Socialism Realised is a project that innovatively works with the history of the Eastern bloc not only when it comes to content, but also with how it introduces its content to users. The website features material that has been adapted to fit the most current trends in pedagogy, so that it will engage even those whose primary interests do not lie in the field of history. Socialism Realised offers a structured database of various sources — period and contemporary movies, archival documents, personal documents, and photographs. As with any database, there are multiple ways to explore its content (see Catalogue). It is structured to meet the needs of various users – both beginning and advanced students of history, teachers looking for material for their classes (see Pathways), and other people interested in the past, who might just be able to learn something new about the region.
In this section, we will explore the fundamental principles that underlie this project. We believe that they will be useful and inspirational for thinking about mediating the past in general.
The dominant image of the Eastern bloc is focused on conflict and political history. Both popular movies and textbooks focus their attention on conflict between the state and individuals, or conflict between the two ideological blocs. In the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, the history of communism is also discussed with the central question of what kind of lesson the societies should learn from this experience; this project, however, is an attempt to connect this discourse with the international context. To overcome the established dichotomic image, we offer a more complex look at the period through innovative kinds of sources and how we enable users to think about diverse and even contradictory interpretations of the past and the perspectives of different actors. At the same time, we’ve tried to lessen the amount of raw information, taking emphasis away from names and dates and instead focusing on key general phenomena, like the relationship of people to power and societal transformations.
For us, the fundamental principle of cognition is the analysis of historical sources, and the accompanying questions and texts guide this cognition process. Users are navigated towards a broader knowledge of the subject through links leading between the perspectives and eras in the catalogue. We have chosen the sources in order to sketch a complex image of the given period; complexity, however, also often means ambiguity. Socialism Realised lays no claim to total control over the information that the user will take away. The questions accompanying the sources might have various answers. Similarly, teachers can use the sources in their instruction with varying goals. Due to differences in the types of instruction in various countries, we didn’t assign the sources to specific age groups or themes. Instead, it is up to the teachers to decide how and for which goals they want use each source. Our aim is merely to awaken an interest in the history of the Eastern bloc among users and to reflect on the entanglements and ambiguities of the past and how people view it.
Media sources: Socialism Realised does not tell users how things were in the past; instead, we let the past speak for itself through various media representations of it. The basis of Socialism Realised is a selection of media sources — mainly fictional films, but also documentaries, photographs, and personal documents. We have chosen all of them to reflect a significant element of the time period and theme, which you choose in the catalogue. Our selection, of course, doesn’t represent the past as a whole. We have chosen material on themes that are specific to life in the Eastern bloc, but that are also understandable and have informational value for contemporary users. The portal’s catalogue is balanced between complexity, which is natural for the past, and simplification, which is necessary for comprehensible knowledge management. We are aware that the sources are not a direct reflection of the past, and in fact, many questions reflect this indirect relationship.
Feature films: The majority of our material comes from fictional films, both period and contemporary. We use short clips for their attractivity and comprehensibility, and also because they allow us to demonstrate the constructedness of history. This ability makes them more appropriate within our approach than documentaries, which are less open to critical evaluation. These clips offer complex yet approachable situations and the perspectives of various actors, and they focus on the experiences of these actors. The accompanying questions, however, also direct users towards reflection on film as a medium — why did the director or the writer decide to portray the characters in a certain way in the given situation (Here when we need them)? In this interpretation, the dividing line isn’t between period and contemporary films; the latter (The Dilemma) enables us to bring the theme of the collective memory of socialism into the content, and in doing so also fosters an understanding of the processes that are playing out in post-socialist countries today. We also use contemporary films in chapters besides Memory to present a glimpse of the past. Contemporary films are more open in uncovering the social experiences from the communist regimes, whereas with period films you might need a specific cultural code to understand their meanings. Therefore, we have chosen contemporary films that are more comprehensible to audiences with diverse backgrounds.
