Private Viljar Hanssen says there are a few rules on the border, both for a soldier like him and for the hikers who find themselves in this remote place.

If your dog runs away, don’t chase after it.

Don’t throw stones.

Don’t take pictures of the soldiers on the other side.

Don’t make derogatory gestures.

Don’t pee in the direction of Russia.

“It’s not that complicated,” says Hanssen. “Still, sometimes I’m afraid of making a mistake, or missing something.”

For the past 11 months, Private Hanssen and three colleagues have been on duty at the Norwegian Army’s Observation Post 16 in the far north of Europe, where the continent juts rockily out into the Arctic Ocean. Armed with a radio, binoculars and a Heckler & Koch assault rifle, Hanssen spends six hours a day in a wooden watchtower. And so here he is, on a morning in the summer of 2023, with a barren landscape of stone and stunted birch trees below him. No towns, no roads anywhere, just wind and vastness, with the occasional reindeer wandering through. It would be easy to think Private Hanssen was stationed in the most peaceful place on earth, if it weren’t for the border posts between the trees 50 metres away. Sitting on the watchtower, Hanssen has the West, Norway and NATO at his back. In front of him is the East — Russia. There is a tower there too — and someone is sitting in it as well.

Hanssen has a soft face, warm brown eyes and wavy hair. He is 19 years old and has come to a dangerous place on behalf of the whole world. He comes from the Lofoten Islands, where his parents are teachers. “We live right on the edge of the forest,” says Hanssen, adding that his family appreciates the remoteness: “We spend the winters on skis.”

Military service is compulsory in Norway. When Hanssen was called up two years ago, in the middle of the pandemic, he applied for a post as far north as possible, preferably on the Russian border. He imagined himself on a ski patrol, far away from everything. Then Vladimir Putin’s army invaded Ukraine, and when Hanssen was called up and sent to the border last summer, it was very quiet there, but in an eerie way. “My parents had tears in their eyes, and my friends thought I might burn to death in a tank.”

The days and nights at Observation Post 16 pass in a silence that irritates Hanssen because it is in strange contrast to the news. Every morning he mixes a spoonful of fish oil into his blueberry muesli, vitamin D to combat boredom and fatigue. He takes turns standing guard with his comrades, sleeping in a hut at the foot of the tower, lifting weights and cooking pasta from the pantry supplies. He had to give up his mobile phone in the barracks. No Instagram, no Snapchat, no TikTok to distract him. There is only a radio and a television in the hut.

“What I miss most here is my phone,” Hanssen says. “The chance to call home.”

Viljar Hanssen, born in 2003 and barely an adult, is at a personal turning point. He knows that from the tower he looks out over the Kola Peninsula, a restricted military zone, a base for Russian nuclear submarines and probably the region with the highest concentration of nuclear weapons in the world. That’s the direction he has to look, while at the same time making sure that nothing and no one behind him is unnecessarily irritating Russia, no disoriented or urinating hikers.

“You grow up fast here,” says Hanssen.

That’s why we have one big question for him, one that we’ll be asking again and again on this trip: What will his future be like, and what will the world be like in five years’ time?

“As a soldier, I have to think in worst-case scenarios”, answers the young man from northern Norway. “And that would be Putin pressing the button.”

A new Iron Curtain has been drawn across Europe. The world is once again divided into two blocs. Young people like Private Hanssen are experiencing this for the first time, but for older people, history seems to be repeating itself. That’s why the term is back: the Iron Curtain.

On a map where all the countries are neatly separated and often seem to be empty spaces, any one of us could probably draw the new dividing line. It would run along the border that separates Russia and Belarus from the West, and it would be easy to believe that there really is a steel division or a wall there, as there once was in Berlin. But that’s not the case. The old Iron Curtain rose from the ruins after a world war. The new one is rising after three decades of peace, or the illusion of peace, and it has only just begun. Closer to home, in Norway, there are only stakes between rocks and birch trees. The division of the world has so far been mainly administrative. Financial flows have been cut off, trade in goods has stopped, town twinning has been suspended and fears have been reawakened.

What does it mean to live in this time of global rupture? What is everyday life like for people who remain invisible on the maps?

