History is inevitably condensed into the bigger names that feed and shape our world.  In the context of the dissolution of the Soviet state, the names Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin come closest to mind.  Behind the scenes, of course, is a breadth of names that shaped their actions and policies, and powerfully guided the course of history.

Matthias Rust is just one example.  A West German pilot, he gained notoriety when, in 1987, he illegally landed his plane a stone’s throw from the Kremlin building in the Red Square.  Gorbachev, who had been elected to power after a quick succession of deaths struck down a line of former Soviet leaders, is creditted for the radical change of the Soviet system from pure authoritarian to that of perestroika and glasnost.  Although his original intent was to change the country’s economic status, Gorbachev ended up decentralizing political power and liberalizing old policies.  As a result, the Soviet systen was dismantled, and the Cold War came to an end.

Matthias Rust’s illegal landing sped up many of Gorbachev’s policies; in fact, Gorbachev took advantage of the incident to fire several officials in the Soviet military, which inevitably reduced the power of the military in Russia.  This greatly aided the end of the Cold War.  

Although Rust’s actions were described as a “humorous prank,” Rust himself described it as an attempt to create a bridge between the East and West, and reduce tension between the two halves of Europe divided by the Iron Curtain.  In any case, without his landing in Moscow, it might have been difficult for Gorbachev to dismiss those officials from power, and the breaking up of the Soviet state may have taken a longer period of time.

In addition to Matthias Rust, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power station incident likewise sped up the road to glasnost.  The leaking of radioactive materials was reported only to a minimal degree within Russia.  This led the public to push for greater freedom and dissemination of information.

The interlocking events of history often act in mysterious ways.  In Rust’s case, his goal of creating a bridge between democracy and communism was met, even if he did have to serve a prison sentence for it. 

A week ago, someone asked me why I find history to be so fascinating.  If you take someone like Matthias Rust and trace his story, and in turn trace the stories of all who shaped Matthias Rust down the line, you have a kaleidoscopic array of names and faces who have given in some shape or form to that momentous event.  History is literally the story of Our People, all of us bound together by the sequence of events that move our world and define where we are today.  I ask you: How can I not find it interesting?


In the midst of the Gdansk shipyards in Poland stands the monument that commemorates the lives of the shipyard workers crushed by Communist leader Gomulka in 1970.  The late 60s and early 70s were a tumultuous time for the Polish economy, and rising inflation saw both workers and intellectuals bond together to demand free trade unions and resist the authorities through a series of strikes.

The introduction and fall of Communism in Poland were nothing short of hard-won efforts.  After Russia failed to aid Poland during the Warsaw Uprising, Polish-Russian relationships soured all the more; however, since Poland was always of strategic interest to Russia, Russia supported the growth of communism in Poland from its tiny seedling origins until it grew into an all-encompassing force.  Two things, however, set Poland as a unique Communist country — agriculture, for one, was not collectivized, and Catholicism was not outlawed.

When Pope Paul John II became the first non-Italian Pope in over four and a half centuries, the fact that he was a Pole caused the Polish people to rejoice and a surge of nationalism to sweep the country.  When he visited his homeland in 1979, he instilled within the Poles a hope that political change was soon in coming.  After Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech where he publicly, for the first time in history, denounced Stalin’s criminality and brutality, even the Polish Communist party started to question the system and release old political prisoners.  The demographics of Poland was changing, and the mass unity of the people rallying against the Communist regime set it apart from other uprisings.

Gomulka’s successor, Gierek, further mired the country in economic turmoil as more strikes accrued.  Workers at the Gdansk shipyards downed their tools, demanding wage increases and the release of worker Lech Walesa, future leader of the Solidarity movement.  In an attempt to appease Lech Walesa and his group, the Gdansk shipyard memorial was constructed on the tenth anniversity of the 1970 strike.   The gesture, however, was not enough to settle anything by itself, and martial law was imposed upon the members of Solidarity in the early 80s.  In less than a decade’s time, however, with the aid of Gorbachev breaking the bonds of communism, the Solidarity party was again legalized and won most of the government seats in the free elections, with Walesa elected President in 1991.

The Pope, although cautious about supporting the Solidarity movement, did so nonetheless.  The faith of the Polish greatly aided their fight and instilled within them a belief that God was on their side.  The monument of the shipmasts tied together their struggles, the symbol of the ships, and the shadow of Golgotha with the three crucifixes.  The religious undertones lurk everywhere in the fight of the Polish people, in a nation that truly believes that God liberates them from their struggles.

One of my first posts was a response pertaining to Van Biema’s The Color of Faith where he covered integration in the megachurch, and rallied for future integration in the church in general. 

What Van Biema does not talk about is why certain races may need their own church.  One of my future professors gave me a talk about the history of the black church and the impact it has on him and his family.  For the African American, the black church is the only institution they founded on their own in the United States, and is thus a source of pride to them.  Reverend Richard Allen, in 1816, started the AME Church after he was pushed out of a white church for sitting in the front pew.  He started preaching at the blacksmith’s shop, later founding the AME Church and stressing the importance of education and literacy, as well as opening the church to people of all races,  African Americans and all others.

