Comparison, differences and how do we find out where we want to go together

What comes first to your mind when you compare Berlin with Moscow?

This had been the question asked by a Dutch colleague – and my prompt reply had been something like:

How can I and why should I compare apples and a piece of furniture?

These two places are really so hugely different that any comparison must end up in misunderstandings, wrong formulations and misleading prompts.

Sure, it is about two settlements and they are located in two different nation states. But in actual fact, even these general placeholders are somewhat misleading.

From the Grundrisse we know that

[t]he concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception. Along the first path the full conception was evaporated to yield an abstract determination; along the second, the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought.

It is worthwhile to think another time about this statement in the context of comparing different cities, places as diverse as Amsterdam, Berlin and Moscow.

And it is worthwhile too to briefly mention that the colleague also said during the short time we could talk about the misleading perception: not individual people make history, but complex settings and arrangements are constitutive – providing, sharing spaces within which individuals act, but even then they do not act as mere individuals, even if they are outstanding figures of history”.

Travelling to and through different cities has frequently a bit of the déjà-vu experience: one thinks one knows and is still not entirely sure. In such a case of returning to in any case large cities – even if the figures are quite different:[1]

Amsterdam

Population (municipality, May 2014; urban and metro, May 2014; Randstad, 2011)

Municipality 813.562

Density 4,908/km2 (12,710/sq mi)

Berlin

Population (December 2014)[1]

City 3,562,166

Density 4,000/km2 (10,000/sq mi)

Moscow

Population (2010 Census)

Total 11,503,501

Rank 1st

Density 4,581.24/km2 (11,865.4/sq mi)

Urban 100%

Rural 0

– the likelihood of coming to different areas is quite high. And also the likelihood of perceiving the areas, one visited before, in different ways is remarkable: with the time one can go deeper into things, can explore the details one overlooked on earlier occasions.

Leaving aside that these are so different cities, the one point springing to my mind is that these are not only spaces, settlements but histories – and as much as history does not repeat itself, histories cannot be compared. The concrete is still entailed in the generalisation.

Berlin – a city which had been the platform for an black-haired Austrian gnome to start his March to secure global rule of the “Arian race”, starting racing with tanks towards east, after conquering the submissive west.

Amsterdam, giving in and accepting the new ruler more or less like several other European countries.

Moscow, the at that time blossoming metropolis, developing its own identity, to some extent against the former zarist complement – and with this the new identity of an entirely new state.

The one still refusing the responsibility of the predecessors, refusing to pay their debts, still not completely accepting the fact that many knew about the human dramas their “government” caused in the concentration camps, while the other is still thinking about the loss of most likely nearly 30,000,000 people in the Great Patriotic War.

The one morning, while leaving the hotel to a short walk I see the wires, spanning between the large buildings, offering accommodation for so many: they remind of the efforts of the electrification and industrialisation of a country that – at the time – only recently got rid of the joke of the zarist regime, standing against the old metropolis: in the one case the administrative centre of a “hegemone of the past and the future”: the old Prussian power, aiming on gaining superiority in and over Europe, and the claimant of the thousand year long empire. In the other case the old trade metropolis, which surely lost its glamour of the colonial times (sure, Auke know well about some strange places that still do exist as witnesses of those times…., though it managed well to rescue part of it and translate it into some kind of sedated modernity in the most amiable way.

This kind of light and likely drowsiness (I know, a pardox)  is surely difficult to find in a city with a population of over ten million, though the walk along the river, or large lake in the middle of the still dormant city is most pleasant, and the large alleys offer some compensation for the otherwise densely populated “sleep-cities”.

Marks of orientation – it is always catching my consideration how we actually find the ways – something that surely changed fundamentally, first with the common use of street maps, then again with the common use of the GPS. But it changed also in another way: the marks are something that is remarkable.

Looking at Berlin, it is surely relevant that it is (as nearly all larger conglomerations) a merger of different villages but also a place that still carries its marks from having been a city of two countries.

