As Tinder dates go, things are looking pretty good for Sofia and I. We're drinking beers, we share a love for books and we both get annoyed by the way Americans take up too much space on dance floors. When she offers me a cigarette, I decide to forgo my plan to quit smoking for the week.
Despite this connection, I have absolutely zero chance with her, because our date is the result of an experiment. As far as she knows, my name is Joseph Stalin.
Five Days Earlier
It's amazing what kind of behaviour hot people can get away with on dating apps. But does that rule also apply to one of the better known dictators of the 20th century? I wonder this while examining a match box a friend brought back for me from Georgia, birthplace of the former Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin, a man who reputedly said, "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic."
On one side of the packet, Stalin is pictured as he is in history books: round face, Tom of Finland moustache and slicked-back hair. The other side shows a young, clean-shaven man with jet black hair in a quiff. He could be the synth player from a mid-2000s landfill indie band, but he's not: he's the totalitarian communist as a young, bafflingly handsome, revolutionary.
To find out just how far your looks can take you on Tinder, I register as Josef, 27, on Tinder.
Unfortunately, I'm unable to find a romantic quote from Stalin to spice up my profile; he was way more into chatting about death than affairs of the heart. Instead, I manipulate an excerpt from one of his speeches, changing "Hitlers come and go, but Germany and the German people remain" to "Relationships come and go, but love remains".
Stalin's profile comes together fairly quickly, but finding a date is a little harder. After 15 minutes, I run out of people to swipe right on, and don't get a single match. Does this mean more people than I realised are familiar with the work of Stalin's twilight years? Are the "FCK NZS" and "always anti-fascist" notes I've added to my bio not enough to compensate?
I switch the order of my photos and expand my catchment area, but still have no luck. Next, I grab my card and pay for Tinder Plus. Then I open my profile up to men. With the ability to leave endless "super-likes", and Stalin's newly discovered bisexuality, things are suddenly moving forward. Within the first hour, my phone freezes 15 times. The tiny profile photos begin to dance across the screen and the app proclaims: "It's a match, you and Simon like each other."
I look for the right Karl Marx quote to break the ice. "Hey there, comrade, you've got nothing to lose but your chains!" He responds: "Which chains are you talking about ;)"
I of course mean the chains that capitalist forces have used to shackle the working classes, but realise that isn't a great pick-up line, so go for "you can decide where I'll wear them ;)" instead.
I now have flood of messages in my inbox. My matches can be sorted into three main groups. First: the clueless – those showering me with compliments. Second: those who become increasingly skeptical as we chat; "I didn't realise I was talking to a dictator. I should read people's bios more carefully," says one. Third: a combination of Stalinists and history experts. With these people I can speak freely about Lenin's Testament, using a silence emoji, and chat about the murder of party rival Trotsky, utilising the ice pick emoji.
Very few seem disturbed by the fact that I've assumed the identity of a tyrant – at least, no one tells me they have a problem with it. Alex says, "I wouldn't mind sharing a Gulag with you ;)". Cute.
In the mix is Sofia, who I bestowed one of my precious super likes. The 30-year-old wants to "exchange thoughts before bodily fluids", according to her profile. She starts the conversation in Russian, asking, "You're alive?" and follows up by asking if I've returned to bring communism back. I use Google translator and the Russian I learned in school for my response: "Wherever I am, therein lies communism."
The responses keep pouring in – by Monday, I've reached 100 matches and, on Wednesday evening, I hit the 200 mark. Meanwhile, I'm writing back in Russian, English and German, to lawyers, students and tattoo artists. I'm completely neglecting my conversation with Sofia by this point; she sends me a message saying that I'm not very talkative.
I'm looking for something to say about how the Soviet Union cannot industrialise on its own. I explain my lack of communication by stating that the highly paranoid Stalin can trust no one and must do everything for himself. Sofia ensures me that she's not a spy and that I can trust her. She's set me up, so I've decided to swing for it: "To judge that accurately, I would have to look you in the eye."
I suggest that we meet in the former Soviet sector of east Berlin. Sofia agrees. I tell her I'll be wearing a vintage East German football jacket, as it's the most suitable thing I can find in my wardrobe.
Before our date, I'm really not sure if she's going to show up. "Are you there yet?" she messages me at 8PM. I'm sure she's only messaged because she's wondering if I'm standing alone in the rain like an idiot. Maybe she's just looking for revenge – messing around with the person behind a fake account, fronting as a tyrant responsible for the deaths of countless people. This is, after all, a fairly macabre joke.
But then I see her making her way towards me. "Sofia," she introduces herself bluntly. "I'm Joseph," I reply with a businesslike handshake. "Oh, Joseph is actually your real name?" she asks, taking the last drag from a hand-rolled cigarette and then stomping it out. She is taller than me, with shoulder-length brown hair. Unlike Sofia, I don't look at all like my Tinder profile. And I'm under no illusion that I look anything like the young Stalin. Hidden behind the app, I had the confidence of a dictator, but IRL I'm fairly shy. Sofia seems glad that I'm not a pushy, retired Stasi officer, and I'm relieved that she's not a member of The Association of Victims of Stalinism, using this date as an excuse to attack me. But the evening is far from over. There isn't a free table in Prassnik, the dimly lit bar in Berlin-Mitte where we agreed to meet, so we're forced out into the rain. Before we find somewhere to grab a drink, I ask her: "Why did you agree to go on a date with someone who is pretending to be Joseph Stalin?"
It can't be for lack of options. Sofia is good looking, smart and funny. "I thought it would be funny," she says. It's more interesting than guys who flaunt their six-packs, she says.
Once we've finally found a dry place to sit, Sofia tells me that she's a German teacher, and about what it was like growing up near the German-Polish border. She describes how she left home for Moscow on her own directly after college, without being able to speak a word of Russian, which led to her later deciding to study Slavic studies.
Distracted by the pleasant conversation, I start to forget my role. I slip up and accidentally reveal my real name. "Who's Paul?" Sofia asks.
When she goes to the toilet I check my phone to find over a dozen new notifications. I try, but fail, to resist the urge to go through my matches. Every 30 seconds another man seems to fall in love with Stalin. Emre thinks that he looks "magical". Egon, balding with a grey wizard beard, asks if I want to switch to WhatsApp. He tells me he wants to be the one to set the vibe when we have sex. He's not into my suggestion: to start things off with a brotherly socialist kiss.
In the meantime, Sofia has returned from the toilet. I quickly put my phone away and decide to explain my my base motives to her. I confess that I'm a writer, and I plan to do an article about the Young Stalin experiment. Sofia lets it sink in. She's less than enthused and asks, only half joking, "Are you secretly recording our conversations?" For some reason, she stays, and we imagine where our date could take us if this was all for real. We imagine her bedroom filled with Stalin posters and memorabilia hanging over her bed.
Sofia's students are taking an exam tomorrow so she switches to soft drinks. We watch people on the dance floor for a while before we decide to leave. We say goodbye with a hug and plan to go to the theatre together soon.
The next morning, I thank her for our "very nice date" and ask how the exam went. The same day, the Tinder app lets me know that I've been reported for posting offensive material on my profile. A Russian number begins incessantly calling me, but when I answer there's only white noise at the other end of the line. I think it's time for me to delete my account, but not before one final message: I send Sofia my real phone number. I haven't heard from her since.
This article originally appeared on VICE DE.