Soviet war graves, Stolzenhagen, eastern Germany

August 9th, 2011

The colossal number of Soviet soldiers and citizens killed in World War II is almost beyond imagining. The deaths, variously estimated at somewhere between twenty and twenty-six million people, continue to cast an enormous shadow over Russia and the former Eastern Bloc. Anyone hoping to understand the history and politics of Europe has to attempt to understand this vast sacrifice. The Soviet (predominantly Russian) war dead are, in a sense, the real ghosts who are haunting Europe.

One of the legacies of this terrifying history is the presence of Soviet war graves throughout Eastern Europe. The largest ones, such as the Treptower Park war memorial, were built as triumphalist assertions of Soviet dominance. But many more exist in hidden and semi-forgotten places. One such place is the woods outside Stolzenhagen, Brandenburg — a small and quiet village near the German-Polish border. On a hilltop clearing, there are ten graves, enclosed by a low fence.

Soviet war grave, Stolzenhagen

The graves.

Soviet war grave, Stolzenhagen

Boulder with plaque.

Soviet war grave, Stolzenhagen

The plaque beside the entrance. In Russian, the text reads:

Вечная слава Советским воинам павшим в боях за свободу и независимость нашей Родины
Живущие бесконечно
благодарны Вам

Approximate English translation:

Undying glory to the Soviet soldiers who fell in the struggle for the freedom and independence of our homeland
Living eternally
Thank you

Soviet war grave, Stolzenhagen

View of one side.

Soviet war grave, Stolzenhagen

Two graves, with the forest beyond.

Soviet war grave, Stolzenhagen

Inside the enclosure.

Soviet war grave, Stolzenhagen

The site is maintained as an official memorial (denkmal) and marked as such.

In step with the times

June 26th, 2011

As was reported during the week, the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia, Bulgaria, was given a pop-art makeover last week. The heroic proletarian soldiers of the postwar sculpture were reimagined as comic-book superheroes, and the punchline “в крак с времето” (Russian for “in step with the times”) was added to the plinth.

Reimagined Red Army, Sofia

The tone of coverage of the story by different media outlets is revealing. RIA Novosti, the Russian media portal, had this lede:

Bulgarian policemen are looking for a vandal who defiled a monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia on Saturday night.

Whereas the Guardian (UK) had a different tack:

There was Superman in red leather boots, Ronald McDonald clutching a bottle of beer, and Santa Claus about to look through a pair of binoculars.

Historical raw nerve touched, it would appear.

Reimagined Red Army, Sofia

Reimagined Red Army, Sofia

Reimagined Red Army, Sofia

Reimagined Red Army, Sofia

Reimagined Red Army, Sofia

Reimagined Red Army, Sofia

Reimagined Red Army, Sofia

Pictures from Budapest Avant-Garde.

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


January 16th, 2011

Robotron was the East German state computer manufacturer. By the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it employed 68,000 people and was churning out communist computers from its headquarters in Dresden for much of the eastern bloc and for export around the world (via ESER), branded with this fantastic retro-futurist logo:

Robotron logo

Robotron’s product range included  personal computers like the sludge-coloured K 8915:

Robotron 8915

And the hi-tech Robotron KC-87:

Robotron KC 87

The company also made calculators, typewriters, disk drives, printers and other electronic equipment.

After German reunification in 1990, the Robotron group was split into pieces and sold off, and the company’s communist-era equipment is mainly kept alive by groups of hobbyists and enthusiasts. Today, the successor company is a comparatively small data-management software business, still based in Dresden.

In May 1986, the Robotron factory in Sömmerda was visited by East German head of state Erich Honecker, and the company produced a promotional documentary around the event, Besuch in Sömmerda (A Visit to Sömmerda), which revelled in soft pro-government propaganda and awesome mid-80s saxophone:

The company seems to have had an appetite for promotional trinkets, including ashtrays, medallions, stamps, calendars, and more. Most curious of these, perhaps, is a schnapps glass with the Robotron logo on it, accompanied by an illustration that looks like a slightly complex take on the Reddit alien:

Robotron promotional schnapps glass and Reddit alien

So, did today’s link-aggregating web behemoth get their logo from a computer company from behind the iron curtain?

A boy named .su

January 9th, 2011

Have pity for poor ICANN. This organisation has the unenviable task of being the global babysitter for country code top-level domain names (ccTLDs), the country-specific endings of web addresses. When these domain names were first doled out in the late eighties and early nineties, a ccTLD of .su was assigned to the Soviet Union. Fifteen months later, the Union collapsed, and ICANN has been attempting without success to shut down .su ever since. The .su domain is currently used by over 80,000 websites, and recently celebrated its twentieth birthday.

The official Russian ccTLD is .ru, or its cyrillic variant .рф (.rf, for Rossiyskaya Federatsiya, or Russian Federation). However, for 600 rubles (about €15), you can have your .su domain up and running in a couple of days, and the occasional threats and pleas from ICANN to do something about the domain have mainly had the effect of encouraging ordinary Russians to rally in support of it.

The death of .su has long been  predicted — in Wired magazine in 2002, by Reuters and New Scientist in 2007, and by the Associated Press in 2008. Most recently, in 2010, American broadcaster PRI’s The World programme featured this report by Jessica Golloher on the long-enduring domain:

The day-to-day uses of the domain are quite varied. There’s a certain nostalgic appeal for authoritarian communists in a website like (though seems to be controlled by evil capitalists). Secret police enthusiasts might be a bit disappointed, however, to find that is actually the website of the Belarus Guitar Club. Most of the rest are pretty innocuous, like More ominously, the Putinist, nationalist Russian mass youth group Nashi uses the .su domain ending on their website, which can hardly be reassuring to other ex-Soviet states.

The Kremlin itself owns, though the domain forwards to the more politically-appropriate site. But it was not always thus. The AP report on .su from 2008 linked above has this accompanying image, showing a photo of a website selling Soviet-related domains to the highest bidder: is prominently listed as an available domain. So, did the Russian government shell out to buy from a Soviet-sympathizing cybersquatter?