There’s a global youth culture today that is unlike anything that's existed before, so the thinking goes: a generation that grew up on the same internet, lives on the same social networks, and connects through the same messaging apps. The people of this generation share cultural touchstones as well — beyond just watching the same movies and listening to the same music, their lives have been shaped by the same global phenomena, from terrorism to the financial crisis.
We usually treat this as a new thing. Back in the old days, before the information revolution, different languages and different cultures meant young people around the world had vastly different experiences.
But 50 years ago, in 1968, young people around the world lived through a remarkable convergence. In that year — a time of upheaval on a level that hasn’t been seen since, until today — complete strangers made the same choices, defended the same values, and fought for their rights. They even shouted the same slogans, and they were often subjected to similar punishments.
Young Americans, Russians, French, English, Japanese, Mexicans, Germans, Brazilians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Israelis, and Arabs had far fewer means of person-to-person communication in 1968 than our contemporaries have today. There was no internet; there weren't social networks or international live TV broadcasts. There weren’t even direct flights from the United States to my native country, Russia. But the generation of 1968 was, like this one, a global generation. And in our new series, Future History 1968, we seek to tell their stories in a way that makes sense to their descendants.
Instead of trying to take people back to that moment half a century ago, we’re trying something different: We’re bringing the protagonists of 1968 into today's reality. We have imagined: What if the people of 1968 were online? What if Robert Kennedy, John Lennon, Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, Neil Armstrong, or Janis Joplin could tweet, Instagram, make Skype calls, send group chats, and use Snapchat? What if we could look at their life through their phone screens?
The result is the first-ever docuseries explicitly made for mobile screens. And it turns out that smartphones were made for this kind of immersive storytelling. The phone is a very precious and intimate communication device, and when you watch a story unfold right on your screen, you feel some of the same emotions, concerns, fears, and hopes that the protagonists felt.
We collected a massive amount of documentary materials, memoirs, photos, and videos of well-known figures from 50 years ago who lived around the world. It turned out that their stories are very similar. In January 1968, the legendary American singer Eartha Kitt sharply opposed the war in Vietnam at a dinner hosted at the White House by first lady Lady Bird Johnson. She faced consequences, but she wasn't alone. At the same time, the famous Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov and French cinema stars Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut posed a similar challenge to the authorities. Brazilian musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were equally critical of their government.
To show these surprisingly similar fights for human rights and dignity, we made 40 short episodes, each no more than 10 minutes long. Throughout the year, we will release one video per week. The English version is distributed by BuzzFeed News. The French series lives on the website of Libération, the French daily newspaper, and the Russian version is published on Vkontakte, Russia’s biggest social network, and Amediateka, a subscription video service. All of the episodes can also be found on our website, 1968.digital.
These stories are so exciting right now because 1968 is not a forgotten past with no relevance to today. 1968 is the year that created the world as we know it. The internet was first conceptualized in 1968. Thanks to the sexual revolution taking place that year, the domestic partnership of unmarried couples ceased to be taboo. The struggle for human rights has become mainstream and universal.
The heroes of 1968 seem to be the twins of the people we see in the news today: Emma Gonzalez and the American high schoolers fighting against gun violence, Russian schoolchildren joining demonstrations against Putin — both groups are the direct heirs of the rebellious students of 1968. The followers of Martin Luther King Jr. and social activists who fought for minority rights in the United States are continuing the battle, and the battle is global. The journalists and bloggers who defend the free press today share the legacy of dissidents who published underground newspapers in the middle of 20th century.
The stories in our series tell us about people who helped make us who we are today and, perhaps, hint at what could happen next. History is not about the past, but about the future. Today’s stories, like yesterday’s, are simply rehearsals for that future.
Mikhail Zygar is a journalist, writer, filmmaker, bestselling author of “All The Kremlin’s Men” and the founding editor-in-chief of the only Russian independent news TV-channel, Dozhd.