April 30th, 2011

25 years ago this week: the first television report on Soviet TV mentioning the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, on Вре́мя (Vremya – the Russian word for ‘time’), the main news program of the First Programme of the Central Television of the USSR. April 1986.

Karl-Marx Shop

April 27th, 2011

On first glance, it might seem to a casual passer-by that the Karl-Marx Shop, in Neukölln, Berlin, is some kind of Ostalgie-related attempt to sell mugs and t-shirts to tourists. However, it’s actually a normal household and kitchen supplies shop, and it gets its name from the street it’s on: Karl-Marx-Strasse.



Streets named after Marx were familiar sights in East Germany during its forty-year existence, but this street is in what was formerly West Berlin, and so the name is somewhat more surprising. The street was given its current name in July 1947 — after the end of World War II in 1945, but prior to the establishment of East Germany in 1949.

Part of the logic of political life in divided Berlin was that East and West would attempt to outdo each other, not only in grand projects like the Haus der Kulturen der Welt or the Fernsehturm Berlin, but also in superficial gestures of supposed friendship and magnanimity. Therefore, from the perspective of the West Berlin political and diplomatic class, it made sense to keep a street named after Marx, as an implied token of willingness to rise above pettiness and acknowledge a hero of the ‘other side’ (this logic was often followed by the East Berlin authorities as well, though they mostly stuck to general themes of peace and friendship, rather than specific historical personages).

The historical ironies are compounded, however, by the reasons for the naming of Berlin’s other Marx-monikered boulevard, Karl-Marx-Allee in Friedrichshain, in former East Berlin. This street — planned, designed and built by the new East German state as a colossal symbol of communist power — was initially named Stalinallee, but was renamed in 1961 as a result of De-Stalinization.

Marx himself might well have been baffled by the appropriation of his memory as an ideological tool for competing social systems, but would surely have relished the irony of a local shop, a basic unit of bourgeois capitalism, using his name.

Google and Gagarin

April 12th, 2011

Today, the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned spaceflight, is an occasion of pride, but also ambivalence, for both Russians and for many around the world. Along with Sputnik, Gagarin’s manned spaceflight represented one of the great achievements of the Soviet space program, and, indeed, still represents one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

That this was achieved by a coercive, dictatorial regime, indifferent to human costs and obsessed with success (or more accurately with the appearance of success) is a point that many contemporary Russians prefer to gloss over. On the other hand, the contemporary western view of the Soviet state as an historical failure, doomed from the outset, doesn’t gel so neatly with recognition and celebration of the genuine historical breakthrough represented by Gagarin’s flight.

Both perspectives, then, are lucky that they can avoid many tricky questions by focusing on the personal story of Yuri Gagarin. Indeed, most of the reporting of the fiftieth anniversary of the Vostok 1 mission focuses on the handsome, charming, intelligent man at the centre of the story, pushing questions of history, politics, science and human achievement to the background.

This ambivalence is neatly summarised in the Google Doodle for April 12th, 2011. A mock-constructivist design shows Gagarin in his space suit, beside an animated rocket blasting into space from a stylised planet earth. The ‘CCCP’ on Gagarin’s helmet is partially obscured, giving at least a hint of the surrounding history and politics, but the focus is on the man. It would be interesting to know how much hand-wringing there was in Google about the ways of seeing this anniversary.

Gagarin Google Doodle

1987 and 2011

April 3rd, 2011

Mikhail Gorbachev, May 29th, 1987 (Centre, accompanied by Gustáv HusákTodor ZhivkovErich HoneckerNicolae CeaușescuWojciech Jaruzelski and János Kádár, at the 1987 Warsaw Pact convention closing ceremonies in East Berlin; Photo: Rainer Mittelstädt/German federal archives):

Gorbachev, 1987

Mikhail Gorbachev, March 29th, 2011 (introduced by Kevin Spacey and Sharon Stone at celebrations for his eightieth birthday, and for the Mikhail Gorbachev Award and gala concert for ‘The Man Who Changed The World’, at the Royal Albert Hall, London; Photos: Adrian Dennis, Dave Hogan — see the full set here):

Gorbachev, 1987