The Iron Curtain and Freedom of Travel

When I was in Transnistria, I had to go to the immigration office to obtain a tourism permit that would allow me to stay in the country beyond the 48-hour visa that I had picked up at the train station. The father of the hostel owner offered to accompany me to translate, should it become necessary.

He was very kind and interesting, and while we were waiting for my application to be processed, he was talking about his life as a radio technician in the USSR.

He told me that he used to travel a lot when he was young.

I asked him, very naively, if he had been traveling more since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

“But that’s not possible anymore,” he sighed. “Back in Soviet times, oh yes, I was traveling to Lithuania, to Estonia, to Armenia, to the Caspian Sea, to Georgia, to the Baltic Sea, to Kyrgyzstan, to Samarkand. But now, I need a visa for each of these countries, there are new borders everywhere.”

I was humbled. For me, the geo-politcal changes of 1989-1991 had opened up another world. But for many others, it had made their world smaller. With a Transnistrian passport, he can’t venture very far.

It had also made their world more brutal, in many places. And the war in Transnistria was not even a very bad one, as wars go.

Yugoslavia is another example, where people could not only travel freely in what are now seven different countries, but because of the non-aligned status, it was easy to travel almost anywhere in the world with the Yugoslav passport. There, the wars were very bad, though.

That day in Tiraspol, I began to understand people’s nostalgia for a country that in the West was only associated with oppression. Ever since, I have been more open to listen to people’s stories who are so different from mine. There are many reasons beyond the ones mentioned here why people long back to Soviet or Yugoslav times. Yes, these were dictatorships, but it seems that many people remember the time as cozier, more cultured, more egalitarian, safer. If you are interested in understanding this sentiment, there is a wonderful book by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, Second-Hand Time, a book which certainly does not shy away from portraying the horrors of the Soviet system. But nothing is just black or white, as these heart-wrenching stories reveal.

By the way, I got the Transnistrian permit for staying in the country after waiting a mere 10 minutes. And it came free of charge.

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About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Cold War, History, Transnistria, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Iron Curtain and Freedom of Travel

  1. My knowledge of the geography of what was USSR is atrocious. SO many countries…
    From your stories, it seems that the people no longer have a Big common enemy (the Soviet government) so they’re fighting “tribal” wars, and many miss they way things were before.
    It’s sad that it seems that we can only unite in hatred, AGAINST something or someone.

  2. List of X says:

    Transnistria is in kind of a unique case, because it’s not recognized as a country by most of the world, so their travel options may be severely limited by this fact. For most of the rest of the former USSR, except, I’m guessing, other quasi-states like Abkhazia or South Ossetia, the citizens of newly created countries still mostly have the ability to travel both the former USSR and more or less the rest of the world, whereas in the USSR one had to get stacks of documents and references and pass interviews just to – maybe – be deemed worthy and ideologically true just travel to, say, Poland or Bulgaria.
    And as for oppression, our understanding may be a little skewed, since we don’t get to hear the perspective of any of tens of millions of people who died in the GULAG or were executed, and even most of the people who did survive and had their stories of oppression aren’t with us any longer.

    • I think the people who need to apply for a Schengen visa now experience a similar bureaucracy than in the Soviet Union, except that now, being poor is the new knock-out criteria.

      The survivor bias is an issue, indeed.
      Although, as I read “Second-Hand Time”, I was shocked by how many people who experienced oppression, who had been to prison, who had been to labor camps, spoke with warmth of their time in the Soviet Union. As one man said: “Maybe it was a prison, but it felt warmer there than it does now.”

    • Oh, and about Transnistria: It seemed to me that most people had ad least one other passport, some of them even three: from Russia, from Moldova and from Ukraine.

      The whole non-recognition thing doesn’t matter too much in day-to-day affairs, and even the border wasn’t as strict as some other borders. Some guys, with big packages of stuff held over their heads, were simply wading through the low-running river. Cigarette smugglers, probably. In broad daylight.

  3. Pre-1988, with my passport, I had to be much more careful about borders in West Europe than in the East. Mistakes at borders in the east would result in a dressing down and a warning, in the west it could be a stamp on the passport which was more troublesome.

    • And that’s an Indian passport, isn’t it?
      I would actually love to read about your impressions from divided Europe at that time.

  4. Ah, those hated borders, the scourge of human existence.

    • Living in Schengen, we sometimes forget this, I guess. Although, shockingly, the Iron Curtain still exists in the minds of many Western Europeans. In Germany, I live relatively close to the border with the Czech Republic, a beautiful country so close, yet many Germans still wouldn’t venture there, believing that there is nothing to see (completely wrong), that it’s dangerous (also wrong) or simply not even considering it, as if it was still pre-1989.

      Lucky you that you are from a country with no land borders at all! :P

      By the way, thank you very much for your support for my blog! Grazzi!

  5. brokenradius says:

    Hi Andreas, I Hope you are aware of UDF (“Unerkannt durch Freundesland”). I would say this is a must-read for you.
    https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unerkannt_durch_Freundesland

    I take pride in having been one of them.

  6. Geri Lawhon says:

    I like this post because the views were of the local’s point of view. Thanks for this enlightening piece.

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