Someone from Central Europe asked me the other day where I’m from. “So you’re basically Russian” came the response when I explained the geographic location of my origins. It was said in jest, for sure, and I wasn’t the least bit offended, given the context (drinks).
If I were to make light of the comment, the fact of the matter is that the town where I grew up basically almost is within a margin of error as far as state borders are concerned: had the map-makers back in the day been any more ambiguous in their line-drawing, my hometown would have ended on the other side.
The other side shall be the topic of today. Because I have never lived on the other side, that is to say in the former Soviet Union or one of its Satellite states, it also means I have no authority to proffer opinions on the matter. Therefore the following views mostly derive from an excellent new novel.
Vesna Goldsworthy grew up in Belgrade, “east of that line from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic” before moving to the UK at twenty-four years. Originally a poet, she’s later written several novels*, the latest being Iron Curtain. It is set in an unnamed/fictional Soviet Satellite state in the 1980s, and tells the love story of a Red Princess Milena Urbanska and her British poet boyfriend Jason. They meet when Jason – whose poetry is considered Marxist enough to let him cross the Iron Curtain and attend a literature festival as the only bona fide Westerner – arrives in Milena’s home town and she’s assigned to be his interpreter.
Love is being fallen in, and Milena gets pregnant, has an abortion “its was the only reliable method of contraception in our workers’ paradise”, and soon after takes the decision to escape to London to be with Jason, with a one-way ticket and a thick wad of Deutschmarks in her pocket. In her twenties and used to the extremely privileged and sheltered life as the daughter of a high-ranking Comrade in a communist, run-down dictatorship, Milena has no idea what awaits her in Britain.
Despite its subject matters (Cold War, love, betrayal) Iron Curtain is fabulously snarky and sarcastic, especially when Milena describes her home country:
“I had a wooden box full of Deutschmarks and US dollars hidden under my bed, in so far as anything could be hidden anywhere in our house. Good Communists that we were, confident in the ultimate triumph of the proletarian revolution and the defeat of capitalism in its imperialist incarnations, we all still valued the so-called hard currencies of our bourgeois adversaries.”
…and later her new adoptive country, England:
-‘Do you have central heating in your country?’ Clarissa asked. It was the first such question and I had expected many. I wondered what kind of place she was imagining.
-‘Yes, we do,’ I said. ‘Our heating works all too well, I believe. Our people keep their windows open even in midwinter.’
-‘What is it, gas or coal?’ she asked. I wondered if she thought this a normal conversation with your son’s new girlfriend.
“Even without the obvious strangeness of my qualifications, too many of the vacancy ads described as desirable qualities that I did not feel I possessed: a positive attitude, team spirit, a sense of humour. In my homeland people didn’t have to pretend they loved their work or their colleagues, and a negative attitude was, paradoxically, what kept up their spirits.”
The wildly contrasting East and West during the Cold War have been a source of many a pop culture classic and a certain type of short-lived, trendy Ostalgia, notable examples being the early aughts’ movie hits Good Bye, Lenin! and The Life of Others. A coming of age story of disillusions, traditions and most of all love, Iron Curtain surely plays with stereotypes, but with a clever, light touch – its author has lived the both realities of Milena, after all.
Iron Curtain is notably a study about freedom – who really is free? Milena ponders this before escaping to the West: yes, at home every aspect of her life was under close surveillance and her choices limited despite her immense privilege, but weren’t people watched and controlled also in West, just differently? Milena’s world, or rather the two worlds she mentally inhabits and is equally unhappy in both, is shattered at the realisation that betrayal and deceit exist also in the West and they hurt just as much as in the East. Her Western husband’s interpretations of his freedoms cause the final unraveling.
After the end of the Cold War and its arbitrary divisions and suffocating, constant controlling and surveillance, freedom has probably been one of the main qualifiers to describe the European way of life. To be free.
Yet we just lost some of our freedom again: a tyrant now lives in our heads rent-free. How much bandwidth we give him is individual, but geography probably plays a role here, too. The physical distance to this senseless war’s command centre seems to present an illusion of a comfortable buffer for some politicians to justify their dalliances with the master strategist and his stooges: what danger is there, really? But words, actions and their ultimate consequences don’t respect geography. Kilometres become meaningless the second we accept advance payments in exchange for their invisible seats in our governments.
Gifted money is delicious, but there’s no such thing as a free election campaign.
The below picture is from my primary school atlas, dated 1986, the decade of Iron Curtain and Milena’s and Jason’s romance, and the beginning of the end of the Cold War. No map is innocent, we know that much, and no thick red line is ever just a thick red line.
Their precise position and what they encircle is sacrosanct. It’s the shapes of our countries we recognise, even when the maps are in language we don’t understand. The river, the coastline, the archipelago, the mountain range.
The thing is, I suppose, that however lost we sometimes feel, unsure of what or who we are, we will always, always be able to tell where we are from.
*Goldsworthy’s earlier novel Gorsky is a retold version of The Great Gatsby. Gorsky is set in 21s century London, and the role of Gatsby taken by a Russian billionaire. Seems like another topical read.