An American Who Defected to East Germany
Between World War II and the fall of Communism, many fled Soviet-controlled East Germany and headed westward. The stories of these dissidents, defectors, and hardworking citizens who were simply looking for a better life have been exhaustively documented. But much less is known about the histories of the few who headed against the tide, from west to east, repulsed by capitalism. Victor Grossman was one such person.
Born Steve Wechsler in New York City in 1928, Victor’s political ideology was shaped by his experiences living in America during the Great Depression and the events of the Spanish Civil War. After earning an economics degree from Harvard, his communist ideals led him to earn a simple living as a factory worker. In 1950, in the beginning stages of the Korean War, Victor was drafted and while stationed in Germany, his left-wing past was uncovered by the military. Fearing a court-martial for his beliefs, he sought refuge in the Soviet bloc, changing his name to Victor Grossman and settling among like-minded comrades in the German Democratic Republic.
For 30 years, Victor thrived in the GDR as a journalist and author. He published numerous books on US history and culture, lectured frequently, and hosted a popular radio show that introduced East Germans to the antiestablishment folk songs of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. Despite his criticisms of the GDR establishment, Victor still felt that he was seeing his ideal—“an antifascist state with economic security for everybody”—transformed into utopian reality. By the late 80s, however, it became apparent that the Soviet system could no longer sustain itself and would soon collapse under its own weight. Victor came to the bleak realization that he would have to “start over from zero.”
In 1994, he returned to the USA for the first time, where he was officially discharged from the army, 44 years after being enlisted. He remains today in Berlin and continues to write prolifically in German. In 2003 he published an English-language autobiography, Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany. Regardless of what you think about his political convictions, Victor’s ideological steadfastness is impressive. In a way he seems to be a man out of time, which made me think that speaking with him could provide not just a window to the past, but a different context for viewing the present.
VICE: When did you first become disillusioned with capitalism? Was it a gradual progression or was it one event?
Victor Grossman: The 1930s were a left-wing period. My first recollection from a newsreel was the big sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, which broke General Motors. I remember that and [what was happening in] Spain, the soup lines and college graduates selling apples on the corner to make a living. My father was an art dealer. Who buys art in depression times? It was often tight, but we never went hungry. We were never really down and out, especially because we had a bungalow in New Jersey in an experimental single-tax community called Free Acres. It was very simple; it had running cold water and no electricity. And it was wonderful, just wonderful. We ran around barefoot all day. It was like Huckleberry Finn. A lot of people living there were bohemians from New York and left-wingers. Some of the nicest people in that place were left-wingers who really determined my thinking.
You went to Harvard, but after graduation you started working in a factory. Why?
When I graduated Harvard, the Communist party secretary from Boston came to us and said, “You’ve got a Harvard diploma, but our party is supposed to be a workers’ party, and we don’t have enough workers. Have any of you considered becoming workers?” I was one of three people who said yes. I was provided with an address in Buffalo. I hitchhiked there and walked to this black neighborhood. I came to this rundown wooden house, and on the porch was a middle-aged black lady in a rocking chair. I said, “I’m looking for Hattie Lumpkin, do you know where I can find her?” She said, “That’s me.” She was the head of Buffalo’s Communist Party.
Hattie’s place was Buffalo’s left-wing hub. The family her daughter had worked for had been leftists; they had asked her to sit at the table with them to eat. This was absolutely unheard of. She became a Communist. At first, Hattie had told her to get the hell out with her atheist ideas, but they argued and Hattie was convinced. Hattie’s place became my home away from home when I worked the awful graveyard shift at the factory.
Welcome to Nakhchivan, the San Francisco of the Caucasus Mountains
As my plane touched down into Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, I half expected to step out into a crumbling landscape ripped from a still of Enemy at the Gates. Admittedly, I’d formed this image based on scant and stale stories, but the modern history of this massive exclave, a 2,000 square mile chunk of Azerbaijan home to upwards of 400,000 people and cut off from the main body of the country by 30 miles (at its narrowest point) of hostile Armenia, doesn’t lend itself to hope and happy thoughts. A friend, well read on the Caucasus region, said he’d always imagined the place as “Afghanistan-esque.” Even my friends in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, told me I’d probably be walking out into a wasteland.
