Off the Record: How Anthropologists can Learn from the Silences in Ukraine and Poland

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Off the Record: How Anthropologists can Learn from the Silences in Ukraine and Poland

by Julia Buyskykh, Ph.D., The Centre for Applied Anthropology; Research Institute of Ukrainian Studies, Kyiv, Ukraine; Fulbright Scholar, Pennsylvania State University

I am an anthropologist who studies religious dynamics and memory. From 2015-2018, I conducted intensive ethnographic fieldwork in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands (Lublin and Subcarpathia provinces). Throughout this period, I spent four months in the region, returned habitually, and maintained communication with a number of my interlocutors via e-mail and skype. Some of my data, reflections, and interpretations of the complexities of everyday life on this multilayered terrain, which can metaphorically be called a minefield of contradictory memories, have already been published in academic articles and appear in my current works in progress. However, they only address a portion of what can be said about the people, their lives, and their strategies for coexistence with neighbors, which are heavily influenced by the legacies of WWII. Moreover, the so-called rules of academic writing and the culture of "publish or perish", often prohibits us from expressing the important nuances of our fieldwork, our own emotional experiences, the ways in which we affect the space and people we are working with, and in turn they influence us. In this short blog, breaking free of the confines of academic language and style, I will highlight some specific challenges that I faced during my work in the region, in hopes that my experiences will help other researchers working in and on the area to think carefully about these aspects of their own work.

Reflections on the Field

Anthropological knowledge production is never the work of a single individual, even if we conduct our ethnographic fieldwork alone. Various people with different backgrounds contribute throughout all phases of data collection, processing, analysis, writing, and publication. I do not mean here a specific research team. But, for anthropologists, everyone we encounter in the field is our partner and to some extent a co-author, because they strongly influence our understanding of the region, not only by sharing their time, knowledge, and stories with us, but also via their behavior—the episodes of their everyday life we are able to observe. Also, in the absence of verbal or written information, the refusal to talk, categorical decline to be recorded, initial rudeness, deliberate silences, we find important sources for interpretation. Silence is vocal; we just need to learn how to listen to it, to glean the story from places and people that seem tacit.

One of Bronisław Malinowski’s outstanding contributions to the development of modern anthropology was the introduction of deep research methods. This is reflected in his diaries, which still spark heated debates in the anthropological academic community. Just a few days after his arrival in New Guinea, Malinowski noted that there were voids in his research approach—he did not speak the local language or simply observe. To overcome these deficiencies, he formulated one of the basic methods of our discipline: participant observation. His diaries reveal not only a great anthropologist, but also a human being, who deeply suffered because of the solitude and misunderstanding he experienced in the field. He missed his distant motherland, experienced an identity crisis, demanded to be loved and understood, and was exhausted from the field. Today, considering contemporary anthropological debates on empathy and our elaborated codecs of ethics, we cannot abide by his categorization and use of violent language towards his study participants. Yet, one cannot question the fact that Malinowski paved the road for further discussions on the relationships between the anthropologists and the communities they study. Since then, the “reflexivity” model of anthropological studies has engaged a researcher’s subjectivity and role of their emotions in the field.

Let’s face the unavoidable: our cultural and social background, everyday experiences, and education influence us as researchers. It is impossible to develop and maintain “complete objectivity.” Moreover, should we even want to, considering that "complete objectivity" obfuscates empathy, and empathy is crucial to fieldwork. It allows us to step in the shoes of another person and understand their perspective, to get a sense of the differences between what one declares and actually does. To elaborate empathy, honesty, and sensitivity is the least that we can do when interacting with the people, whose voices we use for our research. If anthropology as a discipline is all about human research, then fieldwork is about learning to understand others and, therefore, ourselves.

Under the Blossoming Trees

It was a warm late April afternoon. Mid-spring in the Sian river valley is always breathtakingly beautiful. Little villages with the obvious dominance of Roman Catholic churches, surrounded by fruit trees in blossom, looked so peaceful in the green cradle of the gentle slopes of Subcarpathian hills. I was sitting in the small kitchen of a cozy rural house of a village about twenty minutes by local bus from Przemyśl. The birds sang in bushes blossoming with bright yellow blooms, and apple trees already sprouted fragrant white clouds of tender flowers. My hospitable interlocutor, a Ukrainian woman in her early 70s treated me to herbal tea and homemade cookies, repeating how nice it was that I had come to visit her.

She found me through a Polish-language article about a pilgrimage shrine, which was important to the Greek Catholic Ukrainian community before WWII. Polish communist authorities ruined and desecrated it in the decade following the war. It just so happened that her parents once performed pilgrimages there. However, during the postwar waves of forced resettlement, part of her family was resettled in Soviet Ukraine, and the other part, including her parents, in the so-called “returned lands” (former German territories which Poland gained after WWII). When she first called me, she thanked me for my research, crying, and pleading with me to visit her while she was still alive, so that she could share her memories. The conversation was so emotional, that I cried too. I immediately began planning my visit.

