DISSINVENT : Exploring and Disseminating the Archival Collections of Eastern European Dissidents Exiled in France during the Cold War

Recipient of a recent award by the CollEx-Persée in its 2019-2020 call for funding, the project DISSINVENT DISSidences de l’Est en exil : INVENTaire, histoires, pratiques documentaires joins the growing international efforts to strengthen the collaborative work between researchers and heritage institutions in the handling of archives and collections, be they digital or analogue, online or onsite.

The aim of the project is to identify and increase the national and international visibility of the many collections produced by Eastern European dissidents exiled in France between 1945 and 1991, also working toward improving their accessibility. Moreover, the initiative aims to develop an intellectual reflection about the singularities of such archival corpus, its history and its description in several different languages, as well as to encourage the creation of more and better networks between researchers and experts in archival management.

Developed together by La contemporaine and the laboratoire ICT (Identités, cultures, territoires) at the University of Paris, this project has been supported by the CollEx-Persée with a total funding of 130 800 € and has been launched in September 2020 for a period of 21 months.

The aims of the project develop in two dimensions:

1) Identifying public and private collections located in France, created by dissidents and exiles from the USSR and from socialist Central and Eastern European countries (writers, artists, scientists, scholars, editors and trade union activists, among others); improving their description and indexation; exchanging and sharing lessons with archival institutions abroad; and developing strategies for long-term outreach and dissemination.

2) Developing an interdisciplinary intellectual reflection on the compared history of the circulation of diaspora collections, as well as on notions of clandestine/militant/exile documentary heritage. Additionally, the project seeks to establish better guidelines for researchers in matters concerning the deposit and use of such corpuses.

Fonds Khodorovitch, coll. La contemporaine

A rich, yet little known corpus 

During the entirety of the long Cold War, intellectuals, scholars, artists and political and trade union activists having left the Soviet Union and European countries under socialist regimes  –the region that is often labelled as “Eastern Europe” – produced a significant documentary heritage. These collections are the result of their involvement in creative activities, in publishing and in research, also connected often to their political commitment to what is generally called the “dissidence”. As collectors, donors or even professionals of archival management, these men and women often played a role in the development of public and private heritage collections, in their management and dissemination. Many of them have written their stories. Also, and especially from the 1990s, they have often been invited to give their testimony in audiovisual form. During the decades until 1990, France was a central venue for this intellectual and political immigration, whose experience was marked by intra-European circulation, and with movements and connections with Russia and North America.

Until now, this rich documentary corpus of Eastern European dissidents has not been the object of any research program. The European project ERC COURAGE (“Cultural Opposition – Understanding the CultuRal HeritAGE of Dissent in the Former Socialist Countries”, 2016-2019) created the first data base on cultural opposition in European socialist countries and it thus paved the way for a strong theoretical reflection about such collections. Moreover, the Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat developed by the University of Toronto, devoted to Soviet clandestine publications in the USSR and abroad and completed in 2015, offered a selection of digitized documents as well as chronologies, biographical notes and access to interviews with witnesses. And yet, French collections have remained surprisingly absent from these initiatives.

l’Affaire Pliouchtch, fonds Tatiana Mathon, coll. La contemporaine

Partner institutions

The scientific coordination of the project is under the direction of Sophie Cœuré, professor at the University of Paris (Paris Diderot), specialized in Russian-European relations and in the history of communism, as well as in the history of archives. Coordination is also under the direction of La contemporaine, one of France’s leading libraries and archival institutions, whose holdings include some of the most important archival collections in the world concerning the political history of Central and Eastern Europe in the 20th century. 

The consortium includes the main institutions that have historically been in charge of handling such collections in France, which will also be able to bring in a wide team of archival specialists and professionals to chart the fonds and develop an intellectual reflection about the recollection, promotion and dissemination, in particular through digital channels. Drawing from preexisting networks, the working group also includes a number of scientific partners, who will contribute to the creation of a community of researchers involved with the project.

The Bibliothèque universitaire des langues et civilisations (BULAC), leading library of the CollEx network for area studies, an institution especially devoted to the linguistics, literature and cultural studies of Russia and the countries of South East, Central and Eastern Europe, will be one of the main partners of the project. The BULAC holds print collections that include the publications of political exiles and dissidents, with some of these collections having been created with the active participation of the dissidents themselves. It also holds a number of archival fonds (such as the Archives of the Ukranian emigration) which are specially relevant to the project’s aims.

The Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg, leading library in the CollEx network for the region of Germany and Central Europe, preserves important archival fonds for the relevant cultural areas.

The Centre d’études des mondes russe, caucasien et centre-européen (CERCEC), an interdisciplinary research center for social sciences devoted to the vast region of Eastern Europe, which also holds a specialized library and an image archive created in 1985 by Marc Ferro. Moreover, the CERCEC will facilitate cooperation with the library and archival holdings at the GED Condorcet.

The Institut des sciences sociales du politique (ISP) in Nanterre includes several researchers specialized in these research domains for the relevant geographical areas.

The Institut d’études slaves (IES), a non-profit association established in 1919 and an academic society associated with the Sorbonne University, devotes important efforts to the promotion, dissemination and the digitalization of its archival and manuscript collections concerning the Slavic world, which are held at its rich library (NUMERISLAV). The IES is associated with the project on account of its tasks in archival management and publishing at the department of Cultures et sociétés d’Europe orientale, balkanique et médiane.

Last but not least, the Centre de recherche Europe-Asie at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales promotes transdisciplinary and interregional research on East-West intellectual relations and on international circulations of knowledge during the second half of the 20th century, also working in tandem with the BULAC.


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