Updated: Apr 23, 2020
Even though Reagan stood right at the Brandenburg Gate and told Gorbachev to tear down this wall, I was still surprised a couple years later when it did come down. East and West Berlin crowded together one day and tore the thing down piece by piece, thirty years ago this November.
I'd been under it, through it, over it myself, on trains through Berlin and Warsaw and in Aeroflot planes offering only hard candy and vodka. Maybe not a bad way to arrive in Moscow at the time, eyes a little glassy while customs officials rifle through your exposed suitcases. The gray and uniform blocks of buildings, the long lines at every store, the bad cigarettes—all very true. Burnt into my memory like discarded frames of a black and white Potëmkin film left on the floor of an old vault.
Actually what surprised me most about the Soviet Union in 1978 was that it was in color. Twenty below, face-freezing weather, yet the brightest blue skies and whitest snow I'd ever seen. Rushing to morning Pushkin Institute classes, I’d pick up a roll and hard boiled egg in a subway kiosk on the way, gourmet fare to a starving student. And yes, there were indeed marble walls and chandeliers in the underground stations, no New York graffiti madness here. A different kind of madness, perhaps, the silence of long escalators moving past each other, up and up to the Metropolis above, down and down to the catacombs below.
We had been advised not to smile. Well, not smile at strangers anyway, and definitely not on the escalators. Russians will think you're crazy, or worse, flirting! This was familiar to me. You don’t smile at random Portuguese people, either. And never a girl to a man. Sitting half-naked in an Amsterdam window would be more subtle.
I first arrived at the Soviet border in a Belarus train station with eleven addresses written upside down and backwards in French, German, and Portuguese, in a tiny golden address book stuffed into the back pocket of my jeans. At 23 I was happily unaware of my ignorance and sincerely hoping to contact each of the relatives and dissident friends of my Russian teachers back in New England. They weren’t really Russian teachers. They were doctors, lawyers, professors, scientists—just couldn’t get jobs after landing overseas penniless, politically inconvenient, and over-qualified. The capitalist side of the Cold War would be as unkind in its promises as the communist side had been in its constraints. In the meantime I could only benefit, as these brilliant nouveau linguists whisked me through four years of Russian in two. I thought I was ready.
I was not ready for the role of emotive courier in Moscow, embodying intense and intimate memories for people I’d only known for a few minutes. Tables would roll out, plates of food and bottles appear, neighbors stop by, and soon I’d be at center of a party that didn’t really involve me at all. Except I was the reason for the party. I’d be handing out messages from afar and gifts from the duty-free Berioska, receiving antique treasures in return that would require smuggling back across the border.
I was also not ready for the pockets of pre-Soviet existence here and there amid the socialist-realist concrete. Most Orthodox churches had been turned into warehouses or museums, but occasionally a genuine service would beckon, light and incense streaming out to the snow-covered sidewalk. Inside I found myself surrounded by a sea of tiny women all in black, women who had lost fathers, uncles, grandfathers, sons, and grandsons in WWI, in the Red/White civil war, in WWII. They were still there, chanting Gospodi pomiluil, God help us, surrounded by dark icons and gold leaf, Christ not on the cross but standing with arms outstretched, like the Cristo Rei in Lisbon. I was at once totally out of place and completely at home, inhabiting both sides of a mystic divide, too tall and singular for one side, too small and prosaic for the other.
There have been other walls.
I got stoned in Memphis—I know, hold that thought—I got stoned with flying rocks thrown at me and my travel buddy in Memphis, Egypt, on the way to the Zoser step pyramid. Nothing about our scholarly hippy selves presented as trustworthy to these village boys. We were foreign and unwanted, out of place.
A cabby at the Syrian-Jordanian border, on the way from Damascus to the Jerash ruins, said people were still walking around with their house keys from 1948, thirty years prior. Their house keys. The following year a coworker at the Semiotic Institute in Bloomington, Indiana, daughter of a former Ambassador to Amman, told me her father would periodically disguise himself in the robes of a woman and cross the Jordan River to stand in front of his Jerusalem home. A river, a border, a country name. A Wailing Wall. For all.
Once on a village path in a tangle of tree greens near the Asian coast of the Indian Ocean, I was confronted by a young girl, hugely pregnant, holding a baby in one arm and a toddler's hand in the other, the child at her feet. She couldn't have been more than fifteen. The babies could not all have been hers. What gives me chills to this day is how she looked at me, through me, into and past me, as if I were an animal in a zoo. My long dark braid and cotton skirt is that weird? Yes. The space between us was impassable, the barrier unassailable, the Western-educated one with a headful of feminist labels, the Indian girl far beyond the reach of these memes.
There are still other walls, insidious walls of lies, electrified walls of hate, invisible walls of shame. We love the great escapes, tunnels burrowed beneath sadistic power, masks to shroud the imprisoned running through the dead of night. Will the light shine stronger on the other side, will the grass grow greener?
Erich Fromm says there is freedom from and freedom to. Are we mixing up the labels, so sure of which is which? I don't know. For a moment I am back in that tangled green, wondering who is seen by whom, from which side the bricks are laid, for whom the wall is built.
8 NOVEMBER 2019