Growing Up Under the Russians
Durs Grünbein Remembers a Childhood Under Occupation
For the most part they were unobtrusive, almost invisible—our occupying power. Their day-to-day life carried on behind closed doors, as if someone were trying to shield them from us, or maybe us from them.
They lived a hidden life in the barracks, behind the crooked fences and walls that were made impenetrable by skeins of barbed wire, like a hedge of rose thorns. But anyway, who would have dared try to climb over, who would have had the courage to infiltrate the forbidden zone on the other side? Not even we children were brave enough to give each other a leg up over the wall, though our knees were sometimes itching to.
It wasn’t hard to imagine what it was like behind the walls—over there with the Ivans—as people called them ironically behind their backs. Or the Russians, as was said, though still sotto voce, since the word was strange and chauvinistic too—and we all knew it. But talking about Soviets wasn’t the answer either. Those who used the phrase on official occasions or at school felt immediately that there was something embarrassing, something not quite right about the hypocritical turn of phrase. The problem was that there was no suitable designation for these strangers in our country. Everyone knew that they were one of the victorious occupying powers at the end of the Second World War; their dominance in our country was such a dirty open secret that no one dared say it out loud. Our own country: nothing but a Soviet satrapy? An idea scarcely to be admitted, even in a dream. Instead, one put on a diplomatic face, mumbled some desultory words about friendship between peoples, and every so often, on high feasts and holidays, spoke with due pathos about our Soviet brothers.
This kind of comradeship—the sort acted out at parades rather than genuinely felt—was in the spirit of Lenin. Right at the start of the revolution Lenin had made internationalism the duty of every enlightened communist. It was his successor who was forced to change direction and restrict it to the Motherland—because the rest of the world was lagging hopelessly behind. There was a second chance after victory over Germany, the “deadly foe” or, for the time being at least, “necessary ally.” But this was also a chance to pick up again where they had been forced to give up the previous time, owing to lack of enthusiasm on the part of the German working class. This time they wanted to export the Bolshevist order, completely and without illusion, and build on the collapse that made the idealism of its participants superfluous. A few marks scribbled on a map of Europe at the Yalta conference decided in which zone of influence the people of the defeated nation would live from now on and who were the new masters in this fragmented land. And so one day, shortly after the end of the War, the Russians entered Dresden. They took over the old complex of barracks to the north of the city, set up an exercise area on the Heller heath, distributed themselves among various quarters and official buildings throughout the various districts of the city, and were there to stay. Soon it was as if they had always been there. They belonged to the city like the women trailing home with their shopping bags at teatime, the red coaches of the Tatra trams, and the trash bins made of gunned concrete. Only later, long after the troops had been withdrawn from the eastern part of Germany, did it become apparent how rarely one of their soldiers was to be seen on the postcards of the period. Their day-to-day activities never even got a mention in the local section of the newspaper. They remained a foreign tribe among the Germans. It was, with them, the same as with certain neighbors who never become more than strangers even though we see them every day. They always presented an exotic sight, mostly turning up in small groups, uniformed recruits marching in line, or a gaggle of them in civvies wandering through the city and in the museums. People got used to seeing them around and soon learned to see through them. They seemed to have come from another planet, a star that appeared on their caps and the gates of their inaccessible quarters: they were the people from the Soviet star.
But unlike our neighbors, we never greeted the Russians. Even those who knew a little Russian took care not to exchange words with the foreigners. That was astonishing and rather shabby too; for there was really no way of avoiding them when they walked past at the end of our garden. People took to choosing different routes to avoid them, looking at the ground when they were near, even in the queue at the one local food shop, wedged between the narrow shelves with all the tins. I think we children even lowered our voices in the presence of these strangers in our midst. At the same time, of course, we observed them, covertly studying their every gesture. The adults seemed to know more about them than we did. For us they were the first foreigners we had ever set eyes on: people with an Asian cast, some of them with high cheekbones and narrow eyes, almost Mongolian. For all that we couldn’t make head or tail of the hisses and singsong tones when they spoke, listening to them was strangely soothing. We became trusting, and it sometimes happened that we set off after them out of inquisitiveness, rather like following the pied piper, eager to hear more of their double Dutch. The language had something calming about it, something comforting, like a lullaby when you listened to it crouched under cover of the hedgerow, peering through a hole in the fence, or at the secret meetings that some of the more daring of us arranged after school.
