I had that incredibly breathtaking moment. I had tears coming to my eyes when we were driving past Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral). It was stunningly beautiful! I was thrilled to get off the bus and take a closer look at this phenomenal piece of architecture.
For a moment after I saw double-decker buses, I thought I was in London. Berlin is certainly one of the major tourist spots in Europe but it didn’t feel like it was too crowded, which made my stay there so enjoyable and liberating. First we went on a short tour of Hackesche Hofe which is a fancy courtyard complex with a lovely tranquil atmosphere. It looked so classy and European. I was picturing people coming here for a cup of coffee to take in the atmosphere of the place. There were lots and lots of shops but we were pressed for time as always.
Our next quick stop was Deutsches Historisches Museum (The German Historical Museum). It was a shame we didn’t get a chance to visit any of the exhibitions but the hall of the museum was large and beautiful. We got our first souvenirs there as we were waiting on the rest of the group. To my surprise, I felt comfortable speaking a bit of German with a sales assistant. I was happy to embrace this truly European country.
I loved the way people passing by looked like. They had a nice fashion sense. We were having a walk along the bank of Spree when we approached the Berlin cathedral which survived the destruction of WWII. It was truly phenomenal! It bore resemblance to Isakiev’s cathedral in St. Petersburg which is one of the cities in Russia that are definitely worth a visit. But I haven’t been there yet. The cathedral looked spectacular and it was another moment when I wished the time had stopped. There were amazing picture opportunities as well.
Berlin is home to a great number of museums. Berlin’s Museuminsel (Museum Island) is a one-off collection of amazing museums. Visiting them is a huge treat to art enthusiasts. Actually, there is something for everyone in this city. This is where we were at the moment. We took some pictures of Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), Altes Museum (Old Museum), the Bode Museum, the Pergamon Museum. Being in this completely different part of the city made my heart glow. Before we headed off to Potsdam, we had these two iconic landmarks of Berlin to visit.
We also took a short walk along Unter den Linden and stopped at Humboldt University where we saw lots of books on sale at 3 Euro each. I was tempted to buy one but there was no time to decide so I ended up buying none. But it was an honor to be there as Humboldt made a great contribution to linguistics as we know it now.
The first defining sight of Berlin is the Reichstag building. This is where Soviet soldiers flew our flag in May 1945. That was a massive imposing building with lots of history. The view made me more keen and enthusiastic about improving my German, I was on a high as if I had just seen Big Ben in London. It was funny that I got to see the Reichstag (German was minor) but I’ve never got to see Big Ben yet. That was another moment to capture and remember. There was no other way for me rather than to capture the view with my mind as my camera had died by the time we got there. The next time I’m in Berlin I know the first thing I will do is to my book a visit to the dome to see the German parliament at work.
We were short of time and had about ten minutes to go take a quick look at Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) which was just across the park. We were scared we might get lost as there was no time to lose and decided to ask someone for directions. My friend was brave enough to speak up but ironically, this man we addressed turned out to be American and didn’t understand any German. He started talking in English and for an instant it felt as if neither me nor my friend had a degree in English as our minds went totally blank as we didn’t know what the English for Brandenburger Tor was. But he was faster to understand us and we finally made our way to what to many people was actually Berlin. The place was touristy but it didn’t feel too crowded. The gate was pretty small and not quite what I pictured but I had to struggle taking a picture of it. Unfortunately, taking a couple of pictures is all we had time for as we were to meet our group to head off to Potsdam. Later last year as I saw my favourite band perform at the Brandenbur Gate on New’s Year I was proud I have been there and was sure to say that a visit there was the highlight of my year.
As we were leaving for Potsdam, we caught a glimpse of the imposing building of the Russian embassy, Tiergarten (they say it is the equivalent of Hyde Park in London), Sigesaule (Victory Column)…
After we came back from Potsdam (which is going to be a different story), we had a couple more hours to spend in Berlin. We had a typical German meal at Kurfurstendamm which is one of the most famous shopping venues in the city. As we were through, we finally had some time to ourselves. It would be a crime not to go on a bit of a shopping spree and enjoy the ultimate shopping experience Berlin style. We also did some souvenir shopping but I already had my cuddly bear which I got in Potsdam as I feared I would have no time for that when we get back. I was loving the vibe, the people and didn’t want to say goodbye. We had some more time to take some more pictures as we approached the Zoo. As I was posing, I had some man shouting out something to me out of his car… I wish my German was better because I will never know what it was… I hope it wasn’t something inappropriate after all… We also had a quick chat with some of the Zoo staff as my friend was eager to have a picture taken with. She said she couldn’t leave without taking a piсture of a German but this man was obviously Turkish but never mind…
Berlin is such a complex and controversial city which lives a life of its own. I think this king named Friedrich der Grosse (Frederick the Great) whose resting place we visited in Potsdam really described Berlin as we know it now. He had a huge love for art and romance but later in life emerged as a great warrior. I believe that these two opposites describe Berlin and all people no matter where we are in the world. As I was leaving, I wanted to say what U.S. President John F. Kennedy famously said as he came here on a visit in 1963 (even though it was meant as a protest against the Soviet Union policy). He said “All — All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (I am a Berliner). I felt free and happy and wanted to scream out loud (in Berlin you are free to do whatever you please) “Ich bin ein Berliner”. The next stop was Dresden.
