A cursory Google search finds voluminous clips and blogs offering snippets of trips to former communist countries before Francis Fukuyama declared the End of History. Many of these comprise vintage polaroids from the ’60s and ’70s or VHS-C camcorder footage from the ’80s. A sequence shot of a Saint Petersburg Metro journey in the time of Brezhnev would ten years ago appear a trip down an irreconcilable lane. Born in ’85, I even whitewashed my early years, banishing the Cold War and its messy aftermath to the dustbin. Not so now.
Millions of westerners briefly experienced life behind the Iron Curtain and a not inconsiderable number of easterners did the same in the west, this with greater restrictons imposed by their home governments. Hammer-and-sickle enclaves were popular destinations for a kind of ‘police state tourism’, the almighty Soviet Union the predominant attraction.
The Soviets’ need for hard currency was the driving factor in this contradictory embrace of the outsider. Exchange rates were highly inflated, and what you could and couldn’t do was restricted. The visitor was obliged to stick to one’s pre-disclosed itinerary, and, officially, not trade on the black market. This was, however, unoffically permitted as a stimulator of commerce which the often struggling economy needed.
I’d rather travel to the Soviet Union of 1985 than the Russia of today; astonishingly, it appears more hospitable and the people more cordial yet at the same time more exotic. My experiences the past few years have been a mixed bag – so many cities are so alike in their banality that after a mere six hours in them I long for the return flight home as I recall that memorable line in Fight Club (1999): ‘Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.’ I could be in Frankfurt but it may as well be Milan – much-vaunted landmarks aside they both house the same old shit and the same faux-charming narratives, with English the certified Esperanto of the city experience.
We are, however, as a reaction to the ill-thought-out effects of globalisation now less likely to dance around the Schengen fire to kumbaya and exalt in the multicultural utopia. Just east of the EU, Russia as it is today in its hideous incarnation makes those archive clips on YouTube appear a snapshot of a more civilised time. For good or bad, as the European federal project continues to erode from within, we may return to the fully autonomous nation state system our parents dismantled. It perhaps makes travel more purposeful, with destinations the more fanciful. We’re going back to building walls in order to bridge a way foward.
Leipzig in the 1950s:
A rather depressing video of a mile-long queue for a newly opened McDonald’s: