Freedom to travel anywhere, any time
Holidays, travelling and even living abroad are all part and parcel of modern life. We’re generally free to move between countries to explore new places and cultures of our own volition.
However, during the Soviet era, things were very different. The border between East and West was harsh and unforgiving, leaving citizens of the Eastern Bloc little freedom of movement.
Just two months after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the communist authorities imposed movement controls, forbidding their citizens from leaving the country without state approval.
Despite these controls, people continued to leave the Eastern Bloc. In the five years after World War II, over 15 million immigrants escaped from Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe to the West. The weakest point in the Soviet border was the crossing between East and West Berlin, and many East Germans emigrated to West Germany, even though this meant committing the official crime of ‘flight from the Republic’. In 1961, the East German authorities decided to crack down on the exodus, and erected a barbed-wire barrier to prevent their citizens leaving for the West. This barrier would go on to become the Berlin Wall – the ultimate symbol of the division between East and West.
People were trapped, and any attempt at escape could result in death. During the time the wall stood, between 1961 and 1989, it’s estimated that around 140 people died trying to make the crossing. Border guards shot most defectors, while others drowned in the River Spree.
It wasn’t just moving from East to West that was problematic for Soviet citizens. Even travelling within the Eastern Bloc was difficult. Visas were only given out to those travelling on a business or diplomatic trip organised by the communist government.
During the time the wall stood, between 1961 and 1989, it’s estimated that around 140 people died trying to make the crossing.
People were forced to be resourceful when it came to travel and found elaborate ways to get around the obstacles. Football holidays became popular, in which citizens would travel to another Eastern bloc country where the home team was playing a team from the West. While these trips initially had the consent of the government who wanted the West to see fans cheering for their home team, it eventually became clear that the fans were in fact travelling to see high-profile Western footballers play. Once the authorities worked out what was going on, they soon clamped down on these trips.
As the Cold War thawed and the Soviet Union collapsed, people began taking matters into their own hands. Governments found themselves unable to stop the swelling tide of citizens wanting to escape communism and the floodgates opened. In 1989, Hungary removed border restrictions with its neighbour Austria and as a result 13,000 East Germans holidaying there fled to Austria.
In 1989, the most obvious symbol of oppression from the communist era – the Berlin Wall – finally fell, torn down by its own citizens. This united East and West Germans for the first time since the sixties. Travel restrictions were lifted, and East Europeans finally started to enjoy the freedom to travel the world that those in the West had enjoyed for decades.
Real people: Axel Mitbauer
19-year-old Axel Mitbauer was one of the brightest stars in East Germany’s swimming team, excelling in the 400-metre freestyle. Mitbauer became disillusioned with life behind the Iron Curtain after hearing stories about life in the West when he took part in competitions, so decided to flee.
After months of planning, in August 1969, Mitbauer made his way to the Baltic Sea, jumping off a moving train on the way to shake off the Stasi. Under the cover of night, Mitbauer swam 22 treacherous kilometres to freedom across the Baltic Sea.
He used 30 tubes of Vaseline to protect himself against the freezing cold, and arrived at Travemuende with only his swimming trunks, flippers and a medal.
By the time the Wall came down, over 600 athletes had escaped to the West.