I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the DARE Network meeting in Lithuania’s capital city, Vilnius from 1-3 July 2010. The afternoon of our second day was set aside for a field trip to Lithuania’s Soviet past. In my experience, this type of lesson is often demonstrated by a visit to a museum or perhaps by watching a film dramatisation of historical events. I was quite surprised and intrigued to learn that our approach would be much more hands-on: any willing participants would be taking part in a so-called ‘reality show’ in a Soviet bunker, spending the afternoon as citizens of a communist state who were imprisoned.
A brave bunch of us got on a bus and were taken out of the capital city, through forests of tall trees and stretches of road. We were passed around a ‘confirmation’ to sign where we agreed to become citizens of the USSR, obey orders and endure punishments if we did not comply. It certainly all played into the experience and by the time we pulled of the road and into the remote location, my heart was pounding! Upon arrival, a guard dressed in full military regalia entered the bus and announced that we no longer had the right to personal belongings and anyone found with any would be punished. As we entered the main building, we were given a few minutes to get dressed – we each donned had a heavy, smelly damp coat that fitted like long dresses on some of the petite women with a record blaring in the background that could only make me think of old war movies. Soon the General entered and his booming voice began shouting commands at us in Russian that we had to learn to obey, although we had a translator for everything else that he would say. After marching into the next room and being searched by our guard’s enormous German shepherd, we marched outside to the national anthem and soon found ourselves 5 metres below ground in the bunker.
We ran through the dimly lit corridors, being yelled at with the dog always barking and snarling behind us from somewhere. We were taken to various parts of the bunker, although a few particularly stand out in my mind. One was the room where we had to learn how to put a gas mask on in three seconds and wear it. This was no friendly lesson as we had to wear the mask and jump around while being yelled at by the General. We also spent some time in the KGB medical room, and finally the KGB interrogation room, with a lone spotlight shining in the eyes of the interrogated prisoner that was chosen while we stood still against the walls of the small room watching quietly.
Our experience came to a close after two hours that felt much longer, with a final themed lunch in the dining hall before being allowed to see the light of day again. On the ride back into Vilnius, and for the rest of the evening, many of us discussed our take on the experience. Many of the participants had snickered throughout, as they were able to detach themselves from the experience and see it is a play. Others, including myself had managed to get very involved and felt that it was really happening to us, as silly as it may sound. In the end, I felt like it was an extremely powerful experience and that I really surprised myself. I didn’t think I would be so affected by it and that I would actually be able to see how I would react in these circumstances. Despite it being a dramatisation, I really felt like I learnt much more than had I visited a museum or seen a film. I don’t think that this learning tool would be appropriate for every historical lesson, but in this situation I can attest that taking part in a simulation had a great impact on me that I won’t soon forget.