As we were driving further into East Berlin, I was being amazed by the tranquility of this part of Berlin that used to be socialistic back in the day. As tranquil and serene as it was, with a few people enjoying a brisk morning run or a leisurely ride on a bicycle (which made my friend incredibly jealous of Berliners having such a lovely environment-friendly means of transport), I could feel something socialistic linger in the air (when you were born in the USSR, you know a socialistic thing when you see it). I was under the impression that this part of Berlin was a thriving construction site, with buildings being demolished and new ones emerging at an increasingly rapid pace. It felt as if Berliners were making a mammoth effort to move on from its horrific past when this gorgeous city was oppressively divided into two parts by a formidable barrier that we were to see later on our trip.
Another wonderful piece of architecture came to my attention as we were driving past the Eisenbrücke. That was a memorial of the Molecule Man that commemorates the reunification of Berlin’s two parts. It was a 30-m aluminium statue which features triangulated men facing each other with hands joined in the middle. Only a closer observation reveals that there are actually three men because when you’re looking at it a longer way off, it seems like there are only two. Russian tourists have a running joke of calling this monument “A Party for Three”. This was one of the moments when quirkiness and ingenuity of Berlin struck me as the idea behind that monument was that this tiny molecules or holes, as the architect who designed the monument put it, represented people coming together to create unique things.
People in East Berlin seemed friendly and cheerful. As we stopped at the lights, we effortlessly caught the eye of some construction workers who seemed to be enjoying a break from work. When they saw me and my friend, they raised a bottle of lovely German beer to us. I was a bit embarrassed by this gesture but that made surely my Berlin experience more authentic and memorable.
It didn’t seem long before this array of ruins and newly designed high-rise buildings led us into the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall). This is another must-visit in Berlin. It didn’t look as I had expected it would. I thought this would be a massive concrete wall that would convey the scale of pain suffered by Berliners as this structure emerged in 1961and tore families and loved ones apart. In a documentary I saw on Berlin I heard countless heart-wrenching stories of people dealing with the oppression and pain caused by this horrendous division. What was a poignant and lasting reminder of Berlin’s dark past was a thin wall (it seemed just as high as the one I see out of my window back home). We saw the section along the river Spree opposite the O2 arena (this was where I first met a lovely cuddly symbol of Berlin – a bear). Actually, two similarly pronounced words – beer and bear – sum up Berlin. I enjoyed all the pieces of art but to me they were looked as if they were inspired by tremendous pain felt by people coming here from around the world. Later, we came across chunks of this wall on sale in many souvenir shops but I couldn’t quite believe those were real ones. We were so excited by these quirky pieces of art that we were astonished to find out it wasn’t against the law to write our names on it, which we sure did. I was sad to hear about the plans to take this wall down. It just didn’t seem right to demolish what came to signify a huge part of Berlin’s history and was there for almost thirty years. I also had plans to come back here again to see if our names were still there.
We made our way further into what was one of the main hubs of East Berlin. That was Alexanderplatz. Here we saw a brick building of Red City Hall (Rotes Rathaus), the Neptune fountain and the Ferhsehturm (TV tower) which was so massive that I had to look up really really high to take a picture. I was almost dizzy with excitement and joy. This tower dominates the city’s skyline and is visible from many areas. It was now time to go to West Berlin. I was wondering if it was going to be a big change from what we saw here in East Berlin. I felt so in touch with this country and especially its language as I was reading the signs, advertisements… They all seemed pretty clear. This city struck me as truly lacking a structure of any kind but this fact obviously lent it some charming appeal. I think at that moment I had no clue where we were going. West Berlin seemed to have a bit of a structure to it, though there were also construction sites everywhere. This part of the city was home to some really iconic images of Berlin which I was looking forward to seeing later that day.
The next morning we were ready to get back on the road and head off to Berlin. That was a brand new day and a brand new country. I was much excited on that brisk morning and hated to say goodbye to Poland but I knew I was going to be back at the end of my trip. I couldn’t wait to experience Germany. The fact that I did German as my minor at the University added to my excitement.
So we hit the road again. As the night before we were staying at the hotel near the Poland-Germany border, German was just about 10 minutes’ drive away. When I saw a German autobahn sign, I knew it was time to have a ride German style. Everything around us seemed to be clean and well looked after. Germans are generally famous for loving Ordnung (order). I was bubbling over with excitement as I saw signs for Berlin. The German language seemed so easy to read (which is obviously not true) after spending the previous day in futile attempts to figure out quirky Polish words. It felt that I was more at home here in terms of the language which I’m sure can make or break a trip. I was thrilled to get a chance to practise my German (which proved to be not as easy as it seemed at that moment as we were enjoying our ride on the pristine German Autobahn). Needless to say, this road was a far cry from what we have in Russia.
