Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System Available Online

Soviet Social System

A screenshot from the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System
Online. The result of a multi-year digitization effort, the online portal
offers scholars access to the thousands of pages of interview transcripts that make up the HPSSS.

December 8, 2008 - For decades, the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System has been a major source of information for researchers analyzing the Soviet Union between World War I and World War II. Due to its archaic and often-confusing indexing system, though, the HPSSS has also been a major source of frustration for researchers trying to comb through its 61 volumes in search of specific data.

With digitization of the thousands of pages of summary interview transcripts that make up the HPSSS and the creation of the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System Online, those frustrations should become a thing of the past. The Web-based portal serves as the primary access point to the HPSSS for scholars studying Soviet history, culture, society, economics and a multitude of other subjects. It allows scholars to search interview transcripts online, quickly finding material that previously may have required weeks to locate. The site also includes links to finding aids for the HPSSS and includes guidelines to aid scholars in their searches.

"The paper and microfilm versions are difficult to use," said Bradley Schaffner, head of the Slavic Division of Widener Library Collection Development. "Students could spend a whole semester or more attempting to identify relevant information."

As part of the digitization effort, every transcript page was re-keyed, Lesage said, making it feasible for researchers to search the text of every transcript for any word or phrase. The search feature allows researchers in minutes to find material that may previously have taken days or weeks to find.

"Now you can find the same material by using keywords, like school, education or teaching, or you can combine those words," said Richard Lesage, Technical Services Librarian for the African and Asian Unit, and archivist for the digitization project. "That's definitely one of the great advantages, besides the simultaneous remote access which the online version provides."

Those advantages haven't gone unnoticed by scholars, said Hugh Truslow, librarian for the Davis Center Collection at the Fung Library. Since the launch of the HPSSS Online, he's received messages from researchers all over the United States, and as far away as Great Britain and Switzerland, all of them praising the library's effort to make the transcripts available online.

Though the HPSSS has remained a unique resource for scholars studying the Soviet Union - despite its unwieldy indexing system - the material rarely found use in the classroom. Its new accessibility, however, is quickly making it a valuable pedagogical tool, Truslow said.

Though the paper transcripts had been used for teaching by Terry Martin, the George F. Baker III Professor of Russian Studies, he now uses the new, digital format for his Soviet history classes. The online resource has been used by other instructors as well. A post-doctoral fellow in the Davis Center for Russian Studies, Benjamin Tromly presented students with a selection of quotations from the transcripts, which students used to identify research topics. One student was able to identify, categorize and analyze instances in which interview subjects discussed rumors related to Stalin, while another used the transcripts for a paper on abortion, a subject which hasn't been extensively studied in Stalinist Russia.

"Students are used to searching journal databases or Web sites, but they're not as used to working with primary source documents," Truslow said "Much of what might be out there from this period would be in Russian, but these interview transcripts were written in English. The project is being used for teaching, because now any student in a Russian history class can be using primary source material."

Conducted between 1950 and 1953, the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System included interviews with more than 700 refugees from the Soviet Union, along several thousand written questionnaires. The goal of the project was to document the life of ordinary Soviet citizens from about 1917 until the outbreak of World War II. Interviewees were Soviets who found themselves outside their country at the end of the Second World War, and were therefore more willing to talk to researchers.

The two year digitization effort, launched in 2005, was a joint project between staff of the H.C. Fung Library and the Slavic Division of Widener Library, and was funded by the Harvard University Library Digital Initiative. Production of the digital collection was undertaken by Harvard College Library Imaging Services staff.

"There's nothing like it, there's just nothing like it," Truslow said, of the transcripts. "There was no public opinion data available, so there was no way to find out how the society really worked, other than talking to its people. Of course, that was not an option in the Soviet Union. There's just nothing like it on this scale."