Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Lenin lives

When Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, his wife made a special request that no memorials be created for him. It is probably an understatement to say that her wishes were ignored. As you wander around Moscow you see any number of statues, monuments and paintings of Lenin. The memorials to Stalin are gone, but Lenin somehow lives on. You can even get your photo with him, if you know where to look. Eighty years on he has made a home next to a lamp post just outside Red Square. One day he caught my eye and smiled - I think he suspected I was trying to get a photo of him without paying. And he would have been right, but it was only because he was sitting next to his friend, Karl Marx.

Looking decidedly less lifelike is the real Lenin, who has been interred in a Mausoleum on Red Square since 1930. It suited the political interests of Stalin and others to drum up a cult of personality, so Lenin's corpse was embalmed, dressed up in a dark suit and laid out on a slab for public viewing. During Soviet times people would queue for several hours to get a glimpse. When Stalin died he, too, was displayed in the Mausoleum, but upon being denounced by Khruschev he was buried out in the garden by the Kremlin walls. (An interesting aside is that Lenin's brain was placed in a specially-founded Institute of Lenin's Brain, where scientists subjected it to deep analysis in an attempt to discover the secret of his genius.)

I queued for about an hour to pay my respects to the real Lenin. After cloaking my bags, camera and checking for any disrespectful items ('Eat at McLenin's' tshirts are apparently barred), I was ushered into a small, dimly lit room. Glowing under a glass case was the preserved Lenin, arms by his side with right hand clenched in a fist. His skin did not look entirely healthy, giving off the kind of orange luminescence you might get if you placed a light bulb inside a child's doll. Someone behind me sniggered, and a guard gave out a firm librarian's 'shush'. Lenin's face is so distinctive and interesting that I would have liked to stay for longer, but I was moved along by another guard and hurried back into Red Square.

Outside, a small group of elderly socialists was staging a demonstration, but it was a tame affair and most people seemed to take no notice. Besides, I was hungry, and just across the Square was GUM (pronounced 'Goom'), a gigantic department store with any number of food options. And of course McDonald's was also a possibility, being just a short walk from Red Square and boasting internet access and listening stations alongside its burgers and fries. If there weren't so many tourists gawking at him all the time, I'd imagine Lenin might be turning in his grave.

Photos of St Petersburg, Moscow and first leg of Trans-Siberian

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A visit to a Stasi prison

The Stasi, or East German secret police, were the most important instrument for maintaining the communist dictatorship in the former GDR. They ensured blanket surveillance of the population - in the end, there numbered 91,000 full-time Stasi employees and 180,000 unofficial collaborators. The engine room of the Stasi operation was their headquarters in Berlin, which is now open to visitors. It contains a good collection of Stasi surveillance equipment, including cameras disguised as logs, stones and suitcases, and watches serving as voice recorders. The technology was impressive for its time, but now seems a little quaint, as if appearing in a rerun of a favourite Cold War movie. But across town there is a Stasi legacy that could never be mistaken as quaint. It is the building which housed the Stasi's main remand prison, and it serves as a powerful reminder of the terrible suffering that the Stasi inflicted on so many individuals and families across Germany.

The prison population consisted of people who had tried to flee the GDR or were considered to have offered resistance to the regime. Prisoners were held until they signed a confession and/or provided information useful to the regime, and the techniques employed by the Stasi ensured that pretty much everyone complied in the end. In the early days of the prison, the Stasi employed mostly physical methods - prisoners were held in damp, cold cells and subjected to various types of torture, including sleep deprivation, standing upright for several hours and water torture. From about 1960, however, the Stasi began employing psychological methods to break prisoners' resistance. The East German government was concerned about its international image, and it was preferable if information could be coerced from prisoners without leaving marks on their bodies.

The aim of this 'psycho-terror' was to evoke in the prisoners a feeling of complete helplessness, of losing control over thier lives and being at the mercy of an almighty authority. Instead of being crammed into a cell with 20 other people, prisoners now had their own cells and were isolated from the rest of the prison population. Attempts to communicate with the guards or other prisoners were severely punished. Very occasionally prisoners were held two to a cell, but often one of the pair was a spy tasked with gaining the other's trust and eliciting incriminating information. It was forbidden to lie on the bed during the day, so the only alternative was to walk up and down the cell or sit in a hard chair against the wall. The monotony of incarceration was broken only by interrogation. Prisoners were subjected to months of questioning by interrogators expertly trained in coercing incriminating statements. Even the drawing of a curtain during interrogation - giving the prisoner a rare but useless glimpse into the outside world - was a reminder of the power relations at play. If the Stasi had been spying on your family, they might leave copies of your brother's letters on the desk just to let you know that you were not the only one being watched. Or they might lie and tell you that your mother had committed suicide because she could not cope with having a child in prison. Everything, even the offering of a cup of coffee during interrogation, was deliberate, and expertly targeted at breaking your resistance.

