I paced automatically, like I had a thousand times before, at my post along the Berlin Wall. Tonight I was at ‘Checkpoint Charlie’, as the Americans called it– well, we Soviets didn’t follow suit on their capitalist nicknames. Our respective cultures had many differences, and neither was interested in the customs or ideas of the other.
I sighed, with my AK-47 clutched loosely in my hands. You could say that I was a little absent-minded, but I was so well-trained and diligent that I could be combat-ready in a second if I had to be. Yes, there was always a chance that some lunatic would try to make a dash to the American side, but we had legions of soldiers who would put a quick end to that. Not many things flourish under a hail of rounds from a dozen AKs.
Before long, I ceased thinking about rogue East German citizens; I was preoccupied thinking of my family in Sverdlovsk, because it was Christmastime, and I hadn’t seen them since being sent to East Berlin four weeks ago. They’d be excited by now, but were no doubt missing me. My parents would probably be sitting around the kitchen table, singing wartime songs and drinking vodka. They both fought in the Great Patriotic War, and loved any excuse to recall their war days serving our great Soviet Union. Natalya, my lovely wife, would be cooking, as she often was. Probably borscht and kulebiaka and porridge, and fruit jellies and tea cookies for afterwards.
But the most excited in the household would be our son, Tolya. Little Tolya was a perpetually enthusiastic three-year-old, and celebrations of any kind delighted him. I could picture him running about our communal flat, cheeks red and eyes bright from an afternoon in the snow, eagerly anticipating the Christmas meal. Tonight was Christmas Eve, and although I wouldn’t get home for another two weeks, Tolya would be given a gift from me tonight. A Christmas gift. It was a pair of ice skates I’d bought months earlier, wanting my son to have a pastime like hockey was for me. I already knew he’d love them– I only wished I could watch him discover them for the first time.
Reaching the edge of my sector, I turned around and paced back the other way. With a glance across death strip- the section of unoccupied land between East and West Germany- I saw that the Western side of Berlin was quiet and nearly deserted, beneath a sky full of stars and shining snowflakes. It was quite beautiful, except for the numerous American flags. The Americans and the West had already had their Christmas; we’d all heard them celebrating. I guess that our Christmases both had the same origin, but I didn’t think much about that. Not many Soviets did.
Natalya, on the other hand, always remembered the meaning of Christmas and celebrated it. I did admire her for it, and I’d certainly been brought up the same way, but it seemed that I usually had other things on my mind. Soldiering is a stressful job, and I continually thought of my family because I was continually away from them.
Suddenly, my comrade Dima Komarov cried out, his urgent tone snapping me to attention. “Comrade Lieutenant! Eight o’clock, in the snow! There’s something there!”
“What is it?” I took up a position by the Wall, my right pointer finger already hovering over the safety of my AK. The Kalash¹ felt strangely light in my hands– like it was eager for some work. Peering through the barbed wire, I observed a thin, dark shape bounding towards us through death strip. “Hold your fire,” I ordered- Komarov was my subordinate. “It’s not a human, that’s certain.”
I sure hoped it wasn’t a human… because it had four legs, floppy ears, and a tail. Despite my order, I tightened my grip on my Kalash and watched the ambiguous figure through the red dot sight.
“Comrade Lieutenant, it’s a dog.”
“Is it wearing a vest?” My first fear was that it might be a bomb-dog. Our nation had used such dogs in the Great Patriotic War². They hadn’t worked very well for us against German panzers, but against my men, they would be a serious threat.
“Not that I can see,” Komarov answered. “But there’s something in its mouth.”
We both watched as the dog travelled the last 20 yards to the Wall and stopped, dropping whatever was in its jaws.
“What’s it doing here?” Frowned Komarov.
I suppressed a snort, waving five more of my men over. “Use your imagination! Some American probably sent it as a prank. Either a soldier, or some pacifist. But stand back, we’d better expect the worst.”
“A bomb,” I replied. My tone was strangely unconcerned for such an alarming possibility. “Or maybe the dog’s aggressive.”
But the dog certainly didn’t look aggressive. I peered at it over the Wall, and watched it snuffle nonchalantly in the snow and then sit down. I was torn; my gut was telling me to let the dog in, but the consequences would be catastrophic if I was wrong. And it was Christmas– criminals and terrorists often capitalized on distracting times like this. I was responsible for guarding this checkpoint, and protecting my men…
“Open the gate,” I said, almost against my will. Even in the dark, I could feel six pairs of incredulous eyes staring at me. “I don’t believe this dog is a threat.”
