Nonfiction from NER 37.3.
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.
—translated from the German by Karen Leeder
Durs Grünbein, born in Dresden, has published more than thirty books of poetry and prose, most recently the poetry collection Cyrano oder Die Rückkehr vom Mond (Suhrkamp, 2014) and the volume of memoirs Die Jahre im Zoo: Ein Kaleidoskop (Suhrkamp, 2015). His many awards include the Georg Büchner Prize (1994), Premio Internazionale di Poesia Pier Paolo Pasolini (2006), the Great Cross of Merit with Star (2009), and the Tomas Tranströmer Prize (2012). He lives in Berlin and Rome.
Karen Leeder is a writer, critic, and translator, and is Professor of Modern German Literature at New College, Oxford. Recent publications include Volker Braun, Rubble Flora: Selected Poems (Seagull Books, 2014), with David Constantine, which was commended for the Popescu Poetry Prize in 2015, and the edited collection Rereading East Germany: The Literature and Film of the GDR (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Her translations of Durs Grünbein have appeared in a number of magazines including Poetry Review and Poetry. She was awarded the Stephen Spender Prize in 2013, an English PEN award, and an American PEN/Heim award in 2016.