The barracks stood only a hundred meters from our front door, a little piece of Siberia in the middle of the garden city, though the giant gate at the main entrance was almost always locked. There was a dense scrub of weeds and untended bushes growing next to the concrete wall that surrounded the barracks. Under the birch trees a huddle of giant oil containers rusted away quietly. We were delighted to spy an exercise taking place on the huge parade ground in front of what used to be the theater but which now served as the garrison headquarters. The guards at the gate kept running out and trying to chase us off. Once a sergeant even brandished his service pistol to scare us away. On good days, if we brazened it out we would even make it as far as the washhouse, which was more than enough for us. Then we would slip through the turnstile and give ourselves up. The forbidden fruits were just too enticing. The idea of ending up in one of the detention cells near the armory preoccupied us just as obsessively as the scenes from our favorite Westerns where, the gunslinger safely behind bars, the sheriff would sit down next door in the office, his legs on the table and his cowboy boots jangling.
The ordinary soldiers were almost always friendly in their dealings with us. They gave us buttons from their uniforms as presents, let us touch their knives and bayonets, and soon got involved in all kinds of swaps and trading. One of them showed us his collections of smutty photos, naked women in harmless positions, girl-next-door types with braids in their hair, posing in birch woods or lounging on sofas with piles of plumped-up cushions. They said if we could get hold of something similar there might be a chance to do business. So for our next rendezvous we turned up with girly pics, cut out of Magazin, the only magazine that was allowed to print things like that and had an official license to counter the widespread prudery of the state. With these naked ladies I managed to acquire my first cigarette, a flattened stub with the brand name Belomor, which the Russians called Papirossi or Machorka. The effect was like toking on a joint. I had to sit down in a rush, lightheaded, while glimmering specks of ash burned my skin. We felt like we’d entered a foreign country, Indian territory, to take part in a well-established ritual: we were the chosen few, who had been summoned to smoke a pipe of peace with the medicine man. And the room around us spun with Kalashnikovs, coat pegs, black telephones, and lists of standing orders in Cyrillic script. The soldiers could hardly contain themselves as these clean-living German lads were initiated into the real world. They kept pointing at the breasts of the models, clapping us on the shoulder, and couldn’t get enough of our faces white as sheets. All in all they seemed like companions, as casual and carefree as older brothers who enjoyed leading us to the very gates of paradise and delighted in our astonishment. None of them would have harmed a hair on our heads, not one of them was a sadist.
That didn’t stop us from cracking jokes behind their backs, mind. Question: “What is Russian sex?” Answer: “Lenin without a hat.” That was out and out blasphemy where Lenin was concerned and, precisely because of that, endlessly amusing, though also underhanded in a way. They wouldn’t have found it funny, our mean-spirited “Fascist” German. Just the day before one of them had given us one of the sought-after badges, with a picture of Lenin as a child—the revolutionary leader as blond cherub in the manner of the Christ child.
Was it their military discipline that instilled in them a sense of reserve, reticence even, when it came to acting like an occupying power? Our parents could never have had such uncomplicated dealings with them, only we children could get close. I don’t know how the others felt, but I always had a soft spot for this strange and unfamiliar breed. Everything seemed more relaxed when they were around; life seemed to weigh less heavily on our shoulders. We saw them, felt their tact, the innate modesty of the collectivized man, and were ashamed at the grotesque historical predicament in which we all found ourselves.
Gradually we also learned to distinguish the different nationalities and types. There were the dark Southerners, those from the Caucasus, Chechens, who always looked unshaven; then the cattlemen from the near east, Kirgiz, Turkmen, Uzbeks; and alongside them the lanky Northern Europeans with their straw-blond hair, Finnish lumberjack types. Each of them was immediately recognizable as Russian—even out of uniform—and not only on account of the red cheeks that many of them seemed to have. One could tell the women by their ample figures and exaggerated makeup, the legendary Muschik by the coarse material of his uniform, the little kindergarten girls by the huge white ribbons in their hair, as if they’d been wrapped as presents for their families. A group of women standing huddled together in their long, unprepossessing frocks were reminiscent of those brightly painted wooden nesting dolls that were the most prized souvenir from Russia, even then.
Every so often this or that dominant mandrill would cross our path. And just like with animals in the zoo, it was the most highly colored parts of the body that caught our eye. A muddy jeep would drive up and an officer would jump out, Asian military bigwig to a tee, with a wide flat cap and a chest full of gaudy medals and insignia. As soon as he saw what was up—international understanding in action, but not in the expected manner since children were involved—he would turn a blind eye and leave us to get on with it with his subordinates, these poor wretches, in service to a state that would send thousands of them to the slaughter at a stroke if its leaders deemed it necessary.
