In a year characterised by a chest-beating world leader with land-grabbing tendencies, what lessons can be taken from the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse?
Those dark inky lines that make their way across the pages of our atlases may seem immovable but they are not. Map makers discovered that this summer when they had to decide where to put the border between Russia and Ukraine after the former swallowed up Crimea as fast as a sticky-tongued lizard plucks a tasty fly from the air. Borders move. Empires crumble. Nations succumb.
Where to draw the line – and how safe those borders really are – neatly tops and tails the November issue of monocle. Let’s start with the tail. As the “what ifs” piled up after President Putin’s Ukranian acquisition, one in particular caught our eye. What if Russia did that same in the Baltics, the three states that finally secured their independence from Mother Russia in the early 1990s? Putin’s got form – just ask Georgia.
Well, all three are members of Nato, say calmer voices, so that should give Putin pause for thought. But then again – say those more concerned – all three have sizeable Russian-speaking communities along their borders and Mr Putin has used stepping in to protect “his people” as a pretext for all sorts of shenanigans before.
To test what people in the Baltics are thinking and how firm and reliable the borders currently feel, we dispatched our contributing editor Andrew Mueller to travel from Estonia to Latvia and on to Lithuania. His journey through the region’s birch forests unfolds over our Expo pages, which start on page 283. The good news is that although the Russian speakers we met often had grumbles about their current home nations, they do not seem to be phoning Moscow asking for an invasion. More importantly, if they don’t like life in Tallinn, no one is stopping them from heading back across to a nice condo in Sochi.
Now to the top. It’s 25 years since the Iron Curtain came down and with it the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. (Although the first real breach happened in Hungary in May of that year when a guard allowed hundreds of East Germans who were camping in the country to enter Austria.) But the shadow of the wall still falls across Germany in some surprising ways. That includes the fact that despite the nation’s capital moving from Bonn to Berlin post-unification, the burghers of Bonn have done their best to ensure that even today many of the ministries still have rather large outposts in their homely city. This means that civil servants have to shuttle between the two cities to keep the engines of government whirring. It’s a quirk that we cover in our Affairs pages, starting on page 35.
On a different bent, I’d encourage you to make your way to the Culture pages, which include a fascinating piece by our new New York bureau chief Ed Stocker on how the French are opening up their diplomatic outpost in the city to the public, inviting them to come in and peruse a newly installed bookshop. How great – at a time when security threats have turned most embassies into fortresses – that the French are attempting to make diplomacy vibrant and important for so many.
And there’s another story by our writer Jason Li that shifts the diplomacy discourse in our Design section. The new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is the first dedicated repository for Islamic art and artefacts from the Muslim world in North America. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. When the faith only gets mentioned in the news due to the actions of fundamentalists, it is important to have ways of starting other narratives. As Henry Kim, the museum’s director, says, “We hope that the museum will contribute to a better understanding of the peoples of Islam in all of their religious, ethnic, linguistic and social diversity.”
But returning to the theme of borders. Have you been listening to Monocle 24? On a recent outing on Sunday’s The Monocle Weekly we spoke to the author Bill Hayton, who has just written a great book about disputed maritime borders and why they are causing fraught stand-offs in Asia. His book, The South China Sea: the Struggle for Power in Asia is genius (and entertaining); two words that I’d like to think make Monocle 24 vital every day.
So that it’s easier for you to listen to our shows (live, or downloaded episodes of any of our programmes) we have launched a free radio app that is available from iTunes. Give it a try and let us come good on our motto: “Monocle, keeping an eye and an ear on the world.”