Mary Dejevsky: St Nicholas and Soviet-era brutalism

Potsdam Notebook: Shops and houses have been restored to their former pastel elegance, but vacant plots are everywhere
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The Independent Online

The Soviet system's inhumanity to man left psychological scars that will endure for generations. But it also left more visible scars on the architecture and townscapes of the communist world. The city of Potsdam, south-west of Berlin, shows Soviet-style "renovation" at its malevolent worst.

The church of St Nicholas, its huge dome a beloved city landmark, right, suffered severe bomb damage towards the end of the war. It was repaired, but only re-consecrated in the 1980s. Meanwhile the crypt had been requisitioned as a nursery. But the indignity did not stop there. A concerted effort was made to conceal the church, and so distort the city's age-old focus, by hemming it in with concrete monstrosities on all sides.

What had been a landmark was effectively hidden. Even now that demolition of some of the offending blocks has begun, the communists' intention remains clear. You can glimpse the dome from afar, but as you walk towards it, it vanishes. I have seen "political" town-planning all over East and Central Europe. And the more symbolism resides in the city, the more vicious the excision of the past.

The city of Potsdam is famous – or notorious – for the July 1945 conference that sealed the division of Europe. But it is better loved in Germany for the vast park and palaces of Sanssouci, the summer residence of Frederick the Great. Three years ago, renovation of the palaces was only beginning. Now, the work is well advanced and much of the ornate gold of the lavish interiors shines as new. Similarly in the old town: much has been done; shops and houses have been restored to their former pastel elegance; but bulldozers and vacant plots are everywhere; so much remains to do. And that includes freeing the church of St Nicholas from its concrete cage.

The Wall revisited

The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall is approaching, and German papers are full of reminiscences, including a bewildered account by Egon Krenz, then East Germany's communist leader. "That day, 9 November, 1989," he says, "was the most dramatic of my life. It wasn't just the border crossings in Berlin that were thrown open, but the frontier of the Warsaw Pact. Good for those who lived that day as a celebration. But I didn't have that luxury. I bore political and military responsibility for everything that happened that night... I was on tenterhooks as never before."

Hands off!

The service in what used to be East Germany has lost much of its communist surliness, thank goodness – but not all. In a small craft shop I picked up a wooden piggy-bank to see how you would extract the coins, only to be barked at instantaneously: "You are not just looking if you touch something. CAN I HELP YOU?" And it sounds even more menacing in German.