Finnish Labour Museum WERSTAS and online – 26th of February 2021

Zsuzsa Millei

We have about 200 attendees with 146 connections online, including a whole class from Luxembourg! Students of the Miami University (USA) program abroad are joining lead by our project participant, Elena Albarran.

Thank you for joining dear project participants, colleagues, students, families and friends and esteemed guests. Thank you for celebrating with us this wonderful collaboration between the Finnish Labour Museum WERSTAS, our research team – Nelli Piattoeva, Iveta Silova and Zsuzsa Millei, and the University of Tampere. We wish to express our sincere thanks to all collaborators of this exhibition and the Kone Foundation for their generous funding that enabled us to bring to fruition this research and the various artistic and museum initiatives that sprouted from it during the past 2 years, such as an animation about a Ghost train in Berlin, the East theatre performance in Budapest, and our Kaleidoscope exhibition here in Tampere.

At the center of the exhibition are 250 childhood memories shared within small collectives, with altogether 77 artist and researcher participants from 6 continents – some of whom joined us here today, such as Kathrin and Stefanie who just read their memories.

You might wonder why such personal views as childhood memory stories shared within small collectives, 77 artists and researcher participants of the project from 6 continents, some of who joined us here today. are interesting for us as researchers. What can we possibly learn from the exploration of the past era of the Cold War through memories of children’s everyday life?

Memories reveal children’s experiences of major political events of the Cold War. They tell about children’s everyday life and interpretations of the world. The exhibition makes these accounts resonate with experiences of today’s generations.

Memories also reveal how differently children experience the world to adults. The exhibition is a reminder to hear and engage better with children. Each section of the exhibition mirrors this intention by presenting the top part to adults and the lower area for children to engage with the material presented.

Reflecting on the daily lives of the last Soviet generation, Alexei Yurchak points to the paradox of late socialist societies: “everything was forever, until it was no more”, a belief in an infinite future while at the same time being aware of arriving change. The ambivalence of this paradox strikes a chord with major events today: climate change and the Covid19 epidemic. While in the public there is a general understanding of the looming climate disaster and the possibility of new viruses, we seem to believe that we return to ‘normal’ and our lives will just go on forever. What we see in memories is the crumbling of one modernity: the socialist system. And what we see now is the crumbling of another: the capitalist one. Are we prepared for what comes after?

Iveta Silova

This museum exhibition, and the research project that forms its foundations, has deeply personal beginnings. It started as our response to reading the mainstream literature about childhood and schooling, which was published on both sides of the Iron Curtain but did not make sense to the three of us – Zsuzsa who grew up in Hungary, Nelli in Russia, and me, in Latvia. Scholars on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain always wrote about the socialist childhoods in terms of the role of children as icons of the revolution or model socialist citizens building socialist futures. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, childhoods under state socialism were discussed in terms of oppression and authoritarianism. But these accounts didn’t make much sense to us because as children growing up in the socialist countries we experienced life differently.

Our childhood was full of paradoxes – from joy and alienation to dullness associated with being a socialist child. You may have noticed some of these paradoxes in the memory stories shared earlier. For example, the Iron Curtain dividing the West and East was not as impenetrable as it may have seemed. Children crossed borders to see their relatives and these crossings were sometimes scary, and sometimes exciting, but often they were simply long and ‘bumpy’. These crossings often opened entries into whole new worlds – where even air smelled differently – but sometimes they led to very familiar spaces, especially when journeys led to grandparents’ homes across borders.

What emerged from our initial informal conversations was that living socialism often meant something quite different compared to the official interpretations on either side of the Iron Curtain. We therefore decided to explore it further, inviting more colleagues – academics and artists – to join us. In acting as our own biographers, we began to give texture – and color – to our lived experiences, working together to collectively create stories that spoke against (and sometimes in parallel) to the official versions of a single history. Our collective memories produce illuminating effects, revealing what may not have been noticed, what may have been erased in official histories – and bringing into focus the multitude of inconsistent, contradictory, but always fascinating narratives about childhood, socialism, and post-socialism.

Nelli Piattoeva

One of our core ambitions and hopes for the project and its diverse engagements with participants and the public were to explore how memories could bring together different people. Those who were disconnected by the historical Cold War divides between the East and West, or people of different generations: those who experienced the socialist era and those born much later, and people who might be divided by newly erected concrete walls between countries or political and economic divides triggered by growing economic inequalities or migration and xenophobic attitudes.

The three of us experienced almost magical and unexpected quality of memories when we first started sharing our own childhood memories, personal photographs and objects to trouble official histories, as Iveta mentioned earlier.

The method of collective biography asks to share memory in as rich a detail as possible, recalling not only its actors, events and actions, but also its emotions, atmospheres, smells and touches, so that each story becomes imaginable within the minds and bodies of its listeners. Told in this way, the rich texture of memory stories offers multiple threads to enable connection. When listening to Kathrin’s and Stefanie’s memories, one might remember the taste of their favourite ice cream or the feel of fresh air blowing through the car’s window. In other words, mundane experiences and their vibrant and multiple textures pictured in the memories might offer surprising connections across seemingly disparate locations and times

Perhaps counterintuitively, it is the intimate nature of memories that helps them speak to and connect across broader publics, such as museum visitors. Sharing memories has a domino effect: we hear one, we tell one.”

We get a glimpse of the intergenerational nature of childhoods through stories featuring family trips or celebrations, for instance. These memories remind us of the relational nature of growing up and life in general. After the collapse of the socialist project, older generations learned to keep the past to themselves, which created uncomfortable silences. Our collaboration with the museum seeks to remind the younger generation that adults were once children too, and to create a space where generations could come together to explore memories of distant and more recent pasts as points of unexplored connections.