Luxemburgische Zeitgeschichte

Witnessing the Now: Challenges for Emergency Archiving and Oral History following the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Shelter for refugees at the Center for Urban History,
Report of the workshop held on 23-25 November 2022 at the C²DH, University of Luxembourg.

The workshop was held by the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History at the University of Luxembourg as part of the documentation project “24.02.22, 5 am: Testimonies from the War” conducted by the Center for Urban History (Lviv) in cooperation with the University of St Andrews, the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH) at the University of Luxembourg. The workshop was organised by Machteld Venken and Lars Wieneke. See the agenda.

As a civic response to the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine, scholars and activists are engaged in efforts to document extreme violence and its consequences. This international workshop brought together researchers conducting various forms of emergency archiving for collaborative reflection on the challenges and limitations of this work. Through a series of sessions and round tables we created an open space for experts from the intersecting fields of oral history, digital humanities and social anthropology to share their experiences of ongoing efforts to critically address the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine. We problematised the methodological and ethical issues that arise when addressing historical events which have not yet become history, as state violence is still being carried out on a mass scale and Ukrainian cities are still under siege. The conference took place in hybrid form. Because of ongoing power cuts, participants in Ukraine could only join the event online using the batteries of their laptops or mobile devices. While this allowed them to make short and valid interventions, it prevented the conference from reaching its full potential.


Introductory session

The introductory session, organised and moderated by Nina Janz, Carmen Noguera and Lars Wieneke (University of Luxembourg), thematised (digital) cultural heritage at risk and aimed to formulate lessons learned for future preservation strategies. The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 shattered long-held beliefs and certainties, including the idea that all things digital exist in an ephemeral sphere outside the grim realities of the physical world. The war emphasised the fragility of servers, data and critical infrastructure to physical threats and their potential exposure to online attacks. At the same time, thanks to social networks and digital communication tools, new forms of ad-hoc support emerged that facilitated the agency of individuals in supporting and safeguarding Ukrainian (digital) cultural heritage. The round table reflected upon the challenges encountered in these efforts from multiple perspectives, whether from the technical viewpoint of providing backups and fallback infrastructures or in terms of the impact of data protection regulations and coordination strategies for volunteers. By creating a space for discussion between internationally renowned experts, we wanted to explore ways of making (digital) cultural heritage more resilient. Yves Maurer (Bibliothèque nationale du Luxembourg) presented the digital preservation system used by the Luxembourg National Library, which duplicates its web archives with in the US. Valérie Schafer (University of Luxembourg) argued that because our daily activities are intertwined with digital technologies, studying digital sources is essential for understanding past and contemporary practices. Erica Peaslee (ALM, Centurion Solutions, LLC), who joined Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO) as a volunteer, explained how the initiative managed to save 5,400 Ukrainian websites of institutions including museums, libraries, zoos and children’s libraries within a few months. Current activities include showing people in Ukraine how to digitise physical objects and offering them the necessary material, resources and training. Kateryna Zakharchuk (University of Luxembourg) described how she is interviewing Ukrainian individuals with temporary refugee status in Luxembourg. The discussion revolved around the digital management of sensitive data and the importance of accompanying digital archives with contextual information.


