I am fine. Having lived and worked in Berlin for 30 years, I define myself professionally as a German writer, but personally I am still Russian. That means I don’t make prior appointments when I want to visit my mother, I don’t walk around the apartment in my street shoes and I don’t look in the trash to see if my neighbors are separating their trash properly.
At home we only speak Russian. We sometimes even watch Russian news, although we know that it should be enjoyed with care. After all, my house always has very different news from anywhere else in the world. Even so, I feel like a German, I live in both cultures. Germany and I have come a long way in these 30 years and both have changed a lot.
The chaotic Berlin of the 1990s
My favorite memories are from the early 1990s, the days of anarchy.
Wladimir Kaminer gained fame as a DJ in Berlin and as the author of the book ‘Disco Russia’
I came from Moscow to East Berlin in June 1990. Many houses were vacant after residents left their apartments in haste. These people went to the West because they thought the Wall might come back soon. They thought the whole reunification was a misunderstanding and Russia didn’t pay attention and therefore didn’t interfere – maybe the Soviet Army tank driver stationed in Germany just ran out of gas.
Maybe they sold all their diesel to East German farmers. A friend of mine in the past, a Soviet tank driver who once served near Neuruppin and applied for political asylum in Berlin after reunification, still likes to tell us today that officers actually sold large quantities of fuel to East German residents. They feel insecure, don’t know what to expect at home after their departure from Germany and need an egg nest for dark times.
Even then, the Soviet Union was clearly on its way to capitalism. The Cold War is over, and it’s unclear if there will be any place for Soviet officers in this bleak future. So they sell everything they don’t need anymore. They sell construction materials, radiators, uniforms, fuel – they will probably sell the tank if they can find a buyer for it. But East Germany was so proud of their peaceful revolution that they didn’t want any tanks, only gasoline.
My friend, the tank driver, then got political asylum, and started working for Telecom. “Germany is my home,” he said. “Here all my dreams come true.”
Berlin buildings were still gray and the air smelled of burning coal
Dazzled by the air of freedom
Before I moved to Berlin, I envisioned Germany as an orderly, disciplined and clean country, where people are never late for a beer and trams stop at each stop alone. If it’s too boring, I can always move to France or Italy, I thought.
But Berlin fascinates me with its anarchy. The city breathes an air of freedom, reeking of marijuana and nitrogen, which is produced when coal briquettes are burned to warm apartments.
Even today as I drive through the villages of Brandenburg at night, I can still smell this very fragrant coal briquette, which Berliners used to steal from neglected cellars and use for heating.
A brave new market
Berlin and I who reunited are young and full of energy. The residents of the occupied house throw a party in their backyard every week, you don’t need permission from the health department to sell beer on the street.
Parties are held in squat houses, like this one in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood
It’s easy to find a used car. West Germans buy new cars because they can sell their used cars to East Germany and make a profit. A car that doesn’t change hands at least three times a year is considered very uncool.
Non-Germans integrated themselves into the city quickly. That Vietnamese enthusiastically selling duty-free cigarettes under the bridge and opening the first Chinese restaurant. “Duck sweet and sour” and “green jasmine tea with plum brandy” were our best sellers.
For East Germans, this is an introduction to the world of global gastronomy. They used to only be allowed to eat ducks at Christmas, but suddenly they celebrate Christmas every day – and for a very cheap price of 9.90 Deutsche Marks! However, evil tongues gossip that many of these cheap ducks are actually just city doves.
That African from Angola and Mozambique opened dance bars where you can go dance and drink. That Russia destroy housing companies; they bribed the officials and were able to buy large apartments at ridiculous prices.
The convenience store is filled every day with Western goods, the salespeople can no longer remember the names of all the cheeses and jams, they just say “Ham wa nischt” [we don’t have that, in Berliner dialect] when people ask things they don’t know.
Suddenly there is more stuff in the former East Berlin supermarkets too
And life is easy
The financing of anarchist life is also guaranteed. You have to go to the social welfare office once a month and without any lengthy discussion you get 500 marks in cash and the occasional little extra for warm clothes and movie tickets.
Russians, Africans and Vietnamese line up at the many telephone booths. Calls to homes are free, all you need is a phone fishing rod: The coins are attached to the fishing line with adhesive tape, and you have to pull carefully each time the phone is “clicked” to get a free call.
The people on the phone had a lot to talk about, so the people in line became impatient; they were constantly calling out to each other. “Stop talking, go back to Angola,” and “Say hello to your uncle Ho.” “Well, did Gorbi hang up?” they’ll ask us Russians.
The Germans watched this circus and wiped their eyes in disbelief. Their cozy little world with its clearly marked entrances and exits dissolves like a ghost.
The bureaucracy finally caught up
It took quite a while for the reunited Germany to reunite and begin to restore order. Finally, everyone who lives in a house without official documents is provided with appropriate lease contracts; rental prices immediately jumped; cigarettes are taken from Vietnam and pass through customs; dismantled telephone booths; and the origins of duck in Chinese restaurants are examined.
‘Liebig 34’, one of the houses in Berlin that had closed in the early 1990s, was evacuated in October 2020.
The social welfare office was turned into a work center. You must collect 30 signatures once a month from potential employers who are proven to have rejected you. These regulations destroyed many livelihoods and people had to develop new life plans. Many actually go on to study or even work.
Some remain stubborn and still try to earn a basic unconditional income.
Germany has found its way back to its famous order. Only recently, was one of the last houses ever occupied in the 1990s vacated. Only the memory of the moments of anarchy remains.