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Peeking Behind The Iron Curtains

Has the Cold War truly ended? It's a question I contemplated the first time I went to Russia. It was 1996 - just five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Every Russian I met was incredibly hospitable, but still I wondered. Would anyone dislike me just because I was American?

Stephanie digs potatoes with her Russian friend Valerya
I had been living in Moscow for about two months when I got my answer. I needed to get to the train station, which was connected to the Metro, but I couldn't find the right passageway. Fortunately, a Metro employee was standing nearby. She was the sort of woman Russians endearingly call babushka, or grandmother: Short and stout with silver hair and orthopedic shoes. Surely, she'd know where I needed to go.

"Babushka," I purred in Russian. "Can you please help me?"

The old woman looked me up and down. "Where are you from?" she demanded.

"Texas. I'm trying to get to the train station. Which way do I go?"

"You're from where?" she asked.

"Texas. America. Now, do I take this tunnel or that one?"

"You're an American?"

"Da," I replied. (Da means yes in Russian.)

"An American?" she repeated, her eyes narrowing and her lips tightening.

"Da. I need the train. Which way do I go?"

 Stephanie gallops through Outer Mongolia

Rather than reply, she threw her small arms around my neck. "American! Leave my country! Get out of Russia!" she screeched as she proceeded to shake me. She hardly came to my shoulders, but her grip was firm. I covered her crinkled wrists with my own hands and met her livid gaze. What I saw saddened me. All this woman had worked for her entire life -- a Communist state -- had recently crumpled at her feet. Her rage was understandable, and she simply struck out against what she perceived to be the enemy -- me.

The babushka continued to shake me a few moments more until her storm finally passed. Then she released her grip and I darted away.

I went on to have hundreds of experiences with Russians in the months that followed. Ninety-nine percent were perfectly pleasant. But this is the one that sticks out in my mind as I contemplate the coldest war our world has ever known.

China's Great Wall still stands

Let's start with a review. How did the Cold War come about, anyway? Historians could debate this topic for days, but let's take it from World War II. Even though Russia and the United States had teamed up to defeat Nazi Germany, the capitalist West still felt threatened by what it perceived to be a "communist threat." When a number of countries turned to communism between the 1940s and 1970s, including China, Viet Nam, Cambodia, North Korea, Congo, Angola and Cuba, the West got really worried. So in 1949, the United States and 11 other nations signed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was basically a promise to come to one another's need in times of trouble. Communist nations responded with the Warsaw Treaty Organization in 1955, which basically did the same. An attack against one country would be an attack against them all.

The Cold War was underway. Among the major events of the Cold War was the erection of a concrete wall between East and West Germany in 1961. Built to prevent East Germans from "running away" to West Germany, the Berlin Wall became a symbol of the Cold War. It also became the inspiration for some of the most ingenious inventions of our times. East Germans constructed everything from hot air balloons to small aircraft in order to cross the wall to the West. One even jumped over with a pogo stick! Sadly, many were shot dead in the process.

Parts of the Berlin Wall have been turned into an art gallery
The closest the Cold War ever came to an actual battle was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. See my dispatch for details, but in essence, the Soviet Union and the United States came within a hair's breadth of nuclear holocaust.

By the late 1960s, however, America's freedom-loving ideals had spread to many countries in communist-controlled Eastern Europe. Czechs were particularly optimistic when their new leader, Alexander Ducek, tried to bring about "socialism with a human face." Sadly, this brief period of hope was quashed by Soviet troops. A few months later, a 21-year-old student protested Soviet aggression by setting himself on fire in the middle of the capital's central plaza. Other acts of dissidence erupted across the Soviet Union. All were promptly crushed, but the flame had been lit, and in the mid '80s it became a fire.


Another critical event was Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power in 1985. Young and vibrant, he set about making sweeping changes known as glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic reform). Russians had more liberties under his tenure than they had in the past 70 years (if not the entire history of that nation). Once people felt at liberty to talk about their lives, they realized their shared misery. Moreover, they felt empowered to do something about it.

Then came the day that changed everything: November 9, 1989. East Berlin's district secretary went on national television to announce that a "limited and controlled" flow of East Germans would be permitted through the Berlin Wall the following day. Incredibly, he slipped on a detail and said the new rules would be effective immediately. Within hours, thousands of East Berliners overwhelmed the border guards and dashed through the crossing points. Before long, they were dancing atop the wall, chipping off pieces for souvenirs with hammers and crowbars.

Throughout Eastern Europe, similar acts of revolution took place. Some were more bloody than what took place at the Berlin Wall. One by one, the Soviet republics began to break away from their Union.

Communist hardliners in Russia were furious. In a last attempt to save their empire, they staged a coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. It failed miserably due to lack of military support, massive street protests and general incompetence, but Gorbachev knew his time had come. A new leader named Boris Yeltsin was on the horizon. In December of that year, he resigned as Secretary General and dissolved the Soviet Union in one fell swoop. The Cold War was officially over.


Pho in the morning; pho in the evening

Let's take a look at the damage.

Although nuclear catastrophe was averted, the Cold War still cost us dearly in terms of human lives. Millions were killed in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Hungary, and Romania. Most of those who died were civilians.

The war also drained us financially. Both the Soviet Union and the United States stockpiled thousands more nuclear missiles than they possibly could have needed, and (thankfully) nearly all of them went to waste. Some historians estimate the final pricetag at $8 trillion. That's $1,300 for every human being on this planet. Can you imagine what good our nations could have done with that kind of money?! Of course, the Soviets felt this financial blow far harder than Americans. By some estimates, as much as 50 percent of the Soviet national product was spent on defense. In some parts of the Soviet empire, toilet paper was considered a luxury. The Iron Curtain had also completely halted the flow of information into and out of the Union for half a century.

Guess what? Its legacy continues. Our fingers may not hover over the nuclear button anymore, but official U.S. relations with Russia can hardly be described as amicable. As the babushka showed me in the Moscow Metro, there is still a pretty hefty layer of resentment.

Also, consider our policies with present-day communist nations, like Cuba. Ten years after the end of the Cold war, we still have a trade embargo on that tiny island, depriving the people of adequate medicines, food and soap! Any American caught "trading with the enemy" can be thrown in prison and fined thousands of dollars!

Stephanie sits with Russia's poet laureate -- Pushkin
Yet, having traveled to a dozen communist and post-communist countries over the past five years, I can attest that not even past threats of total destruction matters when you're a guest in someone's home. With the sole exception of that babushka in Moscow, the Cubans, Chinese, Russians, and Vietnamese I encountered could not have been more wonderful. They had learned to see beyond their nation's ideological lens. They took me for who I am on the inside instead of the out.

The question is: Have we?


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - The 444 days Americans were held hostage in Iran
Jennifer - What the heck is OPEC? And how does it affect me?
Neda - CREEP-ing around Watergate ruined President Nixon
Daphne - Mary Jane and Jack Daniels can really screw you up
Nick - A deadly bullet and a mishandled trial: Dark days for America
Making A Difference - America: home of the free and the brave?
Stephen - Hey! Pass some of that cold cash with acid rain garnish my way