It’s not just the rumble of S-Bahn Charlottenburg’s train tracks above that makes you feel in-transit. In the Rossia supermarket, and attached imbiss, you feel like you’re in a waiting room from the East.
Look around at the heavy-set men slurping their Borscht and potato-filled Pelmeni and they look travel worn, as if they’ve just stepped off the train. They are watching turbo kitsch on Russian TV, scantily clad women in folk costumes, images from a departed world. A man who looks Kyrgyz is outside with the barbeque, grilling skewered shashlik. He cannot bring in the meat fast enough, to fill all those plates piled with chopped onions and flat bread. You bet they’re hungry, the direct train from Smolensk to Berlin is 21 hours and 24 minutes (and you should sneak a peek at those weary carriages as they creak into Hauptbahnhof)!
The proprietor of the supermarket that stocks Russian books, vodka, pickles and frozen dumplings is from Kazakhstan. He’s “Volga Deutsch”– one of many Germans whose ancestors went East under Catherine the Great in the 18th Century and who were repatriated with the fall of the USSR. The supermarket is open 24 hours, a touch of the metropolis in sleepy West Berlin, so you can get your Cheburashka (flavoured?) lemonade or animated video at any hour of the day.
There are 100 000 Russians in Berlin, and the ways they have found their way to the German capital are various, but their destination is predictable: Charlottenburg, the historically urban old-money neighborhood of West Berlin, now better known as Charlottengrad.
The promise of the West and wealth seems an obvious choice for both Volga Deutsch fleeing post-Communism and newer Russian arrivals who think it compatible with their Moscow billion ruble bank accounts. The latter don’t congregate in the imbiss, but rather at the Starbucks on Olivaer Platz, not far from the Gucci, Vuitton and (renovating) Prada stores on Kurfürstendamm. You need only to sit out on a warm autumn day with your Cinnamon Dolce Crème Frappucino to see the old ladies sweating along in their fur coats followed by their little dogs.
Meanwhile, if you wish to go somewhere where you will be surprised to hear a single word of Russian spoken, you need only take that train above the Rossia supermarket seventeen minutes in the opposite direction, to the Communist towers of Alexanderplatz. It’s a part of Berlin that is a little too reminiscent of the past for comfort.
The traffic from this imbiss heads only one direction, and it is not East.