Upon release into the community, many prisoners found it hard to describe the terror that had been inflicted upon them - after all, there were no scars on their body. And for many, their personal relationships were destroyed. It was impossible for others to relate to their suffering. And some left with the knowledge that it was friends or family that had landed them in prison. One prisoner discovered during interrogation that she was arrested only after her husband's betrayal. For so many prisoners, normal life could never be resumed. A number of prisoners have returned to the prison and now work as tour guides. For them, it is a form of emotional healing and is a way of passing on their experience to others. This is of no small importance - amazingly, some Germans who lived through the GDR still have no knowledge of the Stasi's activities.

Leaving the Stasi prison, I thought about the senior Stasi officials who, back at Stasi HQ, made the decisions that ruined so many people's lives. It seems almost bizarre that these terrible decisions were made in the mundane Stasi offices, in those yellow cushioned chairs that let off a musty smell and remind me of the furniture in my primary school staff room. How could these people inflict such harm on others? It's a question that has been running through my mind throughout Central Europe, a region that has suffered terribly at the hands of Nazi and communist dictatorships. In the 'House of Terror' museum in Budapest the curators have devoted one room to the 'Hall of Victimisers' - it names and shames the people who willingly played a part in oppressing the Hungarian people over almost half a century. I thought at the time that such a Hall might have a place in museums in dozens of countries across the world. And a good place to start might be Germany, where many former Stasi are still out in the community living ordinary, comfortable lives.

Lots of photos of Berlin

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The miracle of Eger

A short walk from the centre of Eger is 'The Valley of Beautiful Women'. Set in one of Hungary's principal wine growing regions, this is where you come for wine tasting on a shoestring - or, more accurately, on the smell of an oily rag. Visitors are invited to taste the wares of a number of cellars grouped together on a short horseshoe-shaped street. The cellars are built into a hill and walking into them is a bit like entering cosy little caves, except these are naturally chilled to just the right temperature for the storage of a large range of delicious wines. Different to wine tastings in Australia, the practice is to enter a cellar, randomly pick a type of wine and pay for a glass. At forty cents a pop, we were happy to oblige.

The pride of the Eger wine region is Egri Bikaver, or 'Bull's Blood' as it is widely known. The story goes that when the Turks were attacking Eger castle 1552, the soliders defending it were plied with large quantities of red wine. It wasn't long before their beards began to drip with the red liquid, and the rumour spread among the Turks that the opposing army gained their strength from drinking the blood of bulls. It must have worked - the castle was succesfully defended, and the Turks had to wait several decades before they got another crack at it.

It was a miracle that the the castle was defended but, as we were to learn, Eger had more miracles in store. It is true that, after six hours of wine tasting in the Valley, we did feel something akin to spiritual enlightenment. And it was in this heady state that I seized my 1500mL water bottle and presented it to the owner of my favourite cellar. Our eyes met briefly and as I mumbled 'Bull's Blood', I could tell she understood. I emerged two minutes later not with water, but with wine. And then J went to the cellar next door, and it happened again - in the native tongue, asvanyviz had been turned into bor. As we walked back into town, bottles in hand and rejoicing at what we had seen, we noticed that other pedestrians kept a wide berth - perhaps we just shone with the wild glow of having been touched by a miracle.

Photos of wine tasting, Budapest love parade, Slovakian sing-a-long and more...

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Alain de Botton on the travelling mindset

What, then, is a traveling mind-set? Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic. Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting. We irritate locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be unremarkable small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall. We find a supermarket or a hairdresser's shop unusually fascinating. We dwell at length on the layout of a menu or the clothes of the presenters on the evening news. We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs. Home, by contrast, finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighborhood, primarily by virtue of our having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new to find in a place where we have been living for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind to it.
--Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel (2002)