Saturday, 9 November 2019

Be Like Vasili: personal reflections 30 years after the Fall of the Wall

I nearly died before I was born. I have a man I never met to thank for my life - and so do you.

It can be difficult to remember sometimes how the world has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, thirty years ago today. It is almost easy to forget what was a fixed world with rigidly set boundaries between the Communist East and capitalist West held in a perpetual state of uneasy tension by literally thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at each other under the appallingly apt doctrine of M.A.D. - mutually assured destruction.

The Man Who Saved The World
My Mum was pregnant with me during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, fourteen days when the world teetered on the edge of Armageddon as Kennedy and Khrushchev eyeballed each other over the Mexican Gulf. Although they eventually blinked and found a diplomatic solution, we now know that atomic war was only avoided by the personal action of Vasili Arkhipov, a Deputy Commander of a Soviet submarine that was caught in the blockade of Cuba by the US Navy.

After several days out of radio contact with Moscow, his commander and the Political Officer concluded that nuclear war had begun and wanted to fire an  atomic warhead at the American ships. A unanimous decision was required between the three of them and after a long and heated argument with his superiors, Arkhipov courageously vetoed the attack. Had he not done so, it is unlikely that I would be alive to be writing this now, and nor would you or anyone else be around to read it.

The world is probably in many ways more dangerous now that during the Cold War - but perhaps the sense of an underpinning threat of potentially imminent existential destruction that was always in the background before 1989 has at least abated. I can't quite recall when I first became aware of atomic weapons, but growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, our culture was soaked in the propaganda of the Cold War. It might seem hard to believe, but for our "Boomer" generation "Europe" stopped at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and behind the Wall and indeed the whole "Iron Curtain" lay a mysterious, closed Soviet hinterland of untold threat and misery.

Aside from the news and political line that we could be overwhelmed in days by the gigantic muscle of the Red Army or alternatively wiped out within a couple of hours in a nuclear exchange, much popular culture was founded on the Soviet Menace. Whether on the cinema screen in films like "From Russia With Love" or the publications from shadowy right-wing employers groups like the mid-70's Aims of Industry's "Reds Under The Bed" attempt to smear socialist trade unions with treason, we were to accept the need for eternal vigilance in the form of Poseidon nuclear submarines patrolling the seas from their Scottish base and American Cruise missiles deployed in the heart of England.

Bizarre booklets like 1980's "Protect and Survive" informed householders how to survive the radioactive holocaust by unscrewing an interior door, laying it length-ways against your lounge wall and then sitting behind it for two weeks with some cartons of water and boxes of biscuits. The equivalent of tens of billions of pounds poured into subterranean bunkers. There, national and local government officials and the bizarre volunteer force of the Royal Observer Corps - folk who spent their evenings and weekends watching for war - would monitor the nuclear exchange and subsequent fallout above their heads and then hilariously "re-establish normal service".

There were of course plenty of parodies of this mix of cynical propaganda and wild naivete - from the early 1960s classic "Dr Strangelove" through to the 1980s "Whoops Apocalypse" and the nauseatingly haunting "Threads". Raymond Briggs' powerful picture book "When The Wind Blows" devastatingly recounted the tragically unquestioning faith of an elderly couple in the authorities' promises of their ability to survive the end of the world. In music, Frankie Goes To Hollywood's No.1 "Two Tribes" satirised the government emergency broadcast to provide advice on disposing of your dead grandmother outside your fallout shelter.

The dark humour was pervasive, but so too was the sense that, one day, any day, it would all go so quickly and badly wrong for us.

People protested of course - the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marched from the 1950s onwards and women's peace camps appeared most memorably outside Greenham Common airbase, and at a number of other military sites too. Spied on by the authorities and dismissed as troublemakers and traitors, the zeitgeist was that it was only institutions like NATO that stood between us and the plans of conquest of the Soviet Empire. And of course for freedom loving peoples, the obliteration of the planet was infinitely preferable to living under Communism.

