I upped and moved from Hamburg to VladiRostok
In West Berlin I walked out to the Wall every day. A strong pull. In a bunch of places along the Wall the local authority had erected ramshackle structures resembling hunters’ hides, so that anyone who wanted could gape over without—well, without further ado. Over the other side, to them over there.
On these occasions I too would look for one of these hunters’ hide for myself, and if there was nobody gawping on it, I would go up and take a look across. Like going to the cinema. Or rather the theatre, it was my way of theatre-going—and that, by and large, was Commonism.
I tried to understand it a bit.
The fact that right now I was in capitalism, among socialised laws of nature,1) but if I was here, then why was I nevertheless so much over there. First I would wait for the somebody or other who had climbed up under my very nose to come back down, and then. Meanwhile I would examine the graffiti. They weren’t to my liking. Anyway, it wasn’t done to stay up there too long because others also wanted to come up.
Yes, but how long? There were also multiperson hunters’ hides, and for want of better I would also clamber up to those and gaze with such wonder at the East German-manufactured cars, buzzing to and fro so cockily, as if I had never seen one before. Nor indeed had I seen them, from this side everything looked different.
One could see the order in it, that Lieber Unrecht als Unordnung,2) as Goethe put it. Curious that they managed to make colours disappear, for example. Colour was unseemly, it confuses things.
Or would have. There is order, so what’s the need for colour, just so much mishmash. If you board the Berlin S-Bahn at Westkreuz and travel in the direction of Ostkreuz, the colours gradually vanish. From the houses, the streets, the passengers’ clothes, people’s faces. You cross the border and coloration is blotted out. I watched myself in a black-and-white film, the place to which I belong, them over there, this hunter’s hide, and all the other cretins who will soon be coming up here to stand gawping, as soon as I get down, and that was the Soviet Urnion.
This indescribable gandering.
Beyond all else. Beyond the fact that due to requisitioning five million people in the Soviet Union in effect died of starvation during the early Twenties. Round about six million during the collectivisation drive. A photo of starving peasants, a skin-and-bone Ukrainian couple, faces eaten-away, eyes goggling, in the background the remains of the corpses of their own children that they have devoured. The Soviet Urnion signifies inordinately too much, I would not care to say this way, after the event,3) exactly what—one would need to extricate oneself from so many different things. To break free, disentangle oneself, wake up—see there! I wasn’t dreaming.
To not dream. To think of more pleasant things, to search for little bits of colour in the hopeless milky-fog-greyness. Not easy. A graceful young man with an innocent face, his forefinger bandaged, in A.V. Shevchenko’s Portrait of a Shock Worker at the Tramway Power Plant. Or the fact that Leo Trotsky meets 29-year-old Frida Kahlo in 1937, as a result of which she became a “Communist”—sweet, isn’t it? Frida with her fluffy upper lip calls Trotsky “Piochitas’—Little Goatee—on account of his beard. To gather together and sort through what was nice in the Soviet Urnion.
Funny, intriguing, heart-stirring. That I took to my heart. The tang of smoke curling out from the chimney flue of a kitchen range on an August morning in Szentistván Settlement. The redolence of plane-trees in City Park after a shower of rain. A bottle of Travellers’ Relief soft drink at the lido. The 6:3 and 1:2 games. In 1963, on the Takácses’ telly, I saw Ferenc Puskás playing for a World XI against England. Ferencváros won the championship. The Czech film The Fireman’s Ball, directed by Miloš Forman. Once, on the pitch at Csillaghegy I lobbed the ball over with my heel from ten metres into the back of the net. The swelling on girls’ school smocks, for example.
That pre-eminently. Good job the wearing of school smocks was compulsory. Good job. Not that it was easy, mind.
Indeed, it’s hard to say things like that, I don’t relish the idea that I took any bit of Commonism to my heart, but then if I did, to where else was I supposed to have taken it? Because I don’t just endure or put up with what happens to me: who indeed has nothing of the subordinate, the servant, the redeemer, the cynic or the hardened criminal about them? Who does not sometimes find themselves gripped by a rush of fanaticism to transform or reform the evil that surrounds them? Other people.
To put them straight, even dispose of them. Who would not long to have the power to do that? Not so much this or that but, side-stepping moral considerations, to decide in favour of power. These things do not depend on so-called regimes, but that’s how it is divided up inside us, fairly or unfairly, and the regime deals with these things. It brings them out and stuffs them in the subconscious. It somehow deals with the aggression. Aggression builds up and ruins.
At times ruining is all it does. Ruin and ruin, Commonism is a ruin.