This is what we intend to find out on an expedition along the Russian border. Through Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine to Georgia. We intend to travel by bus, train and car. “We” initially refers to the Finnish photographer Jonathan Terlinden and myself, a reporter from Germany. We have a long journey ahead of us. The summer won’t last forever. It’s time to leave.

The northernmost town in the western world is called Kirkenes, and it lies at the end of a deep fjord in the Barents Sea. Hardly anyone would know its name if the harbour wasn’t largely ice-free — like Murmansk, just across the border. Seagulls scream, ships’ diesel engines roar. There is no old town, nothing cosy or typically Norwegian about it.

The fact that Kirkenes looks as unadorned as an oversized school centre is not just because its 3,400 inhabitants see little point in sprucing up their town for the few weeks of summer each year. Kirkenes was once a frontline town; during the Second World War, the Germans invaded it for its ore deposits and to take Murmansk. Then the Red Army hit back. 

From the first country on the journey, it becomes clear how delicate and presumptuous it is for a German to ask about relations with Russia. In fact, the new Iron Curtain runs along the old scar of the Second World War.

A Russian watchtower, photographed from Estonia © Natalia Kepesz for DIE ZEIT

When the Wehrmacht was driven out of Kirkenes, a boy was born in a nearby village who now unlocks the door to the Fjellhallen, the Rock Hall, opposite the Kirkenes school. The child has grown into an old man, compact and bald. Willy Bangsund is as old as peace in Europe. He speaks with a clear voice and as quickly as someone who wants to get a message across. “My parents used to say: You’re our liberation baby,” he says. “They were happy when the Russians came. That gratitude shaped me.”

To this day, a monument above the town commemorates the “brave Soviet soldiers”. The streets of the town centre are still signposted in Cyrillic. There’s a sense of closeness in Kirkenes that you wouldn’t expect as an outsider. Aren’t Russia’s immediate neighbours particularly concerned? Didn’t they encourage scepticism and demarcation early on?

Actually, it’s more complicated up close. Up close, Willy Bangsund is fighting for his life’s work.

Bangsund trains the young wrestlers of Kirkenes, and he was once Norway’s junior bantamweight champion. But the reason many people call him “Superman” is that Bangsund has performed a cross-border miracle. The scale of this miracle becomes clear when he pushes open the door to Fjellhallen: a nuclear bunker blasted into the granite beneath the town, a world of artificial light and jagged walls. A labyrinth whose largest chamber is the local sports hall, complete with grandstand.

In this underground world, the old man begins to tell stories. Even during the Cold War, he used to hold a competition here every autumn for children from all over the world. Because Bangsund uses the Norwegian word for children, barn, his memories sound particularly tender and affectionate. “They came from Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and even Iran.” The guests stayed with Norwegian families, photos were taken, friendships were forged, first kisses were tentatively exchanged. Four years ago, says Bangsund, even Sergei Lavrov stopped by the sports hall.

Today it seems inconceivable that Russia’s foreign minister was once in the nuclear bunker of a NATO country. But Bangsund doesn’t think he was naive. “I don’t see what could be done better today than what we did then,” he says.

Of the eight countries on this trip, Norway is the only one that has not been at war with Russia or the Soviet Union or occupied by its larger neighbour in the past 120 years. The border between the two countries was only formalised in 1826. Even after that, the Sami living in the region were allowed to move freely. Finnmark, as the area around Kirkenes is called, is vast and empty.

This emptiness may have been Norway’s geopolitical luck. But emptiness also means a lack of people and opportunities. In 1960, footballers from Kirkenes took a fishing boat to Murmansk in search of teammates, or at least opponents. They were arrested at sea, interrogated and sent back. A decade later, when the blocs tentatively made contact, Willy Bangsund travelled with a delegation from the swimming club to the other side of the old Iron Curtain. Shortly afterwards he invited people to the first wrestling meeting. A suspiciously large number of people turned up, probably spies as well as athletes. “We lost all the fights,” says Bangsund, “but that was the point: we wanted to learn!”

