Explaining the News
I sat with my ten-year-old daughter on an airplane, and she asked me to explain a news item I was reading: the newly-elected President of the Ukraine visiting our President and Congress in Washington, D.C. to discuss Ukraine entering NATO. I read her the paragraph and realized that it had no meaning to her whatsoever. So the back of the seats in front of us became an easel for me to sketch the history with my forefinger.
On the left-hand seat back, I drew a rough map of Western Europe. "During the industrial revolution, as people moved from farms to factories, the conditions of workers were horrible, just like in Oliver Twist. In the 19th century workers began to organize unions to fight for their basic human rights against the factory owners, who were called "capitalists." Some of these people formed an international workers movement to fight for political change. Philosophers like Karl Marx were concerned for workers and wrote about "class warfare" between workers and capitalists. They recommended that governments take away the factories and property of the wealthy and give everyone a decent job. These people were called "communists.""
I then drew a map of Eastern Europe on the right hand seat back. "In 1917, a communist named Lenin led a revolution that toppled the Tsar's government in Russia where the serfs were miserable."
"But Dad, in school I learned that communism is evil... are these the same people?"
"Well, it didn't turn out as good for the workers as the communists promised. Lenin was a cruel leader, and later Joseph Stalin led the Communist Party to commit horrible acts of genocide. In the 1930s, he decided to kick the Ukrainian farmers off their land and set up collective factory farms owned by the government. The Ukrainians had farmed on their own land for hundreds of years, so they resisted, and the communists starved five million of them to death. Stalin along with Hitler was one of the biggest killers of all time."
"After WWII, the Soviets took over all of the countries on this seat: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, the Balkans, and they split Germany right down the middle. That started the Cold War between the left seat and the right seat, and the split down the middle was called the "iron curtain." They built a wall right through the middle of Berlin, the capital of Germany, and if you crossed it you'd be shot. "
"Over here in Western Europe and America, the workers and the bosses eventually ironed out most of their differences. And life got better for the Soviet people too, except they had to spend about half of their income to keep up an arms race with the West. The West formed a group of countries called NATO to counter the threat from the Soviets. When I grew up we lived in fear of Soviet nuclear missiles landing in our cities. Both sides had enough weapons to destroy the whole world in hours. We still do, but there's less risk that anyone will fire them."
"Really? They still are there?"
"Yep, but in the 1980's some brave leaders in the West like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher branded the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and urged change. A new Soviet leader named Mikhail Gorbachev had a policy called "glastnost" which means "opening" in Russian, and he let people and the press criticize the Communist Party for the first time. He didn't expect such an immediate impact: within a few years the system crumbled. In the late 1980s the people in Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the Balkans started to protest against Soviet domination of their countries. Lech Walesa led the "Solidarity Movement" in Poland, and the Communist leaders resigned. The people tore down the Berlin Wall, and for the first time Germans from both sides of the iron curtain could visit each other."
"Now it's been 15 years since the process started, and finally the Ukraine has a democratically led government that wants to make friends with the West. Victor Yushenko, the new President of the Ukraine, was even poisoned by the evil Ukranian government, but he survived and won the election. Now he wants to lead the Ukraine, which was once at the center of the Soviet Union, into a union with its former enemies in NATO. That's why it's so significant that he's visiting our President in Washington, D.C. as a friend."
With the help of the airplane seats, I was able to explain about 200 years of history in just a half hour. Kids are sponges for information.
"What's that story about, Dad?" she asked, pointing to an item about terrorists firing on the first bus service between the Indian and Pakistani sides of Kashmir.
"Remember in the movie Gandhi about how India won its freedom from Britain, but then broke up into two halves..."