* * * *
It was soldiers like these that nearly dragged my mother off to Russia at the end of the war. Picture it: 1945 and huge swaths of the Red Army returning in high spirits after the victory at the Elbe; summer and all Europe was just breathing a sigh of relief; a great flood of unruly, quasi-demobilized troops making its way back home. They were within a whisker of scooping my mother up and taking her away on one of the Panjewagen, those rickety carts piled high with junk and pulled by a sturdy horse, bouncing their way home over the country roads—or at least that’s the story the rhapsodes of the family would tell, grandmother and the other women who were out on the streets.
The Allies, American and British bomber units, left Dresden razed to the ground. The frustration for the Russian infantry, to whom it had effectively belonged up until then, must have been immense. This barbaric action, comprehensible as a reaction to the outrages of the German Luftwaffe against cities like Guernica, Rotterdam, or Coventry, was tantamount to a breach of contract between the mistrustful allies in East and West. One can imagine why, faced with a province that was now ruins, the army that had suffered the greatest number of war casualties now took out its rage on ordinary people. Indeed, I know it for a fact, as the stories of rape and robbery were whispered in the family for many years. Little Rosemarie would have been swept up—along with the Sistine Madonna, the Rembrandts and Titians from the Dresden collection, all the baroque furniture and Meissen porcelain—like any other piece of war booty to find its way to Russia on the tide of returning victors. Doubtless she’d have been adopted a short time after by a soldier. Though German by nationality, her black hair and Slavic cheekbones would have been enough to stir the genetic instincts of her captors. She would have been schlepped—who knows where—perhaps to Samarkand or Siberia—if one of the neighbors hadn’t intervened at the last minute. Without a word they let go of the child and flung a sack of zwieback from the cart. The starving crowd fell upon it ravenously, so that the child would have been left empty-handed if a soldier hadn’t spoken up and ordered them away.
There were all kinds of touching stories about the Russians’ love of children. People tend to take such things seriously, but they’d left a good impression and there was always a tone of respect and relief when the family legend was dusted off. A gritty street in the bombed-out suburbs, children and dogs running along after the column of exhausted soldiers on their way home, a girl with pigtails, stumbling cheerfully after them, with her open face turned to face the reaches of geography: she really does have something of a Siberiaki child.
All that had been over a long time when we children made common cause with the occupying power. There was nothing to match the horror of the stories from the time at the end of the War. It seemed as if humanity might have come to its senses since then. At least the threats were so abstract and unimaginable—the destruction of Europe in a nuclear war and so on—that one was able to keep them at bay, like most achievements of the age. We inhabited the little world that existed outside our front door; it was the sphere of the Cold War, but, because we were children, we could take off whenever we liked for Jules Verne’s mysterious Volcano Island, we could disappear into the bushes in an instant and be gone.
* * * *
But there were two incidents, two unhappy encounters with the Russians, that have stayed with me always. The first one took place after a trip to the cinema in Hellerau’s only picture house. I think it was Ben Hur—I have an image in mind of slaves being whipped. It was the American version of the Spartacus Uprising and for that reason conformed to the official political line, notwithstanding the Hollywood aesthetic: the rattling chariots and overwhelming colors on the screen. The afternoon showing had just finished and we streamed out into the June dusk, long before summertime had really begun, when we were stopped in our tracks by a gaggle of people crowding around a single figure who staggered about. What was going on?
A young Russian, in mufti, unusually enough, was out looking for a fight and in his drunken stupor had berated the local Germans there as swine. Then he’d walked along smashing, one by one, all the glass display cases with the film posters. A small group of men had taken up the challenge and were clustered around the drunken brawler. Close up one could see he was a weedy guy, trousers flapping around his skinny legs. He made up for it by bawling even louder, brimming with foulmouthed Russian curses.
It was rare in our neck of the woods for something out of the ordinary to happen in the street. The local police had been called. But before they got there a military police van from the barracks nearby drew up with a screech, soldiers jumped out, and the man was picked up—three of his comrades had grabbed hold of him—and flung with brute force into the back like a sack of coal. The whole thing seemed to unfold according to a secret choreography, like in Prokofiev’s Nutcracker Suite, as if the sequence had been drilled into them in one of their training sessions. The thing that struck me most was the readiness of the soldiers to “pile on.” Under the eye of the officer they were ready without a moment’s thought to treat their own kind like dirt.