Inquiry-based learning: The main principle of working with the portal is individually analysing the media sources; the accompanying texts are just explanations of the context, not necessarily offering direct answers to the questions. This principle aligns us with the constructivist pedagogical approach — an authority figure (a website’s author or a teacher) does not one-sidedly transfer knowledge; instead, users reach it gradually by uncovering various aspects of the chosen material. The questions that moderate the learning process are formulated to both develop an understanding of the theme and further cognitive competences. The first question generally aims at a description and retelling of the material; the next ones then move towards a consideration of what the context of the described situation is like and how and why it is specific for the given historical context. Depending on the type of material, further questions might also direct the user to empathise with the historical actors and identify their feelings. The last questions are directed towards more general thoughts on the given theme, for example with a comparison to the current situation, or a reflection about the general differences between democracies and authoritarian regimes. This movement from descriptive questions to abstract ones and its direction towards individual moral evaluations copies the basic principle of pedagogical constructivism.
Multiperspectivity: The past is an open-ended complex of various attitudes, voices, and experiences. Depending on the relevance given to certain attitudes and voices, various interpretations of the past can coexist. While history has long used a largely unreflected selection of material out of this complex tapestry, the current reflexive science accentuates and investigates the polyphony of history–and we draw on this approach as well. Socialism Realised’s chapters are designed to uncover various ways of experiencing the given eras, in addition to various ways of remembering them. First, we’ve tried to revise the traditional image of the Eastern bloc, which had been reduced to a conflict between citizens and power, by emphasizing various types of relationships between power and the inhabitants, various possibilities for loyalty and resistance, and the way that concrete people actually embody this “power”. In the Memory perspective in particular, users uncover the multiplicity of interpretations. The history of communism has been undergoing a constant process of re-interpretation, especially in the region that experienced it, and the authors of Socialism Realised are also a part of that process. However, based in the current trends in historiography, we are trying to show users the multiperspectivity of the interpretations of the past and the ideas in which they are rooted. We have tried to elicit this approach to the past amongst our users in general — that is, to have them think about its multifacetedness.
Thematic instruction: The material from Socialism Realised is very flexible if you’re considering putting it directly into your instruction. In chronological instruction, our material would only have a spot in the chapter on “Modern European History — The Cold War”; as an alternative, then, we offer thematic instruction focused on general problems, like people and ideology, generational divides, or gender policies. We present the communist regimes as a specific way of responding to the structural problems of modernity (Collectivisation), thus making it possible to compare the developments in the Eastern bloc with those in the West. It can even be a way of opening questions that aren’t connected only to communism — like the failure of democracy or the forms of civil resistance (One-sided fight). Besides the basic Perspectives, you can find other themes in the Pathways and Essays sections.
We also haven’t defined any age group for the website’s potential users. The history of the communist regimes in Europe usually appears in the curricula of older students, but we’ve chosen materials which grasp even younger pupils’ attention and which can also be used in civic education classes to illustrate more general topics, such as the differences between democratic and authoritarian regimes. Choosing the materials is up to the teachers and their educational goals, also because understanding in this case is shaped more by cultural background than by the users’ ages. Middle school students from other post-socialist countries, for example, can understand more advanced materials even more easily than college students with a different cultural background. We believe in the autonomy of the teachers, who can fit the materials into their own lesson plans according to their national curricula, and both the Pathways and the questions accompanying the material can serve as inspirations.
Updates: The goal of Socialism Realised isn’t just to deepen knowledge on a specific chapter of history, but also to create an understanding of the past and the ways that history is constructed. Working with the material leads users towards a greater competence in critical thinking and in methods of analysis that enrich them even when thinking about the present day. We’re not interested in superficially updating themes where the past will just serve as a projection onto present day problems — we always point out the complex causes of historical phenomena. We direct the questions, however, towards a comparison of the past and the present, and thus to an awareness of the specifics of the individual periods. We also mean Socialism Realised to be a project that cultivates a civic competence that would warn people of ideological manipulation from the side of the state or the media and the repressive practices that go along with it. Socialism Realised is also reminiscent of the tradition of civil resistance that comes out of defending human rights.