During the course of my trip, I made a point of taking these drives in between the cities and countries as a chance to reflect on things. On my way to Berlin, I started contemplating history again. There was something that enhanced my sense of national identity and made me want to embrace what I am (Russian) as I was about to arrive in Berlin. We might be all just a sum of experiences of our ancestors because at that moment I couldn’t help but wonder what it felt like for Russian soldiers making their way here for the final battle of Berlin in 1945. Even though people of my generation are becoming increasingly ignorant of WWII (or what we call the Great Patriotic War here), one will make no mistake in saying that what started as Operation Barbarossa in 1941 and gave rise to what the generations to come would know as the most genocidal and bloodiest conflict in history, still lingers in this country. A Russian must have a heart of stone not having this page in history resonating in them. I know there’s so much controversy surrounding this war and its picture is not black and white as we might like to think. Some people in the West say this Battle of Berlin which ended with Soviet soldiers hoisting the Soviet flag over the Reichstag (German Parliament) was the case of one totalitarianism trampling over another.
Unfortunately we can’t go back in time and resolve the issues people have been hugely divided on since the day that iconic image of those soldiers flying the Soviet flag over the Reichstag was published in Soviet newspapers. My perspective of this war can be largely subjective and biased as I was born and brought up in the country deeply affected by the Nazi regime. I guess there’s something in my DNA that makes me want to hold on to the belief that it was the Soviet Union that led the way in overthrowing this vicious and deadly regime. We know for a fact that there wasn’t one family unscathed by the war and millions of people were killed or starved in concentration camps. My family was also affected as my great great grandfather was brutally shot by Nazis as he was too poor and frail to leave his village when the Nazis seized it. As much as I resent Stalin as a leader (even though I know my granddad was shocked at the news of his death in 1953 and had the leader’s portrait in his hands with tears running down his cheeks), I’m genuinely outraged at attempts to equate Stalin and Hitler, which I think is a blow to all people in this country. With the Russian casualties in mind, how can one possibly have debates over who started the war which was a “crime against humanity”? I know there were atrocities perpetrated by our soldiers as they encircled and shelled the city of Berlin in 1945. But again with all the atrocities in mind, can one truly blame them for doing bad things which were obviously in the name of a good cause?
I was happy in the knowledge that there will be no shelling or bombing as another group of Russian tourists make their way into this city. This trip to Berlin sparked a flurry of questions in me. Which is more, I knew our first stop would be the Treptower Park with one of the largest Soviet memorials in Berlin that commemorates the death of thousands of Soviet people in the battle of Berlin. This is definitely a must visit for any Russian coming to Berlin. I never knew I would feel the way I felt when I entered the park. It was like a perfect pristine piece of Russia along the Spree River.
The atmosphere was somber and calm and as it was early morning, we had the park to ourselves. I physically felt proud to be Russian as I was standing looking at a remote 70-ton bronze statue of a Soviet soldier holding a German girl in one hand and a sword slashing swastika under his feet in the other and the monument of mother Russia on the left. This memorial was also home to bodies of thousands of soldiers killed in the bloodshed of 1945. The enormity of the park was breathtaking and I got really emotional and incredulous to believe I was actually in Berlin. For a moment I thought Germans were probably bigger in this conflict as the construction of this monument showed the dignity with which they dealt with their Nazi past. At the end of the day, it all comes down to learning from the mistakes of the past and acknowledging them. I was wondering if what we saw in front of our eyes was the German’s way of saying sorry for what had happened years and years before.
This fondly maintained area, beautifully landscaped trees made me want to whisper (I couldn’t dare to scream so as not to break the peace and quiet of the place) that the apology (was it the whole nation that had to say sorry in the first place?) was taken and it was time we put this all behind us and moved on paying tribute to millions of people of different nationalities who were killed in the war. It was a shame that we were given so little time to spend here as we had so many other places we needed to see in the space of one day. My limbs went literally numb as I wished I could make the world stop spinning and stand there taking in the lovely peaceful sky gliding over this magnificent grand monument. I wish every Russian had a chance to come here just once to pay tribute to the enormous sacrifice made by our ancestors. I wished the time would stop. With all those birches around, I actually started missing Russia, yet at the same time no matter how many miles we travelled from our home country, a part of it was right there in front of us. Before we had to leave (luckily, we had enough time to actually get to the foot of the main monument which seemed a long way off as we entered the park), I turned back again to capture what to me as a Russian was more than just a magnificent piece of architecture in case I never get to come here again. Such was my first encounter of Berlin.