Diary Note 33: Soviet memorial

Berlin, 9 March 2019

Beyond Kreuzberg and 11 stops from here by S-Bahn lies the Soviet memorial site at Treptower park (1949). From the railway station one walks directly into a park. The general aspect is both wide and austere, with rows of wintery beeches standing like freakish witches or immobile sentinels wherever one looks. Violet snow-clouds filled the sky, but a glittering sun was slanting here and there.

One enters a massive squat gate of grey stone, like a prison, with big hewn letters in Cyrillic and Roman. As we entered, we passed through a small mob of frolicking tourists, with children and loudspeakers and flags, as if they were there for another purpose. For instance to demonstrate politically or to celebrate a birthday. They entered later on, but got no farther than the first platform and then absconded. I never understood their aim.

The site is not only vast, but controlled in every detail. A central rectangle is dominated by enormous bronze circles, five wreaths weighing a ton or more. They are flanked by 16 massive sarcophagi in light stone. On their sides are roughly sculptured images of struggles; the most striking perhaps being a battle scene with a tank (German) crashing into a trench (Russian) where heroic fighters are throwing a kind of Panzerfaust which explodes in stone shrapnel. The same scenes are reproduced on the opposite side of the memorial, now with German captions. These texts were all citations of Joseph Stalin. They are inscribed in golden letters and after the first words honoring the intrepid heroes: vey repetitive. One gets the impression Stalin had little to say and would say everything clumsily. But that this lack of regards for the visitor was on purpose. Purposefully demeaning to the reader, showing who was in charge. After a while I stopped translating to KS.

Strangely enough there was only one series of faces with some civility or dignity. These were the heroes of the defense of Russia against Napoleon. They were standing in a row and their names were given. One remembers them from reading Tolstoy. The resulting feeling is that Czarism was more civilized than Stalinism.

The whole enormous memorial is dominated by a Russian soldier of colossal height, standing on an artificial hill. Once arrived at the soldiers feet one can no longer see the whole, but feels the oppressive weight of the statue. It holds an anachronistic sword in the right hand and a rescued child on the left arm. The face had some youth or nobility against the sky – but perhaps at such a scale and distance one projects one’s own illusions on it.

Between the feet is a small chapel, a Byzantine thing full of colors and gold effects. The most striking feature was a word in Russian letters that glows in white amidst the jumble of figures and in the center says: CLABA. That is the Slavonic motherland. It is a revelation.

Meanwhile the sky had been breaking and recomposing showing black and white and blue spaces, then suddenly burst into a hailstorm from which there was no escape.

Except from the bleak German beeches, the heart of the memorial was surrounded by weeping birches, from the tundra.