Neuruppin is a small town in the former DDR. It used to be a fairly large town, but half of the population was made up of Soviet troops, and most of them have gone back to Russia now. The town was one of the major Soviet army bases just outside West Berlin, and there are still many signs of the Russian occupation. Occasionally a Soviet personnel transporter speeds around the town.
When the Soviets siezed Neuruppin, they grabbed all the largest and most luxurious houses for themselves. These ancient mansions are mostly along the main road out of town to the south, and are now largely abandoned. They are still walled off by white fences, though, with signs in Russian and German saying that trespassers will be shot. For some reason the Russians painted all the houses uniform grey before leaving. Nobody seems to know why.
We stopped at a small kiosk in the town centre and bought two doughnuts. XQ asked if I had noticed anything about the town square. I said no. She asked if I didn’t think it was perhaps a little bit large?
I looked around at the town, then back towards the main town square. I said that yes, now that she mentioned it, it was rather big and empty. The roads were unusually wide, too.
XQ sighed, and explained it to me. The town square had been the centre of regular parades; it had been build wide so that troops could be paraded around it. She pointed at the lamp posts, and indicated a small protrusion about two thirds of the way up each post. A bracket, she explained, for mounting flags in spontaneous displays of enthusiastic celebration.
We walked on a bit further. I pointed to a large, well-kept and majestic building to the left. It had a big radio mast on top, with several smaller antennas and microwave dishes. That, explained XQ, had been the headquarters of the Stasi.
I bit further into the doughnut. Instead of jam, inside was something black and sticky and sweet. Peter Gabriel’s Digging in the Dirt started playing in my head. Molasses?
We carried on walking. The puttering of the engines of the passing Trabants was drowned out by the sounds of their tyres on the cobbled streets. XQ told me there was a statue of someone I’d recognize.
It was a small square, with two boarded up fountains. Between them was a statue of Karl Marx. Naturally; the main street is called Karl-Mark-Strasse, this was Karl-Marx-Platz. Whilst most of the places named after Russians have been hurriedly renamed, the Germans seem to have decided to keep all the street names referring to other Germans, even if they were Communists.
It makes a kind of sense; and besides, blindly renaming things is a Soviet way of imposing a culture. West Germany’s approach is far less subtle, and far more effective.
Wherever you go in the former East, it’s easy to spot the Western invaders. The rule is simple: anything brightly coloured is Western. A block of shabby brown and grey Soviet-style high-rise flats has a bright yellow telephone box next to it. The greying and yellowing Eastern road signs are gradually being replaced by gleaming reflective Western ones, in red, blue, green or white. Brown bus, east; orange bus, west.
A once-majestic but now crumbling building with peeling paint and dangerous-looking balconies has a cascade of bright lights and neon in one corner—Neuruppin’s first computer shop. Out near one of the housing estates, a small shopping mall has opened, with a supermarket and a bank. It also houses the town’s first restaurant serving foreign food: Italian, in this case. So far, none of the places selling food from other countries seem to have been attacked; as one graffito pointed out, Nazis eat kebabs. I suppose they’re at least grateful that they have the choice.