The ‘Wall’ in their Own Words

'The Wall in My Head' by Various Authors (Open Letter)

“Freedom had hit Russia like a great slap, and people were still reeling from the shock,” Irakli Iosebashevili writes of the mood among Muscovites in 1993 in his short story “The Life and Times of a Soviet Capitalist.” The authors of the essays and vignettes collected in “The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain” agree on few things, but on this subject they find common ground: the world changed in 1989, and the peoples of the former Soviet Republics were wholly unprepared.

“The Wall in My Head,” whose release marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, is an eclectic anthology, composed of excerpts from previously published novels by authors like Milan Kundera and Victor Pelevin, previously unpublished short stories and essays by Peter Esterhazy and Uwe Tellkamp, among others, as well as art and photographs from artists including Walter Gaudnek and Brian Rose.

The written portions investigate the Soviet Union and its collapse from most every geographical, social and ideological perspective. But the collection’s subtitle is misleading. “The Wall in My Head” isn’t a meditation on the end of communism in the Soviet Bloc, but its history entire—its successes, its failures, and its absurdities. Thought-provoking, oddly nostalgic, and ultimately inconclusive, “The Wall in My Head” is a worthy investigation of a way of life which, for all its flaws, found a place in the hearts and minds of millions.

The book begins by openly challenging the model for daily life in the Soviet Union in a series of stories that emphasize the various shortcomings and irrationalities of the Soviet regime. “Paris Lost” by Wladimir Kaminer is the account of a counterfeit Paris, built by the Soviet government as part of a program to supposedly send some of the nation’s most productive workers on a free vacation to the European center of culture. Of course, they couldn’t possibly do this in reality—after all, capitalist temptations were lying in wait to seduce and entrap those good Communist citizens. Instead, the Soviet government chose to “build their own ‘Abroad’ in the Steppes of southern Russia, near Stavropol, with a real city, and many inhabitants,” a charade which lasted until a foreign journalist got hold of the story.

An extract from “Omon Ra” by Victor Pelevin takes an even bleaker outlook. The drunken narrator comes to realize that “the entire immense country in which [he] lived was made up of lots and lots of these lousy little closets where there was a smell of garbage and people had just been drinking cheap port,” an acknowledgment of the tedium and squalidness of quotidian life in the Soviet Union. Other stories critique the endless, labyrinthine bureaucracy and the culture of mistrust, where civilians spy on their fellow citizens.

But “The Wall In My Head” is by no means an indictment of communism. On the contrary, several of the stories and essays seem to almost pine for its simplicity and order. One of the finest essays in the collection, “Farewell to the Queue,” by Vladimir Sorokin, uses queues as a metaphor for the togetherness and order of Soviet society—a “quasi-surrogate for church,” which taught obedience while giving people time to ponder the advantages of socialism. In his view, the market economy replaced order with chaos, collectiveness with competition, simplicity with complexity; it replaced the queue with the crowd. “The ordeal of the free market,” writes Sorokin, “turned out to be more frightening than the Gulag... because it forced people to part with the oneiric space of collective slumber, forced them to leave the ideally balanced Stalinist cosmos behind.”

In “The Life and Times of a Soviet Capitalist,” a gangster friend of the titular character joins his family for dinner. He too, finds something lacking in the new, disorderly capitalist system. “In all of its history, Georgia never did so well as it did during Communist times,” he declares. “Everyone had their piece of bread... I hated the communists. But look at what people have to go through now. You think what they have in Georgia is freedom? Being able to eat, that’s freedom.”

Finally, the collection confronts the issue suggested by its title—the fall of the Iron Curtain. The Berlin Wall itself is best introduced in an excerpt from “The Wall Jumper” by Peter Schneider, a one-time student activist in 1960s Berlin. Against expectations, the wall is not presented as some overbearing, malignant force. Schneider instead tells the story of two boys who routinely jumped the wall in order to see films only available on the Western side, before returning home to the East (and even refusing, on one occasion, a direct offer to stay). Anyone who has visited the Berlin Wall’s remains will know that this story is rather fanciful, but its inclusion is an interesting insight into the patchwork portrait of life behind the Iron Curtain that “The Wall in My Head” is attempting to build.

Mostly, “The Wall in My Head” is about communism and the people who lived under it—not when it collapsed under its own weight, but when it threatened to become the world’s dominant form of government. The authors of the anthology, as disparate in their ideologies as in their backgrounds, reach no conclusions. They make few grand claims about communism as a system of government. To some extent, the lack of some overarching statement or idea is frustrating, but it simultaneously feels just. Instead of prescribing a specific view, “The Wall in My Head” makes the reader think, reconsider, and question accepted wisdom.

According to journalist Gleb Pavlovsky, the collection provides an answer to the question “Where from?” Without this answer, he believes, the people of Eastern Europe will be unable to answer another question: “Where to?” For citizens of post-Soviet states, “The Wall in My Head” provides a new avenue for understanding their past.

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