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‘I just absolutely can’t not care’ A new online project collects the memories of thousands of ordinary Russians

Source: Meduza
Anna Kozlova

Linor Goralik, a writer and journalist already known for her online innovations, has released a new media platform called PostPost.Media. The project, which has no external investors or sponsors, publishes ordinary people’s stories on subjects as various as children’s horror books, odd family eating habits, and Soviet government leaders: it highlights both the most memorable events in Russian history and Russian memories of familiar, everyday situations. The website also announces that a series of books based on PostPostMedia’s collected memories will be published beginning in the summer of 2019. Meduza journalist Dmitry Kartsev spoke with Goralik about how her project fact-checks the stories it receives and what can make nonfictional stories shock readers as much as fiction.

“I’m trying to satisfy my own obsession”

Dmitry Kartsev: What’s the idea behind this project?

Linor Goralik: PostPost is about personal histories. We post on social media asking people to share the stories they remember that relate to a given theme, and then we publish a selection of them. When the project was still in development, I was asking people to share their stories without telling them what they were for — I just said they’d be used for something — and I’m terribly grateful for the trust people showed by sending their stories out into the ether. I hope the people who did this are satisfied with how I organized what they wrote. Ultimately, by the time the project debuted, we had 843 stories grouped into 14 collections.

Now, we ask people to tell us their stories twice a week. Sometimes, we ask about something really current: for example, if all of Facebook is deciding whether or not to go to an upcoming protest, then we can ask people about the first protest they ever attended in their lives. Or we can ask entirely timeless questions like “Which books scared you the most when you were a kid?

I’ve really been recording the stories people tell me for my whole life — it’s a personal obsession of mine. I don’t like the word “lightbulb,” but at some point, it was really like a bomb went off in my head. I figured out that you can make an entire resource in that kind of format.

DK: Why is this all necessary?

LG: Well, it’s necessary for me personally. Usually, when people make media, the question of relevance is question number zero, not even number one. I just happened to be in a blessed situation: I don’t have any investors, I don’t need advertisements. I’m not at all concerned about the commercial side of the project. Of course, I think people are interested in anything that has to do with personal memories, and I’m seeing that people read and share these memories very eagerly. For example, when we asked the other day about the deaths of Soviet leaders, we got 203 stories. But that’s not about relevance; that’s about human nature. It’s about the eternal things that are disconnected from the current moment. And apart from that, I know I’m trying to satisfy my own obsession and that this project is really personal, not “relevant.”

DK: This obsession you’ve mentioned — where does that come from?

LG: I think it comes in large part from the fact that I’m a religious person. When I can observe the unimaginable diversity of human life and human stories, I feel as though I can sense a godly presence. I understand that what I’m saying isn’t very fashionable, at least not in our circles, but it’s true. I get this feeling that life is ungraspable, that it’s much larger than I can comprehend, that it’s much larger than my scientific education ever implied. And for some reason, that feeling is priceless to me.

DK: So you understand memory in a kind of religious sense?

LG: No, that’s not what I mean. I mean that every time people start to narrate how their lives have played out, the plots they’re writing about are so unimaginable, diverse, and wonderful (or terrible — but wonderful in their incredible sophistication), the feeling that there is a godly creation in these things gets stronger. And for some reason, that feeling is extremely valuable and important to me.

“This project might seem antihistorical”

DK: Do you ever get the feeling that people are just turning their relatively disconnected memories into an actual plot?

LG: I don’t know whether they’re creating plots, but they’re definitely creating narratives. But the value of oral history for me as a collector isn’t in the historical accuracy of the material or in its verifiability — I’m interested in the narrative that the narrator has offered to me. I’m not interested in answers to questions like where someone bought a dress — I’m interested in the emotional background of the story about how someone bought a dress. So in that sense, of course, the PostPost.Media project might seem antihistorical, but only if you understand history narrowly as the study of facts. [The project] isn’t about verification, and it’s not about fulfilling an anthropological or sociological task. I wouldn’t want to say that it’s “closer to psychology” because I don’t have any right to speak on that topic, but it’s possible that the project is more closely related to the structure of confession than of history. How things are said can be more important here than what is said in the first place.

A really memorable example just came to my mind. The most important project of this kind that I’d worked on before PostPost was at Buknik, where I was editor-in-chief, and my good friend Marusya Bul was an editor — she’s working with me now on PostPost. At the end of that project, we published a free book that anyone can download on Amazon. It’s called Lish by zhit (If Only to Live). Shortly before May 9 [when Russians celebrate the Soviet victory in World War II], we asked, “What did you hear growing up at home about the war?” Putting the question that way was a very important matter of principle for us. Not “What did your family do in the war?” because answers to that question usually sound like a prepared recording, so to speak, like well-trodden, reflexive histories that people retell without really thinking through them. They’re invaluable, but we were interested in something else: we asked people to share the narratives that persisted about the war in their families.

