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The Break-up of the Soviet Empire: Forces of Neo-Nationalism

Produced by Susan Nerenberg, 1990


General: My primary goal in teaching World History is to have my students learn how to analyze historical events and current issues. Since no one can remember every bit of information that one learns, it is important to learn one process of learning i.e. critical thinking. Diversity, complexity, multiple perspectives and ambiguity are all components in the critical thinking process.

In order to develop critical thinking skills, students must be able to answer the "why, how come and what else" questions. To do so, they require not only information but also the attitude that they can find the answers and solve the problems. They must be empowered and not spoon fed. Information must be collected from multiple sources, hopefully, resulting in multiple perspectives. Since how people understand the meaning of events is due in part to both singular and collective experiences, we need to look at the perspectives of peoples who may not share our experiences and resulting perspectives. The majority view is not always a unanimous one. Minority views must be examined as well.

After looking at multiple perspectives, students can see whether there is a diversity in perspectives. Knowledge of the complexity in the world-- realizing that there is usually not one cause or one answer--is another important attitude for students to have in order to think critically.

Finally, students must realize that events are ambiguous. Answers are not usually clear-cut, most of the world is in varying shades of grey. Seeing world events in terms of black and white is unrealistic and certainly does not lead to the final goal of global education, that of conflict management and negotiated settlements.

I believe my goals coincide with those of global education with the development of critical thinking skills as my most important with the understanding that multiple perspectives, diversity, complexity, and ambiguity are essential components to the critical thinking process.

Specific: My specific goal will be examining the break-up of the Soviet Empire, both within the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, and the emergence of neo-nationalism as both a cause and effect of the break-up. Without neglecting the importance of the collapse of the Soviet economy and the renewed vigor of religion, both of which fuel nationalism, I will focus on what diverse and complex forces of ethnic pride and patriotism are operating today in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In order to understand these nationalistic movements, students will examine the geography of the area, the language and ethnic diversity, the religious and cultural heritage and the political history. By looking at these factors, students can appreciate the complexity of the situation and hypothesize possible outcomes for within the Soviet Union and the nations of Eastern Europe.


In order to help students discover the nationalistic factors involved in the break-up of the Soviet Empire, I will use a variety of strategies and sources. To pique their interest, I will start with their looking at diversity in their own classroom community. Going around the room, each student can tell from where their ancestors came, why they came to the United States and something important--a value or contribution--of their microculture. By this exercise, students can see that America incorporates many different peoples with their resulting unique perspectives and experiences. A discussion on ethnic relationships could possibly develop. Switching over to the topic at hand, the break-up of the Soviet Empire, I will first have students demonstrate what they know about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Using brainstorming techniques, students will write down all the things they know about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Once the list is on the board, the items can be sorted into categories. A second exercise to go along with the brainstorming exercise is Judy Marx's "My Perceptions of the Soviet Union and Its People." This exercise allows students to look at their perceptions about the Soviet Union, receive some demographic information and evaluate the strength of their convictions. I also will choose a few Eastern European nations for this exercise--Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Poland. Students can share their answers with the class, which may lead to further discussions initiated by the students.

The next area of study will be maps. To introduce geography I will have students look at a map of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and make three statements about the map that they think would have influenced the history. This gives them some ideas about what maps can tell us about a country without knowing anything else about it. All students will be then given a variety of maps of the Soviet Union to complete: natural resources, landforms, climate, vegetation/agriculture, nationalities/languages, political divisions and territorial expansions. This data will enable them to make hypotheses about the diversity and complexity of the Soviet Union's nationalistic problems.

After this whole class learning and individual assignments, I will then divide the class into groups of 4-5 students where each group will be responsible for studying one Eastern European country: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and East Germany. For each country, the group will have to obtain information on geography (including topography, natural resources,climate, and vegetation), ethnicity and religion, political history and current demographic data. A variety of sources will be utilized, e.g., almanacs, New State of the World Atlas, class lecture notes, magazines and newspapers, and other readings selected by me, including the class textbook, Living World History.

While the small groups concentrate on their specific countries, the entire class would focus on the Soviet Union, in particular the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, the Russian Republic and the Caucasus region, encompassing Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. From information I received in the UCLA workshop, I will lecture and provide written handouts. We will look at the ethnic and religious diversity of these republics, the distribution of resources and the political histories. Some of the information will be culled from the maps completed earlier. Thus, using modeling techniques, the small groups will see what needs to be accomplished by participating as a class in examining the Soviet republics. Since the student body at Burroughs JHS contains families from the Soviet Union and Armenia, I will try to have guest speakers to come and share their experiences and perceptions. Possibly I will be able to locate people from the Eastern European nations as well.


The efficacy of my strategies will be demonstrated in both objective and subjective ways. For the Soviet Union component, students will be tested on both factual and critical thinking issues. One such assignment will be a letter to Gorbachev from a President of one of the Soviet republics studied in class, stating why independence is desired. For the small group projects on Eastern Europe, the group's journal will be evaluated by me and their class presentation by their peers. The journal will consist of:

  • flag
  • maps, showing geographic features, resources, agriculture, industry, climate and an evaluation of their country's economic potential
  • maps/graphs of ethnic/religious groups and an evaluation of ethnic strife
  • political history and recent current events
  • cultural achievements in the arts, music or literature
  • cultural heritage such as food, holidays, or folk dress

After being told to take notes on the presentations, students will complete an evaluation of the group on the information obtained and that group's analysis of their country's potential and problems. Thus, student performance will have several components--tests, research, maps, artwork and graphs. Students will be able to answer the questions of what nationalistic forces are operating in the Soviet Empire, how they operate in both beneficial and destructive ways, what geographic features of this area encourage nationalism, and what are the possible outcomes of this growth of nationalism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

After this study of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, students will be able to apply this line of data gathering and questioning to other parts of the world such as sub-Saharan Africa and even their own city of Los Angeles.

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