So discovering that’d I’d actually stumbled upon an isolated, bizzaro San Francisco was a bit of a trip. Nakhchivan is a shockingly well-to-do, progressive, and proud (to the point of smugness) corner of the nation obsessed with local, organic produce, alternative medicines, health and spirituality tourism, all things ecological, and universal Wi-Fi access.
Turkic tombstones allegedly relocated here to protect them from theft by Armenians.
It’s all the more impressive given the last time Nakhchivan tried to be bold and ahead of its time, it suffered greatly. In January of 1990, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic (formerly the independent Aras Turkish Republic before the Soviets swallowed it up in 1920) took a stand against what it saw as Russia’s progressive disenfranchisement of the Azeris of Nakhchivan and the separate Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in favor of Armenians. They became the first part of the USSR to declare their independence, and were promptly attacked. The violence, which some Nakhchivanis allege involved the Armenian use of chemical weapons (the Armenians allege the same against Azeris, but there’s no definitive proof on either side), was tied to Russo-Armenian claims of anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan proper (with which Nakhchivan eventually merged) and lasted from 1990 until a ceasefire in 1994. During that time, Nakhchivan fell under a blockade. Their gas, rail lines, electricity, and radio were cut off, and Soviet policies of economic interdependence left them with weak agriculture and little to no self-sufficient industry. Every year, tens of thousands fled the region. Almost every tree was chopped down for fuel in the harsh winters, and the only things that kept the nation alive were two small bridges, built by Heydar Aliev, a Nakhchivani and former Soviet strongman who led the region until he became the leader of all Azerbaijan in 1993, linking Nakhchivan to Turkey and Iran.
Heydar Aliev, woven into a rug.
The Soviet Ghost Town in the Czech Republic
There’s a little bit of the Soviet empire left in the middle of the Czech Republic, but it’s abandoned, decaying, and almost completely forgotten.
USSR military bases might not be known for their community outreach, but is it really possible that two towns, one Czech and one Russian, could exist just over one mile apart for two decades without the residents knowing anything about each other? If you’ve got enough barbed wire fences and Kalashnikovs, I suppose anything is possible.
After occupying what was then Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet army chose an airfield 28 miles from Prague as the base for its Central Group of Forces. It had been used before by the Austro-Hungarian military, and then the Luftwaffe, but when the Soviets moved in they came for the long haul.
They built an entire town next to the airfield and called it Boží Dar, meaning “God’s Gift,” and then fenced it off from the outside world. Oh, that dark Soviet humor! Or maybe they really did think it was nice, since it did have a pool, a movie theater, and wasn’t Nizhny Novgorod.
Just down the (heavily guarded) road was the nondescript Czech town of Milovice and its 8,000 or so inhabitants, none of whom knew about the hundreds of families living under armed guard in cramped concrete tower blocks just up the road.
Boží Dar existed in complete isolation. This closed town within a closed state was about as inaccessible as it gets, and it’s entirely possible that most of the residents never left the town. No one but the highest-ranking officials would have had that kind of freedom. Operations at the base were kept top-secret, and such was the extent of Soviet paranoia that they even closed down Milovice’s sewage treatment plant at one point, fearing that the additional waste would give away too much information about the size of Boží Dar’s population.
There was just as much secrecy surrounding what was going into the base as what was coming out of it, so most supplies were probably brought in from Russia by air or rail. It looks like the base was partly self-sufficient, with its own coal power plant, underground reservoir, and farmland.
Most of the locals we asked thought the whole barbed-wire-and-armed-patrol thing was less about stopping the Soviet residents from getting jealous of living standards in communist Czechoslovakia, and more to do with stopping the Czechs from finding out about the possible secret stockpile of nuclear warheads being kept at Boží Dar.
It’s widely believed that the Soviet army kept at least some nuclear weapons in Czechoslovakia, most likely at the base of the Central Group of Forces, but no one has ever been able to prove it. The Russian embassy in Prague still refuses to confirm or deny anything, although the former Central Group of Forces commander, General Vorobyov, was pretty open about the whole thing in a 2008 interview with Radio Prague. On the phone from Moscow, he said “We did indeed have nuclear weapons in the rocket brigades as part of the Central Group of Soviet Forces that I commanded.”
