These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtains. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.
Kids are kids everywhere, at least when they are not dying from malnutrition. In at least somewhat functioning society they like to play, run around and nag their parents with incessant questions about the mundane as well as the profound. “Mom, why is the grass green? Mom, why does rain fall down? Mom, what is a whore?”
Children in eastern bloc behind the iron curtains were not different. We liked to play and chat, and we did so whenever possible. But one thing that many children from that time shared, some more, some less was fear.
Fear of nuclear annihilation.
Later in life I learned that people in the West were afraid of those evil aggressive USSR commies who wanted to wipe them out and were held in check only by superior military power of magnificent NATO. Well, on our side of the border it was those trigger happy evil capitalists led by evil imperialist USA who were held in check by superior military power of magnificent Warsaw Pact. And in reality both sides committed war crimes and atrocities, there were no angels in the hot spots of the cold war.
Adults might have had their doubts and objections regarding the veracity of all this fear mongering, but for kids it was definitively all real. The regular “fallout drills” at school, regular alarm drills, signs how to react in case of nuclear attack hanging in every office. Once we were playing with my cousins in the garden and we heard a noise from the sky we did not know. What instantly gripped us was the fear that these are the nuclear missiles heading for Prague. Where I live this feeling was exacerbated by the very real presence of the iron curtains.
From every window of my house I see across the border to Germany. If I were to walk in a straight line in any direction from my property, I will end up in Germany within a day’s walk. Going mushroom hunting was allowed only in certain directions and certain areas of the forest were taboo. Big signs “Caution, State Border Ahead” everywhere. I still remember that one of the signs was riddled with bullet holes. The only time in my life I have seen a real thing riddled with bullets
And the curtains themselves…
Due to the signs and restrictions on movement, they were not usually seen in person and I never touched them. Mostly I knew they are there, somewhere in the forests. But the train track was driving very close o them, so whenever we were riding train to visit the inland, I could see them from the window.
Three meters high, double fence of razor wire. Roundup sprayed shooting corridors. And a macadam road for easy military access.
To a child, that was a terrifying sight. I loathe to see such structures being build again.
I grew up with that too, and all the instilled fear. Even so, I did not have the added terror of the iron curtain crushing down. It had to be so much worse, and I hated the fear we lived with in childhood. There was plenty of propaganda about the iron curtains, and the evil commies. That was evil in itself.
That’s a wet dream for Trump and his asshole followers. They’d love to implement such a thing, would be more than happy to inflict it on children.
Marcus Ranum says
The regular “fallout drills” at school, regular alarm drills, signs how to react in case of nuclear attack hanging in every office. Once we were playing with my cousins in the garden and we heard a noise from the sky we did not know. What instantly gripped us was the fear that these are the nuclear missiles heading for Prague.
When I visited Warsaw, I immediately recognized the underground train system for a giant bomb-shelter. One does not need those sharp turns at the bottom of the escalator-banks unless it’s to block the flash. So I realized that the Polish had grown up under this terrible stupid threat, like we did.
None of us American kids (except for a few ultra-nationalists that have had their minds ruined by their parents) wanted to kill everyone. That’s just the garbage human elite that run America. I always extend the hand of friendship to my comrades around the world.
(And besides, you’re a knife-maker!)
(Oh, speaking of: I’m at the point where I am producing fairly credible damascus billet. Want a roughed-in dagger blade or cooking knife to play with? I’ve got some more tooling coming next week and will be able to do some pretty nice stuff…)
(And since I’m rambling: my tests at making the miniature blade-cooler/mister did not work. I made a pretty cool laser-triggered electric squirt gun, though! I need something that has a controllable pump, and those are not the kind you get on ebay for $15. So, sorry!)
Marcus Ranum says
(Oh, and I know Warsaw != Prague and Poland != Czech Republic. I’ve been to Prague, too, but I didn’t see anything that was obvious bomb shelters, since I was mostly in the old town.)
Minor point: the English idiom is “Iron Curtain”, singular. It’s taken directly from Churchill’s post-WWII speech: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent”.
Anne, Cranky Cat Lady says
Charly, that was very moving. Thank you.
Don Dueed @ 4:
I think this falls under unacceptable nitpicking. The people who were most affected by the iron curtains were those behind them. Honestly, who gives a fuck about proper Churchillisms? Well, I don’t.
I do not mind nitpicking, I just learned something new.
