Walls and bridges

By Sergei Nikitin, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director.

“And then one morning in August 1961, the workers and employees of the German Democratic Republic (as East Germany called itself then), tired of the endless provocations of the West German revenge-seekers, built a wall finally separating them from the ‘paradise’ of the Western world.” That‘s how my history teacher at school told us how the Berlin Wall was erected. To me, at the time, the actions of the East German working people seemed quite reasonable. The nagging question, though, always remained: “where did you get so many bricks from to build this huge wall in one day?”

Years passed and for schoolchildren in the Soviet Union the Berlin Wall was a given, just as the Great Wall of China was. Nobody really wondered why the forces of progress and peace, as we used to call Soviet bloc countries, feared so desperately the decadent West. Why was it necessary to cut this great city in two, disfiguring not only its streets, but also the life and fate of its inhabitants?

These questions began to arise later. The younger generation of Soviet people began to look at things critically, to listen to the wheezing sound of the jammed Western radio stations, to read “anti-Soviet” books imported from the West, to dance to rock music. All this was difficult to access. The realization that we were deprived of information about the real world by artificially erected barriers like the Berlin wall made us feel that we had been robbed.

Years passed, and the Soviet system began to collapse. The reasons were many, but a kind of final push for the collapse of the kingdom of lies and repression was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. It seemed that the last symbol of all obstacles to freedom – freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, – had gone, broken down and crushed.

The 90s were the years of freedom for the Russian society. Civil initiative grew, NGOs multiplied, people forgot the fear and total control. It was then that Amnesty International opened an office in Moscow.

It seemed that all the walls had been destroyed, it was time to build bridges.

In those days of general euphoria who would have thought that the people who supported the functioning of the Berlin Wall as a filter and an obstacle to free thought would be planning the erection of new walls?. One unknown Soviet lieutenant colonel was then working as a KGB agent in Dresden. Ten years later, circumstances would bring this man to the helm of Russian politics. And, it seems, many of his decisions and actions were dictated by his resentment over the destroyed wall.

Today President Vladimir Putin is surrounding Russia with walls. It seems the lessons of history went unheeded. Russians often support the building of new “walls”, fencing the country off from the rest of the world. There are different reasons for this, including the reluctance to learn from past mistakes.

In Russia, once again propaganda is replacing truthful and objective information, harassment of bloggers and human rights activists grows real and virtual. Walls are being erected within society. So called patriots are pitted against so called foreign agents, Orthodox Christians against atheists, liberals against traditionalists, the media is divided into “anti-Russian” and “patriotic” – the list is long. These walls are being built gradually, but methodically.

However, in Russia now, as in the past, there are people who do not accept the erection of walls, who do not succumb to repression. Dissenters in Russia today are relatively few, but they are definitely more than in the USSR. And even if they are persecuted and prosecuted, global solidarity, the work of international and national human rights organizations, and the lessons history has taught us tell us that no matter how many new walls are erected – they will inevitably fall.

The bridges will remain.