By Jesse Alexander
It’s been three years since I left the Diefenbunker, but the bunker hasn’t left me. After a fun-filled (if sunlight-starved) tenure as Public Relations and Programs Manager, I moved to Europe and haven’t been able to shake my Cold War passion yet. Today, dozens of countries later, I can say that in all my travels I’ve never seen anything quite like the Diefenbunker. Carp’s hidden labyrinth is certainly one-of-a-kind. Its uniqueness, however, exists in the much larger context of the global Cold War – a legacy that can still be felt across Europe, erstwhile epicentre of the conflict. A continent-wide infrastructure of civil defence and military installations still stands today, on both sides of the former Iron Curtain, as witness to the madness of the not-so-distant past.
That “other side” of the Iron Curtain has left a most lasting impression on me. Every day for nearly a year, I crossed the old line of the Berlin Wall to get to work, leaving my home on the one-time Stalinallee in a ritual unthinkable for decades. I even helped to recreate a human Wall, for the 20th anniversary commemoration of its fall, thinking as I stood there of the quiet man who guided me through the ex-Stasi prison in East Berlin where he had been held as a political prisoner. I won’t soon forget the damp interior of the abandoned Soviet communications bunker near Vilnius, or the young Slovaks partying to techno music at Sub Club, a former Czechoslovak government bunker in Bratislava. I still can’t put into words how I felt standing in a Belorussian forest where untold thousands had been executed for political reasons. The longest escalator ride of my life I shared with Kiev’s commuters, who descend up to 102 metres underground to ride one of the world’s deepest subway systems, built to double as a bomb shelter. As I rode it with them, I couldn’t imagine them as enemies of my parents’ generation, couldn’t imagine them huddling in the darkened tunnels as NATO missiles flew overhead. To see proof that “they” feared “us” enough to build such things is a sobering reflection on some of our accepted notions of the good and bad side of history, and a powerful brake on any lingering triumphalist assumptions.
Even more than historic places, it’s the people I’ve met who make an impression deeper than any bunker. Friends of mine who grew up in East Germany wept as they told me of careers dashed for political reasons or the harrowing decision to defect and leave loved ones behind. Their stories have also reminded me yet again that I ought not to forget the cost of our Cold War politics on dissenting thinkers and others back home. I marvel at the resilience of peoples whose hopes and dreams were stifled by a suffocating system and then dashed again during the brutal economic and social transition that followed revolution. There were no thousand points of light for the bright young Ukrainian student and Romanian colleague in Vienna who felt no choice but to leave their homelands, long after Communism’s fall. Until now, I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. My list of spots to visit is long indeed, from bunkers in the UK to Ukrainian missile sites and abandoned Soviet nuclear sub pens. Given what I’ve experienced so far on my wanderings through a slowly fading Cold War landscape, I can’t help but feel that the Diefenbunker and its sombre companions in that concrete archipelago of fear cast a long shadow, whether or not they’ve ever seen the light of day.