Even on a globe, Russia looks huge, and from Kirkenes it seems to be all there is. At crossroads you see more signs pointing to Murmansk than to Oslo, some 1,500 kilometres away. After 1989, if you wanted to go to the theatre or the ballet, you travelled to the neighbouring country. The Kirkenes Chamber Orchestra filled its gaps with musicians from Russia, and footballers found opponents on the other side of the border.

All that is gone. Everything is cancelled now. The orchestra is missing Alexander on the viola, Irina on the violin and Olga on the cello. The young wrestler Johannes, nine years old, 24 kilos and the great hope of Bangsund, can no longer find an opponent in the whole of Finnmark. Sometimes Willy Bangsund receives news from over there. A trainer is said to have been killed. Another has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for protesting against the war.

Meanwhile, Willy Bangsund, the child of peace, is also disappointed with Russia and with Sergei Lavrov, who has turned out to be a false friend. But in the rock beneath the city, in the sports hall that is now first and foremost a nuclear bunker, he also blames his own government in Oslo. He wanted to invite young Russian wrestlers back this autumn. “We mustn’t lose sight of each other, especially now,” says Bangsund. He failed. All funding has been cancelled, the Norwegian consulate in Murmansk is closed and it is almost impossible to get a visa. “But they are just children,” Bangsund pleads. Barn.

What does he think the world will be like in five years?

“I hope the young people won’t have forgotten their visits to us.”

From Näätämö in the far north of Finland, a minibus heads south on Route J towards Ivalo. The driver’s name is Kimmo, and for the first few kilometres we are alone with a few parcels and letters, as Kimmo also delivers the mail.

The road winds past glacier-carved cliffs, pine trees and lakes, a landscape so harmonious that it’s as if a bonsai gardener had been allowed to think big. Bright light alternates with the darkness of the forest. Here and there is a settlement with more vowels than houses.





Judging by the names, this could almost be the South Seas. And indeed, Kimmo is driving his bus through a holiday region, stopping at lodges and camping sites. We almost lose our concentration, the purpose of our trip, because something is different here than in Norway. Nowhere is a Russian town signposted, as if there were no Murmansk or Kovdor nearby. The bus turns right at almost every junction, heading west. To the east, towards Russia, there is a narrower road. Nobody will take you there. I rent a car and drive over gravel to Arola, where there is a farmhouse right on the border, a wooden house. Helena and Eero Seppänen, a couple in their 70s, live there.

A lifetime of milking cows has bent Helena’s back. Time has honed Eero’s eagle-like face.

She has cooked pike and potatoes. He wants to talk about his mother, Lempi, who may have saved their country.

On 30 November 1939, Lempi Seppänen was 30 years old and lived in the house where her son now lives. She had three daughters. Her husband, a woodcutter, had been away for a few days when the dog started barking at seven in the morning. Lempi went outside; she was going to the barn to get some oats to make porridge for the children. “Then she saw figures at the edge of the forest,” says her son Eero. “Mum was lucky. It had snowed the night before. And the soldiers who came out of the trees wore dark grey coats.” Lempi knew who they were. She had a head start of 300 metres, which is still the distance between the farm and the forest. The mother grabbed the girls, put them on a sled and ran west. “Mum ran across lakes that had just frozen over. She didn’t know if the ice would hold, but it did. She was lighter than the men behind her.”

Lempi Seppänen shouted the same sentence at every house she passed. She shouted it again when she reached the first village, where it spread like wildfire and was spoken into the only telephone in the school building: “The Russians are coming!”

Lempi Seppänen was witnessing the beginning of an event that, four months later, gave rise to a phrase that still defines Finland today: the Winter War.

Adolf Hitler had already plunged Europe into war when the Soviet Union claimed parts of Finland in the autumn of 1939. Unlike Spain, England or France, Russia never had overseas colonies; it always grew as a coherent empire by subjugating its immediate neighbours. Finland was also annexed for a time by the Tsarist Empire. Then, in the turmoil of the October Revolution, many peoples fought for freedom. But now the Soviets wanted to expand their influence again. They laid claim to Finland’s east, Karelia, on the pretext that there were “fascists” in Helsinki who might attack nearby Leningrad. That was over 80 years ago. It still sounds so current.

