Youth meets former political prisoners. The insider
Is a dialogue possible when you got two generations with almost a century setting them apart? What do they have in common? What is different? Are they able to hear and understand each other? In search for answers to these questions I have decided to host this event.
On Monday, November 23, 2015, Lviv welcomed students and former political prisoners of the Soviet and Nazi totalitarian regimes. The event called ‘Memories of the Totalitarian Past: Youth Meets Political Prisoners’ was co-organized by the Foundations for Freedom INGO / the Ukrainian Action: Healing the Past programme and the Territory of Terror Memorial Museum as part of the ‘Future needs memories: Ukrainian dialogue on history and memories’ project. Ten students from different Ukrainian academic institutions and five former political prisoners residing in Lviv, namely Yaroslava Melnychuk (born in 1929), Stepan Horechyi (born in 1929), Hanna Ivanytska (born in 1925), Onufriy Dudok (born in 1926), and Iryna Shul (born in 1918) took part in the meeting.
The meeting was truly unique as we have managed to gather people of different age groups, the gap sometimes going up to 80 years. Another highlight of the event was its format: in a setup of a meeting both older and younger participants had a chance to try out the roles of the narrator and the listener. It allowed for the two way exchange of experiences, while working in small groups provided for feedback as well as more personal, profound, and immediate communication with the witnesses to the time.
The idea of this event dawned on me and Liudmyla Levcheniuk at the ‘Different Memories – Common Future!’ workshop, hosted by our German friends from OWEN in Lviv in late September 2015. We decided to create a space for mutual understanding between youth and people who lived through the times, when an attempt to fulfill your dreams for a decent future, a simple desire to be true to yourself and live with dignity could lead to imprisonment and tortures. We aimed at creating a safe space in which former political prisoners could be heard and could get rid of the burden of their difficult past as well as the stereotypes and needless generalizations concerning today's youth and regions they come from. Students who joined the event come from different regions of Ukraine: Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Vinnytsia, Kyiv, Chernihiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, Donetsk; and even Zabaykalsky Krai, Russian Federation. We wanted to give them the opportunity to either confirm or get rid of the ideas about people at this respectable age, to see the past through the eyes of the witnesses’ memories, to understand what motivated them, their footholds in tough times, and come up with new conclusions.
While waiting for the former political prisoners, students had the opportunity to help prepare the dialogue room. This is how they started learning about the methodology of conducting dialogues. We have used a couple of dialogue techniques including the Maps and History Timeline. Maps illustrated participants’ life paths, while history timelines showed a wide range of historical events preserved in the communicative and individual memory of the dialogue participants. The following events were mentioned by the participants: the Ukrainian-Polish war in Galicia 1918-1919, Holodomor in Ukraine 1921-1923, Ukrainian Secret University in Lviv 1921-1925, the events of World War II, the 'Barrel’ Provocative Action in 1948, the Norilsk Uprising in 1953, Lviv town's meeting in 1988, the Orange Revolution (Maidan 2004), Revolution of Dignity (Maidan 2014), namely in Zaporizhzhia, and war in the East of Ukraine, namely, occupation of Sloviansk, etc.
Our younger participants shared that they managed to draw parallels between the past and the present. Former political prisoners surprised them by inner youthfulness, optimism, and good sense of humor, by talents in reciting and creative writing, by their stories of love in the time of persecutions and imprisonments, by rare own and family memories about the inter-war period, about inhuman abuse in prisons, concentration camps, and madhouses, about what helped them to survive. Dialogue participants had the opportunity to reflect again on the values of life and inner freedom, taking responsibility for yourself and others, the importance of empathy and seemingly easy ability to listen and hear.
At the same time, our older participants were so touched by the students’ attentiveness, curiosity, alertness, desire and willingness to learn and share their own experience, that some of them invited the younger participants home for coffee in order to continue communication.
Of course, there were moments when some of our younger and older participants disagreed, particularly, concerning the issue of inter-ethnic marriages and wording for the names of some historical events. However, eventually this served as an opportunity to test and practice their ability to listen in order to understand vs. to agree or disagree.
For our programme it was the first experience of the intergenerational dialogue with such a huge gap in the age of the participants. It was a kind of experiment, because it was hard to predict the dynamics of the group. I think it totally paid off, because we have seen the goals we set being achieved. Transferring life experience across the century-long generation gap is possible in this format provided certain levels of flexibility and sensitivity are secured.
I would like to express my gratitude to the Territory of Terror Memorial Museum, namely Liudmyla Levcheniuk, for cooperation, as well as Oleksa Stasevych (the Ukrainian Action: Healing the Past programme manager), Olha Shevchuk (camerawoman of the Foundations for Freedom INGO), our German partners Andrea Zemskov-Züge and Dana Jirous from OWEN e.V. – Mobile Academy for Gender Democracy and Peace Development, as well as Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (Germany) for their support.
dialogue’s coordinator on behalf of the Ukrainian Action: Healing the Past programme / Foundation for Freedom INGO.
Translated by Halyna Bunio and Marichka Poliuliuk
Photo and video by Olha Shevchuk