Russian Fiction – And I don’t mean Tolstoy

11 Apr

In 1976 I found myself in East Berlin. I had crossed over for the day from the West to explore the historic center of the city and to feel that frisson of weird menace you sensed when walking about in a communist country. At the crossing point I made the compulsory exchange of 6.50 Deutschmarks for the same amount in bouncy plastic Ostmarks, which I would not be allowed to bring back out. No problem, I thought – how difficult can it be to spend 6.50 marks?

berlin 1976

A young Augustus Gump in 1976 Berlin. Under communism all images of future literary giants were blurred

The answer was, as it turned out, surprisingly difficult. There was nothing to buy in East Berlin. After walking along Unter den Linden, where thirty years after the end of the war there were still a few holes in the ground where buildings had once stood (probably just as well, as they would otherwise no doubt have been filled in by monstrous communist architecture), I eventually found a restaurant. I sat down at the opposite side of the large dining room from the two other diners and, after about fifteen minutes, was presented with the biggest menu I had ever seen. There were literally hundreds of items. So much for all that capitalist propaganda about the drab austerity of the east! I eventually settled on a dish and, when the waiter returned about half an hour later, I attempted to order it. He shook his head. They didn’t have that. I chose something else. Again the shake of the head. How about this? No. Well what do you have? He pointed at a single item, a meatbally thing, if I recall correctly and departed, I presumed to fetch it. Forty-five minutes later, with no meatball in sight, I left, suffering from a rumbling tummy and a surfeit of metaphors for the communist system.

Back on the street, I realized that I had hours to go before I had to leave and no idea how to fill them, when my eyes were drawn to the jarring sight, some way down the avenue, of a goose-stepping soldier. Drawing nearer, I realized that he was Russian and that the building before which he was slapping his jackboots on the pavement – irony was in short supply in East Berlin, not just meatballs – was a museum celebrating the “Great Patriotic War.”

Inside I found an exhibition of photographs, maps and objects depicting the Red Army’s single-handed triumph over the Nazis. To an unbrainwashed observer, the most striking thing was that in all the many rooms, on all the many maps and in all the many detailed descriptions of the course of the war, there was not a single mention of the western front or Russia’s allies. Not a mention of D-Day, North Africa, the Italian campaign or even the thousands of British sailors who lost their lives on the ships of the arctic convoys carrying the supplies that saved the Soviet Union. It was as if none of this ever happened, a big blank space in history like the big blank space in the shape of West Berlin that appeared on East German maps.

There were other blank spaces, of course – Stalin’s alliance with Hitler, the carving up of Poland, the massacre of Polish officers and intellectuals, the invasion of Finland, the deliberate delay in capturing Warsaw to allow the Nazis to suppress the uprising there, the subjugation and oppression of eastern Europe after the war, the mass deportations of whole nations of supposed collaborators.

Fast forward to 2015, and how little has changed, as is shown by this snippet from the BBC. A gallery in Yekaterinburg has mysteriously closed for repairs, just as an exhibition of the work of British and American war photographers was about to open. The official fiction of the Soviet Union’s isolated stand against tyranny continues, as does the more damaging fiction of the country’s unblemished heroism during those dark years. Unlike the Germans, the Russians, as victors in the conflict, have never been made to confront the horrific deeds they committed. This seems to leave them with the belief, despite all evidence to the contrary, that they are the good guys in any situation. If you can swallow the fiction of the Great Patriotic War, now being celebrated so enthusiastically in Russia, how difficult can it be to swallow the fiction of the oppression of Russian speakers in Ukraine and unleash your heroic military might on your neighbours?

I finally spent some of that 6.50 Marks on a currywurst and a beer, both of which later emerged little changed by the digestive process. I accidentally smuggled the remaining money back to the west where I lost it when it fell out of my pocket as I was buying a proper currywurst and bounced two feet in the air and into some bushes.


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