Six Degrees of Separation: from Stasiland to The Milkman in the Night

It’s a weird old time. I’m no longer sure what point in the year we’re at. It feels as though March was a long time ago. I missed the start of April somehow. And so I’m very late to the April Six Degrees of Separation.

The chain begins with a book I was hoping to borrow from the library and read before April began. Lockdown put paid to that. It’s funny to think that Kate chose Anna Funder’s Stasiland, a book about state restrictions on personal liberty, without knowing that most of the world would be living under another form of restricted liberty by the time April rolled around.

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I fully intend to read Stasiland. I’m fascinated by East Germany. Three fairly recent films that made a lasting impression on me are Goodbye Lenin! (2003), The Lives of Others (2006) and Barbara (2012). I’m also a fan of the TV dramas Deutschland 83 and Deutschland 86.

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Goodbye Lenin! is referenced in a study of East German cinema and the depictions of East Germany in the post-reconstruction German film industry that forms part of A Fearsome Heritage. This collection of academic essays considers the legacy of the Cold War from a number of angles.

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Part of that legacy is also included in Paul Scraton’s fictional drift through Berlin, Built on Sand. Scraton’s narrator is loosely based on himself, and he describes how the physicality of Berlin, from the fact that the city was built on reclaimed land to the architectural scars left behind by the separation into East and West, impacts on the feelings and behaviour of the city’s inhabitants.

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Berlin and Germany were only divided because of the genocidal actions of the Nazi regime during the Second World War. To prevent Germany becoming strong again, the Allies divided the country between them, with the Soviet Union taking control of the East. A Woman in Berlin is the anonymous diary of one person’s experience of the days following the fall of the Nazis and the brutal occupation of Berlin by the Soviet Army.

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Elsewhere in the Axis, Hungary fought on the side of the Nazi regime, ending the war as a German occupied territory and then becoming part the Soviet Comecon in the post-war period. I recently read Magda Szabó’s Abigail, which is set in the final year of the Second World War. It wasn’t what I was expecting.

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The Soviet Comecon included Soviet republics like Ukraine. We recently watched the excellent HBO dramatisation Chernobyl, about the nuclear reactor disaster of 1986. My husband read Serhii Plokhy’s historical examination of the disaster, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, which is on my list of books to borrow when life is less psychologically draining. What is now clear about the Soviet Union and its approach to disasters like Chernobyl is that corruption was the default position of the local Party operatives, and selective naivety a way to survive.

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This corruption and selective naivety didn’t go away for Ukraine following its Orange Revolution, as is evident in my final book in the chain, Andrey Kurkov’s The Milkman in the Night. This is a black comedy about the black market and political corruption in a post-Cold War former Eastern Bloc country.

It seems that no political or economic system is free from corruption. The evils done in the name of Communism and national security have parallels in the evils done in the name of Capitalism and economic stability. But at least under Capitalism, we have the illusion of personal liberty. Most of the time.

I’ve travelled around the Eastern Bloc in my chain this month. Why not head over to Kate’s blog to see where other readers travelled?

2 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: from Stasiland to The Milkman in the Night

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