The Russians Move West

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As we turned onto the highway leading northeast to Rovno, we found the westbound lane crammed. Not just the usual green trucks but huge, clanking tanks belching heavy diesel fumes, and vans full of soldiers. In contrast, our lane was empty. We picked up speed and hoped we would soon leave this military array behind. But hour after hour we skirted an endless procession. Our little car seemed tiny and exposed next to all that might. We didn’t say much; we sat stiff and staring into the road pierced by our headlights, hardly daring to move for fear of attracting some unwelcome attention from those in the opposite lane.

Finally we spotted the turnoff for Rovno. At the tourist hotel we found that our rooms had been given to someone else. We had no choice but to drive all night to Kiev, where we had rooms for the following night. People were already on their way to work the next morning when we arrived.

The Intourist office showed little sympathy when we asked for our rooms so that we could catch up on sleep. But when we threatened to turn the hotel lounge into a bedchamber, they gave in. Only in the late afternoon, when we learned that the East Germans had closed their borders “to keep spies and saboteurs out,” did we guess the import of yesterday’s delay. The Soviet Union was moving troops west to back up their ally in case NATO chose a military response. We came that close to being enemy aliens in the U.S.S.R. at the opening of the Third World War.

In a week the Berlin Wall began to go up. Twenty-nine years later I stood looking down at a pile of neatly boxed pieces of the structure that nearly ignited such disaster. I turned away. No thanks. Not even at 50% off.