So Hard to Predict the PastPosted June 28th, 2011
by Bert Williams
A few years ago my wife, Donna, and I spent several days in the German city of Berlin. One of the best things we did was sign on with an English-speaking group for a walking tour of the city. Our guide was a delightful young Canadian man who was slightly crazy and mildly profane but who had a deep grasp of—and respect for—the city’s rich and tortured history. When we came to the Russian Embassy on the boulevard Unter den Linden, not far from Brandenburg Gate, he told us a funny story.
After the fall of The Wall, which from 1961 to 1989 separated East and West Berlin, the erstwhile Soviet Embassy had to regroup and become the new and improved Russian Embassy. The ambassador and his staff had to figure out how the embassy should fit in with this reunified, newly democratized Berlin. It was no easy task. One problem was that the Soviets simply did not understand democracy.
Among other issues, they were confronted with the problem of the massive bust of Vladimir Lenin that held center stage on the embassy’s front lawn. Somehow a glowering Lenin just no longer seemed to fit the new free spirit of the unified, liberated city.
Well, U.S. President Bill Clinton planned a trip to Europe in 1994, and, like Kennedy and Reagan before him, Clinton scheduled a speech at Brandenburg Gate. What to do about the bust of Lenin became a vexing issue for the Russians. But the statue was not hollow; it was a very large block of solid marble. Apparently all the cranes in Berlin were tied up rebuilding the city. Nevertheless, Bill Clinton was intent on showing up—on July 12—despite the Russian Embassy’s dilemma. And so he did.
“We stand together where Europe’s heart was cut in half and we celebrate unity,” Clinton said solemnly as he stood at the gate in the mid-day sun. “We stand where crude walls of concrete separated mother from child, and we meet as one family. We stand where those who sought a new life instead found death. And we rejoice in renewal.”
As Clinton continued with his speech, the marble bust of Lenin remained stolidly in position just down the street at the Russian Embassy, but it was mostly hidden from view, suffocating under a hastily contrived, crooked wooden box. According to our guide, the inelegant box—and the almost-hidden granite sculpture—remained in place for months in front of the otherwise elegant building.*
To westerners this was hilarious. But to the Russians, for whom it was routine procedure to rewrite history by airbrushing out of group photographs the heads of discredited former party members, it apparently seemed to be a perfectly reasonable solution. A joke is said to have made the rounds of Russian dissidents during the Soviet era: The thing that made life so hard was that it was so difficult to predict the past.
Of course, the reality embedded in that dark humor was anything but hilarious.
*This is an accurate recounting of the story as told by our guide while we were standing in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin. I have since read differing accounts of the details. The timing on the move of the marble bust is reported differently in various accounts. Apparently the marble Lenin is still displayed somewhere in a garden on the grounds of the Russian embassy. Whatever version is accurate, the gist of the story remains.