Thursday, October 07, 2004

Berlin

It's been 23 years since I was in this city last and had someone told me (or, more likely, my parents) the circumstances under which I would stand here today, they would not have believed a word. I was then 3 years old and the citizen of a Soviet empire that looked too frighteningly solid to ever crumble.

My future was to be simple and secure. I would never starve, exactly, nor want for shelter or a minimum of functional clothing. I would be provided with as much state-approved (and therefore heavily censored) education as I wished. When that was done, I would opt for some profession or other with the state - the only employer in existence, of course - then settle down with some nice Soviet boy whereupon I could produce a few more healthy workers. We would be allocated housing according to our needs and status within society or the party.

I would be given everything that a human would need to subsist but not more. Nor was there a point in wanting more as there was no way to achieve it honestly - to attain a better life, I could become a party apparatchik or a devious underhanded swindler (same thing, really, when you think about it) - working hard or harder than anyone else or taking a business risk was pointless as there was no reward for it at all.

Risk was, theoretically, taken out of my life and the price exacted was my freedom. Freedom of association, location, thought, profession, achievement and attainment of self-determined goals - all the things that make life worth living. This life was determined for me without my consent and I could not make the choice to leave as an adult, I was very much a chattel of the state.

Berlin, then, to me existed only as half a city. The other side - West Berlin - was surrounded by a wall, by barbed wire, by sentries with machine guns, by land mines, by anti-tank ditches and by a psychological barrier that was at least as formiddable as all these put together. The last may not have yet been formed in my young mind but would eventually be there as potently restrictive in me as in the rest of the population - my free education would have seen to that.

23 years ago, I would have been shot dead for what I did today.

This morning light was crisp and golden as I walked along Unter den Linden toward the Brandenburg Gate. Leaves were falling and lay curled in an even spread amongst the trees on the way, breaking the otherwise pristine neatness of the streets. I held the hand of my Australian husband and spoke fluent, unbroken English with him. In his pocket were two passports - his and mine - both Australian.

We passed under the Gate which had once separated East and West Berlin - and walked through it to the west - unhindered, unquestioned and free to pursue any kind of life that our talent, drive, discipline and fortune would allow.

My life wasn't supposed to look like this, but it does. Berlin wasn't supposed to be this free, but it is. The next time you hear a 'futurologist' or learned professor discussing the future as if it's already been determined, stating what will and will not happen, what kind of technologies we can and cannot possibly have, what kind of political systems are stable and which are not - remember the Berlin wall and the fact that by their reckoning I should be in a tractor factory somewhere in Smolensk, third child on the way to my nice Soviet husband in our nice Soviet flat...

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