Soviet relics

Driving down Karl Marx Allee in the former East Berlin seems to be a better indicator of life under Soviet rule than taking snapshots of men in uniform at Checkpoint Charlie.  The bland yet bombastic, monotonous buildings, which are now being renovated as low-income housing, are a physical emblem of one objective of Soviet rule: the erasure of the individual.  These dilapidated relics also remind me of what W.G. Sebald wrote about large, state buildings in his novel Austerlitz:

Someone, he added, ought to draw up a catalogue of types of buildings, listed in order of size, and it would be immediately obvious that domestic buildings of less than normal size – the little cottage in the fields, the hermitage, the lock-keeper’s lodge, the pavilion for viewing the landscape, the children’s bothy in the garden – are those that offer us at least a semblance of peace, whereas no one in his right mind could truthfully say that he liked a vast edifice such as the Palace of Justice on the old Gallows Hill in Brussels.  At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence in ruins.

Karl Marx’s grave provides an interesting juxtaposition to the simplicity of Berlin’s Soviet architecture.  Situated on a prominent path in London’s Highgate Cemetery (a burial ground you have to pay admission to enter), adjacent to the posh neighborhood of Hampstead, visitors can spot Karl Marx’s enormous bust protruding from the top of his grave, which proclaims, of course, “Workers of all lands unite.”

Karl-Marx-Allee, Berlin & Highgate Cemetery, London, August 2010

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