The 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's end comes two years after my only visit to the former Soviet bloc.
It's not Berlin that comes first to mind. It's Prague, and the Museum of Communism. The museum is small, up a broad staircase on the second floor of a grand old building. A McDonalds is next door.
I went alone, on a bright spring day. Inside, the rooms were gloomy. The artifacts of 41 years of totalitarian communist rule were grim.
They showed how governments could easily construct a false reality, where enemies threaten and only a strong state can keep citizens safe.
But what brought tears to my eyes me were the video displays and writings in which Czechs looking back on the Prague spring of 1968. For eight months, under a reform government, change seemed possible.
Then the Soviet tanks rolled in.
For several months, people fought back, at great cost. Until the hopes were destroyed and they gave up.
The occupation lasted another 21 years, until it collapsed after the Berlin Wall came down on Nov. 9, 1989.
What was so sad?
The crushed hopes, for certain. The museum's black and white films showed protesters flooding into Prague's streets to demand freedom and democracy, defying police and army and censorship.
The fearlessness, too, and the obvious belief that an army of citizens could triumph over an army of guns and tanks.
But sadder than all that were the doubts and regrets. It was in the people's eyes as they talked about the collapse of the democracy movement.
What if, they must have wondered, we had fought a little longer, accepted more deaths, pushed back a little harder? Could that form of oppression been thrown off 20 years earlier?
There is no harder question.
Walking through the museum, I wondered how deep the scars still must be. No one who lived through the period could have escaped them.
The people who saw injustice and oppression lived with the questions about what they, and didn't do, to resist and whether they shied away from a just and important struggle. Each person had to decide if he was sensible, or scared.
A lot of people chose sensible. Some informed on neighbours or worked hard to support the Communist state. They too must have wondered about their choices.
Berlin was certainly haunting - the memorials to those killed trying to cross the wall, the preserved subway stations, closed for more than 40 years because they would have allowed East Berliners to simply step off the train and walk up into West Germany.
But the little museum in Prague was terribly sad and raised very hard questions, at least for me.
There was no character flaw in the Czech and Slovakian people or the East Germans or any of the other people who spend so long under Soviet oppression. They were not, except for their circumstances, much different from us.
As a child of the Cold War, the power of fear is easily understandable. When the warning sirens went, usually by accident, children in my Toronto suburb paused to see if the Russian a-bombs were about to fall. I pondered whether there were local targets worthy of a nuclear missile and calculated the odds that a Russian bomb aimed at Buffalo would miss land in my subdivision.
And as thousands of people gather in Berlin to celebrate the wall's fall, I wonder about the reality our states are constructing today.
Most Czech citizens, I expect, accepted the world their governments created, deferred to authority, made the best of their lives. As we do.
That is not, for a second, to compare the Soviet bloc governments and our own.
But as I emerged into the sun and walked Prague's beautiful streets, through the squares where thousands gathered, I felt both sadness and admiration. When tested, they had risked much in a bid for freedom.
Footnote: Equally haunting is a monument in Wenceslas Square in Prague, a curling cross set into on the ground. In January 1969, Jan Palach, a 20-year-old Czech history student, set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion that crushed the Prague Spring and brought 20 more years of winter.