When Finland refused to negotiate and give up land, the Red Army attacked. They travelled the few roads in long convoys, poorly equipped, inadequately dressed, but confident of victory. The rulers had already commissioned a suite from the composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Their plan was to reach the Baltic city of Oulu on Joseph Stalin’s birthday — three weeks later, on 18 December. Two divisions broke through at the narrowest point in Finland, where the Seppänen farm stands.

The fighting was similar to what is happening in Ukraine today. The Finns, seemingly outnumbered, regrouped in the forests, where every tree became a hiding place and an ally. They attacked the armoured convoys on skis and in white snowsuits. Not far from Lempi Seppänen’s farm, thousands of frozen corpses of Russian soldiers lay on a road called Raatteentie. The Finns did not win the war; March 1940 they accepted a peace treaty and lost large parts of Karelia. But they had stopped the invasion and saved their independence.

Today, if you make it to the Finnish border, the Winter War is everywhere. Trails lead past carefully preserved trenches. Monuments rise from the forest in many places. Books, films and an entire museum are dedicated to one soldier, Simo Häyhä. Häyhä is still considered the most successful sniper in the world, if successful is the right word here. He killed more than 500 Red Army soldiers during the Winter War. When asked what he felt when he pulled the trigger, he later replied, “The recoil.”

Raatteentie Street has become a kind of amusement park, with a cinema and a café. The owner has the war years tattooed on his fingers, 1939 and 1940, and sells steel helmets, bullet casings and T-shirts. The war has fan merchandise here. The fact that the Finns joined the German fascists in 1940 in the vain hope of recapturing Karelia is not a big issue.

Even after decades of peace, Finland has always been a defensive nation. Unlike Germany, it has never abandoned its bunkers to decay. In Helsinki alone, there are 900,000 places in bunkers for 630,000 inhabitants. And now Finland has become the NATO state with the longest external border with Russia, 1340 kilometres.

In the Seppänen house on the edge of the forest is a photograph of Lempi, who saw the Russians coming. She looks sternly around the room. She was awarded a medal, got the farm back in 1945 and gave birth to her son Eero. He went moose hunting with his father, learned to cross-country ski like every other boy in the area, and soon learned that idylls are not to be trusted. When he was 12, he found something that he thought was a pen in the woods. It was a German-made explosive. It blew his left hand apart. Eero was left with his thumb and little finger, a kind of pliers. He could no longer hold a ski pole. In the military, he was sent away after 99 days.

Eero gives the impression that he would have liked to have been a soldier longer. “Without the military we would no longer exist,” he says. “I take my hat off.”

(…) The Seppänen family has a rifle in the house. What will the world be like in five years’ time? They both think long and hard.

“I feel better when I think from day to day,” says Helena. When the photographer takes pictures, Eero hides his left hand.

Evening in Suomussalmi, a municipality in a region with a lower population density than Mongolia. Swamps and mosquitoes. At almost every crossroads, young drivers have drawn black circles with smoking tyres, leaving their mark.

In a car park next to the grocery store, Arttu, 21, sits proudly in his BMW.

“Nice rims, aren’t they?” he asks.

“Especially expensive ones,” says Venni, his girlfriend.

She’s a nurse, he’s a plumber. At night they drive around the city, “hanging out, driving, listening to music.” Arttu recently had to give up his driving licence because he was speeding through the village at 102 km/h. Now a friend drives him. Every now and then another car pulls up to Arttu’s BMW, driver’s door to driver’s door, and they chat through the open window. Sitting, talking, smoking.


“In a way I fear it, in another way … I hate it,” says Arttu. “And what will the world be like in five years’ time? How should I know?”

Then Arttu gives us the finger. He shows it to us and to the whole world, which is once again classifying people of soldier’s age, categorising them according to what they can do in the event of war. There is so much of the past in this area, and now so much open future — but Arttu and Venni won’t let the present be taken away from them, their claim to the moment, the right of youth.