Any nukes must have been transported back to Russia soon after 1989, when the Soviet Army started packing its bags following the Velvet Revolution. In their haste, soldiers dumped out entire tanks of diesel and buried their leftover ammunition in the ground.
After the last Mig-29 took off back to Russia in 1991 the military base was left open and unguarded, and was quickly looted of anything even remotely valuable. Thieves ripped out everything from copper wiring to door handles and plastic movie theater seats, tearing up floorboards and pulling down walls in the process.
In 1992, Russia generously gave the already-crumbling buildings and polluted, explosive-riddled land to the Czech government, claiming that the value of this piece of real estate would make up for the cost of cleaning it. It seems the Czechs had little choice but to accept.
Despite it being state property, no one has ever bothered to guard it or fence it off, so we went to have a look around.
Since this was February in the Czech Republic, it was snowing. A lot. First, we found some aircraft hangars.
There wasn’t much inside.
We had to walk about another mile before we got into town. The snow was a few inches deep, so we had no idea what we were walking on. Once we got close to the buildings there were a lot of big holes in the ground, which we discovered by nearly falling into them, covered as they were with trash and snow.
The holes were probably made when the environment ministry swept the ground for all that buried live ammunition. Most of it was dug up and disposed of back in the early 90s, but the occasional mine or grenade still turns up. In January this year, someone walking their dog in the area stumbled across a live artillery shell and three landmines.
The Russian republic of Chechnya has been undergoing an Islamic revival. Having existed under Soviet rule for 70 years before getting caught up in a war with the Russian Federation that lasted almost two decades, the tiny state has turned to Islam in what looks to be an attempt to maintain some semblance of identity and drive a wedge between itself and the land of Putin. The Chechen government is building mosques in every village, prayer rooms in public schools, and enforcing a stricter Islamic dress code for both men and women. It might be miles away from Islamabad, but Chechnya’s gone Islamamad.
For young women in particular, this has led to a change in what they can expect to do with their lives. Smoking, for instance, is definitely a good reason to spend a night in jail, while premarital sex must seem less attractive when the president of your country has given his public approval to any family who feels like carrying out an honor killing.
Photographer Diana Markosian spent some time in the area getting to know a group of Muslim girls who grew up during the wars, chronicling their coming of age in a region that is rapidly redefining itself as an Islamic state.
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Partying with the Secret Police in Communist Romania
Illustration by Michael Shaeffer
Vacation options in communist Romania were pretty limited. When Labor Day, the big party holiday of the year, rolled around on May 1, many Romanians traveled to Costinesti, the only seaside resort for young people in the country. To reach it, they had to take the train to the last stop and walk another two miles, or hitch a ride on a farmer’s cart. Most of the country was poor at the time, so many travelers slept on the roofs of rented huts; the only sources of heat were campfires people made on the beach.
There were just two discos in Costinesti, and for some archaic reason, dancing was only allowed in them from 1 to 3 PM and 6 to 10 PM. Romanian beer was sold exclusively; other kinds of booze were only available at a store that catered to foreigners. And, of course, everyone was being watched all the time by government minders.
Sorin Lupascu, who DJed in Costines‚ti at the time, recalls, “You could drink until you fell on your face. The regime never messed with the parties, but the resort was filled with secret police who were scouting for new employees.” Government restrictions caused other problems too, according to Natalia, a math teacher who took teens on field trips to the beach: “The whole class could end up pregnant because condoms were illegal. At night I had to poke through bushes with a broom to stop them from having sex.”
After the fall of the Iron Curtain and ensuing revolution in 1989, young people had more options for partying. Many of them started going to Neptun, a resort town about 50 miles down the coast. Mariana, a hotel receptionist there between 1987 and 1996, described the change: “After the Revolution, people saw the first of May as a day when you could do whatever you wanted. Also, booze was on the market.” Things started to get wild: One year, Neptun’s Hotel Romanta was gutted by a massive fight among a group of friends who had rented nearly 70 percent of the rooms. Teo, a gynecologist who saw that brawl, told me, “The cops didn’t have the guts to break them up. They watched while beds, closets, and tables flew out of the windows.” The next year a confrontation between the customers of two pubs across the road from each other resulted in a brutal fight in the middle of the street that ended only when ambulances arrived.
