Featured DH’er: Chelsea Smith-Antonides

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Chelsea Smith-Antonides is one of the DSL’s Summer History Interns. Read more about her experiences below and check out her final project Soviet Deportation: The Forced Deportations and Ethnic Cleansing under Stalin.

Picture of Chelsea carrying the History Department banner at graduation
Chelsea carrying the History Department banner at graduation

I’m a recent graduate with a degree in both Russian and History, so this summer I really wanted to incorporate both of these fields into a single research project in the DSL. I decided to focus on Stalin’s forced deportations and ethnic cleansing in the Soviet Union. This was a topic that I’ve been wanting to learn more about, and it was also something that would utilize my Russian language skills, my curiosity about history, and research skills as a historian. By the end of my internship I would learn a lot more!

The beginning of my project was spent digging for preliminary research with JSTOR and books on Soviet history. I had some books in mind from my classes on Russian history, so I started writing up notes and organizing them based on topic. I also used JSTOR to chase sources that scholarly articles used in their notes, which really helped me compare different figures and data and find some major names in Soviet studies that a lot of researchers referenced. I created charts with Excel to hold the figures on ethnic groups that Stalin targeted, kept links to images and maps, and soon had nearly 30 pages to work with!

I focused my research on approximately a dozen specific ethnic groups that Stalin targeted for execution, imprisonment and deportation. This would keep the project fairly limited in scale, while also giving the bigger picture on ethnic cleansing. Soon I had data on how many people of each group were killed outright, sent to gulags, or deported to settlements, and how many died as a result of this treatment. When working with so many figures, making charts was the best way to keep the numbers organized so I could reference them easily.

With Sarah and Tara’s help, I tried out different DSL tutorials like Omeka, Timeline JS, Voyant, and ArcGIS. They’re all really interesting and help you visualize information in different cool ways, and each had benefits. We selected ArcGIS Story Maps because it has a great and easy-to-use interface for creating a historical narrative, and it allowed me to combine those other tools. For example, I used Timeline JS to create a brief timeline of major Soviet events. With the framework in place, I started pulling content from my notes and organizing it, slowly creating a structured narrative around Soviet policy and why Stalin’s actions were a crime against humanity, and, in the end, why it is not discussed enough. With ArcGIS, I could combine historical photographs and interactive mapping to complement the research that I did to create a full, enriched hub of information. I was able to create a map of the Northern Caucasus, for instance, highlight specific regions of it, and input facts into the map so readers could click around and learn about the groups that I focused on, like the Chechens and Ingush. I could also pinpoint specific locations where massacres or mass deportations took place. I also used Tableau to create interactive charts to represent pools of populations. This is a great way to make statistics interactive, comparable, and easy to visualize. Using StoryMaps really helped me focus my research, too, discarding information that would not fit with the project and research new images and data that would compliment it.

Map created by Cheslea showing the original locations of targeted ethnic groups.
Map created by Chelsea in ArcGIS Online showing the original locations of targeted ethnic groups.

Next, I used Russian museum websites for both data and images, and learned a bit about licensing in other countries, too. With this, I knew which content I could use for my project and which I could not. It was a challenge to find images large enough for the interactive sections, as many around the web are saved in small formats or inaccessible due to copyright. It was a lot of fun to practice my translation abilities and look through interactive maps and photograph collections created by Russian scholars. It piqued a new interest as well: looking into creating a bridge to scholars in Russia, sharing museum and historical sources to make them available on a global scale.

The media aspect of Story Maps helped me add a deeper connection to the subject by adding features on individuals affected by the gulags, as well as sections dedicated to specific ethnic and religious groups persecuted by Stalin and the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs(NKVD). I also made sure to dedicate a section to the NKVD itself so those who are not familiar with Soviet history could learn what they did and how they were involved. I also learned a lot myself: I didn’t know about Stalin’s persecutions against the Jewish population or his plans to rid the Soviet Union of its Jewish population, and I didn’t know that he deported entire ethnicities, tens of thousands of people, in a single day. This quickly became a major learning experience for me and that fueled my wish to share it.

The project became something that I’m very proud of. Each day of my internship has been incredibly enjoyable and engaging. I accomplished a lot of research and have already shared a great deal of this information with the OU community, something that I could not have done without the Digital Scholarship Lab’s help. Further, I never knew about tools like ArcGIS or Timeline JS and it was amazing learning how to use them. It has been very eye-opening, and I now find myself a huge advocate for digital scholarship and how these sites help keep history, and memory, alive.

What Else I’ve Learned:
Through the summer I’ve also been learning how to code with Python using tutorials from Code Academy and exercises developed by the DSL team. This is invaluable experience that will help me both create digital historical projects on my own and give me great technical skills when I move forward in my career. Not to mention, it’s a lot of fun! I didn’t have a lot of coding experience beyond HTML and I was surprised how much I could learn in a short period of time. I even began making my own games with Python on my own time! At the DSL, there’s always something new, fun and innovative to learn. I encourage all of you to go and see them!