The Immortal Regiment memorial march in Vladivostok. May 9, 2018
Yury Smityuk / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

We got 200 responses. By the time I had finished editing them, I was in tears. My hands were shaking. It was all really difficult. When we published them, we got 150 more responses: people who had read the collection began to send in their own stories. We did a second publication, and then we put together a little book. So when you read that book, you can see with incredible clarity how often we deal with unverifiable things: dates that don’t correspond to reality, people we remember being in two places at once, memories that are historically impossible. But for us, that doesn’t mean a thing because we found it far more important to understand how human memory and how human reflection are built. That’s what the PostPost.Media project is about.

DK: You’re saying that it’s important to understand human reflection, but there’s no reflection in the project itself. There are just stories.

LG: There is no editorial reflection, and that’s intentional. We’re not putting ourselves in the position of an observer who takes on the right to reflect on other people’s narratives even though nobody gave them that right. Of course, that said, we do construct our questions so that they might invite reflection. And the stories people send us tend to narrate the process of suffering and coping with it, not a simple sequence of events.

DK: Even so, you’re also constructing the past to a certain degree when you ask people to write about a specific topic and not just about anything they want. It’s like if a historian were to ask a subject to talk about the war even though the subject might have forgotten all about it — it might not be important to them anymore at all, but they still have to stretch themselves to remember it…

LG: Relative to that situation, we have a big bonus: a social media user who isn’t interested in a particular topic or doesn’t remember it can just scroll on by. Fortunately, it’s not the same thing as standing face to face with a subject like a historian would.

DK: Have there been moments when you felt as though someone was making things up?

LG: No, but even if there had been, I probably wouldn’t be too worried. I mean, it’s interesting to think about why and how someone made up what they did. Historians are also interested in this kind of thing, I believe: if someone makes up a narrative, they want to know what it is and why. It makes sense, really.

“The dresses went fantastically, unexpectedly viral”

DK: What were some of your most successful topics? Did any of them surprise you?

LG: We’ve had three topics that we had to divide into several collections because of the sheer volume of responses. The first one was about dresses (“Tell us about dresses that have been important in your life.”). I asked that question when I wasn’t really thinking about PostPost.Media — I was working as a marketing agent for the Russian fashion brand 12Storeez. [The question’s success] didn’t particularly surprise me as a person who’s involved in the theory of fashion. It’s hard to think of a question that’s located quite as precisely at the intersection of gender, physicality, and identity.

In the end, the dresses went fantastically, unexpectedly viral. The first three stories got 500 shares. 12Storeez and I asked the question in hopes of finding a few stories that could become the basis for our New Year’s ads, but then my Facebook just exploded! Then, I (with the brand’s permission, of course) published the stories on PostPost.Media. We were able to make four collections out of the responses we received, and it looks as though the first book in the PostPost series will be one about dresses.

The second big question was about strange things people did to make money. In that case, I also suspected that there might be a major response just because a lot of people were around in the 90s, the time of really out there jobs and weird career moves. I knew that at least three generations who were more than 14 – 15 years old in the 90s would have something to say. And that’s exactly what happened.

There was also a question whose success did shock me. That was the one about books that scared you when you were a kid. I absolutely did not expect those 200 responses.

DK: And which questions got a smaller response?

LG: Well, there was the question about brothers and sisters, but statistically, that’s understandable — not everyone has them. Or the question about “Surprising food people cooked for you when you were growing up.” A lot of people aren’t prepared to put together a reflection along those lines: the food you eat as a child, the food you get used to, stops being strange to you. But there were people who wrote about four or five dishes, and there were really some unbelievable recipes in there. At the same time, you can read those stories and see that (as some people write explicitly) that these stories are often about food that has to do with poverty: Soviet poverty, the poverty of periodic shortages, the poverty of the 90s. But then some stories have to do with unusual tastes or habits. And the third category, which I think is really cool, is the “women’s rebellion,” recipes that emerged because women didn’t want to spend a lot of time and energy cooking. In short, it’s a topic that yielded a lot of surprises for me even though there were just a bit more than 100 responses and not 200.

DK: In terms of the sections that are in the menu of your site, it was “Food” that surprised me the most. Next to “Countries,” “Cultures,” and “Childhood,” it looks like it somehow dropped in from another site.

LG: First of all, out of the two editors working on this project, Marusya Vul is a marvelous cook, and I’m a marvelous eater. But in reality, food is a topic everybody has, and it’s also a topic that’s tied to an enormous amount of emotions. What you’ve got here is an intersection of physicality, family, finances, status, class — and so on. It’s like the top of the spinal column — there are a bunch of ribs emerging all from one place. And so it’s to be expected that if you ask a question about [food] you’ll get stories about a whole range of things all at once.

“Narratives change over time. But that could be just me.”

DK: What do you think: when people talk about their memories, are they talking about themselves back then or about themselves now?

LG: I have two answers to that question. The first is that people are all very different from one another. There are five-word stories with no reflection at all, and those can be brilliant, and there are stories two pages long with in-depth analyses of the relationship between the past self and the current self. Some people retell events with extreme concision. Others build this huge reflexive cloud. Some people talk about the way they are now and look at events from a distance. And some people really feel that there’s no distance left between something that happened 20 years ago and where they are today.

