Breaking the Silence: Memories of the Times of Change

As different as the transition experience was among people in the same country (let alone among the three countries), most interviews reveal a similar crucial experience of lasting impact: loss of trust, rules or orientation // Findings from inter-Generation Talks and Interviews with the “Children of Change” from Ukraine, Russia and Germany


As Transition Dialogue-Network, we are taking a narrative approach, looking on how people individually remember, how they reflect on the past, and the impact of transition on their life. We let people tell their story and try to map a vivid picture of transition experience in Eastern Europe in comparative perspective.  Activities include a series of interviews in Germany, Russia and Ukraine. A focus is on the “children of change” those who experienced transition from the late 1980s in childhood or teenage time.

The years of change turned out to be a lasting point of reference for people’s life and thinking. This frame of reference is a set of often unreflected narratives, reshaped memories, for younger people partly second hand. These narratives have a great impact on people’s self-image and attitude towards society. They must be revealed to understand what makes citizens become a driver of change – and what not. Also, civic education need to deal with how people actually perceive society and democracy, rather then solely teaching them about it.

We had dozens of guided interviews with participants of the Wendekinder (30-40 years old) and the parent generation (50-70 years old) old. In the German case also interviews between parents and their actual children.

This is what we learnt from the interviews in the differnet countries


TRANSITION MOMENT The answers are split: Some named the fall of the Soviet Union and Ukraine independence in 1991 as starting point, others Gorbachov’s “Perestroika”.  Notably the Chernobyl tragedy 1986 is seen as a powerful symbol of erosion of the Soviet system, because people stopped trusting the government: they were not informed about explosion, though they experienced changes of their social and ecological environment. Chernobyl appeared crucial for people in Ukraine, as it is marked by great uncertainty, loose of trust and fear.
(NO) NOSTALGIA Mostly the generation born in the 70s  and earlier is more sceptical about changes, because they remember the good things in the Soviet Union. For them, the guarantees provided such as free health care service were appreciated as one of big pluses, that were lost during interview-stills-vienna-poster_2transformation. However, those born in 80s have no feelings of nostalgia: Even in a caring and loving family environment, due to the deficit of food, toys and clothes the Soviet time is remembered as difficult and hardship.
SOLIDARITY 70% agreed that nowadays solidarity is greater than in Soviet time, they experience a new wave of solidary and effective volunteering since the Maydan revolution. The remaining 30% insist that real solidarity was only in Soviet times, because society was based on the value of helping each other in everyday life – and that was gone today.


TRANSITION MOMENT People remember transition starting in the late 80ies till the beginning of 2000ies. They experienced it as radical change from one social and economic system to a quite different, absolutely new society.
NO RULES One of the striking features of that time is the feeling of ‘no rules’: that most Soviet structures and values in economics and social life were destroyed. New ones needed to be explored and re-invented. Respondents remember this period as free, uncertain, full of hopes and opportunities, and wild.  The same experience, however, had a different impact on people’s life: While some got in a pure survival mode and absorbed by family issues and raising children, others seek business opportunities and enjoyed open borders.
SELF RELIENCE One of the main characteristics of transition is the feeling of becoming self-reliant and independent (in some degree). Respondents don’t trust the state, and try to ‘not to deal’ with the state.  They also understand their own rights, know when they are broken, and try to defend them. This is also seen by them as a ‘heritage of 90ies’. It is worth to know that the respondents take a critical stand towards the current politics and ideology situation in Russia.


TRANSITION MOMENT Interviews revealed a role switch between children and parents in transition time, as children were able to adapt to the changing society more easily. Parents who were formerly well settled, had to re-orientate; needed to deal with new institutions, rules and values. At the same time, children had to make major decisions for their professional and future life in a dramatically changing educational system. The parents, however, were unable to deal with these issues.
GENERATION DIALOGUE The German case set a focus on dialogue and its effects for relations in the family and between generations. The authors observed three broad patterns of dialogue: 1. children and parents are able to reflect and rethink the past, 2. the dialogue between generation showed clear limits of issues that could be touched, and 3. the dialogue was impossible.
HYPOTHEK OF THE PAST Interviews show, how not talking about the past affects family and generation relations in contrast to those families, where the reflection is not denied. The authors conclude, this effects the overall capacity of a society to critically access the past and present social and political situation: Family members that did not come to terms with transition time privately, were not ready for a debate in a more public space either and less able to deal constructively with current social problems. Yet, many parents do not see a responsibility to speak about the past as a chance to develop future society or social relations. Instead it seems irrelevant to them to deal with something that is gone.


