About Exhibition

The Cold War heated up shortly after the end of the Second World War. The two main adversaries, the United States, and the Soviet Union, competed for world domination in the arms race, the conquest of space, sports, and the arts. The ideological divide between nations and worldviews ran deep. The Iron Curtain divided Europe into East and West. The leading superpowers also fought to expand their sphere of influence in South America and South-East Asia. The Cold War spread everywhere.

The Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the divisions it created are still evident. The former state socialist countries were expected to fully adopt to the capitalist economy and political ideals. Historically, both capitalist and socialist ideologies maintained the image of new tomorrows and endless development – which was also reflected in the lives of children. Although faith in continued economic growth remains strong, Millennials (i.e., those born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s) are the first generation whose prospects are more uncertain than those of their predecessors. Environmental problems, economic and political polarisation and other challenges are creating pressure for Millennials and the generations that follow.

Childhood memories help to understand the Cold War era and related phenomena. The memories displayed in this exhibition tell of everyday experiences to which visitors can easily relate. The exhibition is like a kaleidoscope of childhood memories, as they are constantly moving and forming new images and interpretations. By studying them, we can question our concept of the world and think about how different the present and future could be.

Shared memories, crossed borders

Re-Connect / Re-Collect is an international multidisciplinary research project being coordinated by the University of Tampere. It has involved collecting childhood memories from people whose lives have in some way been affected by the socialist or post-socialist systems. The project connects people across Cold War divisions.

Memories were collected in workshops around the world in 2019 and 2020. These reminiscence events were attended by 77 researchers and artists from 31 countries in Europe, North and South America, Africa, and Oceania. The memories have been compiled into an open digital archive, creating a kaleidoscopic image of identities, regions, religions, cultures, and histories. The memories have also inspired works of art, such as a theatre production in Hungary and an animated film in Germany.

In the workshops, memories were collected via scientific and artistic means. Childhood memories are always interpretations shaped by our later experiences in life. We may remember moments from momentous events in our lives such as childhood birthdays or the death of a loved one; other memories often relate to sensations – our grandma’s freshly baked pies or a tree outside our house.

Communal reminiscence ties individual stories together. Memories are told in the third person to evoke experiences and emotions in the listener, and to make us think not only about the past, but also about the future. You can take part in the project by jotting down your own memories on the postcards available at the exhibition.

Objects evoke memories

Most events are quickly forgotten, but through objects, childhood memories can last a lifetime. Their colour, sound, smell and feel transport you to a different time and place. Past events and emotions flood back, and the person starts to remember. Familiar objects – toys, pictures, and items of clothing – help connect with the past.

Most events are quickly forgotten, but through objects, childhood memories can last a lifetime. Their colour, sound, smell and feel transport you to a different time and place. Past events and emotions flood back, and the person starts to remember. Familiar objects – toys, pictures, and items of clothing – help connect with the past.

Even if socialist objects now seem distant or even peculiar, the memories, images, and emotions they evoke can help viewers connect with other people and cultures. Memories can lead us to notice the differences in people’s everyday experiences, but also their many similarities.

Recycled and repaired

Under the socialist system, the economy and production were guided by three- or five-year plans. The goods produced and their prices were determined by the state, not by need or demand as in a market economy. This planned economy often led to a shortage of certain products and the overproduction of others. Do-it-yourself culture blossomed: people used the materials on offer to make things that were otherwise unavailable.

Repair, reuse, and recycling maintained their popularity even after the emergence of plastics and throwaway culture. Due to the lack of materials, handicrafts were often creative and unique. The inventive recycling of materials brought generations together in concrete ways when, for example, a child attended a party wearing an outfit pieced together from their grandma’s old coat.

Socialist governments saw the mass collection of wastepaper and scrap as being the duty of citizens and an embodiment of team spirit. Unfortunately, much of the collected materials never made it to recycling, but simply added to environmental waste. Today, the individual’s role and responsibility in recycling and reuse is seen as one of the ways of curbing waste and pollution. Responsibility for solving environmental problems is thus shifting from states and companies to individuals. The importance of consumption to economic growth and self-expression is reiterated in popular culture, schools, and politics at the same time as researchers urge us to abandon consumer culture for the sake of the environment.

The powerful plastics industry

The introduction of polyethylene-based plastic in Eastern Germany revolutionised socialist toy production in the 1960s. Prior to this, toys had been made of materials such as celluloid, which was fragile and flammable. Plastic symbolised the power and development of the socialist economy and its capacity to reform itself. Toys could now be produced cheaply in huge quantities.

