In the 1960s and early 1970s, Heinrich Böll ranked among the most controversial authors of the German-speaking area. The social criticism he constantly voiced in both, his fiction and everyday life, as well as his controversy with the German yellow press newspaper “Bild” in the context of its populist coverage on the Red Army Faction, triggered an unpleasant smear campaign against the nonconformist. Later, he made headlines when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, and in 1979, together with Günter Grass, refused the German Federal Cross of Merit for political reasons.
However, far lesser known among the German public is Böll’s longstanding engagement for and friendship with literary “dissidents” in the USSR – ties that weren’t limited to the Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg) intelligentsia but stretched as far as the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in the South Caucasus. In 1962, during a meeting of writers in Moscow, Heinrich Böll made acquaintance with Lev Kopelev, a Russian author, Germanist, dissident and human rights activist. The friendship of these two socially critical intellectuals, which has been documented in the form of letters, would last over two decades until Böll’s death in 1985.
It were Lev Kopelev and his wife Raissa Orlova who invited Heinrich Böll to the Georgian capital Tbilisi, one of their favorite travel destinations, and introduced Böll to important Georgian intellectuals such as the Germanists Nelly Amashukeli, Nodar Kakabadze and Rezo Karalashvili. Twice – in 1966 and in 1972 – Böll embarked on the long journey to the South Caucasus and both times he returned strongly impressed and inspired.
In autumn 1966, accompanied by his sons Reimund and René, Böll travelled via Moscow to then Leningrad to visit Soviet friends and shoot a documentary called “Dostoyevsky and Petersburg”, as part of the German television series “The Poet and his City”.
After Leningrad, the voyage through the USSR continued to the capital of Georgia, where the Bölls arrived on October 20 and were to spend busy, happy days. Among others, they visited the Georgian Museum of Art in Tbilisi, went to see the writers’ cemetery in Mtasminda and were invited to Mzcheta, were they visited the Monastery of the Cross and partook in an abundant Georgian “supra” – a banquet that was to be remembered for many years to come by Böll’s Georgian friends.
One of the highlights of the 1966 visit was Böll’s encounter with students at Tbilisi State University. The writer discussed a number of topics with them, including Socialist realism, German literature and several international literary schools, as well as the projects Böll was currently working on. When asked by a student, in what literary tradition he saw himself, Böll referred among others to Salinger and Fellini and identified himself with their efforts to save the human spirit in the present era of modern technology.
As described in one of the many letters Böll wrote to his Georgian friends after his first visit to the South Caucasus in 1966, upon his return to Germany, he was diagnosed with hepatitis and diabetes and found himself in a state of apathy that lasted for about one and a half years. In the same letter, he wrote about his plans to return to the USSR; assuming that he wouldn’t be able to travel once again all the way to the Caucasus, he asked his Georgian friends to meet him in Moscow, where he went in spring 1970.
However, in February and March 1972, in his capacity as chairman of the international writers’ association “PEN International”, Böll undertook another long journey through the USSR. He arrived to Tbilisi in late February, accompanied by his wife and translator Annemarie. One central event of the second visit was Böll’s meeting with the Georgian “Writers’ Union” as well as with representatives of the mass media.
Humanism - Up Close
During the 1972 visit to Georgia, Reso Karalashvili, who had befriended Böll back in 1966, accompanied the couple on their excursions and meetings and afterwards wrote down his impressions in a newspaper article. Böll, as described by Karalashvili, is a somewhat arresting character - his outer appearance and voice are rugged, he dislikes ties and is far more interested in the details and peculiarities of daily street life and conversations than in tourist sights, gastronomical excesses and official receptions. At the same time, it is Böll’s genuineness, his straightforwardness and disengagement with superficialities that gain him sympathy among his Georgian acquaintances. And, according to Karalashvili, when Böll speaks, the words he utters seem to be carefully selected and reflect humanism, down-to-earthiness and compassion.
When, shortly before boarding his plane back to Europe, Böll was asked, when he would return to Georgia, he answered: “I am going to come. Maybe in one year, maybe in one and a half. Anyway, only when I won’t be chairman of PEN anymore. Then I want to come privately. I can’t stand all of this formal fuss.” This, however, was to be his last trip to the Southern Caucasus - his wish to return didn’t come true.
Between and after his visits, there was a frequent exchange of letters between Heinrich Böll and his Georgian circle of friends. Böll praised Georgian brandy and hospitality and repeatedly sent foreign translations of books and other scarce commodities to Tbilisi. In a lot of Böll’s late correspondence resonates subtle nostalgia for his Caucasian travels. Thus, he ended one of his letters to Lev Kopelev with the following words: “So long, good friend, please give my warm, warm, warm greetings to all friends, especially to those in Georgia.”