“Comrade Lieutenant, is this proper protocol?!” Asked Turgenev, one of my more assertive subordinates. “Isn’t our job to shoot first and ask later?”
“Don’t be so violent,” I said, moving down towards the gate. “It’s just a dog. Open the gate and be ready to restrain the animal.”
“We should shoot it!” Turgenev cried. “It could even be spying on us this very moment!”
“It’s a dog! Have a little faith!” I found myself saying- maybe Natalya’s beliefs were rubbing off on me. “It’s Christmas, and Westerners aren’t all spies and war-mongers, anyway! Now get yourself over here and help open this door!”
My anger silenced Turgenev, and he and the others jumped to obey me. As they cranked open the heavy gate, I whispered instructions to Komarov, and he and I stood back, our AKs trained on the opening. With a tense creaking noise, it opened and the mysterious dog bounded in. I saw that it was an Alsatian type, and I immediately felt wary. Its eyes were wide and looked almost crazed as they caught the light, and for a moment I thought I would be forced to open fire. But then the dog dropped its package at my feet and cocked its head at me, wagging its tail.
“Komarov, retrieve the package,” I said cautiously, not taking my aim off of the canine.
“An envelope, Comrade Lieutenant,” Komarov remarked, holding it by one corner.
“Open it.” I was still eyeing the dog, which likewise was still gazing curiously up at me. “And Turgenev, close the gate.” As these orders were carried out, I stared hard at my adversary. The dog seemed quite friendly and happy, but I didn’t like to let my guard down.
“There’s a letter inside,” Komarov said, glancing at me hesitantly.
“Read it aloud,” I instructed. “Everyone else, I want you all pacing the Wall. If this is meant to be a diversion, we must be sure we’re not distracted by it!”
Komarov cleared his throat, and the dog’s pointy ears perked up. As soon as Komarov began to read, however, the dog lay down and set its head atop its snow-covered paws.
” ‘Greetings, Soviet soldiers and citizens,’ “ Komarov read. ” ‘And Merry Christmas! I write to you on the occasion of your Christmas, although mine is already past. The purpose of this letter is to tell you that I don’t think you’re my enemy; and that with a little understanding, a lot of people back in the States would share my views. I don’t see how we’re so different, anyway.
Take Christmas, for example. I know that some of you celebrate it, and I think you’ll agree that both of our cultures were built on the same Christian foundation. A foundation of peace and compassion and goodwill. That’s the spirit in which I write to you. We can’t ignore the fact that there is some tension between our governments, but let’s keep that tension there and not let it to extend to us. I hope you haven’t shot my dog– I had hoped you would send him back over the Wall to me! The dog’s name is Bruce, and don’t be afraid of his appearance. He’s a friendly one.
And please pardon my Russian. I composed this letter with the help of a dictionary and a nowhere-near-fluent friend! Best wishes in this New Year of 1985, and have a Merry Christmas! I pray that it will give you all the joy and contentment it’s given me. May God bless you!
Lieutenant John Connolly
95th Military Police Battalion in West Berlin, formerly of St. Louis, Missouri.’ “
Folding up the letter, Komarov threw it on the ground with a laugh. “What do you think of that, Comrade Lieutenant?”
“Don’t mock it,” I said quickly, picking the letter up and brushing it free of snow. I examined it closely, and it seemed believable. Its tone was sincere, and the Russian was indeed poor. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would send this as a prank, seeing as it was not (as of yet) a diversion for an escape attempt or anything like that. Turning all this over in my mind, I glanced at Komarov’s skeptical face and eventually replied, “I think there’s a very well-meaning man in the 95th Military Police Battalion on the other side of this Wall.”
“It’s not a joke?”
“No, I don’t think so.” I squatted down and stared at Bruce. The dog stared back for a minute, then whined and nudged the letter in my hand. “Well, Comrade Private, I’ll deal with this. You go back to your post and resume your duties. Tell me immediately if you see anything else strange.”
