New Friends From “The East,” c. 1994

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The other day we watched Steven Spielberg’s 2015 film, Bridge of Spies. You may know it stars Tom Hanks, playing the idealistic American he can portray so well. The film also well-conveys the tenor of its times – the espionage, mistrust, and especially pain, suffering, and even brutality, in a Germany divided between non-communist West and communist East as the Berlin Wall is erected in 1960-61, leading to the separations of friends and loved ones that would last often for nearly thirty years after.

Flag of the Soviet Union, 1922-1991.
Flag of the Soviet Union, 1922-1991.

Much of the film is historically reasonable. Yes, some minor plot points drift a bit from the historical record. For example, the episode involving the American graduate student arrested in East Berlin by the communist East German authorities deviates somewhat from the experience of the actual student.

But inaccuracies like that do not diminish the film’s contribution. With action taking place on screen as we watch and that reality making it difficult to show concurrent plotlines, and jammed into two hours viewing time or less, nearly any film that attempts to be 100 percent “history book” precise will probably be unwatchable. The key to a good historical film is it must capture the essence of the characters of the day and the spirit and general flow of events being dramatized.

1960, the year Bridge of Spies is set, is now the era of our parents and grandparents and perhaps even great-grandparents. Naturally the passage of time means college age Americans and Europeans today do not recall even the 1980s and 1990s – the era of the collapse of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and the end of the Soviet Union. Many in America and Europe now are also too young similarly to recall the East Bloc pre-German unification (1990) and the harsh communist police-state dictatorship that was the former East Germany itself.

Flag of East Germany, 1949-1990.
Flag of East Germany, 1949-1990.

By the early 1990s, those of us then in our late teens and twenties in the West witnessed the demise of the Soviet Union, with the bulk of the former Soviet Union becoming today’s Russia. Countries on the collapsing Soviet frontiers mostly became a series of independent states. There was also a new self-determination for already nominally independent countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia; and Germany itself was unified with the collapsed communist East “swallowed up” by the larger, far more prosperous, West Germany to make the Germany we see today.

Within the former Soviet Union itself there was also social breakdown and terrible crime as communist state institutions fell apart. For several years in the mid-late 1990s, Moscow was a violent and dangerous city. Most of the other newly independent former Soviet states were often in even more desperate straits.

This stock map below is probably from about 1990. Germany is colored as a single country (so is now recently unified); but there is as of yet no independent Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Yugoslavia is visible, and so too is Czechoslovakia. And the Soviet Union still exists:

Free Stock Photo. Illustrated map of Europe.
Free Stock Photo. Illustrated map of Europe.

Nowadays travel is so commonplace within Europe we scarcely think much about it and even take it for granted. The entire continent is generally accessible from both directions. Weekend getaways between London and Paris, and say, Vilnius, Lithuania, are part of routine life in a way that they were most definitely not in 1988.

Also interesting is this. No U.S. president has been married to a foreign-born woman since John Quincy Adams (1825-1829), whose wife, Louisa, was born in England to an American father and an English mother. They married in Europe when he was living there and she did not visit America for the first time until after she and John Quincy had been married for several years. As First Lady, she was occasionally attacked by some Americans for being “English.”

How the world has changed. This would have been nearly inconceivable as recently as 1990, but Melania Trump, wife of the current president-elect of the United States, was born of entirely non-U.S. parents (and her father evidently was a committed communist) in the former communist Yugoslavia. And unlike Mrs. Adams who was an American citizen by birth (her father being a diplomat), Mrs. Trump was naturalized as a U.S. citizen and only ten years ago.

Yugoslavia was never quite as cut off from the non-communist West as was the rest of Eastern Europe. Still, those in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe did not generally travel abroad because they were not usually allowed to do so. Therefore to meet a Russian, or anyone from the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, was not an everyday experience for us in the West prior to 1989.

However, with the end of the Soviet Union between 1989-1992, Russians and other Eastern European contemporaries, free finally to travel, began to appear in numbers in America and in Europe. Suddenly they were even sometimes sitting next to us in college and graduate school classes. In my first three novels I try to share some of what those times occasionally felt like for us, with our new friends:

Excerpt from
Excerpt from “Passports.” Click to expand.

Today even if we don’t choose to, or simply cannot, travel, we may via blogs, Twitter and Instagram, and other social media that most certainly did not exist in 1990, see images of life in Russia and elsewhere in the former East Bloc flying by us. Google maps will show us streets in Moscow. Whatever the ups and downs of current international politics, we are able to interact with each other.

So Bridge of Spies is the sort of historical film that is helpful for this generation: a major film reminder of how ugly life could be between about 1960-1989 in a far more divided Europe is now probably a good idea. Historical film dramas are not to be confused with history texts, but are important openers perhaps to enable us to start to wrap our heads around a world in which we may not have ourselves lived. If you want to learn more, go buy a book or two on the subject and treat any film not as a last word, but as a starting point for knowledge.

Have a good weekend, wherever you are in our world. 🙂

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