Russian-German Teachers’ Encounter

History teachers exchanging experiences | Photo: Körber-Stiftung
History teachers exchanging experiences | Photo: Körber-Stiftung

“Maniacs with a big heart for grass-root history” – most participants of the German-Russian meeting of teachers in Berlin agreed that they could recognise themselves in this self-description by one of the participating teachers. In a time of tense political relations, some of the most active and experienced history competition tutors from Russia and Germany met in Berlin on 25 June for an exchange about their activities in the competitions.

The meeting was part of an educational trip of eleven Russian history teachers that took place from 21 June to 1 July 2018 in Germany and Poland. It was organised by the Russian organisation MEMORIAL International which has been conducting the Russian competition since 1999 and it was supported by the EU-programme “Public Democracy. EU and Russia”. In the course of the journey, the Körber Foundation organised a day of joint exchange with German history teachers.

The Russian as well as the German history competition, which is run by the Körber Foundation, have been founding members of the foundation’s EUSTORY Network. Until today, up to 30,000 entries have been submitted to the German history cmpetitions; the competitions in Russia have even received over 50,000 entries over the years. With these numbers they belong to the largest competition projects of EUSTORY.

In both competitions the role of teachers is crucial for initiating and supporting students’ research works on local and family history. Their dedication is one of the preconditions that hidden stories are unveiled, intergenerational dialogue about the past is strengthened and young people are enabled to substantially contribute to a living culture of remembrance that also includes voices from civil society.

The tutors both from Germany and Russia used the encounter for an in-depth exchange about topics and challenges that are crucial in their everyday work. How can teachers motivate young people to commit themselves to extracurricular activities? Which skills are needed to investigate the past, and how can they be taught? On which support could teachers and students count and what are major obstacles for their activities?

To kick off the meeting, the teachers presented the particularities of their respective national competitions’ designs. In their presentation the German teachers pointed to various challenges they encounter: The work usually takes place during the (rare) free time of the pupils and the tutors. Hence, creating and keeping up motivation as well as time management is a key challenge. Finding relevant time witnesses demands creative approaches, the same goes for trying to get support from local journalists, institutions or experts. Additionally, access to source material as well as technical possibilities and equipment can be poor.

The Russian tutors emphasised that the majority of the Russian participants live in rural areas. Thus, the tutors’ work and engagement is the key to reaching those pupils and to their success. Thanks to the activities of many Russian history teachers, the competition has become a “truly all-Russian” competition with entries ranging from Voronezh, Volgograd, Penza, Tver, Sverdlovsk, Novosibirsk, Rostov and the Kostroma regions as well as from the Krasnoyarsk and the Krasnodar region.

An open exchange on the conditions for the respective commitment brought to light that, nevertheless, this involvement can sometimes demand a high toll. At the end of 2016, the Russian Ministry of Justice added MEMORIAL to its list of so-called "foreign agents", of NGOs who finance their activities in Russia with grants from abroad as well. Some teachers emphasised an increasing pressure in recent years by school administrators, who in turn are encouraged by local governments and educational authorities not to participate in the competition. Two years ago, nationalist activists insulted and attacked the guests of the Russian award ceremony in Moscow. Since then, MEMORIAL has had to tighten security measures around the closing event of the competition.

Both parties agreed on the great importance of their competition for the culture of history and remembrance of both countries. The encouragement of young people to independently research national history and think critically is the major aim of both competitions. A Russian teacher who has been working in a youth education centre for more than 20 years specialised in genealogy. With her students, she studies the history of their families or individuals through source work and together they create family trees. She shared touching stories about highly relevant students’ findings, such as successfully identifying and re-uniting relatives that had lost touch due to forced migration in the course of the Second World War.

Russian teachers shared their impression that in addition to the aggravated political conflicts between Russia and Europe after the Crimea crisis of 2014, cultural exchanges have highly suffered. Against this background the participants much enjoyed the Berlin encounter, stressing that maintaining cross-border exchange on the level of civil society is crucial - especially in times of political tensions.

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