Toys were also used as tools of propaganda. They reinforced well-defined roles in children as selfless and productive citizens and workers and parents of the future. These predetermined roles were often forgotten when children started playing and inventing new uses for their toys.

A future built on children

Eastern-bloc countries strived to boost their industries and economies through state-led initiatives. Children were regarded as a key resource in building the equal and communal society of tomorrow. They were seen as political players representing the new social system.

Sports and hobbies provided an effective means of cultivating children. Exercise not only increased stamina, but also shaped their outlook on life. Children themselves had little say in how their bodies were used or monitored.

Children were expected to be active. With the Pioneer movement and a plethora of sports and cultural clubs on offer, most children in socialist countries had a hobby. Being selected for a representative team in a sport or hobby was seen as a unique opportunity and a source of pride for the entire family.

Playing in concrete jungles

The Second World War left countless people homeless. In Europe, destroyed residential districts needed to be rebuilt. Huge areas of prefabricated apartment blocks helped to alleviate housing shortages. Concrete suburbs symbolised modern society, and apartments served as homes for the ‘new nuclear families’.

Most courtyards were designed to incorporate green spaces with benches and playgrounds, but since many sites remained under construction well into the 1970s, the greenery never had time to grow. Children were left to play amid rug beaters, bushes, and construction waste.

From a youthful age, children could play outside with one another if their parents could see them from their windows. Older children were expected to look after younger ones. After school, children played in the courtyards of their apartment buildings or visited one another’s homes. They also created their own subcultures by making creative use of space: under-stair cavities, for example, could serve as a disco or a place to listen to banned radio stations.

In Northern and Western Europe in particular, concrete suburbs turned into disreputable neighbourhoods populated by ethnic minorities and the deprived. In childhood memories, however, they appear as fascinating environments full of endless possibilities. In Eastern Europe, these suburbs have maintained their popularity. The apartments in them are affordable, and an abundance of parks and good public transport links add to their appeal.

Childhood politics

During the Cold War era, the propaganda machinery of both socialist and capitalist states portrayed children as the hopes and heroes of tomorrow. In socialist countries, children were harnessed to official political interests: they created the future as both Pioneers and athletes, and by taking part in recycling, harvesting and manufacturing. Children were also used in political campaigns and armed conflicts on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Children acted in the roles created by the machinery and rose to embrace the desired ideals, but they also saw the flaws and absurdities of the system. They dealt with and even challenged politics in their own way: by mocking state symbols or re-decorating their uniforms. Today, children and teenagers are active participants in the fight against climate change, campaigning on social media and in demonstrations on their own terms.

Turmoil and upheavals

World events and instability in the living environment penetrate children’s reality through news and the reactions of the adults around them. Revolutions, protests, and wars make their way into children’s plays and affect their worldview. Some escape from the ambiguity and turmoil of daily life by retreating into their own imaginary worlds.

Events that shake our everyday lives are often well remembered. Here, too, memories tend to entail routine or private moments in which the child’s attention is focused on everyday objects and events. Children play, kick a ball or watch TV while society around them is in turmoil.

With the global pandemic and the worsening environmental crisis, children are again during life-changing events. They observe and follow the conversations, emotions, and practices of adults, but also provide their own interpretations of their surroundings and build up their own realities.

Crossing borders

During the Cold War, the border between East and West was closed and heavily guarded. Official propaganda was designed to reinforce stereotypical images of those living on the other side. In divided Berlin, the border extended below ground: the metro ran in both East and West Berlin but did not stop at all stations. Crossing the border was a special experience. Sometimes unauthorised goods were smuggled inside children’s toys. In childhood memories, crossing borders is frightening, but often also exciting.

Official statements on ‘peaceful coexistence’ between East and West created more opportunities for tourism. For those living in the East, potential destinations included other Eastern-bloc countries, but also twin towns in the West. Some privileged citizens could cross borders more freely. Westerners could visit Eastern-bloc destinations without restrictions. Money spent by tourists supported local economies.

People wanted to travel and learn more about the outside world they knew so little about. Odd-looking and strange-smelling items and random photographs of foreign places fuelled children’s imaginations. In a child’s world, migratory birds flying across closed borders fascinated for appearing to be so free. Through imagination and play, children were able to travel to otherwise inaccessible places.

At the dawn of the 1990s, borders between East and West gradually opened. During the COVID-19 outbreak, many countries have again imposed restrictions on free movement – restrictions which some have seen as a threat to their personal freedom. However, the movement of goods and people do cause environmental problems that can only be tackled through collective decision-making. Memories help in bringing people together and lay the foundation for finding new global futures.