My professor told me that his children attend primarily Caucasian schools, and one of his concerns is that he does not want them to lose touch with the African American community, especially in a nation that increasingly teaches his children not to act like African Americans.  When his children eventually enter the real world, his desire is that they not only to be aware of their heritage but to also feel comfortable in the African American society.

I read an article in Baltimore written by an African American poli-sci professor in Johns Hopkins.  He wrote about the exhausting work of “navigating white spaces” where he had to be doubly concious of how he acted, talked, and how his children behaved out in public.  But when he was with other African Americans, he wrote that he could “breathe” and “be himself.”   

This is not to encourage in any way for different races to stay in their respective cubicles.  I just wanted to take the time to share that for some, their church and communities are a haven where they can belong without the pressure of having to act different to be accepted. 

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James Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with graffiti from the East and West sides of the Berlin Wall tattooed on his wings

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a visual and sonic masterwork combining history, philosophy, music, and the search for identity.  Interweaving the fall of the Berlin Wall, Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symphosium, subtle hints about the Holocaust, and the trials of searching for identity as a transgender citizen can seem like a heavy mash-up of what would be a daunting story to explore, but Hedwig, thankfully, actually works.

At the core of the story is the character Hansel.  The story acts as his testimony, exploring his time in West Germany after his East German mother put him in a wheelbarrow and escaped to the Communist West.  When an American GI fell in love with him, he forced Hansel to undergo a sex change (described as “leaving a little part of him behind”) so that Hansel can pass inspection.  They emigrated to Kansas where Hansel (officially Hedwig post-surgery) struggled with the concept of finding her “other half” after the GI left her, not knowing if this other half would be a man or woman.  In her search, she came across young Tommy Speck with whom she shared her music and love. 

Hedwig and the Angry Inch has enjoyed success in, of all places, South Korea where, as a rock musical, it has been performed for at least four seasons with all the songs and dialogue translated into Korean.  This is very interesting because of the societal and political factors that shape South Korea today, factors which one would think would hinder the popularity of a musical such as Hedwig in such an environment.  Surprisingly, the story of Hedwig has more than thrived in South Korea, with performances in front of a full audience most nights. What has bolstered the popularity of Hedwig in a place where it is more likely such a story would be rejected and criticized?

South Korea, one of the most technologically advanced societies of our world, is still a homogeneous nation that lags in its racial/social tolerance.  Perhaps because of the strongholds of Christianity and tradition, homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgenderism are exceptionally difficult to accept and understand in Korea.  Homosexuality and bisexuality are considered perverse, social taboos with many rejecting the idea that these sexualities even exist in Korean society.  Korea’s first transgender model/singer, Harisu, is still considered by many a controversial icon, nothing short of a freak and a sufferer of “mental illness.”  In Korean society, non-heterosexual preferences could potentially turn one into a social pariah.

And yet the story of a transgender rock-‘n-roller from West Germany has captivated the Korean audience, Hedwig’s trials put at the forefront for all to observe, relate to, and attempt to understand as she reconciles her male-and-female halves.  The success of Hedwig in Korea is an immense curiosity — what makes it appeal to a society where transgenderism is condemned?  What makes the character of Hedwig loved by the Korean people and do they connect with her? (Oddly enough, there is an actual scene in the film where Hedwig jams with Korean Army wives, bringing Hedwig and Koreans together within the script).

Even more interesting is finding a comparison between the political environment constructed around Hedwig to that of the Korean people.  Hedwig and the Angry Inch is in part the story of a divided country, the East-West/Communist-Democratic counterparts of Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  Korea, now the only divided country in the world, still retains its Communist and Democratic halves.  The division of Korea, unlike Germany’s wall and Hedwig’s inner wall, has not yet been reconciled. To what extent does the Korean audience, however, really connect to this aspect of the story? It is difficult to say — it is mainly the younger generation that populates the seats of performances of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and it is the same younger generation that has grown apathetic to the plight of Korea, many of them hostile to the idea of reconciling the South and North together. Still, the story of the divided country haunts Hedwig’s story, as it does the stories of the Korean people, one of the main undercurrents that shapes the search for identity for both Hedwig and her South Korean audience.

Korean Hedwigs lined up for a picture taken by Korea Times

Reportedly, the Korean production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays a series of upbeat encores at the end of the show to counter the gloomy ending, a move that rakes up audience appreciation.  And in 2007 when James Cameron Mitchell himself, in a rare move of performing outside the US, went to Korea to perform Hedwig, not only did ticket sales rocket but Mitchell also donned a Korean traditional hanbok in a gesture to further reach out to his audience.  Not that he really needed to, since, for reasons we may never fully understand, the story of Hedwig and her angry inch has been loved by a people who have difficulties coming to terms with such topics.  But if it takes a work of art to widen the views and mindsets of a group of people, Hedwig is one of the few that truly can, and do so in such a manner that lets us see the human inside the freak.

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