Hi... you wanna buy an AK47? The man spoke to me in good, colloquial German, but I could tell he was Russian. Why he should have picked on me with this highly indiscreet question, Heaven only knows. I looked around me, there was no one in earshot. We stood beneath the archway leading to the fleamarket on the Strasse des 16ten Juni in Berlin. I had been coming to this fleamarket on and off for some time and was hoping to pick up a bargain this bright Spring day.
The man, a fit looking man in his 30s, did not have a stall, but there was a pile of household odds and sods on the pavement abutting the column. I must have looked interested, or at least curious, for he pulled back some clothing piled up messily on the ground to reveal the butt and grip of what I assumed was an AK47. He quickly covered it up again. You interested? I told him I was English. That seemed to please him, although I also detected a certain reticence in his eyes. I speak perfect German and when you tell people you are English, this from time to time raises suspicions on their part. Nevertrheless, he continued: I can get you anything you want.... a tank? Now it was my turn to look incredulous. Of course, I should love to have my own tank. In fact, all my friends would like their own tanks. I cant think of anyone who wouldnt like a tank, I volunteered tongue-in-cheek, but also by now a little irritated, but how the hell am I going to get a tank back through English customs at Dover? He laughed loudly and turned away. Our conversation had ended.
The fact of the matter was that after the wall came down in Berlin there were still in excess of 300.00 Soviet troops stationed in the former East Germany. They did not relish the thought of returning to Russia, after all, they had led a relatively good life in the DDR. A good number of these had German girlfriends or partners and of course their own dependants in the country and some remained there deserting from their units to disappear underground, many joining the criminal underworld. Others were selling whatever they could lay their hands on, legally or illegally, so as to take some Dollars or Deutsch Marks back home. The Rouble of course was worthless to all intents and purposes. Berlin at the time was still what I would call bow and arrow country, the writ of the West German government not yet fully extending here, which made it an exciting place.
An excerpt from my book IT HAPPENED IN BERLIN to be published later this year. All rights reserved, copyright Kenneth Jacob.