A Visit to Moscow’s Brain Institute, Where Stalin’s Brain Is Kept in a Jar
On April 14, 1930, the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide in his Moscow apartment. His closest friends, including the writer Yuri Olesha, rushed to the flat when they heard the terrible news.
As they sat in silence in the living room, a cracking sound suddenly emitted from the bedroom where Mayakovsky’s body lay.
“Only wood, it seemed, could be chopped like that,” Olesha later wrote. Someone was cutting through the wall with an axe. Moments later, a doctor in a white lab coat ran by carrying a washbasin.
Inside it was the poet’s brain.
The doctor told Mayakovsky’s friends that the brain was unusually large—more than 3.75 pounds—before loading it into a car and driving away.
Mayakovsky’s brain was taken to a brick building called the Brain Institute, which was founded by the Bolsheviks in 1928 as part of the effort to canonize Lenin. Lenin’s brain joined those of other proclaimed geniuses in a “Pantheon of Brains,” which displayed the Soviet Union’s finest minds in glass cases. The institute went on to dissect the brains of dozens of famous Soviets, including those of Sergei Eisenstein, Maxim Gorky, and Joseph Stalin. The brain-cataloging continued all the way until 1989, when the fall of the USSR put an end to this peculiar experiment.
Since then, the Institute remains open, but few reporters, Russian or foreign, have been allowed to visit. In recent years, the Institute has been trying to distance itself from the past and adopt a new reputation for modern neurological research—and catching a glimpse of Lenin’s brain in pieces might make its newfound credibility a hard sell. To my delight, however, as part of their effort to show the world how legitimate they’ve become, the Institute let me inside.
Kyrgyz Your Enthusiasm – Fresh Off the Boat: Moscow, Part 2
In Fresh Off the Boat - Moscow part two, Eddie further immerses himself in Russian culture. He learns what it was like to live under Soviet rule, shares tea with Kurdish immigrants, and begins to understand the issues that connect people, regardless of the invisible lines which separate them.
East Germany’s Secret Police Used to Spy on Skateboarders
For whatever reason the public perception of skateboarding seems to have changed over the last decade. Skaters on TV aren’t obnoxious, glue-huffing wasters any more; they’re admirable young men building community skateparks on Google ads. But the sport, or the culture that goes hand-in-hand with the sport, at least, did used to be seen as more of a threat to all things wholesome.
One country where this held especially true was communist East Germany in the 1980s—also known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR—before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Skateboarding was American, therefore subversive and dangerous, so the Stasi began monitoring the skating community to keep tabs on any potential troublemakers or ringleaders. The perceived danger quickly made its way into the state media. A news clip from the time instructs viewers that it is “our duty to protect our children and youths from [skateboarding],” meaning skaters were demonized and left to smuggle Californian-made boards over the border if they wanted to skate anything more advanced than a plank of wood attached to some rollerskate wheels.
German filmmaker Marten Persiel made a “hybrid documentary” about the history of skating in the GDR called This Ain’t California, which was released last year in Germany and gets its international cinematic release next month. The film was criticized on its release for its liberal use of reconstructions and the fact its lead character never actually existed, but Marten told me, “all the things that happen in the film are true stories.” He simply amalgamated them to create a lead character who he could hang the narrative from. And in a “hybrid documentary,” that doesn’t seem like too big of a deal.
I spoke to Marten about his film, skateboard smuggling, and hugely successful punk bands made up entirely of secret service agents.
Photos of Romanian Miners Beating Up Their Fellow Citizens
A little over 20 years ago, the people of Romania rose up against their government. Only, their uprising was a little stranger than what’s been happening in Turkey, Egypt, Brazil and southern Europe recently.
After members of the liberal opposition organized protests against the recently elected National Salvation Front—who were the first party to come to power after the revolution of 1989—the socialist government called on miners and other workers throughout Romania to quell the demonstrations because the police had failed to disperse the rioting crowds.
On June 14, 1990, around 10,000 miners armed with wooden staves and iron bars were brought into Bucharest on special trains. Once they arrived, they quickly got to beating up and eventually killing or severely wounding many of the gathered liberals, royalists, and students who had dared to speak out against their government, angry at the fact that many FSN leaders, including President Ion Iliescu, were former members of the recently ousted Romanian Communist Party.
Andrei Iliescu is a photographer who was working for Agence France-Press (AFP) during the riots that took place between June 13 and 15, 1990. This is his account of what would come to be known as the June 1990 Mineriad.
When I look at recent photographs from Tahrir Square, I can’t help but think of what happened in June 1990, in Bucharest’s University Square. I’d basically moved into the InterContinental hotel in the square so that I could be as close as possible to the protests, which began on April 22 and ended on June 15. The interest surrounding Romania during that time was huge; we were shooting pictures by the truckload and I don’t remember a day where I didn’t send at least one photo off to some newspaper around the world.
June 11, 1990 was when it began to get rowdy, but the tension didn’t reach its boiling point until a couple of days later. Until then, the police would show up in waves and the government gave the protesters an ultimatum to disperse, but it wasn’t the first one by any means, so they chose to ignore it.
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.