Is the curtain falling again in Europe?
The current scary, sad, sadistic Russian invasion of Ukraine made me reflect on work that I undertook at the end of the twentieth century and visits that I made to behind the Iron curtain. My first experience was to attend an international conference run by UCL’s Bartlett School in the newly renovated Bauhaus in Desau, GDR. I then cast my mind back to other trips. I was on my final decent into Berlin Tegel Airport and it was 1988. One of my students, on the flight, asked me if the Berlin Wall would ever be demolished. I said that “logically it must come down in the end”. The following year, twenty-eight years after the wall had been erected, I took another group to Berlin to study the architecture, construction sector and cultures of West and East Berlin. The wall had just been breached and the place was wild. Nights out in the bars of Creuzberg and Wedding, right next to the Berlin Wall, were truly edgy. My students sold their geological hammers (taken to remove lumps of wall) for beer money. My own lumps of wall have been lying on my window ledge since that time - a reminder of that unique experience. East German soldiers were trying hopelessly to patch up the wall at night (on the Western side) with their buckets of sloppy mortar. Trabants from East Berlin were racing through the old checkpoints – the carnival atmosphere was beyond imagination.
By 1990, just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union (26 December 1991), I had started collaborating with a Russian professor on an educational capacity building project in Leningrad (St Petersburg). The next decade, funded by the EU and UK Government, saw me travelling countless times to St Petersburg Oblast and Latvia (formerly a Soviet Republic), bringing over 250 former Soviet engineers and project managers to Britain for education and training and co-founding a not-for-profit company, to support education and training in Russia, Latvia and Poland. All of this felt positive. My former Soviet partners talked about how this work could help to underpin a peaceful future in an integrating world. What I did realise at the time was that Russians, of my age, had lost their status and perceived future, but that younger people had a new massively changed future to explore. There was generally a discernible difference in perspectives and attitudes. People in professional jobs were paid six months late in hugely devalued Roubles and they needed cash to survive. Private cars became taxis. I bartered for many taxi rides myself. There was hyperinflation. The place was lawless and dangerous, but there was an opportunity for positive change. Sadly, things went really bad since those chaotic but hopeful days.
Now, just over thirty years since the Berlin Wall came down, there is a possibility of walls being erected again in Europe, separating autocracy from democracy and the very different lived experiences this will denote. If it takes another thirty years for things to change again, I shall be ninety-nine, as will Vladimir Putin - if he survives that long of course. I wonder if I ever flagged his taxi down?