Looking Behind the Curtain, 30 Years Later

by Denise D.

Secrecy

Late summer finds me thinking about the Cold War and the Iron Curtain. It started with the HBO show Chernobyl which flung me back to April 1986, my friend, Chris, racing into my college dorm room to shout about a nuclear accident in the Soviet Union.

Chris and I had bonded during that freshman year over our shared fascination with all things Russia. It was the height of the Cold War. The USSR was still shrouded in darkness and secrecy, a fascinating enigma. Our Russian language professor, among the few who had traveled to the Soviet Union, peppered our vocabulary and grammar lessons with endlessly fascinating tales about Russian history, literature and traveling behind the Iron Curtain.

Listening to the scant news about the nuclear accident that spring evening, with summer breathing promisingly down our necks, we had no idea the extent of the devastation. We just figured that we would probably never know the truth. What happened in the Soviet Union usually stayed in the Soviet Union. That’s why it was such a tantalizing area of study.

Glasnost and Perestroika

Coming from opposite sides of the political aisle, Chris and I disagreed on foreign policy, but it was a nearly invisible bump in our friendship. He partied me through my first major heartbreak and I nursed him through chickenpox. Within the next few years, both Chris and I would abandon our small liberal arts college and transfer to different universities to major in Russian and Soviet Studies. But we’d get together when we could and talk about all the changes occurring behind the Iron Curtain under Gorbachev. Despite our political differences, we were united in our excitement about the future.

It was a heady time of change. Current events butted up against conventional wisdom at every turn. One morning, I was distractedly taking notes, when the professor opined that Doctor Zhivago would never be published in the USSR.  A hand shot up in the back of the classroom and a voice rang out, “Actually, I just read in the Washington Post that it is.” The professor took off his glasses and shook his head, “Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.”

Listening to Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept about bringing Doctor Zhivago to print in the 1950’s reminds me of that professor’s disbelief. Narrated from the perspective of the women involved in the effort– Pasternak’s muse and lover, typists at the CIA, and spies–this fresh debut novel seeps with rich historical detail, captivating characters, and intrigue. It is not your usual spy fare or story of a book’s publication and is definitely going into my top reads of 2019.

Nostalgia

Another book flying to the top of my 2019 reads is Disappearing Earth.  Set on the remote Kamchatka Peninsula of contemporary Russia, this absolutely gorgeous novel is spellbinding. After two young sisters disappear, the women affected by the disturbing mystery continue on, their interconnected stories revealed in monthly chapters. I read this haunting gem while traveling through the Sami Territory of Finland and Norway with my sons, the view of the seemingly forgotten reindeer-laden territory outside our car window mirroring that in the tale.

The novel’s hint of nostalgia for the Soviet days, however, kept reminding me of my family’s stopover in Berlin on our way north. Famously divided by the Wall during the Cold War, Berlin remains a testament to the reality of life behind the Iron Curtain. At Tränenpalast, visitors experience the oppressive nature of the “Palace of Tears” border crossing between East and West Berlin. The Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie showcases the misery of the Wall and how people risked their lives to cross it. In the headquarters of the former East German secret police, the Stasi Museum peels back the shroud of secrecy to reveal the terror of living under an oppressive regime that leaves nothing private.

And yet–as evidenced in the photo from the Eastern-themed restaurant above– there’s a sense of nostalgia for the former East Germany. Like the characters in Disappearing Earth who lament the lost economic security of life under Soviet communism, some East Germans realize that reunification has not treated them well. It’s not clear that they have seen the promises felt when the Wall fell on November 9,1989.

Anniversary

This fall and winter marks the thirtieth anniversary of the events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its control over Eastern Europe. I, for one, will be taking time to read and watch stories about life behind the Iron Curtain. How about you? Do you remember the Fall of the Wall? Did you live or travel in the Eastern bloc countries? Did your family? What stories can you tell?

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Comments

10 responses to “Looking Behind the Curtain, 30 Years Later”

  1. Jackie P. says:

    Secrets We Kept sounds so good!

  2. Michelle C. says:

    This was a great read. What a fascinating subject!

    • Denise D. says:

      Thanks, Michelle! I hope that the anniversary brings us even more books and movies about the Cold War and current life in the former Eastern bloc countries. I find it endlessly fascinating…

  3. Bridget S says:

    Going to have to check some of these out! I’d also recommend “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing” by Anya von Bremzen, it’s a fantastic read.

  4. Isaac H. says:

    Netflix’s Chernobyl was amazing! An interesting read I came across, The World Without Us, mentions how the current Chernobyl exclusion zone has seen an interesting explosion of flora and wildlife in the area due to lack of human settlement. Many of the animals show signs of genetic damage due to radiation, but they still somehow manage to thrive. It was really interesting stuff.

    I remember my elementary school stopping our curriculum to show the dismantling of the Berlin wall on television. At the time I didn’t understand the importance and wondered why breaking down a wall was so important. The previous time they had did that was years earlier during the Challenger flight failure and that seemed more important than a wall coming down. The end of the cold was was truly an interesting era. Great list!

    • Denise D. says:

      Oooh! Thank you for the suggestion, Isaac! The World Without Us is going on my TBR pile. And thank you doubly for sharing your memory of watching the Wall being dismantled in school.

  5. moochigeh says:

    Such an interesting post! Thank you.
    One book that I’ve read related to this topic is Gary Shteyngart’s “Little Failure,” a memoir about moving from Leningrad to Queens, NY at the age of 7. It made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. I absolutely loved it.

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