The second answer is “I don’t know.” As I understand it, the question you just asked is one of the most complicated problems in philosophy and psychology: how does memory work? Where does the “You” now end and the “You” of a second ago begin? Excuse the naïve formulation — I’m no expert. Of course, I’m not at all pretending to know more about this question than the people who deal with it professionally.

DK: Let me approach the same question from another angle. What do you think: how different is the way a person talks about an event that happened twenty years ago now and the way that same person might write about it in their diary back then?

LG: Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer for you. I have many years of therapy behind me, and what I learned from that purely private experience is that narratives change over time. But that could be just me — I have no right to speak for others. It might turn out that other people’s heads are built entirely unlike mine. I’m afraid of making assumptions.

DK: Did it occur to you that some of the biggest online social movements of the last few years — #ImNotAfraidToSayIt and #MeToo — are also based on sharing memories? In other words, did you think about this kind of potential significance your project might have?

LG: Anyone who asks personal questions should be prepared for the possibility that those questions will turn out to be larger than it might seem at first. The dresses are an innocent example, but they’re a good one because the topic turned out to be more explosive than I thought. But I’m not thinking about the social side of the project at all — I’m just satisfying my own obsession. Apart from what I’ve already said, I’m also motivated by a sense of pure existential terror: I can feel that everything personal just slips through your fingers. I even have a little feature that’s called “Through your Fingers” on my website: once every few months, I post stories from my loved once that I record just to make sure they aren’t forgotten, so they aren’t lost. For whatever reason, I live with this fear that all these personal memories, jokes, anecdotes will disappear. They disappear along with the people who carry them, or else they’re just forgotten. And I don’t want that.

DK: So for you, the act of preservation is valuable in itself?

LG: Yes. I think everything that happens to individual people is important. I’m that person who likes to ride around on the metro and listen to what people talk about. For some reason, I just absolutely can’t not care.

“I don’t want to analyze anyone’s memories”

DK: What about people’s reception of Russian history and the history of Russian society most shocked you?

LG: There was one story that is six words long that shocked me. It was written by the incredible Israeli poet Sivan Beskin. She responded to the question, “Which books scared you when you were a kid?” by writing, “As I grew up, I got deathly scared of Sorokin.” That really got to me. I think that’s really about this country — it’s about a lot of things.

A PostPost.Media story about the death of Leonid Brezhnev.

DK: Have you come to any reflection about Russia and its history that’s been inspired by these memories?

LG: You know what’s interesting? I don’t want to analyze anyone’s memories. Not now, at least. We just released a collection called “And that’s how he was: 203 stories about the deaths of Soviet leaders,” and there, you can see a lot of angles on how the country is today that isn’t about how the country was under communism, but I intentionally do not want to analyze the collection. When I think about it, I feel this very strong internal resistance to the idea. I don’t want to give myself some meta-position, I don’t want to be the eye of “the real,” and I don’t want to take on the stance of a researcher.

DK: But if you don’t do that…

LG: … somebody else will? Marvelous! You just took that right of my tongue. I wanted to say that I’d be happy if PostPost comes in handy for somebody’s research. By the way, I’ve just remembered that I had a similar conversation during the release of the first volume of a project called Private Citizens: The Biographies of Poets, Told by Themselves. For more than ten years, I’ve been trying to convince poets to write their own autobiographies. As always, I’m scared that everything will disappear. And the first thing my colleagues said was, “Are you sure there won’t be any analysis?” There’s so much invaluable material. If you don’t analyze it, someone else will. I remember answering, “That would be wonderful, I hope somebody does it, I’d be so very glad. All I want is for these people to write their autobiographies.” At least I seem to have a consistent position, I suppose.

DK: I’m really sorry, but I’m still going to try and make you do this analysis. For example, do the stories you’ve collected confirm the idea that people think the 90s were “wild”?

LG: I don’t know. I think that if there’s even some kind of meaningful narrative about the 90s that has emerged at this point, it’s probably more about contrasts than anything else. The 90s are remembered both as a time of great possibilities and freedom and as a time of danger, poverty, humiliation, fear, and many other difficult things.

DK: Do the stories on your site confirm that narrative?

LG: I think they really do. But, again, I’m just a person like anybody else, and my answer to that question is a projection just like anybody else’s.

DK: The German researcher Jan Assmann separated societies and their cultural memories into two categories: “cold” and “hot.” For “cold” societies, the past is just the past, and for “hot” ones, the past is always present. Do you think it’s clear which category Russian society falls into?

LG: I’m no historian, but I think so. I really like that term: “hot memory.” I think we have a “hot memory” (if I understand the expression correctly) because in Russia, there’s not a single living, adult generation that hasn’t gone through an enormous historical trauma. That’s why every memory is, of course, colored by trauma, and every memory brings up very strong emotions. I feel a sense of horror and despair when I think about the fact that the generation that’s now 20 – 25 years old, which is an adult generation, is carrying the trauma of its parents on one hand and faces its own historical trauma on the other.

DK: Not to mention 2014.

LG: Yes, but I’m afraid that the worst is still to come. There’s still no light we can see at the end of this tunnel. Our memory only promises to get hotter because several generations are going to be alive all at once that are carrying several very difficult repetitions of history. I pray to God that I turn out to be wrong.