Towards the end of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1932 novel Glory, Martin, a Russian émigré living in Berlin, is killing time before catching a train from Zoo station to Riga whence he plans to re-enter Russia illegally. He walks along Tauentzienstrasse and then turns into a side street to browse in a Russian bookshop. He then looks up an old friend in a nearby hotel run by Russians and goes for a meal in a Russian restaurant, ‘and as always [he] felt heartrending tenderness as he visualized Danilevski [the owner] against the backdrop of the Crimean night’. Although a fictional account, Nabokov’s evocation of ‘Russian Berlin’ in this novel was based on his own experience of living in the city from 1922 to 1937. It is one of many literary representations of an extraordinary historical and cultural phenomenon. However, given its transitory nature, ‘Russian Berlin’, which was at its height between 1921-1923, is almost impossible to see on the streets of the city today; it exists as literature and myth. This essay will attempt to give it more of a physical grounding by mapping out some of the key sites and personalities to be found in the city in the early 1920s, particularly in connection to the visual arts.
The impetus for this essay was provided by the Archipenko study day held at the Henry Moore Institute, which provided an opportunity to discuss the character of Berlin as an artistic centre in the 1920s. Reading Marek Bartelik’s earlier essay on Archipenko in the Henry Moore Institute Essays on Sculpture series, I came across the astounding comment that, ‘It might be that in the German capital Archipenko was finally able to recognise his émigré status as a strength rather than a weakness, and that this would soon take him to the United States - the quintessential country of émigrés.’ The issue that I found so engaging here is how Berlin might have offered a different émigré experience to Paris. Surely the melting pot of Montparnasse must have been far more ‘dematerialising’, to borrow Bartelik’s expression? The main contrast between Paris and Berlin was that Archipenko moved from a city where he was surrounded by Germans, Italians, Romanians, Dutch, Poles, Britons, Russians and individuals of many other nationalities, to one with such a profound concentration of Russians that perhaps it reversed the ‘dematerialising’ effects of emigration, as comically reported by Richard Sheldon in his introduction to Victor Shklovsky’s 1923 Berlin novel Zoo, or Letters Not about Love: ‘A popular anecdote of the time told about the German who, hearing nothing but Russian spoken on the Kurfürstendamm, suffered an attack of homesickness, returned to his apartment, and forthwith hanged himself.’
Zoo was published by the Helikon press, one of at least eighty Russian publishing houses in Berlin in the early 1920s. The press also published the first novel of Ilya Ehrenburg, another émigré who had experienced pre war Paris. His memoirs have often been quoted for the atmosphere they evoke and I will do so briefly again: ‘I do not know how many Russians there were in Berlin in those years; certainly a great many - at every step you could hear Russian spoken. Dozens of Russian restaurants were opened - with balalaikas, and zurnas, with gypsies, pancakes, shashlyks, and naturally, the inevitable heartbreak. There was a little theatre that put on sketches. Three daily newspapers and five weeklies appeared in Russian.’ Ehrenburg may have been unable to estimate the size of the Russian contingent in the city in the early 1920s but some have placed it as high as 300,000, a tenth of the total population. What he manages to convey vividly is the diversity of Russians present in the city, from ex-cavalry officers become cab drivers to Bolsheviks, anarchists, symbolists and liberals. Their lives are spent alternatively trying to prolong the past, as Ehrenburg puts it, or contrasting the new Russia with the decaying West. Berlin functioned as a no-man’s land where the full spectrum of opinion was presented, something impossible in the circumstances of Russia itself.