A warm wind blows across Lake Peipus in eastern Estonia, swaying the pines and carrying the cries of children through the forest. Those who don’t see them, but only hear them, imagine they are in a normal holiday camp. Needles rustling, branches cracking, as a small horde runs through the sandy terrain on a scavenger hunt, looking for answers to questions that someone has pinned to the trees:

What do you see around you?

What colours do you see?

What is moving?

What do you hear?

What voices belong to nature?

What is man-made?

The children in the forest wear dark green uniforms, field service caps and black boots. They are to learn to read their surroundings and identify smells. What is man-made?

Anastasia © Natalia Kepesz for DIE ZEIT

Lake Peipus, seven times the size of Lake Constance, is a border water body. Its eastern half belongs to Russia. Every summer, tents are erected on the western shore by the Kaitseliit, a paramilitary volunteer organisation that is more than 100 years old. It has its origins in the Estonian War of Independence against the Tsarist Empire. It is financed by the Ministry of Defence. Its commander-in-chief is the President of Estonia. The Kaitseliit maintains firing ranges and weapon depots with submachine guns, rocket launchers and mortars. The organisation has 28,000 members, and the number has been growing rapidly for the past two years, including in the youth divisions. The boys are called Noored Kotkad, or Young Eagles. The girls are called Kodutütred, Daughters of the Homeland.

At the camp on Lake Peipus, every day begins with a roll call at eight o’clock. The children line up in rows of two for breakfast and a cook distributes buckwheat porridge. This is followed by a programme that alternates between fun and seriousness: Hikes, water games, volleyball, first aid, woodwork, shooting, disco. The instructors call the children together with whistles.

It is hard to tell whether they are still playing scout or being trained as partisans. All over the world children are learning empathy, here they are learning to fight. Everywhere parents try to allay their children’s fears, here they are taught vigilance. Everywhere girls and boys are told to be themselves, here they wear size XS uniforms.

From a German point of view, this must be irritating. From the perspective of a nation that has never started wars and has always suffered them, the picture is different. A few days after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, generators were sold out in Estonia. Citizens asked Kaitseliit for advice on shooting practice, drinking water and dry food. Something has also changed in the daily life of the children at the lake.

There is Karl-Kristofer, 10 years old, shaved neck, eyes like a husky: “Everyone in my class says Putin has brain cancer.”

There’s Mirtel, 11, her hair in a thick braid: “My whole family is in the organisation. My mother used to worry a lot about me. I was seven and I came home late. Then she would say: The world is not all good, Mirtel, you have to be prepared for evil.”

There’s Anastasia, 16, red mane, black painted fingernails, the boys in the camp are looking at her. She comes from Narwa. Her parents, uncles and aunts speak Russian and are pro-Russia. Anastasia says: “War is shit. And Ukraine doesn’t belong to Putin after all.” She is here to learn Estonian. She wants to study and go to America. A girl in uniform who wants peace. A young woman escaping her belligerent environment by joining a paramilitary force.

We should consider it a European privilege to have easier choices.

On the second day, the whistles resound throughout the camp again. The instructors are carrying dark suitcases that look like violin cases. They contain air rifles. Between the trees, like in a biathlon, there are boxes to catch the bullets, and sleeping mats on the forest floor.

“Who wants to shoot?”

Everyone does. Each child is given five cartridges.

Karl-Kristofer misses all. Mirtel hits three times. Anastasia hits twice and is a bit annoyed.


Andrejs Ierags was waiting for us. In Madona, a two-hour drive from Riga, an avenue of lime trees leads over cobblestones to his secluded farm. He stands at the end of it and waves us over, an 86-year-old man, tall and straight, elegantly dressed in pleated trousers, shirt and hat. A handsome man. A Latvian Clint Eastwood.

Andrejs Ierags © Natalia Kepesz for DIE ZEIT

“Let’s go for a walk,” he says.

Under the scorching sun, Ierags leads us through 15 hectares of land. He shows us meticulously mown pastures. A potato field, beehives, orchards. And trees, and more trees. Here is a forest of 2000 birches, there,a rectangle of 200 spruces, there, a thicket of hazelnuts. Every bush and every tree has been planted by the farmers themselves. “A third of your time is spent sleeping. A third of the time you work for your food. A third of the time you leave something behind,” says Ierags.

