My first image of the “iron curtain” came from a Nancy Drew novel The Captive Witness, in which our heroine Nancy, touring a communist country as a student, gets involved in a plot to help children escape to freedom. What was this iron curtain that separated east from west, I wondered—and what was so perilous and forbidding about the land behind it that made young people like me risk their lives to flee?
As I looked at a map of Europe, I pictured a sheet of metal, upright and extending for miles along the ground and high into the sky, a metal barricade topped with barbed wire, guarded by attack dogs, and surrounded by towers with roving lights. On one side—the world that I knew. On the other—a cold, dark menacing place where the sun never shone.
Fast forward a few years. I am sitting in my high school social studies class when our teacher tells us with tears in his eyes that the Berlin Wall is falling down. I run home and sit transfixed in front of the television, watching the thousands of people clambering up and over the wall, taking away pieces of brick, drinking champagne, celebrating. Exiled cellist Mstislav Rostropovich serenades united easterners and westerners with Bach. I can’t quite fathom what it means—the structure that surrounded the city of Berlin is no more—but understand that with the fall of the wall, the iron curtain is melting away.
In 1993, I venture for the first time behind the line that divided east and west. I’m in Moscow to study Russian for a semester. In part, it was the desire to discover for myself this previously “forbidden” part of the globe that drew me there. I arrive on a grey evening in February. As we drive from the airport to the city outskirts, I peer through the steamy window at the foreign scene outside. The grey sky seems an extension of the snowy landscape. Mammoth apartment buildings extend endlessly, and tiny figures scurry about in fur hats and coats. We pass row upon row of bare birch trees.
It was four years since the wall came down, and two years since the Soviet Union officially dissolved. Part of me always wished I’d arrived three years earlier, to have experienced life in the USSR. But even though I was too late, I caught glimpses of what life behind the iron curtain must have been like: watching my good friend Anastasia try her very first banana, listening to recordings of singers whose music had been circulated through samizdat, sharing a meal on an overnight train ride with fellow passengers who had never spoken to an American before, handing a mother a letter from her son who had fled to the west, and feeling the oppressive uniformity and lack of diversity in a city where everyone looked and dressed alike.
In the ten plus years that I spent studying Russia and the former Soviet Union, I’ve never ceased to be amazed by the monumentality of the events that transpired during the fall and winter of 1989, and by just how much the world has changed since then. In a sense I’m glad to have known a world in which there was an iron curtain, in order to appreciate a world without it. And so, on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I propose a toast to the destruction of walls everywhere, walls that keep people apart and walls that keep people in.
– Christine Kiernan