The Power of Stories

Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuguyev near Kharkiv on February 24, 2022.  Photo by ARIS MESSINIS / AFP

February 24th, 2022 was a date I was looking forward to, from a bureaucratic perspective. It would mark the transition to a new role here at the Oral History Center as the Interim Director. Of course, it was impossible to ignore the anxiety building about Ukraine. Even though predictions were made by many sources well in advance, the arrival of the world’s most recent invasion was no less shocking.

The invasion of Ukraine on that day was shocking. Its scale and horror were surprising to many of us. But it was not an unfamiliar story. The experience of invasion is a story often told, and it is stories, first-hand accounts, that are galvanizing tremendous worldwide support for Ukraine in this war. The power of these stories is also evidenced by their absence from the official state organs of Russia’s media, by the slippage of individual moments of protest past the censors, scrawled posters behind the measured tones of the polished presenter, by emails and texts to individual Russians from around the world, fragments of stories, coming one at a time.

Oral history in its modern form coalesced in the 1960s as a movement and an association to document the lives, experiences, and views of ordinary people, with a democratic ethos at its heart. The basic idea was that if you collected, archived, and published multiple stories from individuals and representatives of communities, they could stand in contrast to the single narrative of any social system — an institution, a government, those authorized to speak on behalf of others — which represents a tempered, aggregate, vetted version of the truth, one that may obscure or distort more than it reveals. The truth of one person’s experience is always partial to that exact extent. The collection, archiving, and sharing of multiple perspectives, it is hoped, is an incomplete antidote to conventional wisdom, dogma, propaganda, euphemism, and erasure. To the extent that these stories can be preserved, they promise to outlast the dominant truth of any particular group or era.  

The theme of this year’s annual meeting of the Oral History Association is “Walking Through the Fire: Human Perseverance in Times of Turmoil.” I wish I could say the theme was prescient, but these days it is just a good title for where we are at this moment in history. 

This theme and this war spark memories of interviews I’ve done over the years. Materials scientist Ted Massalski recounted his narrow escape as a boy in Poland in World War II, sandwiched between the occupying Nazis and the advancing Soviet Army. In another oral history, engineering scientist George Leitmann told me what it was like to see the Nazis roll in to Vienna in 1938. There are many other stories of the survival of invasions and evacuations in our collection, including from Russian emigres who fled the Soviet Union, from former UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien or restaurateur Ceclia Chiang, who escaped war-torn China, or economist John Harsanyi, who escaped from Soviet-occupied Hungary after World War II. 

Before the pandemic, I completed a project on physicists who lived through the communist period in Czechoslovakia. Speaking from the land of Franz Kafka, they described the risks of running afoul of the state while running an “underground university,” which hosted secret political discussions of smuggled forbidden texts in the 1970s and 80s, and which paved the way for the turn toward democracy in the early 1990s.  

Some of these Czech narrators believe that the threat of totalitarian control never really went away in that region, and for that reason remained vigilant. I was heartened and humbled by their swift action in the face of the invasion, their efforts to influence the Russian government to reverse course, and to help incoming refugees from Ukraine. Their stories will hopefully inspire the current generation of Czechs to defend their hard-won freedom.   

What makes suffering so unbearable is when it is by design. In the strategy of total war, only most recently manifested in Ukraine, the burden of injury, death, destruction, division, and separation of loved ones is planned to produce a desired outcome: the conquest of territory in the most brutal terms, but also the achievement of enforced conformity, complicity, resignation, and humiliation of the recipients of this terror, in short, dehumanization. 

What can make suffering more bearable, at least from my experience interviewing people who have passed through terrible events, is when the subjects of such terror bear witness to what they endured, name it, and pass the stories of loss and survival to others as a testament to their resilience and humanity. Storytelling, in the face of dehumanization, can promise a rehumanization, of those who survived to tell the story, those who did not, those who hear the story, those who keep it, and those who pass it along. 

Of course, this most acute crisis, this war, requires direct and immediate action. Part of this action is a commitment to the expression and dissemination of narratives of multiple, diverse experiences, in Ukraine, in Russia, and everywhere a single voice threatens to silence all others. As gutted as I am by the horror of this war, I do find hope in the assistance provided to many millions of those who are suffering. The stories circulating about the plight of Ukrainians are aimed most urgently at stopping the war; but they are also, I think, about spreading the load of grief and loss to any and all who will listen. They indicate what is most powerful about oral history. Stalin is reported to have said, apropos of the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians at the beginning of the 1930s: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that is only a statistic.” Apocryphal or not, the statement expressed well the numbing effect of brutality at scale. But a story is not a list of numbers; it is the meaning of an experience to an individual. Oral testimony counters the enormity of Stalinist terror with an individual experience and perspective, amplified by the number of listeners, readers, and repeaters, each connected to one person’s visceral truth.