1961. Berlin, the boundary between West and East Germany, marked by the Berlin Wall. Dressed like a grandmother, a girl tries to enter the Federal Republic of Germany. She knows that the authorities ought to let elderly people through. However, her trick is revealed, and the girl has to return in despair.
This is not just one of the stories that took place decades ago. These are events which take place just a few steps away from the observer, they come to life and fill the past with new meanings. This journey in time became possible thanks to the NATO Information and Documentation Center and students from the history department of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv who organized the “Night at the University” project.
“The idea appeared two years ago, when we got an offer to design a tour to celebrate the university day. We are historians, so it logically came to us. And since we were studying in the second shift, we thought that we might hold it at night. We began to gradually recruit a team, and now we have 70 people,” one of the organizers of the Nights at the University Halyna MUZYCHUK told us.
It so happened that one of these tours had among its participants director of the NATO Information and Documentation Center Barbora Maronkova. Impressions of the event became the basis for future cooperation. “I really liked it, I was inspired by the actors, their creativity,” Maronkova explained. “So, I thought that I could ask them to stage a similar historical event about NATO. They were delighted. Then we organized a trip to the NATO Headquarters in Brussels so that they meet with our colleagues from the archive to help them prepare this wonderful night.”
Overall, preparations started back in December. The venue was not chosen randomly, because the Institute of International Relations of the Shevchenko National University formerly housed the NATO mission.
FIVE REENACTED LOCATIONS
The joint effort resulted in a tour named “The NATO Night,” which deals with NATO during the Cold War (1949-90). It involves five locations in the university where the students reenacted important stages of the Cold War era. Visitors had a unique opportunity to establish a link with history, to become its literal participants through participation in reenactments.
The hall of the university’s Institute of International Relations had been turned into a checkpoint. It was manned by uniformed and armed students. Girls tried to break through the border, while a couple of lovers almost succeeded in their attempt to reach West Berlin. Future historians tried to convey precisely what was happening several decades ago.
Having traveled back in time for more than half a century, the tour guide summed up what people had seen: “During the Cold War, the border was illegally crossed more than 5,000 times.” Some paid with their lives for these attempts. However, this did nothing to diminish the ingenuity of people, as they tried to cross the border both by air (using aircraft) and underground (through a tunnel; by the way, one of them is stated to be longer than 100 meters). There were also so-called wall-jumpers, who were just interested in looking at life beyond the wall, and then going back.
AMERICAN SPIES COULD PROVIDE THE DAILY TIMETABLE FOR EMPLOYEES OF AN ORDINARY FACTORY
The tour’s participants could also visit a reenacted interrogation of a spy, attend a civil defense class together with “American school kids,” allowing them to realize how close the world was to a nuclear disaster, and even visit Nikita Khrushchev’s fictional meeting with Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, and Winston Churchill.
It is noteworthy that the students used knowledge they obtained during their trip to Brussels as effectively as possible, supplementing the reenactment with interesting facts. For example, they told the tour’s participants about data which had been released by the US Central Intelligence Agency (because the required closure period had already ended). They include the testimony of an American spy in Kherson, who provided information about the Stalin Cannery, the Glassware plant, and the cotton-processing plant. He composed a detailed guide for preserving peas and various other vegetables, provided information on the employees’ wages, and even told the story of one woman from the department of washing vegetables, named Chaika, who exceeded her plan assignment by 270 percent. Indeed, it is difficult to even imagine how much the US knew about, for example, nuclear weapons in the USSR, if its agents could provide the daily timetable for employees of an ordinary factory.
WE NEED TO BE MORE FORWARD-LOOKING
The completion of the tour was also spectacular, featuring the fall of the Berlin Wall. And it seemed that when everyone got a chance to use a hammer to demolish the wall, they were destroying something more than just a piece of scenery created by the students of the history department. We witnessed stereotypes being broken and blank spaces in our knowledge about NATO being filled.
This was actually one of the goals of “The NATO Night,” as Muzychuk noted. “Firstly, we felt it was important to show a broader picture of history, because quite a few people do not understand at all what happened in those days, involving the US, Germany, Britain, or why they were all together in it,” the girl explained. “And, of course, we destroy stereotypes. At the very least, we show that while NATO is a military organization, they still have supported a cultural project of history students. It is incorrect to say that ‘NATO is evil,’ we live in the 21st century, after all. We need to be smarter, to analyze events, to be more forward-looking. We need to ponder if we really need something.”
Maronkova, who also took part in the tour, summed it up as follows: “We are pleased. I think this is a wonderful way to share history and show the contemporary youth the period which really exerted a great influence on us, our parents, our generation, and also to show what role NATO played throughout these years.”