from love and celebration to war and imprisonment. In the coming years, Mel’nichenko hopes to expand Prozhito to incorporate new geographical and chronological contexts, alternative sources such as notebooks and correspondence and more sophisticated research tools. Prozhito relies on the help of more than two hundred volunteers to identify, scan, photograph, transcribe, translate and upload the diaries into the web archive.
Diaries have always offered a unique insight into the personal lives of their authors, who use them to vent frustrations, escape from the harsh realities of daily life, or, as historian Jochen Hellbeck details in Revolution on My Mind (2006), creating an alternative space for the formation of uniquely Soviet subjectivities. Unfortunately, within the historical context of Stalin-era purges and the attendant censorship, diaries were often used as evidence of anti-Soviet sentiment in criminal proceedings against their authors. Maria Kuznetsova, the young Russian woman from Novgorod quoted at the end of this post, has forty-three entries on Prozhito, spanning the years 1941 to 1942. Her writings chronicle episodes from the Great Patriotic War, in particular a forbidden crush on Franz, a young German officer. Maria Kuznetsova was arrested in May 1942 and sentenced to seven years in a labour camp. Her story, along with thousands of others like it, lives on through the efforts of Mel’nichenko and his colleagues at Prozhito. Through Prozhito, Mel’nichenko seeks to make millions of diary entries accessible from anywhere in the world, with each one providing, as he puts it, ‘a window into another human being’s soul’.
3 January 1942: ‘Another young sergeant [Unteroffizier], Franz, has appeared among our friends. He is a young man of twenty-two with a fairly pretty little mug. Unlike all of his other comrades, he is open and sincere. His antics are often childlike, and even his smile is quite sweet, like a child’s… But it’s his mustache and eyes that are especially lovely — his eyes hide under heavy lids, but always look you directly in the face, like a child’s. His habits are a totally different story, but he is naïve… He’s very amiable, sincere, and… in general, Franz is one of my ideals’.
For further information visit: www.prozhito.org
Hellbeck, Jochen (2006) Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin, Cambridge: Harvard University Press