The power of the obscure – engaging A-level students with the bizarre and wonderful

I’ve heard Jamie Byrom and Michael Riley talk about the power of the particular twice this year. They’ve argued that effective historical enquiries often start with a very particular story or event or individual. Something small that is easily tangible for the student, something that illustrates the wider history and makes it very real.

In this they are, as ever, totally correct. But I’d like to offer an addition to the power of the particular – the power of the unusual or obscure. 

At A-level I teach the Soviet Union, 1941 to 1991 which can, at times, be dry (I’ve never found a Five Year Plan interesting) so I have been trying to build in some particular stories to hook them and engage them. For example I introduced WW2 through the story of a single soldier’s account of Stalingrad. This in itself worked ok.

But the really good A-level learning this year has come from the obscure. Particular stories are great, but those stories which are really odd and alien to modern day teenagers are the ones that have generated the most discussion and as a result, the greatest outcomes.

Here’s two of the best:


The Nachthexen

The Nachthexen (a German nickname, in English meaning Night Witches) were the female military aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces. The regiment flew harassment bombing and precision bombing missions against the German military from 1942 to the end of the war. At its largest size, it had 40 two-person crews. It flew over 23,000 sorties and is said to have dropped 3,000 tons of bombs.

This was used to discuss Soviet attitudes towards women, the idea of mass patriotism and Total War and the fact that the Soviets had pretty much total unity in their population.

Belka and Strelka

Belka and Strelka

After Sputnik the Soviets sent numerous animals to space. Although Laika was the first dog in space, she met a grissly end. Whereas Belka and Strelka boldly went where no man had gone before…and returned. Here they are being shown off as they became Soviet heroes, appeared on stamps, went on tour and were extremely cute.

This led to a discussion about Cold War politics, Soviet economic priorities and a question of superiority over the US.


The power of these unusual stories has been impressive. The weirder things are the things that the kids remember and putting in these unusual stories has meant that the students have a hook for the rest of the less interesting material. For example, Belka and Strelka really are the epitome of Khrushchev’s economy – showy but ultimately not that impressive. Secondly, in themselves they are great pieces of sense of period, revealing lots about the society they come from and illustrating the past and making it come alive. Thirdly, they’ve made lessons fun again!

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