Uwe Wirthwein grew up in southern Thuringia in Behrungen, just a few meters away from the heavily guarded German-German border. Due to the course of the border, two-thirds of the village was surrounded by the East German "anti-fascist protective wall". A special pass was required to even enter to the village. The border and isolation of the restricted area awoke Uwe's desire for freedom and adventure. Raised in the westernmost point of the Eastern Bloc, as student he later began undertaking illegal journeys to explore the east; he traveled through all the provinces of the Soviet Union, thus gaining an authentic and un-falsified picture of life in the multiethnic state. Uwe Wirthwein's childhood was dominated by the presence of military and surveillance; for example, whenever he was arrested by armed soldiers as a child for playing in a nearby forest. The desire to escape the "bastion" around him grew steadily. He met other like-minded individuals when he began his studies, and together they organized complex and illegal journeys throughout the Soviet Union. Transit visas in hand, the students would enter the USSR via Moscow. From there, they would begin their actual and illegal expeditions into the Siberian tundra; to the Caucasus to climb Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain of Europe; or to the remote mountains of Tajikistan. Today, Uwe lives with his wife and three children in his hometown in a self-built loam house. He speaks openly about his experiences of life on the border, and of the feeling of overcoming boundaries.
- The city of Saratov, located on the Volga River in European Russia, was just one of Wirthwein's many stopovers as he travels down the water-richest river of Europe with friends. When the Saratov Bridge was completed in 1965, it was considered the longest bridge on the continent.
- Uwe Wirthwein grew up only a few meters from the Bavarian border. The idyllic village was enclosed on three sides by the border and was heavily monitored by numerous border guards and collaborators of the secret service. As a child, Uwe Wirthwein was even arrested a number of times for playing in the surrounding woods.
- Despite the huge surveillance apparatus of the East German Stasi, again and again it was possible to slip through the tight mesh of the system and to undertake a total of seven long journeys through the Soviet Union. Even when underway, they always ran into authorities of the state, but with the help of broken Russian and a good excuse they always managed to continue on their way. For example, once Wirthwein and his friends claimed that they had become separated from their tour group – the alleged tour group, of course, was already there at their next destination. Following a night in custody, the tickets to travel further were even obtained for them by the militia.
- "Down There"
- This refers to the Central Asian part of the Volga. The goal was the Fann Mountains in what is now Tajikistan. The continuation of the journey there was hindered, however, so a trip to the Caucuses was improvised instead.
- "Since I've already started my latest account, I want to continue it. After about 4 hours of discussions with the militia, we convinced them to sell us tickets to Central Asia. We'll be leaving here at 2 PM and will hopefully be down there by the weekend. Everything's fine. Uwe"
The seemingly idyllic community of Behrungen was surrounded on three sides by the East German border to the Free State of Bavaria and was hence secured by a strong military presence. Life in the Thuringian village was dominated by the permanent presence of the border forces as well as the isolation resulting from the restrictions regulating the area; for example, that no one could enter the area without expressed authorization ("pass of permission"). Uwe Wirthwein found the environment of the "bastion" as confining, oppressive and unnatural.
In Behrungen, a child's natural love of adventure was curtailed by strict boundaries. A troop of 89 border soldiers was stationed in the small village. Among other things, they made it their duty to arrest Uwe Wirthwein and his younger brother whenever they would play in the nearby forest. The children would be taken away at gunpoint and berated by the military police, who would then inform their parents of the "offense" – although it was not officially forbidden to be in the forest. The natural result of such experiences was the development of the desire to escape the confinement.
Uwe and his friends, atop of a summit of the Tian Shan Mountains in Central Asian Turkestan. Between 1984 and 1989, Uwe Wirthwein undertook a total of seven journeys within the Soviet Union. He saw himself primarily as an adventurer seeking the intensive encounter with nature and people while traveling. Thus, the trips were less and expression of political protest than of curiosity and adventurousness.
At 5,500 meters above sea level, Uwe and his friends celebrate the conquest of the Tian Shan. The experience with heights helped finance the next journey: the young engineers earned substantial supplementary hazard pay for doing "high-altitude, scaffold-free construction" for Dresdner construction companies.
Again and again during their travels, the students would meet local inhabitants and experience the authentic life far outside of that reflected in Soviet propaganda. While there, they were often referred to as "nasch pribaltiki", or "our non-Balts". With this description and their foreign appearance, they could justify their rather meager school Russian. Among the bizarre experiences of hospitality enjoyed was also the spontaneous invitation to a funeral ceremony where, due to the prohibition under Gorbachev, only high-proof homemade schnapps was drunk.
The complicated journeys into the unknown were prepared secretly and with self-manufactured materials. For example, old and inaccurate military maps were used to plan a Siberian river trip. Each participant obtained a portion of the needed materials for the boat, which was constructed in a vacant, back-courtyard apartment in Dresden. They left with each person carrying individual boat parts and 36 kilos of luggage, and then reassembled the boat on location. Spare parts were just as nonexistent as a "Plan B".
This photo was taken on a trip with a homemade iceboat across Lake Baikal; with a depth of 1,642 meters, it is deepest freshwater lake in the world. At that time of the year, the lake is completely covered with a sheet of ice. The travelers did like the local fishermen and sawed fishing holes into the ice, but they only caught one finger-sized fish.
Uwe's duty in the preparation of the Siberian river trip was the creation of a logo. The logo designed by Uwe, which is printed at the lower right of the photograph, is in Cyrillic and reads "Sibir'89", whereby the Cyrillic "S" – which looks like a "C" – is furnished with a moose. The logo was glued onto all items: the floats, clothes, equipment. This was meant to make the tour look official as possible, and therefore legal.
Uwe went to Dresden to study, thus escaping the apathy of the restricted area. He also began to get more politically informed and involved. A photographer had official permission to photograph the crowds at train stations. Uwe and his friends helped him later to put up the photographs, whereby despite having official permission they were repeatedly threatened with arrest.
To the heavy luggage of Uwe and his friends belonged next to vital equipment also a 16mm camera, with which the unique adventures were captured on film. Here you can see among others the encounter with Anton, a local, and his elk as well as the construction of a catamaran and the subsequent river trip with it. A logo specifically designed by Uwe for this trip is clearly visible on the jackets. It reads in Cyrillic letters "Sibir'89" where the Cyrillic S, then a C, is larger and furnished with a moose. The logo was put on all items - float, clothing, equipment. Hereby, the whole tour was supposed to appear official and thereby as legal as possible.
To the heavy luggage of Uwe and his friends belonged next to vital equipment also a 16mm camera, with which the unique adventures were captured on film. The young engineers built the iceboat seen in the clip on the basis of an East German cartoon film and read for further information on the subject “Der junge Segler” (the young sailor). With this superficial expertise, they succeeded their sailing trip on the frozen Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world.