His property would stand up at any national garden show, the enormous work of one man. Little is older than 30 years, as Ierags has only owned this piece of land since 1993, but that is only half the truth. The whole truth is that this is a case of reappropriation.

The land once belonged to the Ierags family. Andrejs talks about it after the tour, over a richly laid table in his house. Pancakes, honey, sausages, tomatoes, tea, vodka.

Andrejs was six, the farm his home, when the front came through Latvia in 1943 and the Red Army turned his parents’ house into a military hospital. “We moved into the cellar,” he says. Ierags doesn’t say what happened on the ground floor, only mimes it with sawing gestures: amputated arms and legs, open stomachs. The garden became a graveyard.

Andrejs was eight when there was a knock on the door in 1945 — today Ierags bangs his knuckles on the dining table, hard and unrelenting. His father was arrested, accused of being a partisan. Siberia. His mother, son and two sisters were left behind.

Andrejs was 12 when the knock came again in 1949 — Ierags banged on the table again, the plates bounced. Europe was rejoicing in peace, and once again Soviet soldiers were at his door. They gave the family two hours, for which Ierags is still grateful today: “It allowed my mother to bake bread. Otherwise we wouldn’t have survived.“

Andrejs spent a week in a freight wagon. He only saw the light of day in Tomsk, far beyond the Urals.

The family became victims of the “March deportations”, which the Soviets called “Operation Surf.” In a wave of arrests, they wiped out the old farming structures in the Baltic states. In a matter of days, they deported 94,779 people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Among them were 27,084 children, including Andrejs Ierags. The figures have been preserved because it is in the nature of totalitarian systems to proudly document their terror. The deportations were later classified as crimes against humanity because of the number of people who died of hunger and frostbite.

Is the fate of the Latvian boy Andrej similar to that of the Finnish boy Eero, whose mother fled across the ice? The answer is yes, and sometimes there is power in repetition. A wide corridor of similar fates runs through Europe, across thousands of kilometres, across cultures and language areas. Displaced persons and veterans are to be found in every village; it is enough to ask for them in marketplaces or kiosks. Their biographies are similar. But they are not the same.

The fact that the life of the Norwegian wrestler Willy Bangsund was calmer than that of the Finnish farmer Eero Seppänen, and that his life was happier than that of the Latvian deportee Andrejs Ierags, has a lot to do with Russia and with a few decisive weeks in the war. The Norwegian Bangsund lives in a country that was never attacked. The Finn Seppänen lives in a country that knew how to defend itself. The Latvian Ierags lives in a country that has long disappeared from the maps.

Now Latvia is reintroducing conscription. Lithuania is allowing reservists to buy fully automatic weapons. Andrejs Ierags thinks it’s right for children in Estonia to learn to shoot. “I agree with my mother. She told me, “Dear son, you must be able to do everything if possible. That includes knowing when to use your skills and when not to.”

In exile, Ierags, his sisters and mother were given a house without a roof, which they covered with birch bark and moss. Andrejs hunted squirrels to provide food for the family. After a few years, his mother died from a heart condition. “On her deathbed she made three wishes,” says her son. “Find the way back home. Marry a Latvian woman. Become a doctor so you can help people. I have fulfilled two of her wishes.”

Ierags was allowed to return home at the age of 28, but the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic of the 1960s was foreign to him. “I only knew our house. Now I was in Riga.” The family farm was part of a collective, and he was not allowed to enter. In Riga, Ierags led a Soviet life, digging trenches as a labourer, becoming an electrician and later an engineer developing diesel locomotives. He learnt the last of the Latvian customs: rendezvous bouquets consist of an odd number of flowers, funeral bouquets of an even number. His first wife died in a car accident, his second of cancer. When Ierags got the farm back, he was 56 years old and rebuilt the roof of the house. For months he ploughed through his parents’ land, clearing and burning the undergrowth. He put a cross in the garden where the Russian soldiers’ graves are, as a gesture of reconciliation. The oven in which his mother used to hurriedly bake bread is working again. Ierags has installed four more fireplaces in the house. He never wants to feel cold again.

