Touching and Hearing History
AP European History, Mrs. Meghan Paher
Too many history classes consist of reading books and very little more. It’s hands-off history, distancing the student from what he or she is supposed to be learning.
It’s time to turn on your student’s senses! History took place in a living world, full of sights, sounds, tastes, feelings, and smells—so let’s get hands on and experience some of them!
Looking at a picture of an artifact or seeing one in a glass case is nice. But how much better is it to touch and use one? For the “Touching History” project in this AP European History course, students research an artifact with a connection to European history. What is it? Where was it made? What stories does it tell?
For her Touching History project, one student researched a Hungarian spinning distaff that had been in her family’s closet for years--her grandfather once tried to sell it for $35 in a yard sale! Through her research, she learned exactly what it was and how her great-grandmothers would have used it. She also learned that it was at least 100 years old--and fairly valuable. She found distaffs similar to hers in a museum.
Reading about the past is great, but how much more exciting is it to hear about the past from someone who was actually there? For their “Hearing History” project, students do an oral history interview with someone who spent time in Europe. Students who do this project often make unique connections with an older generation and learn history in a way no textbook can ever teach them.
Below is one student’s “Touching/Hearing History” project. After a family friend gave Jessica Olsen a real KGB badge from the Soviet Union, she interviewed him and discovered he had worked for U.S. intelligence operations during the Cold War. Listening to his stories, she heard about spies, intrigue, and secret missions… Instead of just reading about U.S/Soviet relations and the Cold War in a textbook, she learned about it first hand from someone who was there and helped make history happen!
Don’t Mess with the KGB
By Jessica Olsen,
AP European History Student, 2010-11
I have a family friend, “Uncle John,” who works with the State Department. He is always sending us random and whacky presents from his trips abroad. The inside of his house looks like it could belong to anyone who has traveled a lot. However, the wall lining the stairs to his master bedroom is covered with plaques, letters from presidents, honors, and medals. When I was about eight, my family visited him in between one of his trips. All of a sudden he said he had something for me. He pulled out a little object wrapped in a plastic bag. “You might have to get your dad to explain what this means,” he said as he handed it to me. I unwrapped it and inside was a hard, red card. It looked like an ID card, but it was definitely not written in English. I remember my mom and dad finding it much cooler that I did, but due to their enthusiasm I decided it was pretty cool too. As it turns out, that card was a real KGB identification card. I’ve always wondered how he managed to get it. Spy stories, underground tunnels, and close encounters with death would run through my head. Where was this card made? There was no name or picture on it, so I assumed that it had never been used for someone’s ID. It was in perfect condition and had actually never been folded over. But it was stamped and authentic.
When I heard about this assignment, I decided to contact him. I asked him if he could tell me anything about the KGB badge or the time he spent in Russia.
“It starts with Stalin and Eisenhower [meeting] for a special quiet agreement.” That is how he started off the response. In the 1950s, Stalin and Eisenhower agreed that the United States would build the Russian Embassy in Washington DC, and Russia would build the U.S. embassy in Moscow. I don’t know why they thought it was a good idea, but the agreement was made. In the 1980s construction started on both of the embassies. But in 1986 the story broke that the U.S. Embassy was riddled with bugs. The technology used was far more advanced than anything the U.S. thought the Russians were capable of doing. “The bugging devices had been implanted in the basic building structure, so even if we could locate them, we couldn’t get rid of them because they were imbedded.” This situation was incredibly embarrassing to the United States. Their brand new embassy was now completely compromised. It was referred to as a microphone which sent all of the classified information from the embassy straight to the Soviets located a few blocks away.
In 1995, Uncle John received an assignment for the Moscow Embassy. He had wanted to go for a long time. But he had to wait until the Berlin Wall fell because he was on Fidel Castro’s spy list. The Soviets knew who he was, and it would not have been safe. When he finally got there, he was in charge of creating a plan to secure the embassy and rebuild it.
He created an incredibly elaborate plan to keep the Russians from bugging the new embassy. First they took the Embassy down to just the metal framework. They called the rebuilding project Operation Top Hat. They knocked down the top two floors and stripped the others down to the metal framework. The entire building was sheathed in Minnesota stone to prevent any remaining bugs from transmitting information. Four new floors were added to the top of the building. (They were the “Top Hat.”) These new floors were safe from bugs, and would be used for secure business. The bottom floors are only used for things that would be okay for the Russian government to know. No one is allowed to speak about anything secret while on the bottom floors.
While the project involved a lot of construction, it was mostly a national security project. It just happened to involve construction. The budget to build the building itself cost far less than the budget to make it bug-free. In order to maintain the security of the new embassy, many laborious steps were taken. The entire construction site was surrounded so that the construction process was hidden from any outsiders’ view. Below is a quote from “Aunt Mary,” Uncle John’s wife, about the process.
“1. They had an elaborate system of getting all the materials from the US. Nothing came from Russia, except maybe some random small purchases at big stores (like nails or something they needed) - but they couldn't order anything because then it could have been tampered with.
2. Everything from the US was carefully controlled in the manufacture and purchase. Then it was put in sealed containers with a security seal that, if broken, meant whatever was inside was compromised, and couldn't be used in the building. The building materials were all routed to Finland, and then driven over land to Moscow, with careful security to make sure no one got into the sealed containers.
3. All of the workers had to be Americans and they all had to go through a security clearance background check to be allowed to work there. And while they were there they had to meet regularly with John to tell him anything about Russians they got to know, made friends with, dated. They had strict rules about who they could associate with, because it was well-known that Russians would try to influence them and get information or somehow damage the security - or even blackmail the workers into doing something to jeopardize security.”
Uncle John and Aunt Mary were both in Russia from 1996 to 1999. When they left the entire project was complete except for carpeting, furniture and final touches. While they were there were efforts by the Soviets to compromise and influence some of the workers. It was an incredibly important security project for the United States. Since this incident, the United States never lets citizens of high-risk countries help in building projects.
I never did learn how he got my KGB ID card. But the time that Uncle John spent in Russia was certainly eventful. It was cool to hear a firsthand account of just how sneaky and dangerous the Soviet government was. One thing I have learned is: don’t mess with the KGB. But, if you find yourself stuck, Uncle John can fix it.
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