Other destinations have also become popular in recent years, like the village of Vama Veche— where hippies laze about, ransack tents, fuck on the beach, and hit one another in the face—and Mamaia, where club kids celebrate their holiday freedom by robbing people and committing random acts of vandalism. And while these might not sound like the greatest of times, at least the secret police are nowhere to be found.
Need more partying?
Never Party with the Brick Squad
A Party’s Not a Party If You Don’t Punch a Fish
Historical Party Fouls
MOZART’S TAILOR: THE CZECH COSTUME DESIGNER WHO WON THE OSCAR AND LOST HIS COUNTRY
Theodor in his studio, wearing his everyday costume.
Theodor Pištěk, now 80 years old, is a Czech costume designer best known for his work on 1984’s Amadeus, for which he won an Academy Award. During the 1980s, when Czechoslovakia was cut off from the West by the Iron Curtain, Theodor was shut out of the Czech film industry, then a puppet of the Communists. However, he managed to transition into the US market and make films with his friend Miloš Forman, who in 1968 fled Czechoslovakia for the USA. They collaborated on Valmont and The People vs. Larry Flint, but Amadeus was the pair’s biggest success. It took home eight Academy Awards and turned Theodor into an icon among fashion designers.
One could view the victory of a bunch of Czechs at the premier American film awards as one of the signs that the Cold War was ending. But back then, in the mid-80s, the totalitarian regime running the country tended to punish citizens who experienced success abroad, and Theodor became an unlikely target. I asked him about his struggle.
VICE: How did you become a costume designer? Were you appointed by the regime?
Theodor Pištěk: They didn’t appoint me. It was an existential need for me. I loved it. I had no education in the field. The only experience I had was studying at the Academy of Arts, where one only knew costumes from old paintings.
I saw it as creative work. I felt like I was the first person who knew what the film was going to look like. I was always one of the guys who got to see the screenplay first, because that’s where you’d find out that this character was supposed to be a lawyer and such and such. A lot of costume designers just get the general idea of what people wore at the time the story takes place and give their characters a suit, but it’s not really that easy.
Was it difficult to find materials for your costumes back then? I imagine the shopping options in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia were somewhat limited.
That’s where the trouble began. The only thing that saved me was this one particular shop that the wives of top members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia would visit. Prague’s Barrandov Studios had tremendous power and could arrange for some of their costume designers to shop there for various movies. You could get real quality stuff there. That’s where I was able to meet all the ladies from the Communist Party. I always had to wait until they were done, and then they would let me in. The first movie I worked on without all of these obstructions was Amadeus.
But you ran into different kinds of problems with Amadeus, correct? Every time Miloš Forman came to Czechoslovakia he was surrounded by the secret police.
There were a bunch of directors at Barrandov who were in the Communist Party, and when people started talking about Forman coming to Prague to shoot Amadeus they wrote a letter to the Central Committee saying that they, as conscious filmmakers, protested against Forman shooting here. But because the economy was so bad in the 80s, the party felt it was better to make a few dollars than listen to a bunch of Communists from Barrandov. Although they did set up a meeting with Forman and the producer and make an agreement about how the filming would proceed.
LEFT: A fancy dress costume, complete with a swan mask, that Theodor made for Elizabeth Berridge, who played Mozart’s wife in Amadeus. RIGHT: Tom Hulce, who played Mozart, wore this costume and launched the pink wig trend of the mid-80s.
What was the agreement?
Each of the more significant members of the team had his own cop tailing him, but the truth is that it wound up working out differently. The guy who was supposed to take care of Forman would come in every morning, and for a bribe of 20 bucks, he’d spill all the orders he had, what he was supposed to be taking care of that day, and also what Forman should watch out for. That cop would have taken a bullet for Forman. But Forman kept the agreement with the Communist Party. Because of that, he didn’t go meet with [playwright and dissident] Václav Havel, since he promised he wouldn’t.