Everyday Life in Eastern Europe
When teaching the history of Eastern Europe I encourage students to think about what life must have been like for ordinary people going about their everyday routines in the East Bloc during the Cold War, and also to think about what types of conditions are necessary, in order for governments to be legitimate in the eyes of their populations. I think that the communist rulers of Eastern Europe failed to secure legitimacy from their peoples, in significant part due to their inability to build and maintain healthy, comfortable, and interesting lifestyles for ordinary men, women, and youth, and that this failure greatly contributed to the revolutions of 1989. When teaching I tend to keep my view to myself, in order to encourage students to explore and construct their own views using document-based evidence and independent critical-thinking skills.
The questions found in the first paragraph of the main introduction to this module and the briefer questions specific to each individual document are designed to help students start thinking the causes of the revolution of 1989 and the role that everyday life played in this major world-historical event. I would spend 1-2 weeks (depending on time demands and student abilities) reading and discussing with students the documents in the module.
Examining the Evidence
What does this picture suggest to you about everyday life in the Soviet Union? What does it suggest to you about possible communist stances towards consumerism and popular expectations about consumer items? What do you think Hlynsky (the photographer) thinks of the power of everyday life?
When reading the document, ask whether Adamec appears to have a realistic view of the state of everyday life in Czechoslovakia and whether his view suggests that he knows the importance of everyday life for the maintenance of government power.
This document provides insight into the relations between everyday life and pollution, and invites students to reflect about the role of daily and weekly routines in the making of major political upheaval.
This document, an article from Rudé Pravo, provides students with an insight into the impact of water pollution on Eastern Europeans. Is pollution an aspect of the history of everyday life worthy of scholarly attention and, if so, how?
How does the article from it summarized below evaluate the state of health in Czechoslovakia, and what does its statement suggest about the role of everyday life in the making of 1989?
What measures to curb alcohol, tobacco, and drug use are being proposed in the following document? Do you think these measures promised to be effective, or are there issues not addressed here that needed attention (and that contributed to the 1989 revolution)?
When reading the following document reflect on what it says about the power of everyday life, when a government fears musicians.
What explanations of youth discontent do you find in it, and how might this discontent have contributed to the end of communist domination?
Imagine yourself a youth in Communist Eastern Europe. How would the spaces described here make you feel about your opportunities for breaks from your everyday routines and about your government?
Do you think that the design of these buildings and housing estates alone could have made people dissatisfied with their everyday lives? Why or why not?
This document raises questions about the impact of perestroika and glasnost on the Czechoslovak Communist Party's concerns about everyday life. To address these questions, ask what image of living conditions emerges from this document, how strong is the evidence provided to support this image, and how might any contradictions found in the report be explained.
How do you think Tuzex affected these attitudes and how, if at all, do you think this contributed to the 1989 revolution?
Students should be asked to use this document to discuss what they have learned about everyday life and public criticism of the government, and their significance for the revolutions in 1989.
With reference to this document, ask students if and how comparisons between Western and Eastern European everyday life experiences could have contributed to the revolutions in 1989.
For Further Discussion
After examining the individual documents, I would spend 1-2 weeks using the following two sets of larger discussion questions to encourage students to synthesize and draw big-picture conclusions about the 1989 revolutions from the individual documents:
- Using evidence drawn from this module, describe an ordinary weekday in the life of an ordinary Czechoslovak teenager in 1988. Knowing that life in Eastern Europe before and during World War II was very difficult, how do you compare the everyday-life experiences of youth in the 1950s and reactions to those experiences to youth experiences of and reactions to everyday life during the 1980s? What perceptions of the future do you think an Eastern European teenager in the 1950s would have had; in the 1980s? How do you explain any differences and/or similiarites that you have noted?
- What is legitimacy; and what makes a government legitimate in the eyes of its people? Do you think that everyday-life conditions and opportunities can help or harm government legitimacy? Explain your answer. Do you think that everyday life contributed to the making of the revolutions of 1989? How important do you think this cause was compared to the other two causes listed in this module’s introduction, namely the expensive intensification of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the demand for genuinely democratic institutions of government?
These two large discussion questions are closely related. When combined together they deepen student appreciation of how everyday life can contribute to major political upheavals and changes including, in the case of Eastern Europe, the revolutions of 1989. Furthermore, both individually and together, the questions urge students to think about what they themselves want for themselves and from their governments, and what makes their government legitimate in their eyes.
I have found that breaking students into small groups (sometimes of their choosing, sometimes assigned) to discuss questions is a very effective way to encourage thought and discussion. I require that each member of each group fill out a worksheet with discussion questions that I collect and evaluate for thoughtfulness. After spending part or all of a class meeting in small groups (depending on the questions), we then reconvene for a general class discussion.
For this teaching module, I would first ask students to work in small groups addressing the first set of questions. Due to the number and size of the questions, I would give them an entire class period to work together, after which I would collect their worksheets. At the start of the next class meeting, I would hand back their worksheets and we would have an all-class discussion about the questions. I would start by having a representative of each small group read aloud her/his group’s description of an ordinary weekday in the life an ordinary Czechoslovak teenager in 1988. After this reading, I would ask if anyone felt that they needed more information, in order to most accurately write the description, and what sort of information they felt they needed (i.e., more information on schools). Time permitting we would also discuss the uses of the expressions “ordinary day” and “ordinary teenager”.
Then we would discuss differences and similarities between youth and everyday life during the 1950s and 1980s. For this part of the discussion it would be important to be sure everyone has an understanding of what World War II was like for Eastern Europeans. We would conclude with thoughts about how generational change could have influenced Eastern European assessments of the Communist Party and Communist Party achievements, especially those related to food, housing, health, and diversions from the routines of everyday life.
The second set of discussion questions could first be discussed in small groups and then among the entire class; or it could simply be discussed during one class period among the entire group. In the latter case, for reasons of time, it would be best to come to class with a useful definition of legitimacy and a suggested list of conditions necessary for legitimate government. After encouraging students to think about legitimacy, then the questions of the relationship of legitimacy and everyday life, and the role of everyday life in the making of the 1989 can be discussed.
If there is any time remaining for further examination of everyday life and making of 1989, then I would show the film “Good-Bye Lenin.” This film offers interesting visual insight into the nature of everyday life in communist Eastern Europe. Further, it raises the issue of nostalgia (or Ostalgie) for the communist period that some Eastern Europeans felt after the revolutions. After watching the film students can discuss what caused this nostalgia. This discussion can help them to explore how despite the grave flaws of communist single-party rule, this system did offer something positive to some ordinary people. It also invites the presentation or exploration of material on the state of everyday life in Eastern Europe since 1989, a topic that fascinates my students.