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Boogie Nights Are Russian In Berlin

BERLIN (dpa) – Fluorescent Cyrillic letters hang forlornly from a string along a drab black wall, spelling out the name of a disco, “Kalinka”.

Underneath the name of the old Russian tune, a platinum blonde belts out the latest Russian pop-songs for the few couples on a lonely dance-floor. Her burly manager stands guard with a synthesizer keyboard that plays itself.

Most of the party lurks at the back of the room, drinking vodka in the dark, yelling anecdotes to each other over the pounding electric beat.

At one table, a typical mix of characters pours another round. Katya, a 17-year-old Ukrainian and Nadezhda, an out-of-work opera singer turned piano teacher, raise glasses with their pals, a computer repairman and a university student.

When they tire of telling jokes, they rise to take turns dancing in twos or threes. And it lasts until the early hours when around 3:00 they all pile into Nadezha’s car and drive down a broad avenue, towards the city centre.

It could be any Saturday night in Moscow. But as the skyline comes into sight, the communications tower rising into the heavens is not Moscow’s Ostankino but the Fernsehturm on Alexanderplatz. This is Berlin.

More than 100,000 Russians live in the German capital, and along with tens of thousands from other former Soviet republics, they constitute a city within the city.

But during the workday, there’s not much Russian to be heard. Most speak excellent German – especially the many with ethnic German roots. Out at Kalinka, quite a few come from German families exiled to Kazakhstan and Sovietized under Stalin. Now the availability of work and consistent wages in Germany has lured them back.

It is at night that they turn Russian again, and when they go out what many want is music. Russian food they can cook at home, but the peculiar nightlife of the former Soviet Union needs to be recreated socially. Some half a dozen discos in Berlin do this with expert precision, right down to the pool tables with bad felt.

The scene is nothing unusual for large expatriate communities who hang together by habit and ghettoize themselves by mistake.

But in Berlin, the risk of ghettoization has been huge. In the unequal mix of newcomers from East and West, the incoming poor stood to earn more money than they could back home, but they paid for the opportunity by taking a lower social status.

Berlin’s typical Russian disco exemplifies this. Nightclubs in Moscow and Kiev are already far flashier. Kalinka and its ilk are stalled in time with the low-budget party scene of 1994. For years nobody noticed they existed but suddenly Russian discos are “in”.

Mention to a youngish friend that you visited Kalinka, out by Marzahn, the blandest of the communist-built suburbs, and the response may not be bemused bewilderment but curiosity: Can I have the address, please!

“I go to Russian discos because the atmosphere is so friendly, and people are so cool,” says Rita, 30, a schoolteacher. Hipsters can thank a local expatriate author for launching the phenomenon.

Vladimir Kaminer, 34, penned a novel “Russendisko” documenting the laughable travails of a quick-witted immigrant who lived in Berlin through the last decade. Kaminer himself runs a roving Russian disco that goes from venue to venue.

The book was a hit, and with it popularity for his discos surged, now enough to pack the city’s sizeable Gorki Theatre on a Saturday night.

Is this just another brand of “Ostalgie”, nostalgia for symbols of the communist past? It’s unlikely. The “fake Russians”, as Kaminer calls them, come to dance to songs they cannot understand.

They jump up and down while projections of Soviet films play on the walls around them, but they have never seen the films before. They thirstily down “Baltika” brand beer from St. Petersburg, a brew which few have tasted before.

The most common venue for the author’s bashes is “Kaffee Burger”, a quaint little downtown joint that goes wild on “Russendisko” nights. It is a long way from the die-hard crowd at Kalinka – another atmosphere altogether.

Kalinka has begun to draw curious Germans, but it may never enjoy the popularity presently piling into Kaminer’s parties. Yet the author’s success seems to have sparked some new romanticism about things Russian, even beyond the dancefloor.

When most of the Russian expat crowd came to Berlin, they knew they would have to work hard to integrate into local society. Who could have dreamt that, a decade on, stylish Berliners would be eager to integrate somehow into theirs.

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