In the meantime, while the sergeant was trying to calm the German civilians, we kept hearing the word “vodka,” but the townspeople saw only the face of the man covered with blood cowering in the back of the truck. In an instant the mood changed. The man was now a victim, a future delinquent whom the civilians wanted to shield from the inevitable military processes. We had a good idea of what would be waiting for him back at the barracks. There were rumors of cruel punishments and even that deserters were still shot in the most advanced army in the world. “Stop, take your hands off him,” an elderly woman cried out as they kept laying into him, until the man could scarcely move. The crowd was so outraged at the severity of the treatment that it was up in arms and would not be placated. They beat furiously on the sides of the van as it disappeared in a cloud of dust and roared away with the shadowy MPs.
There had never been anything like that before. “That poor Russian boy,” my mother exclaimed on the way home, “I really feel sorry for him.” And the incident churned me up more than any of the films I ever got to see in the little cinema in Hellerau.
A few years later—after I’d started reading the great Russian epics—I came across the same scene in Dostoyevsky. In Crime and Punishment the student Raskolnikov relives a dreadful scene from his childhood in a dream. He stands by and is forced to watch as a peasant farmer with a cart parked outside a tavern beats his broken-down horse half to death. He had invited some of the regulars for a ride; some of the old soaks had already scrambled on, everyone yelling and mucking about, but the poor old nag just wasn’t up to it and so it would suffer. Spurred on by the gawping crowd the man picks up a crowbar and thrashes the animal to within an inch of its life in a frenzy of mindless brutality. It is completely at his mercy; he can do what he wants to the beast, his property. There is little to be lost, and what remains is the triumph of destruction, a delirium of violence against the only creature weaker than him. And the child stands by, sees it all, and bursts into tears. Raskolnikov is overcome with rage at the poverty and the fatalism of the Russian soul. The next day he will walk out of his house with an axe and smash the greedy pawnbroker’s skull in.
* * * *
Experiences like the one outside the cinema probably made such a powerful impression on us because there was no one we could talk to about them. It was out of the question to broach real life events like this in our Russian class at school, which took place three times a week and bored us all rigid with tedious superlatives about the glorious Soviet Union. In that context the Red Army was a peace-keeping force with its tank crews waving little flags on parade days. It was embodied in the stone hero of the Russian war memorial in Berlin’s Treptow Park, the soldier carrying a German child in his arms to safety through the fire, with his cloak rippling behind him like some male version of the Virgin of Mercy. We had grown up with this image of chivalry. We had heard about the soup kitchens where the liberating army had even taken to providing generous amounts of food for the starving and bombed-out civilian population in the first weeks after the war. The spirit of these stories of socialist altruism could not have been mistaken. None of us had ever had bad experiences with our saviors from the East. In certain respects, notwithstanding the grueling nature of their day-to-day lives, the Russians seemed more generous and open than our educators and the officials who crossed our paths in those early years—in any case they weren’t always trying to tell us what to do. They even kept their cool and demonstrated a basic human sympathy for the follies of youth when we ignored their instructions and ungovernable curiosity led us into danger.
Some of the great pleasures of those years on the outskirts of the city were our expeditions on the Heller heath. Entire afternoons were spent roaming through the mysterious stretch of land consisting of sand dunes and pine woods that served in reality as a military zone. And not just since the Russians had occupied it. Kaiser Wilhelm’s soldiers had received their final training here, and later Hitler’s motorized regiments departed from here to conquer the world, presumably including my grandfather before he was stationed first in France and then in Russia. This pocket of wasteland, just a few kilometers square, with its undulating terrain, was perfectly suited for tank exercises. Up on the highest plateau there was even a helicopter pad, as we discovered before long. No sane adult would have risked trespassing in this place, only a band of vagabonds like us—certifiable for sure—had the run of this secret zone behind the barbed wire and rusting danger signs, larking around as if we were in possession of a magic cloak. Though in truth we were anything but invisible in our cutoff jeans and home-dyed T-shirts, feet in open sandals that we called “Jesus boots” back then. And once we actually ended up slap bang in the middle of military maneuvers, caught between the two advancing lines. We had just set up camp in one of the pillboxes, which we imagined must have been around since the time of the German Wehrmacht; we’d cleared the communications trenches of branches and clutter and draped old bits of fabric over the boards, when the storm broke over us. Suddenly from all sides we were surrounded by bursts of machine gun fire, the short, hacking rattle of the Kalashnikov.
