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View from Vitalia: Of walls and how to climb them

Newton’s Third Law of Motion is applicable not just to physical objects but to social systems too.

I find it hard to believe that it is already 30 years since the collapse of ‘the Mother of all Borders’ (to use the late Saddam Hussein’s terminology), the Berlin Wall.

It feels as if it was just yesterday that we were watching, with mounting disbelief, reports on the growing unrest in Europe – first in Budapest, then in East Berlin – in Moscow, on the small screen of our first ever colour TV set, which I had brought from my first ever trip to Britain. The TV set was bought with my first royalties from the Guardian and Punch, paid in cash by the kindly editors, who knew only too well that there was nothing I could spend that money on back in Russia.

We lived in the proximity of the Ostankino TV Tower and that was why, as assured by the TV engineer, who came to install my treasured British purchase, the picture was blurred and doubling (“too strong a signal,” said he). I remember seeing not one but two parallel Berlin Walls, a sight that sent shivers down my spine for I had recently gone through several (legitimate) crossings of the ONE and only real Berlin Wall, and that, believe me, was more than enough...

And yet, even through the thick electronic mist, we could clearly see some happy-looking people dismantling the Wall, brick by brick, until the first passage was finally cleared and triumphant crowds began pouring through.

We now know that the East German authorities did not actually mean to open the border so quickly. It happened due to an uncertain pronouncement by one East Berlin party official who claimed in a speech in early November 1989 that the border crossings would be made easier soon. That statement was prompted by the previous week’s decision of the Hungarian government in Budapest to open the country’s border with Austria. Thousands of Hungarians went across to Austria straight away and were soon joined by hundreds of East Germans who – at the first rumours of the border-opening – jumped into their Trabants and sped up (as much as their tin-like Trabbies allowed) towards Hungary.

The official’s speech was broadcast all over the GDR, and the freedom-hungry ‘Ossies’ took it as a signal to start storming the Wall. The bewildered East German grantzpolizei, in their mouse-grey uniforms, who only weeks earlier were ready to shoot anyone trying to cross the patch of neutral land around the Wall without thinking, were taken aback, for they didn’t get any orders of what to do with all the cheering crowds of their beleaguered countrymen, now clearly unstoppable in their crusade for Freedom.

I spent 35 years of my life on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall and, like millions of my entrapped compatriots, was dreaming of an escape. The logistical and technological futility of such a daring and all-but-hopeless attempt was obvious – and yet we were encouraged in our thinking (or rather dreaming) by a handful of the thoroughly unpublicised (read: silenced) and, allegedly, successful escapes, the rumours of which used to reach us from the crackling and semi-audible and therefore spectacularly popular night-time broadcasts of the BBC, the Voice of America, Radio Liberty and other “enemy voices”, as well as by word of mouth – carefully whispered and hush-hush.

In fact, there were numerous ways – real and imaginary – to escape from the world’s largest cage of the USSR.

Belenko, a Soviet military pilot, flew his MGI fighter to Japan, where he asked for political asylum in the mid-1970s. And, as we all know thanks to Tom Clancy’s book 'The Hunt for the Red October' and the subsequent Hollywood action thriller movie, Valery Sablin, a foolhardy captain of the Soviet anti-submarine frigate Storozhevoy (‘sentry’ in Russian), nearly succeeded in taking his vessel – complete with all the guns, missiles, navigation equipment and crew – to Sweden. Nearly.

One reckless engineer from Leningrad went skiing in the forest, crossed the heavily guarded Soviet-Finnish border, but – cleverly - didn’t give himself up until he reached Sweden: Finland was in the habit of sending Soviet defectors back to their “great motherland” to face the notorious Article 54 of the Soviet Criminal Code, which classified “failure to return”, i.e. defection, as “high treason”, punishable by, at worst, a brief encounter with a well-practised Soviet firing squad. 

There were rumours that one hapless Leningrad mushroom-picker, having got lost in the wood, inadvertently found himself in Helsinki. He didn’t intend to defect and went straight to the Soviet embassy where his story was dismissed as a scam, for how can one so easily dupe the ever-so-vigilant Soviet frontier guards and their no-less-vigilant specially trained dogs? He was then taken back to Leningrad and imprisoned. And here’s the best bit: several years in a Perm Region labour camp made the former mushroom picker so rampantly anti-Soviet that, on his release, he decided to defect in earnest and eventually (after another mushroom-picking expedition?) – succeeded!

As it was expressively worded in a Moscow newspaper headline in 1994, three years after the USSR’s collapse: 'Should We Shoot Defectors, or Should We Not?'

One resourceful Soviet young man bought himself a tour of North Korea only to dash across the buffer zone separating the socialist paradise from the reactionary south and was nearly shot dead by the truly vigilant North Korean border guards, with the regulation Kim Il Sung badges on their lapels. Nearly.

Among the most peculiar escape technologies from my collection, the following three can be mentioned.

A sailor from Novorossiysk crossed the Black Sea to Istanbul on an inflatable mattress, with nothing but a plastic bag containing chocolate and vodka to sustain himself during the voyage.

Another escapee managed to get from Karelia (in the north-west of Russia) to Finland through a drainage pipe, having covered his naked body with oil to facilitate the sliding, with his clothes carried in a rubber bag tied to his ankle. As he explained later, the only reason for his defection was that he had a dream of circumnavigating the globe in a yacht, but the Soviet authorities did not allow him to do so.

