Cold War. Iron Curtain.
Four words, two phrases, several meanings.
When I went to school, a third of the world lived under “communist” rule. Travel was restricted and Europe was divided. By the time I left, everything had changed. Why? How? And what were those places like today?
That was the premise behind my Iron Route project, which I’ve been chronicling here on Inside the Travel Lab, zig-zagging across the former Iron Curtain as I travelled from Istanbul to Berlin by train.
It’s time to talk about those two words at the heart of the journey: the Iron Curtain.
Despite its jagged-sounding name, I’d always thought the Iron Curtain a rather woolly, nebulous, politician’s term, thrown around with carelessness like so many other words and phrases in the press. Costs soaring, shares plummeting, debt spiralling, being rushed into hospital. Just another one of those hyped up phrases that loses its meaning over time.
I’d assumed that “Iron Curtain” was a headline-craving, melodramatic way of describing that there were some countries in the world that didn’t follow the US quite as much as Britain did. I’d heard that they followed this thing called “communism,” whereby instead of only a few people in society having all the money and power but doing virtually none of the work, both work and resources were shared out equally. It sounded like a good idea, to be honest, though even as a child I soon learned not to say that out loud when we went to the US.
Time passed, the curtain fell, I grew up, studied and started travelling.
The Iron Curtain, as it turns out, may as well have been a full, physical barrier – and in many places it was. The Berlin Wall remains the most famous example – but barbed wire and watchtowers, policed by soldiers ready to kill, stretched along most of the borders between the Soviet Union and the rest of Western Europe. Attempting to flee the Soviet Union was an offence punishable by imprisonment or even death.
The House of Terror in Budapest recreates the interrogation rooms and actual execution dungeon in a chillingly effective manner. Thousands, if not millions, died under Stalin’s watch in the forced labour camps, or gulags, but I’m getting ahead of myself in terms of the #ironroute journey, not to mention travelling far too far east.
I was in Ljubljana, in Slovenia, and I was trying to find out more about that period of time.
Evidently, I wasn’t very good at explaining myself.
“We were never behind the iron curtain,” said a woman named Petra, in a manner designed to close all further communication.
“I never thought you were,” I replied, hesitant, apologetic and a tiny bit confused.
Slovenia, at that time formed a part of Yugoslavia, a country under what “the West” would probably call communist control, but what everyone I met within Slovenia firmly described as socialism.
Yugoslavia was not, emphatically not, part of the USSR. (In fact, their leader, General Tito, fell out with Stalin soon after the end of the Second World War and their countries never quite forgave each other.)
“Sure, OK, there were differences,” said Martin Šušteršič, a stunningly well-informed man with a habit of speaking at the rate of rapid machine gun fire. “And Tito was a dictator, yes, but a fairly gentle one. Better than Mussolini (who ruled nearby Italy) and certainly gentler than Gorbachev, whom the West applauded in later years.”
Martin is tall, slim and about my age. A trained scientist who also gives tours around his native Slovenia, albeit not usually about this.
“Socialism was very different to being behind the Iron Curtain. There was freedom of speech, to an extent, freedom of religion, to an extent and freedom of travel, totally.
“Most Slovenians would holiday in Western Europe because the borders to the east were sealed with barbed wire and the guards always looked… Unpleasant. It was not a nice experience to cross those borders.
“We in Yugoslavia, we had… not free trade…but free-er (than in the USSR.)
“Tito was also a proponent of different solutions for different countries. He said that what happened in the Soviet Union would not work in Yugoslavia.
“You need to remember that Tito had grown up in a time when the kingdom was very corrupt, and people were poor. He – and we, Slovenia – saw fascism in Italy on one side and events in Germany on the other and knew we didn’t want that.
“Now, there was a recent poll and the majority of Slovenians feel that Tito was a good leader, given the times in which he lived, and the problems that he inherited at the end of the Second World War.”
We walked past some of the buildings constructed during Tito’s time before I had to race to catch my next train.
I got in touch with Petra again, to try to clear up the misunderstanding.
“It is a bit touchy with the ex-Yugoslavia thing since there is a lot of misunderstanding from (mostly western) foreigners.”
Ah, yes. The ex-Yugoslavia thing. An even rawer, more recent event, one that deserves another look at another time.
Petra continues. “How could they understand if they haven’t lived it?”
“May I quote you on that?”
“Of course, but please with an addition. There are however more and more conscious and informed journalists such as yourself.”
I’m sure she’s trying to be kind but the more I read and the more I travel, the less that description sounds like me.
But I am trying.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com