Beyond the Iron Curtain

This year we’re witnessing history in Sudan and the Middle East, but 20 years ago political change was sweeping through Europe. Beginning in 1989 with Poland and Hungary, the Iron Curtain that divided the continent began to tear as the Communist Bloc gave way to democracy. By the end of 1991, the transformation was complete when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics officially dissolved.

It’s hard to believe it’s been two decades since the fall, but the turmoil and tragedy of the communist era is alive today through historic sites and memorials. Here are some sites where you can capture a piece of history.

Tallinn, Estonia

The Baltic Republics were the first to gain independence from the USSR, and the medieval city of Tallinn still bears the marks. The city’s Museum of Occupations tells the story of country’s repression and struggle for freedom between 1939-1991, covering major events and the lives or ordinary people under German and Soviet regimes. Visit the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, site of the 1988 Singing Revolution — a massive musical protest against Soviet rule. The TV Tower, reopened in 2011 following renovations, still stands tall as a reminder of Soviet-era architecture.

And no, it wasn’t just a rumour: KGB spies really did operate out of the Sokos Hotel Viru. Now visitors can see this part of the city’s secret history in the hotel’s newly opened hotel on its 23rd floor.

For more information visit Tallinn Tourism.

Riga, Latvia

At the centre of the Awakening Movement in Latvia, Riga was a crucial site for the fight for sovereignty — even to the point of facing potential attack in January of 1991. Later that year, Latvia won its independence and ten years later the city celebrated its 800th birthday.

Twenty years later, the city still bears signs of Soviet rule, like the Academy of Science, nicknamed “Stalin’s Cake”, and the many restaurants that cater to Soviet-era nostalgia. For a more in-depth look, check out the country’s most-visited museum: the Latvia Occupation Museum. The Riga Aviation Museum houses a large collection of Soviet aircraft, and the Pokrov Cemetery is home to two Red Army burial sites. While you’re there, snap a photo Freedom Monument, which stood as a symbol of freedom even through decades of occupation.

For more information, see Tourism in Riga.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Today it’s seascapes and a mixture of Baroque and Gothic architecture, but Lithuania’s capital has an uglier side. Established on the site of the former KGB headquarters, the Museum of Genocide Victims remains a somber reminder of the crimes carried out against the Lithuanian people during the Soviet Union’s 50-year rule, from the arrests and deportations of resistors to state-sponsored killings. Outside, you can read the names of the victims of the KGB carved into the stone memorials.

Around town, you can also spot other examples of Soviet-era architecture, like the Green Bridge and V. Kudirkos Square. Some tour companies even specialize in Soviet-themed excursions.

For more information, visit the Lithuanian National Tourism Office.

Warsaw, Poland

Emerging out of the rubble of the Second World War, this city was rebuilt with social realism ideals in mind. The very fabric of the city was meant to symbolize the theme of hard work and celebrating the workers’ movement. Today, the architectural style isn’t hard to find with iconic structures like the Defilad Square — built for the purpose of propaganda speeches — and the Marszałkowska Housing District. The Palace of Culture and Science, a gift from the USSR, took more than three years and 5000 workers to complete. The Mausoleum of the Soviet Soldiers and Monument of the Brotherhood of Arms commemorate Red Army soldiers who fought against the Nazis.

Feeling a little peckish? Step in to a bary mleczne or “milk bar” — still popular today for their Polish home cooking (think pierogi, pancakes and soups). You’ll often find a communist-era atmosphere, not to mention much cheaper grub than the city’s restaurants.

For more information, visit

Berlin, Germany

Few symbols mark the separation of “East” versus “West” more poignantly than the Berlin Wall. Built and re-built three times — each time bigger and stronger — anyone caught trying to cross this barrier was shot on sight. Today you can still see traces of the “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall” throughout the city, but the real history is found in the museums and memorials. The Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Centre — which includes part of the wall along with a border strip and watch tower — offers a glimpse of the wall’s construction along with important archives and documentation.

But there’s more: the Marienfelde Refugee Center Museum recounts the 4 million people who escaped East Germany, and the “Story of Berlin” takes you through a former nuclear bomb shelter long hidden beneath the city. The DDR Museum explores everyday life in the Germany Democratic Republic as well as themes including the economy.

For more information, see Visit Berlin.

Moscow, Russia

Think “red” and chances are this historic city comes to mind. While the February and October Revolutions happened in St. Petersburg, Moscow was also the site of many historic events during the communist era and is home to many icons, like the Kremlin where the victims of the October revolution are buried beneath the wall. The Father of the Revolution, Vladimir Lenin, is still on view in his mausoleum, and the Central Armed Forces Museum chronicles the country’s military might through civil war, World Wars and more recent conflicts.

And while it has become famous for its military parades, Red Square didn’t get its name from communism — the square was named in the 17th Century, and “red” originally meant “beautiful”. Now it’s a site for big events from rock concerts to festivals.

For more information, see


Carp, Ontario

Looking for something a little closer to home? Named after the prime minister who commissioned them, John Diefenbaker, the “diefenbunkers” were set up to provide shelter during a nuclear attack. The largest, measuring some 100,000 square feet, is now Canada’s Cold War Museum and a National Historic Site. Located in the village of Carp just outside of Ottawa, the museum takes visitors back in time to 1960s era government rooms and living quarters. Some of the highlights include the Prime Minister’s suite, the War Cabinet Room, the CBC Radio studio, the Emergency Government Situation Centre and the Bank of Canada vault — reputedly built to store Canada’s stash of gold bars.

Tickets are $14 for adults and $13 for seniors, and guided tours are available year round. For more information, visit

White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia

Hidden for decades, the Greenbrier Bunker was carved into the mountains beneath the West Virginia Wing of the Greenbrier Hotel during the 1950s to house the U.S. Congress in the event of a nuclear attack. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it wasn’t long before the secret of this former U.S. Government Relocation Facility got out and now the 110,000 square foot shelter is open for public viewing. The shelter includes living quarters for about 1100 people in addition to meeting rooms, a pharmacy, hospital meeting rooms and its own power plant.

Interesting in taking a look? Tours are available to hotel guests and cost $30 USD per adult and $15 per child. For more information, see the Greenbrier Hotel website.

Naturally, these are just a few of the many places to get a glimpse of communist-era life and history. Many other countries were part of the Communist Bloc and USSR, including Romania, Belarus, Albania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Ukraine. There’s a lot of history — some of it serious, some of it more light-hearted — throughout the many countries whose stories have been changed by this political system.

For more ideas and inspiration, read Lonely Planet’s “Behind the Iron Curtain” route in The Europe Bookand “Best Places to see Red” in Best in Travel 2011.

Additional sources: BBC News