“To this day, two hands are not enough for me,” says the man who has already created more than one life’s work in half a lifetime and is still planting trees.

Is he afraid that history will repeat itself? “Yes.”

It’s not easy to ask him, but what will the world be like in five years? “My trees will be stronger.”

In the living room, Andrejs Ierags keeps serving new dishes and pouring vodka and Armenian brandy. He won’t let us go. He gives the photographer Natalia an old coffee cup, good china. A piece of him. When we finally leave, he is back at the end of the avenue, under the lime trees, waving.


On the bus to Vilnius, Lithuania.

(…) Inside sits Ridvars, 17, with the first signs of a beard. He is due to undergo a military medical examination soon. “I hope I’m sick somehow. Crazy, isn’t it?”


The old Iron Curtain had its fateful places and particularly dangerous points: Bernauer Strasse in Berlin, the Fulda Gap — the place where the Western Allies feared Russian tanks would break through. It would have been the shortest route to Frankfurt am Main and the Rhine Valley.

The Suwałki Gap, named after a town in northern Poland, was considered the most dangerous place on the new Iron Curtain. At the Suwałki Gap, the Baltic states and Poland are connected by a narrow corridor of just 65 kilometres. To the east of the gap lies Belarus, to the west the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, armed with supersonic missiles, fighter jets and nuclear bombs. Military strategists are scratching their heads over how to prevent an attack or, worse, a partition of NATO territory.


Berlin-Paris is 878 km as the crow flies.

Berlin-Suwałki, 656 km as the crow flies.

What may be emotionally distant is sometimes geographically very close. The Suwałki Gap is similar to the area around Berlin. Sandy soils, pine forests, lakes. Children squeal with delight at the beach. Boats bob gently in the marinas. It might actually need to be said again: here, too, the world is colourful and the sun is warm. Europe’s east is more than just a grey mass of negotiations, as it sometimes sounds on German talk shows.


We are used to the fact that when masses of people gather, it is usually men who dominate the sound and vision — in football stadiums, at party conventions, at international conferences.

It’s different in Medyka. Here, where railways and motorways from all over Western Europe converge at the checkpoint between Poland and Ukraine, you hear mostly high-pitched voices. Ukrainian women and children who have fled and want to return home briefly to visit their husbands and fathers, who are not allowed to leave the country. Rolling suitcases. Floral dresses. Teddy bears. And all those high-pitched voices talking to border officials, on telephones, in currency exchange offices.

Rusty minibuses wait on the other side of the border. The trip to Lviv costs 170 hryvnias, four euros. In the city, many soldiers are taking a break from the fighting in the east. And their families are not refugees in the West for a few days.

On the bus, in the penultimate row, sits Olga, 32, who has installed the Air Alert app on her smartphone. It works like a rain radar but shows Russian rocket fire. People in Ukraine have long since stopped wondering if it might rain.

The app says that the sky is clear, at least for now. The bus starts to move, shaking. Olga shows photos on her phone.

On 14 February 2022, skiing in the Carpathians. On 24 February 2022, war.

Olga is a programmer. When the Russians came, she fled to Prague and continued working from there. “I still earn money. I have a flat. I’m better off than most,” she says. Her father had cancer. Her cousin’s husband died. Petro, her fiancé, is a dentist in Lviv. They have postponed their wedding, there is hardly anyone to celebrate with, their friends are scattered across the continent.

The first hour passes on the bus, a second begins, the app continues to report the all-clear. Churches with domes pass by. Gardens full of vegetables. Unfinished buildings that could symbolise a beginning or an end. Stops in villages again and again. Two girls with pink make-up get on. They are going to the cinema to see Barbie.

Then the villages merge into a town. Furniture stores, supermarkets, a bus station. Olga lifts her head. Where is Petro? He’s waiting with a bouquet of white roses.

In the centre of Lviv, the fountains are busy, everything looks rococo and postcard-perfect in a city that could be the subject of a hundred novels. Lviv, Lemberg, Lwow. Sometimes Polish, sometimes Habsburg, sometimes Soviet. Now the windows of the Dominican Cathedral are once again protected by sandbags. A soldier leans on a stick in front of the opera house. Twenty-year-olds in olive drab are everywhere, on leave. Their girlfriends nuzzle their necks. Couples cling to each other on the many park benches. These are images from a century gone by. They tell of an awareness of the value of every second. Of a lust for life on the brink of death.