Through the bushes we could see soldiers in the distance in combat formation moving closer towards our little clump of trees. There they rolled, bearing down on us across the hills, the magnificent victory machines of the Second World War, T 34 tanks that, with their rotund form and robust construction, had been infinitely superior to the clunky rattleboxes of the German Wehrmacht on their way into the Soviet Union. That was perhaps the moment when our love for the rotund forms of Russian folk art was born, the delight at the apple-cheeked babushkas, churches with onion domes, and the chubby Cyrillic letters that vexed and teased us for years in our Russian classes. Didn’t these tanks have something of the witch’s house on chicken legs in the famous Russian fairy tale?
It’s worth adding that moments like these—moments when your heart beats fit to burst and the impression of events is almost overwhelming—can leave one receptive for years after. One day I came across a poem by Osip Mandelstam that brought it all back to me: “It’s so my own and so familiar. What should / I do with this God-given flesh and blood?”
For a while we stayed in hiding. Through the slits we saw that the troops were nearly upon us, storming through the undergrowth with bellowing infantrymen at the head and radio operators stumbling along with their cable-reel field phones strapped on their backs bringing up the rear. We had seen too many war films not to know what a real assault looked like. It’s just blanks, one of us said, to show off, but the infernal din shredded his words as he uttered them. And those guys playing at war didn’t look anything like actors. Of course the second we tried to make a run for it towards the garden city we were spotted. But the reaction we expected never came, we weren’t arrested, no one handed us over to the police. The men in uniform were as bewildered as we were. They threw filthy looks in our direction and sent us off with a few choice commands ringing in our ears—“Domoi, domoi”—back behind the battle lines and home. With our bare, spindly legs poking out of our short trousers we must have looked like clowns in the middle of a grim Mosfilm epic about the Great Patriotic War. We made as little sense in the middle of this drill as a group of chirpy raccoons in the Russian Steppes.
A few summers later we were to get up close to our unknown neighbors, the Russians, after all. What went on that night in the seventies is just a jumble of fragments mixed up in my memory. It was recounted to me as if it were a bizarre dream, and as it actually happened I myself was lost in dreams after hours of driving home in the car. Like every year, we had been on holiday to the Baltic in late August and got back after midnight. The car—a pack horse Trabant—stood loaded to the rafters in front of the house; we’d simply been too exhausted to unpack it last thing that night. The next day my parents filled me in as to what had happened to set half the neighborhood in a complete flap. An off-duty Russian soldier coming home after a night on the tiles had let the air out of all four tires out of sheer maliciousness. My father, woken from his prairie sleep (as he called it) by the hissing of the valves, had jumped out the window in his pajamas and woken the neighbor, who rushed out similarly attired, as reinforcement. The pair of them had overcome the miscreant who was flailing wildly and threw him down on the loose gravel between the tram tracks. Then they had bound him with a towrope and wanted to deliver him to the police trussed up like a parcel. But the police refused to acknowledge responsibility for this subject of a foreign power. As before, an officer from the local garrison had to be informed, and he quickly put an end to the sorry escapade there and then. The Russian soldier was hauled off just as brutally as his comrade had been outside the cinema. Father’s pajamas had been hanging off him in tatters, my mother declared (not without pride); the Russian growled like a wolf and had been given a bloody nose. I thought of Peter and the Wolf, and the picture of the caged beast, hanging upside down from a pole as it was carried away by the hunters, stayed with me for a long time.
The next morning I took a close look at the heroes sitting around the kitchen table and made a mental note to embellish the whole episode when I told it to my friends after the summer holidays. Unfortunately, I hadn’t seen this modern- day Ilya Muromet trussed like a kipper with my own eyes. He went down in family history as the first Russian to whom it was best to give a wide berth. I can still see the officers at the garden gate, the gray of their greatcoats with the double rows of gold buttons, their excessive politeness. For a brief moment our house behind its yew hedge had been the scene of a military incident. It was a Sunday. A black Volga drew up outside the house, someone rang the doorbell, and a formal deputation from the Soviet Armed Forces on German Soil, along with its interpreters, presented my mother with a truly enormous bouquet and my father with a twenty mark note in lieu of damages. Inwardly I was annoyed with myself for not having blagged one of the emblems and cockades that they always used to make an impression on us civilians. Or one of the hundreds of posters, that came in every imaginable size, with a hammer and sickle or the insignia with the flag flying to the left, or the Red Star Cap Badge that shone like nail polish. It had been the best chance of my entire life and I had blown it out of sheer dumb amazement.
—translated from the German by Karen Leeder
Featured image: graffiti on the Berlin Wall of Leonid Brezhnev kissing Erich Honecker (via Wikipedia)