As a trained ethnographer, I asked her permission to record our conversation, which she granted. We talked for more than four hours. Suddenly, our talk was interrupted by the phone ringing. It was her daughter, who had just received a disturbing call from my interlocutor's neighbor. They said they saw some “alien person” sitting in her mother’s kitchen for hours, and worried that I might be a "Gypsy" woman, trying to “hypnotize” and steal something from her neighbor. I spoke with the daughter, providing a long explanation about myself, my credentials, and my work. Yet, she still asked that I leave. Her last words to me were: “You don’t understand, her family suffered enough, we don’t need anyone here to dig up the past”. Unfortunately, I understood…. The old lady was deeply disappointed and somewhat mortified. She requested that I leave copies of my university “letters of support” and provide written assurance that I would not use anything from our conversation in my research. Then she insisted that I delete everything I had just recorded. What could I do? With a heavy heart, I pressed the “delete” button, undoing the four hours of work, respecting the wishes of my respondent. I have never used anything from that conversation and the related fieldnotes in my work. Yet, this situation clearly showed me how meaningful and painful the past is in the region, and how careful we must be when dealing with the vulnerability of individuals, whose fates were milled by totalitarian regimes.

One of the primary themes that emerged in my conversations with the inhabitants of local communities in Subcarpathia (pol. Podkarpacie) were Polish-Ukrainian relations during the interwar, World War II, and the postwar periods. Without meaning to, I was drawn into heated discussions about the two nations’ respective traumas and the bloodiest pages in Polish-Ukrainian history, including the ethnic cleansing and forced resettlement of Greek Catholic and Orthodox populations from 1944-1947. Those discussions challenged me, as my presence seemed to trigger controversies and conflicting opinions in the communities in which I was working. At first, overwhelmed by this unexpected development, I tried to steer clear of topics that detoured from religion and religious practices. That strategy failed immediately. I realized that the material I received on the “margins” of my intended research actually brought me closer to understanding the complex factors, which contribute to the religious identity of individuals and whole religious communities. One such factor is the phenomena of “post memory” (Hirsch 2012). Moreover, because my respondents were also closely observing me, our interactions and exchanges became a separate cultural text—itself the object of ethnographic analysis.

During the initial stages of my fieldwork, I experienced difficulties stemming from mistrust, fear, and suspicion. Especially in my interactions with older people (both Polish and Ukrainian), it required considerable diplomacy to persuade them that my questions about the past and the present were harmless. In my early attempts to approach potential respondents and ask them about Greek Catholic, Orthodox, or Roman Catholic neighborhoods before World War II, the replies I got were often the following: “I don’t remember”; “I have nothing to say”; “My mother remembers but she wouldn’t talk to you”; “That was a long time ago. I’ve got nothing to say”; “You should ask the priest whether he would give me permission to talk to you”; etc. Seemingly “negative,” these refusals to answer actually indicated latent conflict between neighbors—possibly no longer outwardly visible, but still very palpable. When people gave their permission to be interviewed or just talk, in the majority of cases, they categorically declined to be recorded. Thus, the old-fashioned style of doing ethnography and field notes were the only way for me to glean and record anthropological data from these encounters.

Wandering through the lovely Subcarpathian neighborhoods along the Sian and Wiar rivers valleys with my interlocutors, hosts, and newly gained Polish and Ukrainian friends, I often spotted cemeteries with Orthodox and Greek Catholic graves, abandoned churches, and even rarer, Jewish graves. I often asked myself: How many difficult and contradictory memories are buried in the green grass under the blossoming trees? How much more research is needed to unsilence the forgotten and marginalized voices of the region's various ethnic and confessional groups? If those voices are brought to light, will it inflict harm or heal old wounds? More importantly, how can a community reconcile an unreconcilable past for new generations? Is the tranquil silence of abandoned cemeteries and churches and the very loud silence of people who fear conversations about the past and their neighbors curable? What, after all, is the remedy for silence?

Instead of a Conclusion

For those of us who are sensitive to it, empathy is painful, as we are often part of the narratives we tell. I, as do many of us in Europe (and beyond) live with the legacies of WWII, its losses, traumas, artificially created borders, and demographic consequences. Even in my own "millennial" generation, many of us, have grandparents who learned the art and necessity of silence. The generations that followed perfected the “practices of unsaying”, as Michael de Certeau framed it, as a route to survival.

What I was observed during my fieldwork in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands is this: lives lived unspoken, because they were unable to rework or rid themselves of trauma. They grew accustomed to trauma's internalized existence, like a patient with a tumor or an incurable disease. Human nature is such, that a person can get used to anything. Inspired by Gabriele Rosenthal's views on “healing effects of storytelling” (Rosenthal 2003), I once believed that conversations, with an unknown, sympathetic, and open listener, would heal wounds. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it does not, and the person in front of you experiences re-traumatization. Both processes are rooted in one phenomenon: the living presence of the past in everyday life.

So, what can we learn, when facing the silence which continues to influence and frame the present? I believe we must learn to listen to the sound of silence and to trace the ways in which it echoes in a human’s physical and social bodies. In doing so, we can discover something new about not only our subjects but ourselves. When recording is impossible, I argue that “silence" can become an anthropological tool for the study of vulnerable communities, and their post-traumatic, post-colonial experiences. Silence can be more vocal than interview transcripts. Recordings are devoid of body language: gestures, facial expressions, positioning, and the multi-layered contexts of the field. On the contrary, human behavior, everyday rituals, emotions— hidden or expressed—and modes of vernacular religiosity can tell us much more than a recorded interview. "Speaking" with “silence” is a form of communication that does not rely on words. It can be a key tool for studying individuals and communities whose traumas are deep and unhealed; it also reveals their humanity.


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