Giving a slight nod, Komarov trudged back to the Wall, and I unfolded the letter to read it again. My eyes lingered on the part that talked about Christmas, and I must have read it four times over. What this American felt was right; but I only then realized it. We were very much the same, and especially at this time of year our priorities must be similar. Suddenly, I thought about where I was- Germany- and remembered how Soviet troops had come to be here. We came here after the Great Patriotic War, after four years of fighting the same enemy the Americans had fought.
And I felt very ashamed as I stood there in the snow; for despite our common interests and origins, we weren’t so close anymore. We’d convinced ourselves that the other was wrong and not to be trusted. The whole situation just seemed ludicrous, that we had let ourselves become so distant. Maybe we deserved to be at war again, for being so prejudiced and untrusting!
“Bruce,” I murmured, folding up the letter and looking down at the dog. He cocked his head- tail wagging- no doubt recognizing his name. Almost against my better judgment, I reached out and itched behind his ears. He gave a funny little huff and was obviously enjoying himself, so I knelt down beside him, to think. I was frustrated but a funny state of blissful shock overcame my frustration. Despite our world’s divided mindset, I was pleased to know that not everyone subscribed to the common view. And I didn’t want any part of it… no one seemed to have differences greater than us and the Americans, but surely we could work through them instead of highlighting them!
“Come, Bruce,” I said, getting an idea. I got up and hurried over to my checkpoint booth to find a pen and paper; Bruce following me cheerfully. Then, because I was still on duty, I took up a sheltered position at the Wall, readied my Kalash, and began to write. My newfound friend lay down at my feet, his head on his paws and nose in the snow. Using the Wall- the very thing that divided the world- as an easel, I penned a reply to this American lieutenant, thanking him for his kind thoughts and echoing his sentiments. I also felt obliged to inform him of my comrades’ reaction to his letter.
‘This Christmas, let’s hope and pray that we will make the peace that Christmas is supposed to bring. We may be minorities in our own countries and we are certainly shackled by our duty and the ideas of our nations, but we can let our ideas influence the people we meet. As soldiers, we represent our countries. So let us represent them as we hope them to be in the future. Best wishes this Christmas to you, Bruce, and your family. Not to worry, I found your Russian intelligible! And I love your dog.
Lieutenant Vasily Ruslanovich Svyatovsky
157th Border Troop Regiment in East Berlin
I had to take my gloves off in order to hold the pen and my fingers became numb in the cold, but I didn’t mind at all. I was happy to be writing this letter, and to have a new view of all the problems facing me.
“Ready for another journey, Bruce?” I murmured, patting the Alsatian’s fuzzy head. “I have a letter for you to deliver.” Stuffing my letter into the original envelope and jamming my bright red fingers back into my gloves, I peered anxiously to the West. I didn’t want to think about it, but Bruce would be fortunate if he survived a second traverse of death strip. Especially since now he was coming from the Soviet side, where all the defection attempts come from. I got up and went to the gate, Bruce still right at my heels, and heaved it open with a great effort.
“Here you are, my funny friend.” Giving Bruce the envelope, I smiled and loosened my grip on my AK. “Take it home.” The obedient dog readily took the envelope and, with a muffled woof, turned and ran into the swirling darkness of death strip. I stood at the gate and watched him bound through the falling snowflakes, and I felt very calm and thoughtful. Once I saw him leap over the concrete median on the American side, I was satisfied and shut the gate.
Striding back to my post, I pondered all that I’d come to realize. And I thought about Christmas– it seemed to me that God’s gift had been sent for all of us, no matter where we were from or on which side of the Iron Curtain we lived. It was universal, and it united us all. Then, I remembered the church in Sverdlovsk, not far from my flat. Natalya was always begging me to go to a service with her and Tolya. And now I knew that I would; I wanted to be a part of something so powerful and inspiring as what I had just witnessed.
Laughing a little, I began my pacing once again, and grinned with newfound peace up at the shimmering snowflakes. I thought of Bruce and Lieutenant John Connolly, and of my dear family; and then I said a prayer, truly appreciating Christmas for the very first time.
¹ Kalash: nickname given to the AK-47 assault rifle
²Great Patriotic War: term used in Russia to refer to the 1941-1945 conflict between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany
This story is dedicated to all Soviet, East German, and West German border guards who were stationed at the Berlin Wall; and also to every individual who died trying to cross it. May this story remind us of them, and of the peace and understanding that we must maintain in order to never come to such things again.