Robert Beeston

The great thaw

Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, by Victor Sebestyen

We had a running joke in my family that entering the Soviet Union was a bit like smuggling in somebody else’s nose. Every school holiday, as I presented my passport to the granite-faced Soviet border guard at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport, my photograph would be scrutinised at length to make sure it matched my face. Sometimes more senior guards would be summoned in an agonising ritual that left Western visitors in little doubt they were entering hostile territory. Our apartment was bugged. We were followed. Russians were not allowed to visit our flat without permission. Those who challenged the regime — the tiny group of courageous dissidents — were inevitably broken by the system.

For a child of the Cold War, raised both in Washington and Moscow, there was only one certainty in the superpower game that consumed the world for nearly 50 years. Both sides were so powerful, had amassed such destructive nuclear arsenals and had built up such enormous competing alliances that a peaceful outcome was impossible. Of course the Soviet Union was an economic basket case, once derided as ‘Upper Volta with missiles’. But its empire stretched from Cuba to Angola and Vietnam, not to mention half of Europe and much of Central Asia. The most powerful secret police network ever assembled in history ensured that dissent was uncovered and eliminated long before it posed a real threat to authority.

It is hard to imagine that there are millions of people in Russia and the West for whom this extraordinary period is some weird blip in history. Young Russians cannot understand what it was like spending hours a day queuing for food or dreaming of a pair of jeans and a Beatles album. Their counterparts in the West struggle to grasp the notion of a continent divided by a wall or a world split into two competing ideologies only minutes away from nuclear Armageddon.

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