I realized later today that the proper terminus technicus is not “razor wire” but “barbed wire”. Older technology, slightly less nasty.
Razor wire is what is used today. Yay for progres? I do not think so.
It’s progress in viciousness towards are fellow humans. Barbed wire could do damage, but it wasn’t impossible to get over/under/through. Razor wire is whole different level, a tangle or razor sharpness. You don’t get near that without major damage.
Ice Swimmer says
I’m in the same generation as you, Charlie. The fear of nuclear war is familiar.
We didn’t have any fallout drills, this was after all a country that wanted to be neutral as much as possible and made a good show of it. But the nuclear issues were talked about a lot and it was scary.
Yup the fear of nuclear anniliation, along side the hope that one would be anniliated in the event as survival would be so awful, the checking up on where American bases on UK soil were along side where the British ones were, and the relief at finding living where one did one would die, are all familiar to me. Oh and the nightmares after seeing The War Game, though that wasn’t until I was in sixth form ie 16 plus. The discussions about what you would do in those few minutes warning you would get.
Razor wire is a vicious invention, barbed wire has legitimate stock control uses, although there are of course better fencing methods, but razor wire is simply designed to damage humans with the temerity to challenge the integrity of property borders.
Anne, Cranky Cat Lady says
We had “drop drills” when I was growing up in the 60s. I, in my southern Californian innocence, thought they were earthquake drills. Oh to be so innocent again.
I retain that hope to this day.
Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says
I definitely recall the “duck and cover” drills back in elementary school in the 1950’s. And the city where I grew up was considered a target since we had the headquarters for Civilian Defense. Paranoia run rampant, and, upon later later reading of the effects of a nuclear blast, totally theater.
Wow. Thank you, Charly. For someone like me, born shortly after the cold war ended and who only knows what history books tell, these firsthand accounts are always interesting to hear, especially coming from someone who was so close to the iron curtains. Definitely looking forward to the other parts in this series.
In my youth it was the French nuclear testing in the South Pacific that worried us teens. Of course 20 years before that the British had tested their bombs in the deserts 1000km to the north west of our city but they were “friends” so not spoken about.
Thanks, Charly. That was really interesting. I grew up in Canada and we didn’t have the same amount of fear pumped into us. We certainly didn’t have drills and worrying about the threat of a nuclear bomb was not a part of my day to day life. It seems like a very harsh way to grow up.
chigau (違う) says
I grew up in Canada. Born in 1955.
In Elementary School and Junior High, we had monthly air-raid drills.
Looking back on what they required us to do, it seems it was more designed to aid identification of corpses than to have us not die.
This reminds me of all the now-defunct military sites (including a nuclear launch site!) scattered around this little country: they’re still there, peeling paint, crumbling concrete, and a lot of weeds tangled in old barbed wire. ‘Cept the roads aren’t macadam, but large concrete blocks. They’re a monument to the fear that was, but they’re still frightening today.
I was very little when the Iron Curtain fell, but I remember the elation of the exiled Latvian community when it happened. I mean, my parents went and took the whole family in the summer of 1990, with nothing settled yet and the winter of the barricades still to come (which I remember a whole different way, too).
What you say is right, Charly -- kids everywhere are the same. I mean, the playgrounds for children that we saw were atrocious -- rusted, broken, creaky, unsafe -- but it didn’t matter (I can only imagine my parents’ horror), we were playing with our new-found cousins, who dressed a little funny and spoke a weird Latvian, whose parents drove cars of odd shapes and unfamiliar names, but it was summer and we were out to have fun. A lot of strange disconnects in communication (they seemed very wise and worldly, having lived under occupation and having experienced a strange sort of deprivation -- Husband still remembers vividly the first time they saw bananas), a lot of little jokes at our expense because, for example, we didn’t know what a žigulis was, the absorbed Russian colloquialisms…
In any case, I look forward to reading about more of your memories from behind the curtain(s). (While the official term is the singular, I firmly believe there were several of various porosity scattered across Europe and it makes sense to talk about them in the plural.)
Thank you Charly!
I would love to read more, it is a very interesting topic.
Some of my first memories are of people, tearing drown the Berlin Wall. So I never experienced the Fear myself but my parents and grandparents (and great-grandparents as long as I had them) told me many dreadful things they experienced the cold war and WWII. I always wondered, how things went on the other side of the curtain.
In some of the cities nearby, there are still WW2 airraid-bunkers visible between the buildings. They give me chills but I am sure I can not really comprehend the fear … .