Arts & Culture

Project on Soviet Social System goes online

3 min read

For decades, the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System (HPSSS) 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 source of frustration for researchers trying to comb through its 61 volumes.

With digitization of the thousands of pages of summary interview transcripts that make up the HPSSS and the subsequent 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.

“Now you can find the same material by using keywords,” said Richard Lesage, technical services librarian for Harvard College Library’s 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, said Hugh Truslow, librarian for the Davis Center Collection at the H.C. 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 making the transcripts available online.

Previously, HPSSS 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 in his Soviet history classes. And postdoctoral fellow at 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.

Conducted between 1950 and 1953, the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System includes oral interviews with more than 700 refugees from the Soviet Union, along with 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 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. … There’s just nothing like it on this scale.”