The Soviet Empire was, of course, just like any other Empire - it exploited its vassal territories and oppressed its subjects. And yet, the idea that it sought world domination in anything other than its ideology is far-fetched. The concept of World Revolution was cast out when Stalin expelled Trotsky in 1929 and by the late 1960s the Soviet leadership was mostly about stagnant stability rather than fomenting world war. It was in this context that, again and again, they were willing to talk and make treaties - any revolutionary dynamism was long gone, replaced by a weary bureaucracy.

Tanked in post-revolution Prague, 1990
The truth lies perhaps more in what happened after 9 November 1989 rather than before it. For when the Wall came down that evening, it was like a window opening. The world got bigger for sure - by summer 1990 I was driving into former Communist Czechoslovakia with a couple of friends and photographing an overturned army tank in Wenceslas Square, scene of the "Velvet Revolution" that swept the Czech Communist regime from power barely a fortnight after their German comrades had faced their denouement.

Visiting the offices of Civic Forum, the group that had organised the crowds that brought the dissident playwrite Vaclav Havel to the Presidency, I remember buying a badge from an activist who asked me where we came from. When I told him Britain, he smiled enthusiastically and declared, "Long live the Iron Lady!", a reference to our then PM, Margaret Thatcher. He seemed a tad disconcerted when I responded with a grimace of dislike - but neither of us, I am sure, quite appreciated what was about to happen.

For what followed was the wholesale appropriation of public property in former Communist states by a handful of people, sometimes former Party officials, sometimes using violence and frequently deploying corrupt methods. Egged on directly by Thatcher and the "advisers" she sent to the East, the former Soviet block underwent massive economic dislocation that impoverished previously reasonably comfortably off citizens and left them prey to the populism and racism of the far right that has now manifested itself in places like Hungary and Poland.

Equally and notably, in a number of countries the former Communists have retained substantial followings and even occasionally have been re-elected to government. While no one would wish a return of the old Soviet Bloc, the truth is as ever not binary.

The USSR was responsible for some appalling things - just like any Imperial Power. Yet in its seven decades, it transformed a peasant state into a superpower, built homes for hundreds of millions, eradicated illiteracy, pioneered world-class, free public health systems and was the first state to put a satellite and a man and a woman into outer space. While there were queues for consumer goods (something apparently unknown in the UK!), the verified calorific intake of a Soviet citizen in the 1980s was on average higher than in the USA and Soviet leaders may have had their dachas, but they were modest affairs compared to the robber barons of the capitalist Russian mafia. By contrast, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian health indices declined substantially and average life expectancy fell by three years between 1990 and 2005 - though it has since recovered.

East Berlin misery - or my Gran's place?
Touring the DDR (East German) Museum in former East Berlin last year with my wife, we saw round a recreation of a typical Communist era flat from the early 1980s. Expecting something utterly miserable and basic, what I actually encountered was something close to, but slightly bigger, than my grandparents' ground-floor flat in Scotland around the same time.

Years earlier, visiting Prague with my friends in 1990, we lodged with a Czech family in a comfortable, well-equipped flat, one of many similar ones in the suburbs, as the father of the house lamented the "changes". We forget that the education, work and lifestyles available under Communism represented huge progress for many groups, families and individuals who would have been kept consigned to the bottom of the previous capitalist societies they had lived in. Being able to choose between Jo Swinson and Boris Johnson wasn't perhaps as important as some liberals like to think.

Freedom fries at Checkpoint Charlie (the
author did not partake!)
For we assume, of course, that because it's what we are used to, everyone wants to live like us. I remember a particularly crass 1989 British TV commentator droolingly reducing the significance of the fall of the Wall to the opportunity it now gave to East Berliners to sample the dubious delights of Big Macs and fries. Last year, travelling to look at the former crossing of Checkpoint Charlie, well, there we were: a giant Big Mac sign and restaurant gracing the former gateway to freedom.

If there is any lesson from all of this, I think it is that as in so many cases, we are all so more alike than we often understand. Much was wrong, but Eastern Europe was not shrouded in a veil of overwhelming misery for 70 years any more than Western Europe was a land of milk and honey.

And because Stalinist State Communism failed, it doesn't mean that any and all forms of socialism and communism can't work, or aren't in fact needed if we are to avoid the ruin of our world in the years ahead.

Above all, be like Vasili Arkhipov: always question the official narrative and the judgement of your would-be superiors.

One day, you might save the world.

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