And Amsterdam is still characterised by the way it integrated socio-natural conditions (the channels) and the social hierarchy (going from the central “Single” over the “Herengracht”, positioning the Keizer to the margin, and the Princes even further out – the latter surely a specific form of translating the words:

give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God

– the nobility left in some memorable places of history, and god outside …

Moscow then, somewhat torn between the two dimensions: height and width: the height needed for the permanently increasing population and the width not least accepted to maintain some spaces.

These spaces consist of some of the old areas, and of the parks and park-like areas as for instance the one I mentioned a bit earlier or the area around the Moscow State University Lomonosov , reaching to sparrows hill – I remember well the time of an earlier stay when I lived in the old Lomonosov building and enjoyed the area every morning while I had been jogging.

There is something special when it comes to Moscow though it may be special just for me as some years ago, when I had been collected from the university building, from where we walked to the All Russian Centre, the driver said:

Things changed so much. Several years ago we could find our orientation by holding on to enterprises, chimneys, industrial sites – today these orientation marks are shopping centres, usually all with the same names of international chain stores …

And there is something else I am getting aware every day now, when leaving the metro on the way home at the Домодедовская – it has its name from Domodedovo International Airport. And there is a metal relief pointing this out … – and there are huge posters, telling us what to buy, which shops are close …, hardly allowing us to remain attentive for the reliefs …

We do not recognise many of these areas on the first occasion – not least after a long drive from the airport which directs our thinking towards seize, i.e. quantity, but time allows switching to quality: the small details we usually miss while dashing across airports, over the highways and along the alleys, the quantity that occurs with “pure reproduction”, which seems to be more a matter of being reproduced, pushing aside considerations about where we want to move and how we actively produce, even if this is, when seen relationally, also very much a matter of reproduction.

The Auchan, media market, Electrolux and bmercuditoydas – BMW, MERCEDES, AUDI, TOYOTA, SCODA, MERCEDES, AUDI, TOYOTA, SCODA – gained already dominance.

***************

TV in the background, a song, or better to say a singers-competition. May be it is politically incorrect saying children instead of young women: girls singing about love and longing, though it is more about sexual lust and seduction, staring in the spotlight – though thoroughly enjoying it, incited by members of the jury and parents to compete – who is the best … . At least many of the songs are in English language – does it matter? Or in which way does it matter – indicating to be part of … well …

… another world. It is not least a bit about redefining participation: the socialisation of hyper-individualism: staring, competing, so different to singing in a choir, something many cannot do as it conflicts with the schedules of work, with the requirements of competitive thinking that harshly stands against just the joyfulness of both, the “aimless” singing of people gathering to express themselves with others, and the obliviousness of enjoying oneself as somebody who is content, content while feeling being part of the universe, not in a metaphysical sense, but in the understanding of appropriateness of the old fisherman who resisted accepting the Irony of the Rat as unavoidable rule of life.

The TV had been silent since some time – we had been sitting around the fire, looking up to the stars. Three people, academics, usually talking about development economics, globalisation and labour market policies – and frequently forgetting that all this is so much about such details as the joy of singing in a choir and gaining for oneself and for others – even if it is possibly “only” the gain of not burning out, not being tempted by drugs, not feeling alone when it comes to the point of needing somebody …, and not being open to fundamentalisms that comes along under so many different headscarves and varieties of temptations, replacing apples by Easter eggs and playing other tricks …

***************

– Surely, all this is something that, being stated with the full awareness of the ambiguity, especially on such a day where we celebrate here orthodox Easter and Gagarin-day ….

***************

Part of the points are elaborated in notes written in preparation of presentations here in Moscow at the Plekhanov university in cooperation with the All Russian Center for the analysis of Living Standards

  • Employment Crisis or Crisis of Employment
  • Eurasia – Potentials for taking a strategic role for sustainable sociability

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[1]            In the following taken from Wikipedia – 12/04/15

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