You Don’t Know Squat

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

TachelesIt was breathtaking. We emerged from the forest on the outskirts of Moscow and saw, looming above the tall grass, an enormous ruined palace.

It was 1985, and I was studying Russian at the Pushkin Institute. We heard a rumor about a grand edifice, the unfinished palace of Catherine the Great, that was moldering not far from where we were staying in Moscow. We took the subway to the end of the line, tramped through a forest and a field until we came upon the ruins of the great hall. The walls were still standing, and we walked the length of the building, avoiding the shrubs and underbrush and hoping to come across a small piece of history in a broken chair or scrap of wallpaper. We didn’t know that the Russian empress capriciously ordered her Tsaritsyno dismantled in 1785, when everything was done except for the interior decorations. The ruins, minus any of the accouterments, lay around for the next 200 years.

Enough of Tsaritsyno remained in the mid-1980s that you could more or less understand the scale and grandeur of the undertaking. But what was truly amazing was to happen upon this complex as if discovering the ruins of a long-forgotten Mayan temple in the jungles of Guatemala. There were no signs, no paths, no kiosks hawking souvenirs. It had simply become part of the landscape.

I experienced this same feeling in March 1990 when I encountered Tacheles in East Berlin. Originally a department store built in 1907-8 in the Jewish quarter of Berlin, the enormous five-story shopping arcade stretched from Friedrichstrasse to Oranienburger Strasse. Its tenure as a commercial space lasted only a few years prior to World War I. After that, it was a showroom for an electrical company, a central office for the Nazi SS, and a prison. During the communist period, the official trade union took over the structure, but the building gradually fell into disrepair.

In 1990, this glorious ruin was a perfect place to squat. There was a culture of squatting in East Berlin even during the communist era. Given the shortage of official university housing, students would frequently take over abandoned flats, mirroring the squat culture on the other side of the Wall in Kreuzberg. The Germans used the word instandbesetzen, a combination of renovating and occupying. When the Wall fell, squat culture expanded exponentially as people from East and West took over abandoned properties in East Berlin. In 1990, for instance, I spent an evening at one of the squat cafés in Prenzlauer Berg where I ate Indian food and listened to the Talking Heads, while cigarette smoke and political conversation swirled around me.

Tacheles — the squatters renamed the old department store after the Yiddish word for “straight talk” — was a much bigger undertaking. When I walked down Oranienberger Strasse and came upon this enormous structure — only a month after the first squatters took up residence to prevent impending demolition — I was amazed at all the activity going on inside. Artists were setting up studios. A movie theater was being restarted. There were cafes, performance spaces, and what seemed like unlimited room to create an alternative society.

Tacheles, February 2013

Tacheles, February 2013

And now in 2013, I returned to Berlin only a few months after the end of Tacheles. For 22 years, the punks and anarchists and hippies and artists and squatters of all types had hung on, sometimes quarreling, often creating art and music, always partying. But the writing — as opposed to the graffiti — was on the wall for squatting culture in Berlin. In 2009, police kicked out the anarcho-punk residents of the last open squat in the city at Brunnenstrasse 183. Tacheles hung on for a few more years before the owner HSH Nordbank finally evicted the remaining artists in September 2012. According to news reports, “before police arrived, two black-clad artists played a funeral march but bailiffs were able to clear the building without resistance.” It was a quiet end for what had been a bold and loud experiment.

Other squats have survived in different forms. In Prenzlauer Berg, I met several former squatters who now had titles to their apartments. In the same area, I happened on Adventure Playground, an innovative playground that started in April 1990. The wild area features an open fire, a forge, and a sand pit where children build their own structures (and destroy them). Through this remarkable oasis in the middle of the city, the spirit of pushing boundaries is being instilled in the next generation.

Then there’s the House of Democracy and Human Rights. In 1989, the East German political opposition demanded and received a piece of prime real estate at Friedrichstrasse 165, a former Party building. After the opposition did so poorly in East Germany’s first and only free elections in March 1990 — which was dominated by the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats — they fell further to the margins and lost control of their iconic location.

I was delighted, however, to visit the new location of the rechristened House of Democracy and Human Rights. In 1990, I could skip from one office to the next, interviewing most of the inhabitants in one day. In 2013, I was astounded by the number of organizations in the three linked buildings, so many that it would take several weeks of interviews to visit them all.

So, one door closes, and another one opens. The creative chaos of Tacheles has departed the shell of its building on Oranienberger Strasse, but its soul lives on in a 3-D version on line.

And that unfinished palace of Catherine the Great? It’s now finally finished, thanks to a controversial renovation project by the city of Moscow. I haven’t been back to Tsaritsyno since 1985. I’m sure that it’s a very beautiful complex of buildings, even if it lacks precise historical fidelity.

But there’s nothing like the feeling of urban discovery, when you stumble upon an awe-inspiring structure that makes you feel, if only for a few moments, as if you just discovered a lost city, a vanished civilization.