The Berlin Wall has been gone twenty-five years now, and the Soviet Union’s collapse is fifteen years old – although Vladimir Putin may be trying to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.
I remember The Wall well.
A 1985 newspaper assignment took me from West Berlin, a rich, vibrant, noisy, stylish, all-night reveling open city with symphony concerts next to live nude girl shows and fancy eateries, like New Orleans’ Bourbon Street on steroids – a glittering capitalist island surrounded by drab communist mediocrity – into East Berlin where I was to report on how the Soviet puppet state really worked.
Instead of entering The Wall at Checkpoint Charlie like I was supposed to, I took the no-outsiders subway under The Wall with a covert East German contact arranged by anonymous friends – I was in no danger since the Stasi (State Security) didn’t care who came in, just who tried to sneak out – into the Mitte (Center), with its glorious Space Needle imitation that looked like some giant comedian had stuck a soccer ball on a very tall, skinny highway construction cone. There my contact had to leave me to my own devices.
First I walked along the much decorated and disguised Wall as East Germans saw it, then rode all the transportation including taxis, busses and subways, bought something in a selection of stores, ate in a tourist restaurant and a basement workers’ cafeteria (my contact told me where to find it before she had to disappear), checked out the communications system like telephones, radio and television. My assignment was to write about that nuts-and-bolts stuff. Don’t laugh, it’s a living.
Bottom line: East Berlin worked okay and the people went about their business normally – which included bean soup in the cafeteria, no phone books but lots of bulletin boards pinned with notes asking about apartment availability, hundred-foot-high portraits of Marx and Lenin decorating slab-sided Stalinist architecture, a bus ride out to Pankow where all the Party bigwigs lived (my fears of arrest dissolved when nobody even looked at me), standing in line for twenty minutes to get inside the book store where I bought a volume of Lenin’s works in German, which was fun taking through American Customs a few weeks later. My exit from East Berlin was through the tourist subway, where the bored guard looked at my passport and gave it back, but wouldn’t give me a souvenir stamp in it – darn. I took some East German coins with me, which is forbidden.
I still have them.