As different as the transition experience was among people in the same country (let alone among the three countries), most interviews reveal a similar crucial experience of lasting impact: loss of trust, rules or orientation. However, this is not only negative. Answers from all three countries suggest that these experiences can be interpreted as opportunities. Of course, this depends on the personal situation. But findings, e.g. from Ukraine, show that the interpretation of transition can be rewritten from negative to positive: While the perception of political institutions is still negative, the Maidan movement lead to a lasting attitude of “the more it is to us, to do something about society”.  Findings from Germany suggest that initiating dialogue and reflection can open spaces for such a reassessment.

Contributors/Interviews: Olena Pravylo (Congress of Cultural Activists, Ukraine), Polina Filipova, Vlada Gekhtman and Oksana Bocharova (Sakharov Center, Russia), Dr. Judith Enders, Dr. Mandy Schulze (Perspektive³, Germany) Christine Wetzel (DRA e.V., Germany).

This Research was Presented at
Deutschlandforschertagung ’16: Children of Transition, Children of War. The “Generation of Transformation” from a European Perspective by Olena Pravylo.


NECE Congress “Us” and “them” Greece, October 22-24, 2015

Workshop I

What motivates people to become a driver of change in a time of transition?

Results from a Workshop at the 2015 NECE Conference in Thessaloniki, 22nd October 2015

Why we are asking this question

“Transition ends when we have disenchantment,” we learned in our first meeting in Sofia. But when transition ends due to disenchantment, it does not mean, that everything is ‘done’. Rather, people have become frustrated about the transition process, they do not believe in their possibility to bring about change. As activists, teachers, researchers in the wide field of civil society and citizenship education one of our main concerns is how to empower people. How to encourage them to be the change the want to see happen? In this brief workshop we presented best practice and learnings from our own work and asked participants to share their experience.

The workshop was held by Many Schulze (Perspektive³, Berlin), Olena Pravilo (Congress of Cultural Activists, Kiev) and Christine Wetzel (German-Russian-Exchange, Berlin). Documented on film by Dörte Grimm (Perspective³).

The workshops participants joined us from Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Croatia and Germany.

Olena’s Case on Driving Change: Establishing a Cultural Management in the community of Zaporizhzhya (Ukraine)

It all started with the occupation of the Ukraine Ministry of Education. The idea was spread on Facebook by artists and cultural managers after the end of the Janukovich government. It was not to destroy anything symbolically, but actually to do better, and to run the ministry with a lot more passion and expertise.

The problems of Ukraine’s cultural administration were, according to Olena, lacking concepts for cultural development, overall bad administration of policies, and no openness towards other sectors as education or economy. The idea of self-made cultural policy spread to other cities, Assemblies of Culture were set up and registered as NGOs – as in the community of Zaporizhzhya.

Olena explained, what drove the activists to take this great challenge was not to accept excuses: “We in Ukraine can always look at other countries and find reasons why things can not be changed here: Because we have less money than Germany, because we are not so small like Estonia, and so on. But we said, we can do it. We just start, see what works elsewhere and try to do it here.”

Therefore, the activists in Zaporizhzhya invited experts from all over the Ukraine to share their experiences and best practice from other communities. There was no big funding for this event, everybody traveled on her or his own expanses, local activists all provided their bit to make the event happen. It was a kick-off for cultural self-management in the Zaporizhzhya. By now, the activities have resulted in the initiating of a cultural strategy for the community, and the developing of a cooperation with the Economic University. A book fair was established and diverse cultural projects created.

“We need examples, we need to repeat them, spread them, show others what works,” Olena stressed, and, as simple as crucial: “Ask people to do something! Encourage them, give them examples of what they can actually achieve. Do you have a telescope, do you know something about the space? Why don’t you show children the starts and the universe?”

Mandy’s Case on Driving Change: How young people looking for place to live accidentally opened a social space and investigated local history (Germany)

Mandy’s story of change had to starting points. One was a typical ‘lost place’, like you can find plenty of it all over the former communist countries in every community: empty town halls, factories, schools, hotels ect.

One the other side there were five young people looking for a place to live and work. They found an empty, run down public house in the town of Niederoderwitz to settle.

“The five had nothing in mind with community issues or civic empowerment,” says Mandy. “But From the moment they had started to work ob the house, they got confronted with locals who stopped by and asked to come in and have look. They became aware of the enormous meaning the house has for the people in the village.” For decades all festivities had been celebrated here; birth, birthdays, carnival, thanksgiving… With closure off the hotel the village had lost it’s social heart, the place were people would meet.

