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Personal Experience as Historical Testimony in Witness Literature from the Gulag Archipelago

CBEES Advanced Seminar with Lovisa Andén.

Speaker: Lovisa Andén, Post-Doctoral researcher, Södertörn University
Discussant: Irina Sandormirskaja, Professor in Cultural Studies, CBEES
Chair: Irina Seits, CBEES

Personal Experience as Historical Testimony in Witness Literature from the Gulag Archipelago

Witness literature or testimonial literature is a literary genre that has characterized the 20th century. One of its most famous writers, Elie Wiesel, labels it the literature of our time: ”If the Greeks invented tragedy, the Romans the epistle, and the Renaissance the sonnet, our generation invented a new literature, that of testimony”. Witness literature describes experiences of concentration camps, slave camps, working camps, genocide and the like. Unlike other forms of literature, it is reserved for those who have had first-hand experience of the event.

Most witness literature concerns a reality that already belongs to the past: a genocide that has already past or concentration camps that no longer exists. However, that is not the case for the Gulag memoirs. Whereas the Holocaust survivors described a reality that no longer existed, most of the Gulag-survivors describe an ongoing reality, which, due to the secrecy around it, was only known through their writings. Whereas witness literature in general is met with trust, the Gulag survivors were often challenged. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago has been described as a ”brilliant example of a genre based on rumor, hearsay, and personal impression”. Even though the veracity of the Gulag memoirs has been challenged, they have proved to be surprisingly accurate when more documentation became available.

In this paper I will examine Gulag memoirs published in the West by repatriated foreigners. I will use the term Gulag in the sense that it has come to be used after Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s publication of the Gulag Archipelago: as a term for the Soviet repression system from December 1917 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union 1991, including prisons, transit prisons, concentrations camps, forced labor camps, corrective labor camps, colonies and settlements.

Witness literature has a double role as, on one hand, literature and, on the other hand, historical testimony. This role is challenging, due to an alleged conflict between a testimony and a literary work. Furthermore, a memoir reflects extratextual reality in a mediated way in three aspects: first, the personal experience is selective; second, the memory introduces further selectiveness on the experience and finally the narration itself signifies decisions about what to include and what to exclude. One aim of my investigation is to examine witness literature in its double role of testimony and literature. I will approach these questions from a phenomenological framework. My thesis is that phenomenology, due to its examination of the relation between first-hand experience and objective reality, can provide us with a philosophical understanding of witness literature.

Lovisa Andén, PhD in Philosophy (Uppsala University/Södertörn University). Lovisa defended her doctoral thesis, Litteratur och erfarenhet i Merleau-Pontys läsning av Proust, Valéry och Stendhal (Literature and Experience in Merleau-Ponty’s Reading of Proust, Valéry and Stendhal) in 2017. She is currently working on the Postdoc-project Tell the West: Witness Literature from the Gulag Archipelago 1925-2012, in Aesthetics at Södertörn University.

Time and place

09 December 13:00-14:30

Higher seminar

Room MA 796, CBEES, Södertörn University, Campus Flemingsberg, find us


Arranged by

The Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES), Södertörn University


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