Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Black European Meets Skinheads
Last year I went to Berlin to visit a friend who moved there. During my trip I experienced something special. Most of my friends told me I was totally crazy to have done what I did. They might be right, but I think that this story deserves a place on this blog.
It was a last minute decision so I couldn’t get a seat reservation anymore in the high speed train between Cologne and Berlin. I decided to go anyway and ended up in an overcrowded train sitting on the floor in the hallway. Sharing the hallway with me were, among others, two Russian dudes who looked kind of tough. Bald head, bomber jacket, big chains. They had plastic bags full of beer cans and were drinking the whole time. I tended to ignore them, they definitely looked like skinhead hooligans and I supposed they wouldn’t consider me a potential friend. It turned out I was wrong.
I read a book and tried not to look up at them. I succeeded quiet well during the first hours (the trip took about 6 hours), but I noticed that one of them gave me a sympathetic nod once in a while. It crossed my mind for a few seconds that he might be gay, but I quickly decided against it. They looked definitely very straight. Some time halfway between Cologne and Berlin one of them asked me in perfect German if I wanted a beer. I hesitated for a second, it was too early in the day for being drinking, but being tired of reading the same book for more than three hours in a row, I thought why not and accepted the offer. It was a holiday anyway. We started to chat, they turned out to be more German than I thought. I saw it as a good opportunity to oil up my German before reaching Berlin.
They shared more beers with me until there were none left (and they had brought many). I decided to buy some in the bar and to pay them more drinks. Half an hour before reaching Berlin we had drunken all the beers there were in the train’s mini bar. I felt kind of drunk and they were definitely a bit drunk too. But it was clear that they were better drinkers than I was, more used to heavy drinking. Everybody was looking at us, a strange trio, but we couldn’t care less, talked all the time and laughed together.
The time I passed with them drinking beer was very pleasant. They were curious to know where I was from and I explained. I asked them the same question and they turned out to be Germans of Russian descent, but also the other way around, Russians of German descent. I didn’t understand immediately and they started to explain their story.
Actually since the late middle ages until the early 20th century, Germans migrated to Russia for new opportunities. These people assimilated to Russian culture although some kept a distinct German identity. They lived all over the Soviet Union. When the iron curtain fell and the Soviet Union collapsed Germany accepted any person who could prove to be ethnically German to get a German passport and come back to Germany. Many Russians of German descent jumped on the opportunity.
These two guys were descendants of Germans who migrated to Russia generations ago, maybe centuries ago. Their surnames sounded German, but that was about the only thing German about them. They told me that their parents moved to Berlin in the early 90’s. They were still very young children then and they grew up in Germany. But they kept on speaking Russian in the household, lived in predominantly Russian neighborhoods and made mostly Russian-speaking friends.
They stressed the common experience they and me had as children of migrants, as people who never really belong, as people who share the experience of displacement and multilingualism. I liked that thought. And as our conversation evolved I started to ask questions too, about how they look, about how they can be perceived as racist skinheads and so on. They stressed that they weren’t racists, they said they were victims of racism too, that German people hated them.
I was fascinated and listened while the conversation evolved to football and Saint-Petersburg, the team they both supported. One of them was even such a big fan that he travelled all over Europe to see all matches Saint-Petersburg had to play abroad. He said he liked to travel, to see different places and that his love for football was a good excuse to do it. But still I couldn’t stop thinking that the guy really looked like a prototype hooligan who might be nice to me now, but who would have kicked my ass in very different circumstances.