And a pilot of a Soviet cargo ship, being a good family man, reportedly managed to smuggle his defector wife to England in a chest for dirty linen, which he kept in his cabin and which the fastidious Soviet border guards had failed to check on departure.

If the readers may be forgiven for taking the last sea-crossing story with a grain of sea-salt, the next one is 100 per cent truthful and verifiable.  

A university friend of mine, who used to work as an interpreter on board a Soviet cruise ship, the SS Leonid Sobinov, told me of a girl he knew (her name was Liliana Gasinskaya), a stewardess on the same vessel, who slipped out of a porthole in nothing but a red bikini while the ship was cruising past the Australian coast in 1979 and swam to the shore. She turned up in Sydney Harbour and was immediately branded 'the red bikini girl' by the Australian media. Liliana was eventually allowed to stay in Australia, where she later earned a lot of money by posing – this time without her famous red bikini – for the Penthouse magazine’s first ever nude centrefold.

Of course, the escape technologies, no matter how sophisticated, did not always work. In fact, only very few attempted defections from the USSR were successful, and the price of failure was high. Article 64 dominated the official verdicts of the inmates of the Perm 35 labour camp for political prisoners, which I visited as a Soviet journalist in 1989, shortly before my own defection. One of them, a young scientist called Smirnov, got a lucrative job offer while on a visit to Norway and decided to stay. When, six months later, he – rather naively – went back to Moscow to pick up his family, he was arrested at Sheremetyevo airport and sentenced to 15 years in a labour camp. And the story of my parents’ friend Yuri Vetokhin is even more tragic. A talented naval radio engineer, a devoted communist and a rowing champion, he was falsely accused of trying to flee to Turkey in his rowing boat while practising in the Black Sea off the Crimean coast. When he resisted, he was pronounced “insane” and sent to a psychiatric KGB prison where he died several years later.

Newton’s Third Law of Motion (“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” or, more succinctly, “Force breeds counterforce”), it seems, can be applied to societies too: the stronger the cage and the higher its walls, the harder those trapped inside try to break free.

The Berlin Wall in particular was much more ominous than just a conspicuous border marker. It was not just Berlin, Germany and Europe that were brutally split by it. The Wall used to cut through lives, hearts and souls. Fearing reprisals, millions (except for the very few like the recently deceased hero dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, RIP) had to wear masks of loyalty and obedience, removing them only in the company of trusted friends. The Wall split people’s personalities and principles, making a mockery of words such as honesty, integrity and dignity, turning its victims from homo sapiens into homo soveticus. 

Those who couldn’t accept this vivisection of the spirit, protested and went to prison, or else tried to escape. The technology they used was simple enough: they rammed the Wall with heavy trucks; they secretly built tunnels; they swam across the Spree River under the Kalashnikov crossfire; they flew over the Wall in microlights or in home-made balloons; they crossed the barriers in specially modified cars. They even once, in 1961, fled to West Berlin in a steam train on a disused rail line!

A team of young mechanics engineered a chain of folding ladders, guided by pulleys and ropes. They scaled the electrified Wall without touching it.

Two men used an archery bow to shoot a cable over the Wall and onto a roof on the Western side. They attached pulleys to the cable and sailed across the Wall in 30 seconds.

At a blind spot between two checkpoints, people could swim across a small river and climb to freedom. British soldiers hung a rope ladder to help escapees.

One entrepreneurial Berliner hid with his wife and young son in a toilet of a government building close to the border. When darkness fell, he climbed onto the roof and threw a hammer with a rope attached to it across the Wall. A makeshift ‘chair-lift’ was quickly attached to it and all three promptly slid to the West. The border guards only discovered the contraption the following morning.

Some of the escapees, who will never see the other side of the Wall, are now buried at a small cemetery, called the Crosses, near the Reichstag. The youngest of them is an 11-year-old girl; the oldest is an 86-year-old woman.

They have gone over the barrier eventually, even if it was after death...

In comparison, my own defection from the Soviet Union was relatively easy and smooth. To begin with, and contrary to what was expected, I was escaping from the USSR... by train. I will never forget my fifth – and last – encounter with the Berlin Wall, which was still in place.

We arrived at Berlin Friedrichstrasse Station at 1am and, shortly afterwards, the whole platoon of East German granzpolizei (frontier-guards) boarded the train. They led snarling dogs, straining at their leashes. They carried screwdrivers, torches and portable ladders. They scrutinised us endlessly with their blank piercing eyes while checking passports to the point that we started having serious doubts as to whether we were really us. They unscrewed everything that could be unscrewed and opened everything that could be opened in the carriage. One repeatedly shined his torch under the lid of the toilet. The terrifying and far-too-superfluous ‘technology’ of intimidation.

Having found nothing, they got off – all but one – as the train started crawling slowly towards the Wall. The one who stayed was peeping out of the open window to make sure that nobody was riding outside the carriage hanging on by the door rails. Once assured, he jumped out too.

For several minutes, our train rolled on in pitch sticky darkness until, suddenly, a flood of lights nearly blinded me. Flags fluttered in the wind; myriads of gleaming rocket-shaped (or so they appeared to me) cars flew in all directions along the brightly lit River Spree embankment. West Berlin: the station called Freedom.

Farewell, the horrible Berlin Wall. We will never forget you...

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