Crossing the Soviet border

THE closed borders of the Soviet Union represent a most severe form of repression. They enclose a sort of prison for many people -- Soviet Jews, nationalists, religious sectarians, divided families, dissidents, and others trying to leave. The borders also symbolize the vast ideological barrier surrounding that country. What happens to the image of the Iron Curtain when a foreign traveler approaches the border? What does it mean to cross the border into the Soviet Union?

At the border, the abstract notion of a closed society becomes tangible. By land, the border appears as constructions of barbed wire and watchtowers -- visible signs of separation and symbol with which to identify the idea of repression.

The border also is, in a sense, Soviet customs -- and their sometimes chilling ceremony in which foreigners face authorities of the alien system. There is some trepidation, perhaps a fleeting sense of lost freedom, or a fear of being implicated for bearing some literature to be construed as objectionable in some way.

An integral element of the border is also the people. The border guards ask their questions and perform the search, removing what's not permitted, making notations of violations. Customs remains the fairly simple procedure of checking and escorting foreigners into the country.

The whole customs procedure at the border provides a fitting welcome to a country where what can be seen rarely represents what it seems. Crossing the Soviet border gives the illusory impression that a significant step has been taken into a once-closed society. It suggests that merely traveling the distance means entrance into Soviet society.

The temptation to attach meaning to what is seen must be resisted. Complex and highly sophisticated, the border separating foreigners from Soviet society runs far deeper than could ever meet an unknowing eye: The borders of Soviet society penetrate every sphere of life.

When Russian and foreigner are together, the separation is evident in many ways. The guarded conversations in public places in a foreigner's presence, the cautious whispers beneath the sounds of music, the strict silence inside a cab. The suspicious stares of unknown neighbors, the silence in dim apartment hallways.

By contrast, an almost frivolous anonymity pervades crowded streets, where voices and emotion slip harmlessly into the air.

A Muscovite's private apartment provides temporary sanctuary. The radio buzzes. Life continues outside. But for a precious time, charades cease. Books come out of the case. A teakettle whistles. Emotions tentatively stir once again.

It is time to reach, to think. To discuss the problems that trouble you -- divisions between countries, loss of spirituality, aspirations without clear means. To enjoy the warmth of friendship and the elation of reaching so far, across barriers of language, politics, and culture.

Understanding comes from these discussions. But understanding gained by the foreign traveler, recently arrived and seeking insight, was salvaged from the hardened experience of another, who had lived and would continue to live the struggle of which he spoke.

The Russian said one day that he felt pain from the most profound revelation: that, until then, he had not been thinking. He had simply ingested information. He resolved to think more. But, he said, in struggling to think, he found ideas had been ``determined,'' sources of information jammed, and opportunities that would lead him to think closed. At his side passed the blissful faces of those who had ceased to think. Fear, futility, and boredom had caused their condition. Very much afraid, he wondered what would keep him struggling.

He was asked: ``Are you content? Is there some other profession you desire?'' He thought awhile. Perhaps he was joking, but he answered: ``I want to be a free man.''

Exiting from the apartment building, the one who will soon cross the border looks remorsefully back.

From trips that contain experiences like this, you believe that you have learned something. The people and society have touched you deeply, though in one sense you feel worse for it. How could you so love an experience that was born, in part, from the pain and frustration of your new friends?

You want to help them, but you cannot. You want to see through their eyes, participate in their struggles, but you never will.

Thus the irony remains. You think you have crossed the border because you have physically moved across the line that separates two countries, but you have not crossed the border mentally. You can still see the other side: In fact, you are firmly rooted in the other side.

What, then, does it mean to travel beyond the border? It means to travel with patience, a critical eye, and discerning thought. It means to come so close to the border as to feel it.

And how to feel the border? Probe the society. Probe that with which you come into contact. The border exists everywhere. With this realization the traveler may begin to understand what lies beyond.

Emily Manson has studied in the Soviet Union and traveled there three times.

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