Current state of “24.02.22, 5 am” initiative

Thursday started with an overview of the latest progress in the “24.02.22, 5 am. Testimonies from the War” initiative. Under the moderation of Małgorzata Łukianow, Natalia Otrishchenko (Center for Urban History, Lviv) reported the activities conducted in Lviv since March 2022 thanks to financial support from Körber Stiftung, the House of European History and the Fundacja na rzecz Nauki Polskiej. A team of 13 interviewers and transcribers has carried out 150 interviews with inhabitants of Lviv, Kyiv, Poltava, Ivano-Frankivsk and other localities, using a trauma-informed approach. The team led by Anna Wylegała (IFiS, Polish Academy of Sciences) in Poland has conducted 100 interviews in Warsaw, Krakow, Poznan, Lublin and Silesia after receiving financial support from the Fundacja na rzecz Nauki Polskiej, the House of European History and the Mieroszewski Centre. It is now focusing on producing manual transcriptions and gathering additional interviews. The current sample of interviews overrepresents interviewees with a higher education degree as well as a female perspective on emigration, reflecting the characteristics of the migration flow of Ukrainians with temporary refugee status in Poland. IFiS is organising a conference in February 2023 that will particularly focus on the ethical standards of emergency interviewing and archiving in wartime. Machteld Venken (University of Luxembourg) reported on interviewing in Luxembourg with financial support from the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR) under its temporary support programme for researchers who have fled the war in Ukraine. Kateryna Zakharchuk and a team of seven volunteers have managed to conduct 40 interviews and are continuing the interview process. The testimonies were automatically transcribed using the software program HappyScribe. Outreach activities include the public event “Voices from the War – Path to Peace: Ukrainian and international insights” and the report “Butscha – Luxemburg. Erinnerungen aus der ersten Hand. Bilder des Grauens, Wunder der Güte” in the weekly d’Lëtzebuerger Land (04.11.2022). The team has also worked on setting standards for the protection of sensitive digital data with and for international colleagues.


Sharing expertise on interviewing and transcribing

Natalia Otrishchenko moderated a session in which the interviewers and transcribers in the three different countries could share their expertise on interviewing and transcribing. The discussion was enriched by insights from Anna Chebotareva (University of Oslo), who has conducted interviews with Ukrainian displaced persons in Hungary and Norway, and Olena Strelnyk (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München), who will start interviewing in Germany in December 2022. 


Legal and data protection – roundtable

The next session concentrated on legal and data protection within the European Union and was moderated by Machteld Venken and Lars Wieneke. Participants were introduced to and discussed the different forms and procedures regarding data protection (informed consent form, project information form, data protection information form, data transfer agreement, data processing agreement), legal protection (memorandum of understanding and consortium agreement including intellectual property rights management) and ethics (application for ethics review panel(s) and confidentiality agreement for employees).


Expanding cooperation

The day ended with a session dedicated to the expansion of international cooperation. Anna Wylegała moderated a series of presentations of ongoing interview projects with Ukrainian displaced persons by Anna Chebotarova (University of Norway), Felix Ackermann (Institut für Geschichte und Biographie – online), Iryna Klymenko (Ludwig Maximilians-Universität München – online), Catherine Gousseff (EHESS – online) and Natalia Zinevych (Södertörn University, Sweden – online). It was decided that the current memorandum of understanding will be expanded to include more researchers involved in similar activities.


(Digital) research ethics: roundtable discussion

The last conference day started with a round table on (digital) research ethics moderated by Diana Vonnak (University of St Andrews – online). The discussion went beyond formal applications for ethical clearance and focused on the need to reflect upon the ethical nature of practices throughout the entire research process, for example by including an informal ethics advisory board within the project, publishing research materials using the Contributor Roles Taxonomy and drafting guidelines for professional associations based on our experiences. One example is the guidelines on “Methodology, ethics and safety in projects documenting the war and refugee experience after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24/02/20”, available in open access on the website of the Polish Oral History Association).


Hands-on sessions

Two hands-on sessions then followed, addressing metadata, data modelling, automatic transcription and indexing with presentations from Alexandre Germain (Media Centre, University of Luxembourg) on the CatDV Asset Management Platform as suitable software for creating a central database of interviews with Ukrainian displaced persons conducted in various countries, Kateryna Zakharchuk (University of Luxembourg) on rapid developments in Ukrainian automatic transcription software, and Inna Ganschow (University of Luxembourg) on the need for individual and collective reflection on the biases produced by (multilingual) indexes. Participants were given the opportunity to explore a CatDV demo of a central database and to index two interview fragments. Discussant Andrew Flinn (University College London – online) suggested using technology to speed up indexing, for example via topic modelling and automatic place indexing.


Future development of the initiative

The conference ended with a round table moderated by Machteld Venken about the future development of the initiative, including further research grant applications and a planned online meeting with the Scientific Advisory Board of the project “24.02.22, 5 am: Testimonies from the War” moderated by Anna Wylegała.