When getting closer to Berlin they asked me if I already had plans. I actually didn’t, I only planned to see my friend in a few hours as he was still at work. So I still had some time to kill. They invited me to join them. They would go to one’s place and have some more drinks there and watch some video’s. They told me they had nothing to do that day, they worked hard for several weeks on a construction site and had some cash to spend now. Again I hesitated. Where would I end up? What would a black guy with dreadlocks do with skinheads? Did they try to trick me into some man hunting? The wildest thoughts went through my head? But my intuition, more than movies or politics, told me these guys were really all right. They were actually very friendly, warm, generous and sympathetic. My adventurous, crazy and anthropological me said just to go for it. So I accepted their offer and followed them into Ost-Berlin. After half an hour with metro and busses we arrived at some apartment blocks. I had kept a sharp eye on the itinerary so that I would easily find my way back. First we went to the shop to get some more beers and then went to one of them’s place.
We started drinking again and watching Youtube. I drank slowly. They wanted to show me video’s of hooligan fights in Russia, some hip hop video’s and so on. They started to roll joints, two more skinheads came in. All were friendly to me although I saw some surprise in their eyes. They spoke Russian with each other sometimes, so I couldn’t understand but I was tempted to think that they saw me as a potential danger to them too. Who was I? What was I doing there? All understandable questions, and I guessed the other two assured them that I was OK.
I spend around 2 or 3 hours there, the owner of the place was getting very very drunk, too drunk actually. He started to put some Saint-Petersburg Hooligan video’s with songs. He sang them along and he started to do the Sieg Heil sign while singing. I was kind of embarrassed about it, and I noticed that the three others were too. They tried to assure me that it’s just football and that I shouldn’t feel threatened. The thing is that I didn’t feel threatened. Was I naïve? Maybe so, but the truth is that nothing happened to me, the atmosphere was very relaxed and everybody was friendly and nice to me. I even went out once with one of the new guys to get some more beers and he was actually very soft, he wanted to know about me, was curious about my experience of being black in Europe and so on. I thought that I may have been the very first black person this guy actually talks to (instead of shouting racist slurs to). These guys were not stupid, they were just low class immigrants with a lot of frustrations, just like many other immigrant kids. They were put into a situation in which they had to talk to me as human beings to human beings.
I had stopped drinking after a while, I didn’t want to lose control. The two guys I met on the train were way out there now. Fortunately the two others were still kind of sober. The main language spoken was often Russian now and I couldn’t really follow. I said that I had to go now, as I had a meeting with some friends, we shared e-mails and phone numbers, gave each other ‘man hugs’ and I left. Still, I didn’t feel like having a lasting internet relationship with these guys, so I gave an e-mail I nearly never use and a wrong phone number. I never tried to reach them again though.
Later that evening I told my story to my Berlin friend who said I was lucky not to get killed. I knew the stories of Adriano and other black Germans who were killed by skinheads in Germany. But I still don’t know, I think that the context gave me an opportunity to discover something I only had prejudice against and didn’t know. At the same time, without wanting to do it, I let them experience something they didn’t know. Still, they were the ones who offered me a beer, they were the ones who smiled sympathetically at me, and they were the ones who invited me in their home. I realized that I could have met the exact same 4 guys in a very different situation and that they would have seen me as an easy target to ventilate all their aggression and frustration, they could have killed me. But the thing was that at that time and place they wanted to be my friends.
The next day I was eating a quick snack in an antifa (antifascist) vegatarian snack bar in Friedrichshain and reading a magazine that lay there for customers. There was an article about hooligan skinheads and their use of fascist symbols, mostly by Russians. A study had shown that many of the kids using the nazi symbols didn’t even really know what these symbols stand for. They know it’s anti-communist and they know it is anti-establishment and that it shocks and scares people. As far as they are concerned it works for their purpose, it is not about history repeating itself, it is about expressing anger, aggression and frustration. Against everything that’s politically correct and socially accepted. Maybe they saw my dreadlocks as an expression of the same thing.
It’s maybe not all that strange. Skinhead culture has black roots after all, check these video’s below to discover a strange twist in musical history and racist attitude.
This is of course about England in the 70's, and not about Russian-German Hooligans in the 21st century. Still, I think that being a skinhead is first and for all an anti-establishment style, more than a political stance. Of course I do not ignore the dangers this 'style' has for all people who look like me.