MOSCOW – My Soviet school built a mesh fence around its yard. Every week, tardy kids who wanted to cut through the yard tore a hole in the fence. Every weekend, the administration fixed it. But the hole would reappear the morning after. This went on forever. I wish U.S. President Donald Trump, the fence builder of the West, had gone to my school.
The Soviet Union was a country of fences, barriers and walls. Everything was prohibited, locked and guarded. Warning signs were phrased in no uncertain terms: “Do Not Enter: Death!” “Strangers Are Forbidden.” “The Border Is Closed.”
Barriers didn’t stop people from ignoring the warnings. But they complicated things. To steal bricks and cable from construction sites, citizens removed planks from wooden fences or climbed over concrete ones, at the risk of being scratched by rusty nails or barbed wire, bitten by guard dogs or even shot at with rock salt. Construction materials were in short supply, but people needed them and not everyone could pay black-market prices. For intruders, fences were not such a big deal.
Collective farms were also fenced off, to prevent perpetually hungry citizens from stealing fruit, vegetables and grains. In 1932, during the Ukrainian famine, Josef Stalin, a fence builder par excellence, introduced the “Law of Three Spikelets,” which made taking a handful of grain from a kolkhoz a crime punishable by firing squad. He was not bothered that people were stealing because they had nothing to eat. Getting rid of the hungry was easier than getting rid of hunger.
Soviet hospitals were similarly walled off. Visiting a patient was a nightmare: doorkeepers were many, visiting hours were few and entering intensive-care units or delivery rooms was simply prohibited because hospital staff believed all outsiders were walking swarms of bacteria. In the West, husbands hold their wives’ hands during delivery, seemingly unconcerned about bacteria, and, despite all the precautions, infection and mortality rates in the Soviet Union were strikingly higher.
Citizens themselves often built barriers, despite the futility of the effort. In the 1990s, Russians started installing metal doors in their apartments to protect themselves from break-ins, which, in the economic chaos of those years, became bolder and more frequent. The effect was marginal, because thieves began showing up with metal cutters.
Summer camps for children were always fenced, featuring checkpoints, barred gates and guards, and lookouts were posted at entrances to beaches and other areas prone to unauthorized access. Leaving a camp was strictly forbidden and breaking out was even harder than breaking in. Kids still did it — some on a dare, some out of spite and some simply because they wanted to bathe without holding hands, a regular safety practice. Every year, at least one escapee would drown and another would get lost in surrounding woods or be apprehended going home on a train without a ticket. Personally, I liked the camp, despite the endless marching and shouting “Always ready!” But, like most of my fellow campers, I knew how to get out if I wanted.
The paragon of Soviet impregnability outside of the gulag was a meat-processing plant. Such places had it all: the fence, the sniffing dogs, the barbed wire, checkpoints, vigilantes and sometimes militiamen. Still, people could not help wanting to eat meat, a rare commodity in the era of “advanced socialism.” Here, the trick was getting through the obstacle course with the meat concealed under your clothes: a challenging task, given raw meat’s tendency to drip.
Breaking out of the Soviet Union was, of course, the hardest task of all. Most people didn’t even try, the risks being what they were. But those who did went all out. They swam across frigid seas, hid themselves in car trunks and even hijacked planes. In 1961, the Kirov Ballet star Rudolf Nureyev escaped his KGB bodyguards and simply soared over the border at Paris-Le Bourget Airport, securing the most dangerous ovation of his life — and the chance to be what he wanted to be.
Others, not so successful, ended up shot, electrocuted or imprisoned. And even those who didn’t break the law suffered all the same. In the Soviet dissident purgatory, a special place was reserved for refuseniks, people of Jewish descent whose petitions to emigrate had been refused. With a “refused” stamp in their passport, which was already burdened by the designation “Jew” in the mandatory “Nationality” field, they were social pariahs. Refuseniks were shunned by neighbors and friends. They were subject to KGB surveillance. And some were unable to get even menial jobs. Yet they couldn’t leave, because people who build walls and hang Iron Curtains, even when they package it all in talk of safety and protection, really just want to show you who’s boss.
In the end, no wall, fence or curtain — iron or steel — can stop people from fighting for survival. But these barriers can turn a once-open country into a land of prisoners and guards, a giant fenced zone where everything is poisoned and slowly collapses on itself. That was the Soviet Union’s fate. If Trump gets his way, it could be America’s as well.
Russian-born American writer Anastasia Edel is the author of “Putin’s Playground: Empire, Revolution, and the New Tsar.” © Project Syndicate, 2019 www.project-syndicate.org