The Berlin Wall went up when I was 14, and it’s responsible for the first black mark in my political file. (In case you’re wondering, every Soviet citizen had one of those, and it followed him over a lifetime wherever he went.)
Our history teacher, who never missed an opportunity to interpret every historical event, no matter how remote, in line with the current policy of the Party, explained why that barrier had to be erected: too many West Germans were fleeing to the GDR.
“And vice versa,” I blurted out with youthful impetuosity. The teacher’s features hardened. “Where did you get that information?” he asked in the tone of a KGB interrogator weighing a rubber truncheon in his hand. “I got mine from our Soviet papers,” he added by way of establishing the only possible interpreter of current events.
“Just a figure of speech,” went my reply, as cowardly as it was useless. The damage had already been done, an indelible black mark in my file guaranteed. Eleven years later I left the country, and that piebald dossier is doubtless still there somewhere, gathering dust in the dark cellars of an FSB computer.
But there was a bright side to that incident: I acquired a simple, fail-free criterion for comparing different countries. It’s partly informed by another school experience: my struggles with those bloody swimming pools and their two pipes, one pumping water in, the other letting it out.
I substitute a country for the swimming pool and ask whether the incoming throng is greater than the outgoing one and, if so, how different. If a country has to erect walls to keep people out, it can’t be all bad. If the wall is built to keep people in, it’s definitely all bad. And if people are prepared to risk their lives trying to get out, the country is outright rotten.
In the original example above, at least 140 East Germans were killed trying to scale the Wall, against, in round numbers, zero climbing the opposite way. There’s the Wall Museum in Berlin, showing the creative, death-defying stratagems East Germans devised for leaving the communist paradise. Trampolines, hot-air balloons, homemade aircraft, shipment crates into which they packed themselves at the risk of suffocation – human ingenuity at its best is on display there.
The same stories could be told about North and South Korea, North and South Vietnam – before the South was overrun, that is. Afterwards came the boat people, risking a likely, if not almost certain, death. Cuba had her fair share of those as well, many of whom drowned at sea on the way to Florida or were machinegunned by Castro’s patrol boats.
The USSR had its land borders protected by a million heavily armed guards falling under the aegis of the KGB internal troops. In addition to their AKs and attack dogs, they had at their disposal minefields, electronic sensors activating unmanned machineguns, floodlights, miles and miles of electrified razor wire.
And still desperate people tried to run away. Their drama features many tragedies and at least one comedy.
When I left the USSR, it had 15 constituent republics, but when I was little there were 16. One, the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic had to be disbanded because almost its entire population fled to Finland across the border that was notoriously hard to patrol.
This brings me closer to home both geographically and temporally. For Europe too has its own boat people, thousands of them, who risk life and limb braving the Channel on the way to Britain.
They are prepared to spend years in hellish French and Belgian refugee camps, waiting for a chance to enter the UK legally. And when that’s not on the cards, they scrape together their last pennies to put themselves into the hands of the present-day answer to slavers (boats or lorries), knowing in advance that many will drown or suffocate.
Applying my trusted yardstick to the situation in hand, I have to ask why they are prepared to risk their lives to flee the powerful and prosperous European Union for a feeble Britain, which, as we’re told, is going to starve as a result of Brexit.
Since my criterion has withstood the test of time, I have to believe that, in the eyes of desperate outside observers, the EU relates to the UK as North Vietnam related to South, North Korea to South, East Germany to West, Cuba to Florida and the USSR to anywhere-will-do.
The urge to survive, or at least to improve one’s lot, against all odds focuses the mind almost like an impending execution. So could it be that those poor people understand something about the EU its own denizens (and some of ours) don’t?
Surely not? However…