Why Is Brezhnev Kissing Honecker on The Berlin Wall?

It’s called “The Kiss” or “The Kiss of Death.” And it is perhaps the most famous image that appears in Berlin’s East Side Gallery–a nearly mile-long mile stretch of the Berlin Wall. What’s left of the Wall, that is.

The Kiss depicts Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev giving the East Germany President Erich Honecker what appears to be a passionate kiss on the lips. At first glance, you might think it’s a complete joke, with no bearing on reality. But the image was based on an actual photograph taken in 1979 in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic–East Germany.

Fraternal kisses among socialist leaders were not unusual, but as the website, Iconic Images, points out, “Both Honecker and Brezhnev were a little more enthusiastic than your average Communist dictator in kissing.” The site goes on to quote a popular joke in which Brezhnev supposedly makes this observation about Honecker: “As a politician, rubbish…but what a good kisser!”

The photograph of the Kiss spread around the world, with the Paris Match magazine featuring it in a dramatic two-page spread. And when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the Soviet artist Dmitri Vrubel decided to paint the iconic image on the east side of the Berlin Wall, along with paintings from other artists who descended upon the city in the heady days following the fall of the Wall. The caption that runs beneath Vrubel’s painting says: “God help me to survive this deadly love affair.”

The Kiss was just one among over 100 paintings to appear on the East Side Gallery in 1990–possibly the longest open-air art gallery in the world. In fact, the East Side Gallery is also the longest remaining stretch of the Wall. When I was in Berlin in 2011, I saw three remnants of the Berlin Wall–one along the famous street, Bernauer Strasse, one near the Holocaust memorial, “The Topography of Terror,” and the third being the East Side Gallery.

The gallery had to be renovated in recent years because the original paintings from 1990 were becoming covered in graffiti and eroding under the elements. About eight artists were unwilling to recreate their 1990 paintings, but fortunately Vrubel was not one of them. He redid his painting, and you can still find it in Berlin.

When my wife and I visited the East Side Gallery, we posed in front of this image–and we kissed, of course. But, alas, I’m sorry to say that I’m not as good a kisser as Brezhnev. Most likely, Honecker would agree.

NOTE–To see more images from the East Side Gallery, check out the Image Gallery on the homepage.

By Doug Peterson

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