So, they opened the house for a first garden party – and 800 out of 1.500 villagers came. Consequently, the house was opened regular and became the new community center. The group of 5 people grew to 25. They were confronted with new issues of management; dealing with the administration, finding supporters and funding, investigating the local history. They invited chronologists and historians. They established themselves in the village, got children and had to deal with related issues, like Infrastructure for young families.

Essentially, the hotel hall was not just a place to celebrate. A public space like this is simply crucial for the development of a sense of community in the first place. Without a place to gather, community life is disintegrating, emptying and frustration growing that there is ‘nothing here anymore’. The five young people had realized the potential of that place. How it matters to people, that they perceived it as an open wound in their village – and they are willing to change something about it, to give it new sense. By accident, they, just seeking affordable housing, became community activists, bringing public space and local citizen-driven self-organization (back) to live.

Thus, in terms of the workshop question, the case shows three things: Firstly, start small and local, the ‘home’ is a place everyone can emotionally connect to – and this is crucial.

Secondly, the people can create a political awareness starting from concerns for issues that are considered to be not political at all, like housing, some questions asked on the past.

And finally – despite all praise to the possibilities of virtual communication – the necessity to provide a physical space, a laboratory and hub for encounters and those who are willing to be drivers of change.

see more of this case on Facebook:

In 2013 a network was founded supporting initiatives like that in Niederoderwitz reclaiming the public space. They are analysing and providing knowledge and support on issues like: What are triggers for civic engagement?
What are the challanges for those who want to engage? How can they be supported?

Open Discussion Results

We asked everyone to note down her and his answer to the workshop question and later share it with us. Here are insights the that were given by the participants from their experience:

  • Do not work on a group, you want to do something for, but work with them. Listen and develop approaches with them, that build on their needs, ideas and capacity.
  • Show people ‘the better live’ that is possible and provide them with examples how to get there.
  • You need a common issue if you want to keep people on board. This seems obvious, but often it is not the case when you look closer.
  • Education is an extremely powerful tool!
  • Ask people questions that make them start thinking.
  • Talk, talk, talk to people! Support encounters between different groups to share experience and examples, then develop programs to implement knowledge in practice.
  • We need to make ourselves visible, we need public spaces to unfold, grow and spread ideas.
  • Perform the best examples of your own, be the example, be the change – start local, then grow up the levels.
  • Support the people, who are willing to do something; empower them, build their confidence, if possible provide financial support.
  • Show them the consequences of their actions, show them what happens when the make changes – and what if not.
  • Networking and team-building: Make people feel that they are not alone!
  • You need to organize and structure the ideas, provide the ground to make ideas work
  • Lower administration burden!

The workshop holders suggest, that the examples given by the participant apply to all kind of civic engagement in different circumstances. We further suggest, all the points given link into each other and form a ‘Circle of Motivation‘:

The chart point to motivation and incentive structures on different levels; the individual (1) (2), but also organizational (3) (6) and institutional (4, also including funding) level, that are all relevant for people to drive change processes – though one can partly make up for the other. Bottom up activity should ideally meet a top down structure that facilitates engagement, e.g. with funding, providing spaces for meeting, give access to key actors. But this are not opposites: The Ukraine example shows the attempt of changing this very environment for activity.

The six elements build on each other and are linked, but they are not solely linear: E.g., sure, it helps to talk about and spread your cause at every stage of the circle. And, obviously, listen to those you want to address with your activity before you start is always a good idea! As it was stressed by a participant from Georgia early in the discussion, our attitude towards those who we want to work with is important. We should be facilitator, not the instructor who always knows better. For there is nothing less encouraging if you do not get the chance to follow your own ideas.

And finally: Do never forget about the social experience of engagement! Whatever you do; provide space for getting together also with agenda, celebrate results, tell others, honor activity and – say thanks.

Circle of Motivation

Driving Change Diagram

Thank you to all of you who joined this workshop and shared their experience!

 (Protocol by Christine Wetzel)

Workshop II

“Otherness” through the eyes of the generation of transition

The workshop explored the way the generation of transition understands the notion of “otherness” and how their current perception has been influenced by the process of transition towards democracy in the post-communist space. The participants presented the results of a small scale study on the topic, conducted in several countries from Eastern and Central Europe.

Olena Pravylo, Congress of Cultural Activists (Ukraine)

Rafaela Tripalo, “Stiftung Wissen am Werk” (Knowledge at Work Foundation, Croatia)

Iva Kopraleva, Sofia Platform (Bulgaria)

Louisa Slavkova, European Council on Foreign Relations/ Sofia Platform (Bulgaria)

@NECE Congress – “Us” and “them” – Citizenship education in an interdependent world, Thessaloniki, Greece, October 22-24 2015