Member Profile – Elena (Léna) Volkova

Elena (Léna) Volkova is a transmedia storytelling facilitator and producer, an oral historian, and a writer.  She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Literary Studies (Moscow State University, Russia), a Graduate Diploma in Museum Studies (Deakin University, Melbourne), and a Master’s Degree (Research) in Creative Industries (Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane).  

The backdrop for her burgeoning interest in oral history was Literature and its Makers.  She recorded stories of writers, poets, artists, and other significant Russian cultural figures, thus contributing to the creation of a ‘soundscape’ of Russian literature.  Very soon, she embarked on recording life story interviews with the writers and artists – survivors of GULAG and WWII veterans.  It was her own project; she was keen to find out how creativity survives in the dark places and how it provides a lifeline for those engaged in writing in the most unlikely places on Earth – the labour camps behind the Arctic Circle and the trenches of the Eastern front.  She produced two vinyl discs of rear recordings and wrote several articles in the Folklore magazine.

In 1990, she was invited by the iconic Echo of Moscow to produce a weekly radio program on the history of literature.  As a broadcaster and a journalist, she was solely responsible for all stages of production, including research, interviewing, editing, sound production, and broadcasting.  Being a part of the Echo’s team was an honour and a challenge.  She worked through two attempted military coups when the station was once surrounded by a barricade built by the ordinary Muscovites to protect their only ‘voice of freedom.’ By this time, she also realized that the unique radio heritage should be preserved, and in 1993 she established the Echo’s Sound Archive. 

She did not plan to emigrate, but then life interfered.  In Australia, she worked for the leading museums and universities and was an integral part of several ground-breaking projects in cultural ethnography, creative writing, and transmedia storytelling.  The highlights of her career included projects Australians Caring for Refugees (exhibition curator, Queensland Museum), Russian monthly magazine Southern Cross (editor-in-chief), 4EB radio (co-presenter), Australian War Memorial (oral historian, commissioned), Australian Generations (oral historian, National Library of Australia/Radio National), The Difficult Return (research assistant, Griffith University/Australian Defence Force), and Developing Best Practice for Settlement Services for Refugee Women-at-Risk (digital stories’ producer, QUT). 

Oral history principles and practice were in the heart of these projects, as in the exhibition Australians Caring for Refugees, where she introduced oral histories of the Brisbane-based refugees that she recorded and produced.  They were a compelling element of the exhibition, which was described by media as innovative and eye-opening.  Léna’s interviews with young diggers laid the foundation for the play The Return (ARC project The Difficult Return) performed in 2014 in BEMAC.  Digital stories with women refugees that she produced in 2015 played an integral role in the success of the QUT project that investigated the mental health of the refugees. For several years Lena worked with the playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson contributing her research and interviews to the creation of the play Motherland.  She was deeply moved when she discovered that Lyall-Watson featured her in this play as Alyona, a Russian literary scholar. 

Léna joined the Oral History Association in 2006 and became the president of the Queensland branch in December 2007.  She held this position for three years. During the time of her presidency, the website of the Queensland chapter was commissioned and created.  It has become a portal for the members to stay abreast of the events, conferences, international and national projects, and scholarly articles in the field of oral history.  Two successful grant applications allowed the committee to purchase much needed equipment for the use of Queensland oral historians, including state-of-the-art recorders, Sony video camera, Audio-Technica microphones, and headphones. The second grant allowed the Queensland branch to provide training for the rural/remote communities.  Following the devastation caused by the Cyclone Yasi, the committee decided to give some of this equipment to the community of Cardwell to replenish their resources.  Being Brisbane-based presented some challenges to the committee.  One of them is being far away from the oral historians living in the Northern and Western parts of Queensland.  Léna proposed approaching oral historians in these areas and appointing local members as the committee representatives to enable the branch to serve these communities in the best possible way.

In 2015 while still a student of the Creative Industries (QUT), Léna established her practice Story Labyrinths to enable people to create and produce personal stories spoken in their own voice.  Her artistic practice reflects the way our modern society is engaged in the process of meaning-making through a multi-modal, multi-platform, co-creative, and collaborative work.  She is a co-founder of Createplace – a collaborative group of experienced writing and arts health practitioners who offer a suite of programs in creative writing, poetry, digital storytelling, fairy tales, and mythology. The group aims to promote self-awareness and social connection and to provide tools for people to live more inspired, fulfilled, and enthusiastic lives.  Léna’s latest project is Digilore, where she challenges her previous achievement as a scholar and attempts to turn oral history into an artistic pursuit.