Nastja and Ivan, a Soldier with his girlfriend in Lviv, Ukraine © Natalia Kepesz for DIE ZEIT

Somewhere in the city, Olga is with Petro.

Two girls are watching Barbie.

Children play with their fathers.

The buses return in the evening.

Asked what the world will be like in five years, Olga said at the station: “Putin won’t be around forever.”


The next state bordering Russia is already Georgia, a flight, a leap to where Europe and Asia meet. Like Ukraine, about 20 percent of Georgia is occupied by separatists or directly by Russian troops. In 2008, they invaded the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the north.

(…) It is less than 70 kilometres from the capital Tbilisi to the village of Khurvaleti. The landscape is Tuscan, gently undulating. The plums are ripe, autumn is here. Two men from the Georgian border police, armed with Kalashnikovs, lead the way. They know the way, parts of the area are said to be mined. The photographer’s name is now Daro Sulakauri, and she is carrying a bag of medicine. Sometimes you take sides.

Once again, we reach the new Iron Curtain, the border with the Republic of South Ossetia, which is only recognised by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria and Nauru. A five-minute walk past dilapidated farmsteads, then barbed wire stretching across a pasture, several rolls as high as a man, full of sharp blades. Beyond it is a walnut tree, an orchard, a house with a wide overhanging roof and shady verandas.

Minutes pass before an old woman steps out and slowly approaches the fence with a walking stick. “Visitors,” she says in a frail voice, “how nice.”

Walia Valishvili, 88, ended up behind the Iron Curtain without ever having moved. She has been living for more than 60 years on this piece of land now divided by barbed wire. She married a young farmer, Data, in an arranged marriage that turned into love. The couple started out in a mud hut, and later Data built the house, which in Walia’s eyes is “the most beautiful in the village.” Neither Data, a Georgian, nor Walia, an Ossetian, cared that an ancient border, marked only on faded, often long-forgotten maps, ran right through their property.

Others did care.

After the Russian invasion 15 years ago, soldiers came to the Valishvili’s house and said a fence was being built. The couple were given 72 hours to leave. Data and Walia stayed.

The new Iron Curtain materialised in their garden. The Valiashvilis resisted Russian expansion, and on a small scale they rebelled against the big land grab. They refused South Ossetian passports. During the Georgian elections, Walia’s husband sneaked over the fence and was arrested several times by the occupying forces for allegedly violating the border. On holidays, the Walischwilis would cross the barbed wire to collect candles and flowers from displaced neighbours and take them to the old village cemetery. Like their house, it lies on the other side of the fence.

Two years ago, Data died and was buried there. Since then, Walia has been alone. “Data asked me to hold on,” she calls over the fence. “I’m so afraid of dying alone. But I can’t go, I don’t want to. If I die on the other side, I won’t be buried next to Data.”

Author: Natalia Kepesz

Last winter, Walia fell and lay in the house for several days, possibly breaking her hip. No doctor can see her, she has no running water, the garden is drying up and the fruit is rotting. Relatives and helpers regularly bring her food and drink over the fence. Photographer Daro has brought her painkillers and blood pressure medication.

Walia Valishvili has often received high-level visitors. Envoys from NATO and the EU, heads of state from Eastern Europe, Annalena Baerbock. No one could do anything. The Georgian president cut his finger on the fence.

Walia herself has no time for politics, she is busy surviving. After half an hour, she no longer had the strength to stand and speak. She turns to leave, waves once more and says: “I wish the people all the best.”

Walia Valishvili, 88.

Viljar Hanssen, 19.

An elderly woman at a barbed wire fence in Georgia.

A young man on a watchtower in Norway.

There is only one country between them.

Many thanks to the great photographers Jonathan Terlinden, Natalia Kepesz and Daro Sulakauri. Many thanks also to Christopher Aloe, Ilva Līduma and Mariam Kiasaschvili for translations.