During my middle school years, the whole world changed. Literally, the whole world. Yes, my personal world was turned upside down—a move across the country, a tiny house in a huge city instead of a sprawling house on the outskirts of a small city, and a traditional classroom with new and more urban peers instead of self-study amid childhood friends—all of those together do constitute the equivalent of a personal 8.4 earthquake. But my personal changes are not what I am writing about today.*
I am writing about how the world itself changed during my middle school years.*
[Hint: I am about to wax autobiographical. So: if you don't have time for a jaunt through personal history followed by multiple reflections, then before you leave this page, you REALLY should skip to the end and follow the link at the * note. That's really the best part. My favorite part. And the point of the whole thing, really.]
I grew up under the shadow of Communism. Grew up watching shows about American spies—the good guys—outwitting the Russian secret service—the bad guys. Grew up hearing about Christians persecuted under Communist rule and reading about the lack of freedoms that people in Communist countries enjoyed. The imaginative games my friends and I played—aside from some creative forays into historical worlds—were infused with Communist bad-guys chasing the good guys and almost catching them. The good guys were captured sometimes but always managed to escape and save the day . . . provided the game didn’t end prematurely when our teachers or parents called a halt to play time. After all, that’s what always happened in my favorite tv show Scarecrow and Mrs. King.
Russia, Communist headmaster of the USSR, was a country cloaked in mystery and competition. Mystery because few people were allowed behind the Iron Curtain and even fewer people allowed out. Competition because Russia was determined to steal all of our secrets and win all the Olympic medals. Not to mention the space race (but that was a topic that went above my the radar of my elementary mind).
I loved the Olympics, especially the winter Olympics and especially the figure skating competitions. I always wanted skaters from “the free world” to win over those from the Communist world, of course, but I couldn’t help but love and admire some of the skaters from the USSR. Their stories, told Olympic style in all their inspirational warmth, gave me a glimpse into the lives of real people. There were real people living behind the Iron Curtain, real people who somehow didn’t get in trouble for thinking and who somehow made a living . . . and whose lives were decided for them from childhood. Just like that. Sergei Grinkov and his partner Ekaterina Gordeeva were my heroes. Sergei’s sudden death in 1995 touched my heart with genuine sorrow. I may have cried, but I don’t remember. My parents bought me the memoir his wife wrote of his life. Their childhood skating partnership had eventually turned into love that led to marriage. They were a Russian fairy tale.
All of this feels so long ago and so far away.
25 years ago, in fact.*
This week, the city of Berlin celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall that divided Communist-controlled East Berlin from self-governing West Berlin. The Berlin Wall that physically represented the metaphorical curtain that shrouded all of the countries of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from the watching eyes of the rest of the world. As a child I always wondered what the “Iron Curtain” was—besides one of those things that everyone talks about and everyone knows about and everyone says without explaining what it means to the listening children. I think that somehow I imagined it was a wall like the Berlin Wall, but was never quite sure. Substituting “Berlin Wall” into every sentence where “Iron Curtain” was used did not always bring the clarity I imagined it would. Eventually, yes, I did come to understand that the term was metaphorical for the measures of secrecy and red tape that the Soviet states employed to keep the world out and keep their own people in and behind which the Soviet government ran its powerful schemes of control ranging from semi-absolute to moderately intrusive.
As a child, I knew nothing of John F. Kennedy’s mistranslated but heartfelt pledge to the people of Berlin—Ich bin ein Berliner—nor even what his speech meant to the people of Berlin.
If I did hear about Reagan’s demand that Mikhail Gorbachev “take down this wall” in Berlin, it either went over my head completely or was far less interesting to my child-mind than the latest episode of Scarecrow and Mrs. King.
I had no idea that in the year I turned 10, a mistake was made in a speech by an East German official giving permission for the gates to be opened and East Germans to walk freely through them—and across the former “death space”—and into the West Germany they’d been longing to rejoin.*
I was dimly aware of the news that the Berlin Wall itself had been torn down.
But I remember vividly sitting in my 8th grade social studies class and being introduced to a brand new, redrawn map of Europe. Our teacher asked us that year to memorize maps of all the continents, all the countries of the world. None was so interesting as the map of Europe—the map on which we could no longer find some countries (Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia), the map with so many new countries that hardly knew what to do with themselves. The map that was history being made in our lifetimes.
All of a sudden, those probably dangerous and definitely mysterious potential-spies dressed in long dark coats and fur-rimmed hats became real people. People who enjoyed owning property, people struggling against crushing economic forces, people trying to figure out self-government. People like us. People who didn’t have it easy but were people again instead of a mass to be ruled and managed.
We don’t hear much about Communism anymore. Sometimes I think that may not be a good thing—now that the Cold War is over, now that China is the smiling face of Communism and cheap labor, I sometimes fear we no longer remember or care about the foundational differences between Communism and freedom. And those differences are very important to remember because those differences cost the lives of thousands upon thousands of people—in places and during times that have nothing to do with American capitalist interference. And those differences still cost many lives hidden away in secret places where no one but God can really see them. Sometimes I wish we remembered that Communism teaches beneficial change can only come through bloodshed of the ignorant masses. That Communism does not really see people as people.
