The acclaimed British travel writer and historian retraces his trip after the fall of the Berlin Wall to explore what happened to the hopes and promises of 1989.
This time, MacLean (In North Korea: Lives and Lies in the State of Truth, 2017, etc.) traveled in the reverse direction, from Moscow to Berlin. His six-month journey included Estonia, Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, East Germany, and little-known Transnistria. As the author relates, the promise of democracy lasted only so long. Drawn by the newly dynamic economies, the money- and power-hungry moved in. The rise of nationalism—which built on Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt’s teachings that Germans’ utopia was stolen by existentially different and alien opponents—has created enmity and violence toward migrants, the poor, and other marginalized groups. Having used his characteristic talent of drawing insight from those he meets, the author offers fascinating profiles throughout: the Russian chicken czar who shared his rare hallucinogenic truffle, one of the many oligarchs enjoying the new wealth, at least for the moment; and a Nigerian refugee who told the harrowing story of his unflinching determination to get to London. One of MacLean’s contacts described how Russian tacticians were able, by 2007, to shut down Estonian cyberspace and then take over Georgian government websites and interfere in Crimea, Ukraine, France, and the U.S. Not just a travelogue, this is a consistently engaging yet fearsome book that effectively traces the rise of national identity as a myth that paves the way for racism, xenophobia, and even genocide. “Thirty years ago,” writes MacLean, “Europe became whole again….In Berlin, Prague and Moscow I’d danced with so many others on the grave of dictatorships….I convinced myself that our generation was an exception in history, that we’d learned to live by different rules, that we were bound together by freedom….I’ve remade this journey—backwards—to try to understand how it went wrong.”
Another engrossing book from an author who is much more than just a travel writer.