The most interesting thing in Commonism, and this is truly interesting, is that everything is destroyed, and what is built up in place of the destruction, that work is in itself destruction. Stepan Grossman: one of the best workers in Czechoslovakia. When, on the basis of the experiences of Soviet Stakhanovites, he made a switch to operating multiple machine drills, the opponents were set against it, while the reactionaries said: You won’t be able to stand it. It’s impossible to stand it. From here it almost doesn’t matter how, one has to get out. Easy.
Take it easy, no rhetoric. I, for one thing, left off commie-baiting from the word go, gave it up.
Not on account of the people who do commie-bash, but on account of the way they do it. I don’t rightly know why, it is something unsettled with me, it may be it was not compulsory to leave off, but that’s how it is now. I can’t rightly remember. Many things, yes, but not the whole thing.
I remember the bananas. If I write it down, I have it, the memory functions, it’s more the imagination that is lacking. The thing with the bananas was that, as a rule, there were no bananas, but sometimes, no knowing why, a batch would be shipped in. Why of all things there were no bananas, or why there were no bananas when there were oranges, was a mystery; perhaps it was on health grounds, on account of the vitamin intake, they reckoned other kinds of vitamins were necessary. There were people who concerned themselves with vitamins, they assessed the situation, and that’s why there were no bananas, and this yes-there-are-no-bananas was Commonism.
Anyway, when they shipped them I joined the queue.
Once, I once queued up in the biting cold for bananas in the subway passage at the Western Rail Terminus, it wasn’t worth it by a long chalk, but by then it wouldn’t have been worth quitting the queue either. There are times when nothing is worth it. I went to sleep fully content. I’d had many strokes of luck that day. I wasn’t keeping a count of how many days in my stretch were like that, from the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.
And some extra days for leap years.4)
In 1986 I purchased a timber house at Kisoroszi, on the Danube Bend, and one afternoon I strolled out to the camping site at the tip of Szentendre Island, from which one could see as far as the dam at Nagymaros, the construction work there. Almost that far.
One could see a bit of it. That was the Ruin.
I didn’t go there any more, I didn’t feel like seeing better, only three years later did I and S, a West German girl, take a stroll out to the end of the island. It was late autumn, so the holidayers had gone home, but the camping site was nevertheless full of Germans who knew, had decided, that they were not going to return to the People’s Republic. Up till then it had always been Hungary to which they had travelled east to get to the West, and East German girls just went around dumbfounded in a way I’m sure I would not have dared. Now they were not dumbfounded.
That wasn’t part of the plan, but with the weather having turned chilly several hundred Germans were sitting around, wrapped up in sleeping bags, in front of tents on a Hungarian camping site, because they didn’t want to go home.
Overnight that same day the Hungarians permitted them to cross the border into Austria. Away from here.
Dam, border, home, death.
Garden, German, Soviet Urnion, gawping, own film—this is how all that came to an end, and its inglorious end now marks a startling contrast to its noisy career.5) A young Hungarian border guard, through a misunderstanding, in alarm put a bullet in the head of one of the refugees. If I remember the story rightly and have not made it all up.
1) Georg Lukács
2) "Better injustice than disorder."
3) “Along with the Soviet régime, the entire edifice of critical and/or oppositionist knowledge also collapsed… What continued to exist could be rendered questionable on the basis of knowledge, but that was hardly so for what had disappeared or collapsed, and the way it had done so. In light of the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the older knowledge now seems almost enviably naïve.” Ákos Szilágyi: A Szovjettelen unió története [A History of the Un-Soviet Union]. Budapest: Helikon, 1999.
4) “Sukhov went to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t sent the team to the settlement; he’d pinched a bowl of kasha at dinner; the team-leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw-blade through; he’s earned something from Tsezar in the evening; he’d bought that tobacco. And he hadn’t fallen ill. He’d got over it. A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day. There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail. The three extra days were for leap years.” Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Translated by Ralph Parker, 1963. The final sentences of the book. By which I don’t mean to say that the Gulag, where the inmates would root about for fish-eyes in their soup is in any way comparable to the banana situation in Hungary. It’s not comparable: it’s the same thing. I don’t imagine it was any different in Hungary’s forced-labour camp at Recsk. Solzhenitsyn reckons the camps were dreamed up to annihilate people. There were no gas chambers only because there was not enough gas.
5) François Furet: The Passing of an Illusion: the Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century
(Chapter 25 from Rom. A komonizmus története [Ruin: A History of Commonism]. Bratislava: Kalligram Könyvkiadó, 2006, pp. 118-122)
Translated by Tim Wilkinson