But I am glad that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain has taken Communism out of our working vocabulary and away from the forefront of our imaginations (though I do pity the kids who have less perfect bad-guy material to use in their imaginary games—a dark, tricky, and impersonal force from across the world really does make for a good force of evil to fight against). Most of all, I am glad for Berlin because for all the difficulty that reunification brought—and it really did bring a lot of difficulty for every country that had been a member of the Soviet bloc—but for all of that difficulty, Berlin made it work.
The wall coming down was nothing short of a miracle. So many people had hoped and prayed and worked for it. And then it actually happened. It must have seemed like a dream. Like a perfect dream. But it was real life, not a dream, and real life is a lot more difficult to negotiate than dreams are. But Berlin lived up to JFK’s statements about them and embraced reunification so well that today it is hard to tell where West Berlin ended and East Berlin began.
And it makes me think about how true JFK’s claim really was—Ich bin ein Berliner—or as his interpreter correctly retranslated for him: I am a citizen of Berlin.* Because I think that all of us are citizens of Berlin.
We all face conflicts and divisions. Sometimes we build walls to protect our interests; sometimes we build walls to try to control what we think we have a right to control in our lives and the lives of others. Sometimes we feel closed in by walls we did not want built or have come to regret; sometimes we are the maintainers of walls, just doing our jobs. Sometimes we are the ones looking at walls that others built and mourning the broken relationships on both sides. We are Berliners. And like the citizens of Berlin, sometimes we see the walls come down.
And like the people of Berlin, when the walls come down, we find that working out the differences, extending freedom to all, and patching up the damage is not an easy task. (Sometimes we wish the walls had just stayed up!). It takes work to see and treat each other as real people. We aren’t born being good at it.
But I have to hand it to Berlin—they did it. Like JFK said, the people of Berlin were a model to the world: in his time, they were a model to the world of how terribly divisive and cruel Communism was. And when the wall came down, they modeled to us reunification. Not automatic, not easy, but a task worth doing. A miracle worth receiving.
A victory worth celebrating.
Happy 25th anniversary, Berlin!
*Note: Watch Tom Brokaw’s view of the celebration–he was there in 1989, and again 25 years later. His clip tells stories from multiple angles and is my favorite of all the things I saw and read. It encapsulates it all. Please watch it.
**Note: What JFK really said in German was “I am a jelly doughnut.” A Berliner was a kind of pastry. By throwing in the article “ein,” he changed the German sentence from “I am Berliner” (a citizen of Berlin) to “I am a Berliner” (a jelly-filled doughnut-pastry-thing). I love listening to his speech because when he first says that misinformed sentence, a whole lot of things happen at once: the interpreter catches and rephrases the mistake, a buzz of excitement runs through the audience, Kennedy realizes that he has made a mistake of some kind and enters the general laugh himself by thanking his interpreter for helping him out. Kennedy has no idea what the mistake was, but his gracious poise and interaction with his audience is beautiful and perfect. What is even more beautiful is that at the end of speech when he makes the same ill-worded comment, a buzz of excitement runs through the audience again, but with a very different note than the earlier buzz. Nor does the interpreter need to make a correction this time. The people know exactly what Kennedy is really saying. The first buzz of excitement may have been good-natured laughter; the latter is cheering and connection with JFK’s message: you’re not alone, Berlin, because the whole free world stands with you.
That was a truly beautiful moment.
Other Berlin Wall and Communism resources:
Berlin Wall —
1) BBC/Wikipedia History of the Wall – http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/places/berlin_wall
2) History lesson links and Berlin Wall quiz – http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/11/12/text-to-text-the-fall-of-the-berlin-wall-reporting-in-1989-and-remembering-25-years-later/?_r=0
(these are books, not sites; very retro, I know, but they did a good job of helping me get a picture of it . . . a consistent picture, even though none of the sources were connected with each other)
1) biography: God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew (first-hand experiences)
2) classic fiction: Animal Farm by George Orwell (explores the natural end of the ideology . . . in fairy-tale form)
3) play: Letters to a Student Revolutionary by Elizabeth Wong (this comedy/drama is about Communism in China)
4) children’s book: The Mystery of the Smudged Postmark by Elizabeth Rice Handford (this one touches on the reasons people wanted to leave, from a child’s point of view)
5) historical fiction series: The Russians by Michael Phillips and Judith Pella (Last 3 by Pella alone)–this series is pretty long, but by the end of book five, you have a pretty good idea of what Communism sounded like and what it looked like in actuality. It’s like watching a train wreck.
By now you may have noticed that none of these are treatises on Communism. Those are readily available through an internet search, but sometimes it’s a biographical or fictional story that helps us to really see what is going on. And piques our curiosity to search. And no, none of these are the sensational Hollywood spy-style-stories I loved as a kid. (Ok, so the only one that gets close to it is so true, it’s stranger and more amazing than fiction!) :D