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 Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carré (1963)

The ultimate portrayal of the psychological untethering of the individual in a world of espionage where the wet, threadbare, concrete lumpiness of a partitioned Berlin plays as much of a central character as George Smiley and his malfunctioning spy Alec Leamas.

Better than any other Cold War novel before or since, John le Carré’s gift is to immerse the reader deep into the miasma of period-gloom (Leamas’ trips to dingy corner shops for hard liqueur and tinned food are almost unbearable to read, such is the atmosphere of ageing bachelor despair) and yet transcend it by depicting the entire chess game of espionage and counter-espionage in any context as being nothing but the seediest of confidence tricks, played by damaged men whose abilities in the art of duplicity are consistently at risk of being destroyed by their own egos and baser instincts.

The Muses are Heard by Truman Capote (1956)

Visiting countries behind the Iron Curtain before it rusted away was possible albeit troublesome and there are countless travelogues from that era describing inedible food and service with a snarl from the Soviet ‘Intourist’ agency created to guide and monitor foreign visitors.

Capote’s travelogue (hard to find as a stand-alone text but available as part of his 1973 anthology ‘The Dog’s Bark’) concerns his 1955 trip to Leningrad with an American touring company invited behind the Iron Curtain to perform the Gershwin opera ‘Porgy and Bess’. Unlike almost any other book documenting the USSR from a Westerners viewpoint in this era, Capote manages to bring humour into proceedings, albeit often of the gallows variety.

With typical eye-rolling weariness, Capote describes ‘a dragoon of stunted Amazons’ guarding the antiquities at the Hermitage. An endless train journey from Berlin into the USSR gives Capote the chance to develop an outrageous ensemble of characters attempting to cope with meals of strawberry yoghurt and veal whilst a trio of female Soviet minders become increasingly befuddled by the demands of the theatrical troupe. 

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. 

Among the Russians by Colin Thubron (1983)

No travel writer has ever managed to capture the detail, both exotic and banal, of a life on the road like Thubron. His solitary journey across the Soviet Union in the early 1980s is free of the satire and pejoratives that dominate Capote’s work (see above). Thubron’s munificence comes in his focus, not on the shortcomings of wider society, but on his encounters with individuals, none of whom are heroic, rebellious or even particularly brave.

We meet Tanya, the wife of Boris, an unemployed university professor who leans on his arm in their spartan Moscow apartment, ‘with the sleepy self-sufficiency of a cat’. Thubron walks with a ‘formidably innocent’ guide who recounts endless statistics and numbers documenting Soviet economic successes 'like the dry rush of a grain chute'. And we meet female hitchhikers, waiting on lonely, rural roadsides, ‘in dead flat calm, washed by a sky that paled to mist along the vast circumference of its horizon’.

This is a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain where the depiction isn’t dominated by austerity or brutality, but by a quiet tolerance, a weathered survival instinct and no small amount of dignity. The citizens Thubron meets long for change, but you get the impression they may not know what to do with it should that change ever come. All these years on, it’s tempting to wonder what happened to these individuals as their hopes came to pass but their identities vanished as quickly as that Wall which, thousands of miles West, crumbled under the weight of progress.

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