Reading lists

The books that came in from the Cold

The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago this week. These brilliant books about the Cold War offer not just an insight into life behind the Iron Curtain but salient lessons for the modern world.

The Berlin Wall comes down on November 9th, 1989. Photo: Getty
The Berlin Wall comes down on November 9th, 1989. Photo: Getty

It started with Stalin. And it ended with The Scorpions.

As a child in the late 1980s, I can recall seeing a map pinned to a wall in my primary school classroom that displayed the vastness of the USSR and its satellite states and running my hands over the vast area feeling a mixture of awe and unease.

It led to a lifelong fascination with the Cold War, an ideological schism that, for almost half a century, ensured physical and conceptual boundaries existed between nations that simply would not be possible today.

That gargantuan mass of impenetrable red seemed to crumble so easily; beginning three decades ago this month with the fall of Berlin Wall. The stone-washed soft rock of ‘Winds of Change’ and a desire for sneakers and sofas were a potent force: socialism never seemed to stand a chance once people were given a choice in the matter.


There’s several yards of books available concerning just how the first thaw of perestroika began in the 1980s Soviet Union. And there’s ample shelves groaning under the weight of tomes concerning Chernobyl, Tito and the machinations behind the crushing of the Prague Spring.

But ultimately it’s more humdrum objects and moments that linger when it comes to impressions of that now far-off era. The fur coats of Elena Ceaușescu. The bare, neon-lit supermarket shelves of Dresden and Minsk. The furtive movements of a lone dissident pasting posters onto a mackerel grey East Berlin tower block under sickly sodium light. The brown and beige walls and full ashtrays of a bugged hotel room in a Brutalist Sofia hotel.

As a journalist for the BBC and others, I have reported from every nation in the former Eastern over the last 15 years and my eyes and ears have always been attuned to spotting any fading remnants from that time. Mostly, it has to be said: in vain. The Soviet-era tower blocks still stand in clusters on the edges of Budapest and Bucharest. Babushkas still sell bootleg vodka in the outdoor markets of Chisinau. But nostalgia is not a valuable currency in most of Russia and Eastern Europe in 2019. The realities, principles, deprivations, sounds and smells of life before the Wall fell and the hammer and sickle broke is now best found within the pages of books.

As talks of walls between the USA and Mexico gather pace and Brexit scenarios contain potential new barriers, both economic and cultural, these are the books which possess not just the most affecting depictions of life behind the Iron Curtain, but also contain the most salient lessons for us to learn from today.

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder (2011)

The ultimate retort to millennial waves of ‘ostalgie’ (yearnings for the days of the GDR) in unified Germany, Funder speaks to individuals who, by fair means or foul, managed to survive without compromising their principles in the East Germany of the mid to late 20th century, a nation that is commonly regarded as being one of the most heavily surveillanced regimes ever to exist. ‘Structured as a pyramid of fear, to be climbed by serial betrayal’, was how Funder described a state inhabited by the likes of Miriam, imprisoned at the age of 16 after being forced, under interrogation by the Stasi (the feared secret police), to falsely confess to being a member of an underground escape network.

We also meet Frau Paul, whose baby was being cared for in a hospital in West Berlin in 1961. When the wall went up, literally overnight, Paul was banned from crossing the city to see her infant son. And we encounter the defiant Herr Winz, a counter-espionage agent for the Stasi in the mid-1980s, Years on from the collapse of the regime whose inner echelons her worked within, he tells Funder: “Capitalism is even worse than you told us it would be! In the GDR you could go out alone at night as a woman. You could leave your apartment door open!... Capitalism will not last… the revolution is coming.”
 

The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness (2011)

By early 1989 the game was almost up in even the most brutally repressed Eastern European nations. McGuinness recounts the last months of the Ceausescu regime in Bucharest as being one where even the thinnest tissue paper façade of Soviet ideology has given way to a rapacious police state of corrupt building projects where the son of the President (Nicu Ceausescu) is a shadowy presence, speeding around the city in sports cars with his entourage while entire neighbourhoods are destroyed to make way for architectural follies such as the ‘Parliament of the People’, doomed to remain unfinished.

The book is almost toxic with sleazy decadence as a naïve, newly arrived, English student tries to make sense of a decomposing society. Romania’s uncanny resemblance to an ultra-right wing Fascist state is startling; there are few books which depict with greater starkness the close connections between both extreme left and right ideologies if allowed to fester in the hands of criminals. 
 

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more