Paul Foster-Bell looks back at the opening of the Iron Curtain to explain why, against the backdrop of Covid-19, regaining freedom of travel must be a priority

The Covid-19 virus has turned many thriving market economies into depressed ones, tourist meccas into ghost towns, and hitherto free nations into pedantic lock-down states.

The pandemic has killed well over three million people, destroyed the jobs of millions more, and exacted a terrible toll on our collective mental health.

We need to learn from history, however, and face the fact that some of this damage has been done by border closures, however well-intentioned these were for sound public health reasons.

Working with haste to safely re-open borders: for instance by rolling out vaccines more swiftly, introducing vaccine passports, deploying rapid test kits, and improving tracing capabilities, must be a priority for all nations.

Thirty years ago, on May 21, 1991, the front page of The New York Times was emblazoned with the headline: ‘Soviets enact law freeing migration and trips abroad’. The process leading up to this landmark event and its eventual denouement in the last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev declaring his office extinct and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) disbanding, was both momentous and unexpected to those outside the intelligence agencies’ finest Kremlinologists. Distinguished international relations expert Professor Charles W. Kegley, Jr. noted at the time that these events came “to the surprise of nearly everyone”.

A superpower had collapsed under the weight of its own economic stagnation and political dysfunction, and thankfully it had taken neither global war nor nuclear holocaust to achieve the outcome. This is not to underplay the devastating loss of life of the internal conflicts which afflicted several ex-communist states, especially the genocidal violence in the former Yugoslavia. But the circumstances were closer in some ways to our peacetime pandemic emergency than to, for instance, the catastrophic impacts of World War II which saw a similar rebooting of the world order.

Some argue the USSR’s collapse was thanks in large part to the Western alliance staying staunch and making few concessions to their rival. Or promoting “defence, deterrence, and dialogue”, while engaging from “a position of strength”, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher advocated. Others made the case that the final decline was accelerated by Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness), which must surely count among the greatest political own goals of history. Intended to expose the failing bureaucracy to the rigours of transparency, glasnost succeeded more in showing an oppressed populace what freedoms were enjoyed in the liberal democracies and what tyranny they lived under at home.

Their stringent controls on travel were among the Soviet regime’s most egregious measures. As eminent migration scholar Professor Matthew Light of the University of Toronto put it, the Soviet system was more restrictive than any contemporary capitalist jurisdiction. It was “unusual in its direct bureaucratic supervision of the individual”, and had the sinister ultimate goal of “regime adherence” – prioritising national security at any cost.

So nearly 290 million people – half Russian, the others from the 14 Soviet puppet republics straddling Eurasia from the Baltic Sea through the Caucasus and Central Asia to the Far East – learned they would soon be set free. This figure excluded 38 million Poles, 16 million East Germans, 10 million Hungarians and the many other peoples who had been trapped by various restrictions that Eastern European states had imposed since 1950. Separated families could finally reunite; those with exceptional artistic or scientific talents could pursue their dreams abroad; anyone could now seek an education or career in business overseas – not just elite Communist Party apparatchiks.

For those of us who grew up in the West, the idea of an entire country being made a prison for its populace is an anathema. The free flow of money, of goods, and of ideas across borders has underpinned an extraordinary growth in our prosperity. And of course these physical and intangible assets tend to move in patterns that reflect the travels of the people who carry them: whether for work, study, or leisure. Global economic output has tripled to over US$90 trillion since 1991, lifting 1.2 billion people out of the most extreme poverty, thanks in large part to freer movement. Sadly, many of those in the former Soviet Union and other hermit states are still subject to the imposts of authoritarianism including being “locked in” to their countries.

In any other year, as we note the 30th anniversary of the freeing of so many people from being effective prisoners in the lands of their birth, some would have been tempted towards triumphalism. But in 2021 the sobering impact of Covid-19 will pour cold water on celebrations. The best we can hope for is that all countries cooperate and work effectively towards eradicating Covid so borders can reopen and travel may be once again free.

Paul Foster-Bell is a postgraduate international relations student at the University of Otago, and previously served as a National List MP 2013-17 and as a New Zealand diplomat with MFAT 2003-2013. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Paul Foster-Bell is a postgraduate international relations student at the University of Otago, and previously served as a National List MP and NZ diplomat.

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