In the early hours of December 24, 1989, I was standing perfectly still inside an examination chamber at a border post on the very edge of the Soviet Union. I barely noticed the broken plates strewn across the floor, or the four soldiers with AK-47s in the corners, or the rest of my family huddled around me. My entire existence had shrunk to the only thing that mattered: my father and the captain of the border guards, screaming at each other in the middle of the room.
I couldn’t process the scene; 25 years later I can still remember my brain playing the image over and over like a GIF, reminding itself that yes, this was my father, and yes, he was screaming at a guard. We had been a few steps away from the exit door to Czechoslovakia, and freedom, when the captain accused Dad of hiding documents and threatened to detain us in the USSR. Dad began to argue. My jaw was squeezed so tight it felt like my cheekbones were about to shatter. My forearms ached with a dull pain spreading out from my clenched fists. I kept waiting for the captain to do the inevitable, to bark orders to the soldiers, beat Dad, shoot Dad, handcuff him. But the captain… the captain just shouted back.
Even as a nine-year-old child, I knew that what I was witnessing was incomprehensibly, fundamentally wrong. Complaint forms, lawsuits, civil disobedience didn’t exist in my world, not even as concepts. The police decided, arrested, and killed. They weren’t argued with, or screamed at. Waterfalls flowed down, not up. The sun rose in the east. The police were obeyed.
Six weeks before the standoff between my father and the border captain, another rumor, just as baffling, shook the USSR to the core. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The news snuck into our Ukrainian apartment late at night, borne aloft forbidden airwaves beamed into the country by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. The Berlin Wall had fallen. A group of East German citizens armed with sledgehammers had scampered atop and demolished the dreaded symbol of Communist power, and the guards on the Wall were ordered to back off and make way for the cameras. The Soviet Union had taken away the soldiers’ ability to destroy lives…but it did not take away their guns. What happens when people accustomed to wielding absolute power, people whose only answer, only training, only reason for existence can be summed up by the word “fire,” are suddenly told to stand down? No one knew, and – just as with my family at the Soviet border – the world stood perfectly still.
The silence didn’t last. For forty years, Eastern Europe existed as a bloated cultural Frankenstein, with dozens of ethnicities, religions, and nationalities lashed together by Communist dictatorships. Forty years of grudges and dreams, yearnings and hatreds simmered inside unwieldy entities like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and suddenly the Wall had collapsed. Families reunited with families; neighbors slaughtered neighbors. East Germany merged with West Germany. Czechoslovakia peacefully split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Romania had a revolution. Yugoslavia burned.
Whether by fate, or a hiccup, or pure chance, the Soviet border captain had relented, angrily waving my family across to Czechoslovakia and then Austria, to seek a better life in the West. Two months later, we were stationed at a refugee safe house on the outskirts of Vienna. Most of the inhabitants were ex-Soviet Jews, like us, but one night, a family of Bosnian Muslims showed up at the shelter. We didn’t have many belongings – a change of clothes, spare blankets, bits of cookware which had survived that awful night at the Soviet border – but compared to the Bosnians we were barons. The Bosnians didn’t speak to us and mostly kept to their room, only venturing out to use the communal bathroom, and even then, they moved as in a trance. Rumor had it they fled to Vienna because of the Orthodox Serbian death squads operating with impunity in the new post-Communist world, settling scores and launching a campaign of ethnic cleansing that would rage across southeast Europe for years.
The Wall had collapsed and echoes still ring across Chechnya, and Central Asia, through eastern Ukraine, and the Balkans. The Wall had collapsed and my family ran toward freedom; the Bosnians across the hall from us ran for their lives.
Lev Golinkin is the author of the memoir A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, out this week.