Young People Shape Eastern European Culture of Remembrance

Belarusian awardee at the ceremony inside the Azgur Museum in Minsk | Photo: Körber-Stiftung
Belarusian awardee at the ceremony inside the Azgur Museum in Minsk | Photo: Körber-Stiftung

Kiev, Minsk, Chisinau, Tbilisi - in the summer of 2018, these capitals clearly demonstrated how valuable the examination of local and family history by young people can be for societies in Eastern Europe. In these four capitals the results of national history competitions in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine were publicly presented. All were part of a two-year cooperation project between DVV International and the Körber Foundation, which was carried out with funds from the German Federal Foreign Office.

As part of the project, the local offices of DVV International organised four national school history competitions together with local NGOs. The aim was to motivate pupils to independently research aspects of their own local or family history and to actively shape the local culture of remembrance. They were to be supported and accompanied by adult tutors.

A look at the specific experiences in the four countries shows that not only the historical interest of young people was promoted by the initiatives. In all four countries, the initiatives provided further impulses for a lively debate about the past - also supported by civil society -  in families, communities and schools.


Ukrainian award winners with their tutors | Photo: DVV International Ukraine
Ukrainian award winners with their tutors | Photo: DVV International Ukraine

In Ukraine, the handling of history and memory is often politically highly sensitive. The country's past is characterised by belonging to different empires, by border and population shifts and by the violent history of the bloody 20th century, which has left deep marks. The political dimension of history has intensified since the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. The question of what significance the Soviet heritage should and may have in Ukraine is controversial. Events such as the toppling of monuments have repeatedly given rise to heated debates on how to deal appropriately with Soviet history, also at a local level.

Against this background, the competition organisers called on the pupils to play an active local role in shaping a culture of remembrance. In addition to their historical research, participants were explicitly called on by the organisers to develop ideas on how their results could be used for their communities.

This approach has fallen on fertile ground in both western and eastern Ukraine. At the award ceremony on 16 June 2018 in Kiev, the most successful student groups presented the results of their research together with ideas they wanted to implement in their city using the prize money.  City tours for locals and outsiders to forgotten places, a school rally to local monuments, surveys on forms of coexistence between the multiethnically composed local population - the young people actively and critically dealt with their history, for which they naturally could not fall back on existing patterns of interpretation at the local level. This gave them more scope for an independent debate.

"For me, dealing with local history is like breathing fresh air", is how one prizewinner from Ukraine described her fondness for dealing with history "from below".


Canvas with photographs analysed by Belarussin participants | Photo: Körber-Stiftung
Canvas with photographs analysed by Belarussin participants | Photo: Körber-Stiftung

The Ukrainian approach of not only summarising the results of historical research in a written elaboration, but also actively disseminating them to the public, was also very well received by teachers in Belarus. At an evaluation meeting of the successful tutors of the parallel Belarusian history competition, the teachers were very interested in integrating this approach into their future activities.

In the current Belarusian competition, the focus was on a family history approach. Based on a photo from their family album, pupils dealt with the lives of their ancestors.  To personalise history and not to look at the heroes of history, but at the ordinary citizens - this approach is innovative in Belarus. "I understood for the first time that I am also a part of history" - the head of a writing group, who had supervised her group during the competition, summed up her new experience. On 14 June 2018, visitors to the Belarusian award ceremony were able to see for themselves in the foyer of the Azgul Museum all the photographic sources that had formed the starting point for the pupils' projects (see photo). Some of the family photos selected by the pupils will be taken in the Belarusian State Archives for film, sound and photographic recordings because of their special value, a representative of the archive emphasised, who had supported the competition project in teacher training and jury work. The images of Belarusian everyday scenes were particularly well displayed in the special setting of the award ceremony venue: the event took place in the Azgur Museum, the former residence and studio of the Belarusian sculptor Sair Azgur (1908-1995), who is known for his busts of historical people of the 20th century, including numerous Marx, Lenin and Stalin statues.


Many Moldovan participants visualised their results, e.g. in exhibition posters | Photo: Körber-Stiftung
Many Moldovan participants visualised their results, e.g. in exhibition posters | Photo: Körber-Stiftung

The competition organisers in Moldova explicitly included the question of who or what was a hero in the title of their school competition. "Heroes of the 20th century in your neighbourhood" was the title of the competition, the attractiveness of which sometimes only became apparent at second glance, as a Moldovan tutor explained during the award ceremony: "When I distributed the competition materials for the hero competition in my class, the first reactions were restrained. But after I had explained that the pupils in this project should not deal with the great personalities, but with people from their families or hometowns who are role models for them, the interest was there".

As Corina Lungu, representative of the Ministry of Education, emphasised in her greeting of 26 May in Chişinău, the new competition launched in Moldova fits in well with the new curriculum, in which ten per cent is earmarked for dealing with local history. The competition thus became a source of ideas for concrete teaching projects on local history, a field in which pedagogues are not yet able to constistently draw on material or handouts. Many of the participants also appreciate the possibility of being able to choose the form of their submissions more freely. In the end, almost half of the students decided to visualise their results in exhibition posters or to compile them in a journalistic newspaper.

Insights into various school projects exemplify the potential of a competition as an occasion for an exchange between the generations. Inspired by the project, participants talked to their parents or grandparents about their involvement in the Afghanistan war or as liquidators in Chernobyl, for example. Others asked the old village midwife about changes in her everyday working life or researched the history of instruments made by the local violin maker and of the renowned musicians from all over the world whose hands they had gone through in the last decades. Soon the young people became chroniclers of their families or their local environment.


Topic in Georgia: “Being Young in 20th Century Georgia” | Photo: Körber-Stiftung
Topic in Georgia: “Being Young in 20th Century Georgia” | Photo: Körber-Stiftung

The organisers of the competition in Georgia, who celebrated the end of their first history competition on 22 June at the House of Literature in Tbilisi, had addressed the fact that the pedagogical approach of historical project work would bring new challenges to teachers.

With the topic "How My Ancestors Lived at My Age - Being Young in 20th Century Georgia" the Georgian history competition aimed at fostering intergenerational communication. For teachers in Georgia, as for some other countries in Eastern Europe, the idea of including elements of student-driven project work on local or family history into their history lessons was mostly unknown territory. It therefore brought up many questions and concerns which were intensively discussed during the accompanying teachers' workshops.  The competition organisers successfully addressed Georgian as well as Armenian and Azerbaijanian teachers to encourage them to also initiate students' projects. They made sure that the jury was able to evaluate entries in three different languages that are spoken in the country, aiming at mirroring the cultural diversity of today's Georgia.

Joint evaluation

At a joint workshop in Moldova at the end of November 2018, the participating competition organisers will evaluate their specific experiences with the history competition format in their respective countries. In doing so, they will also examine the possibilities of jointly promoting broad participation in the culture of remembrance by civil society in the future.

Further information on the competitions:

Ukraine: History of my Community – Past for a Common Future

Belarus: From the History of the Family to the History of the Community

Moldova: Local Heroes of the 20th Century in our Neighbourhood

Georgia: My Ancestor at my Age – The Young Generation in Twentieth Century Georgia

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