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Charlottengrad Revisited: The Cold-Hearted Europeans of Russian Berlin

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BerlinSocietyEU-TOPIA: Time to VoteEU-Topia Berlin

In the early 1920s, Berlin’s Char­lot­ten­burg dis­trict was nick­named 'Char­lot­ten­grad', as it was flooded with Rus­sians who had left in the wake of the rev­o­lu­tion. Today, the Ger­man cap­i­tal is home to be­tween 200,000 and 300,000 Russ­ian-speakers. It is a com­mu­nity of EU cit­i­zens “against all odds”, so it seems. Or would they dis­agree? 

At su­per­mar­ket Rossiya, right next to Char­lot­ten­burg sta­tion, there is no es­caping from the Russ­ian dumplings, wine, vodka and the clas­sic Aly­onka choco­late. It seems a nat­ural place to start my tour of Russ­ian Berlin. The shop also of­fers a small cos­met­ics sec­tion, since “Russ­ian girls only trust make-up prod­ucts made in Rus­sia”, or so I am told. The ven­dors all wear the same red t-shirt, which proudly reads Rus­sia, in blue and white Cyril­lic let­ters.

Rossiya-fash­ion aside, it is more ap­pro­pri­ate to speak of the Russ­ian-speak­ing com­mu­nity in Berlin, as its mem­bers hail from dif­fer­ent areas and be­long to dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups. “In fact, there are three groups,” Ste­fan Melle tells me, when I meet him in his of­fice at the Ger­man-Russ­ian ex­change or­gan­i­sa­tion. “There are the so-called ac­ci­den­tal refugees, Jews who came from the for­mer So­viet Union under an ad­min­is­tra­tive ac­cord with Ger­many. But the ma­jor­ity of the com­mu­nity is ac­tu­ally of Ger­man de­scent. The third group is more di­ver­si­fied, all from dif­fer­ent for­mer So­viet re­publics.”

Russ­ian Berlin

Ste­fan’s or­gan­i­sa­tion used to help the mi­grants in­te­grat­e in Ger­many, es­pe­cially dur­ing the 1990s. But today, there are fewer new­com­ers. “Many are sec­ond or third gen­er­a­tion mi­grants. They run their own busi­ness, send their chil­dren to bilin­gual schools, they are very well in­te­grated.”

Yet, the 1920s con­cept of Russ­ian Berlin still holds true for the older gen­er­a­tions, who live an au­then­tic Russ­ian life in the Ger­man cap­i­tal. “Some peo­ple here never learnt any Ger­man,” says David, a young Ger­man of Russ­ian de­scent, who lives in Berlin with his Russ­ian wife. “I’m guess­ing their world­view cor­re­sponds to the gen­eral Russ­ian per­spec­tive. After all, they are mostly fol­low­ing the news through Russ­ian media.”

There­fore, it seems un­likely that these Berlin­ers feel any sense of be­long­ing to­wards the Eu­ro­pean Union of which they are part. In­deed, “they re­late much more to na­tion-states, not to transna­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions,” Ste­fan tells me. “It is Ger­many that is pos­i­tively iden­ti­fied with wel­fare and sta­bil­ity, rather than the EU.” David seems to agree: “But the re­la­tions be­tween the EU and Rus­sia, par­tic­u­larly with the events in Ukraine, are being dis­cussed all the more.”

Trou­bled Eu­rope

The word is out. In­evitably, the Ukrain­ian cri­sis looms large over my visit to Russ­ian-speak­ing Berlin. Yet, ac­cord­ing to Ste­fan, the real turn­ing point in the per­cep­tion of the EU oc­curred in 2008. “For many, the cri­sis meant the end of the EU as a guar­an­tor of wel­fare. The EU seemed weak, un­able to get a grip on its econ­omy. 2008 was also the year of the con­flict in Geor­gia, where the EU was per­ceived to have made a wrong and over­hasty read­ing of the sit­u­a­tion.”

This over­whelm­ingly neg­a­tive per­cep­tion of the EU has not changed much since, quite on the con­trary. My im­pres­sion is con­firmed when David in­tro­duces me to Fa­ther An­drej, the cor­pu­lent, heavy-bearded and slightly in­tim­i­dat­ing priest of one of the Russ­ian Or­tho­dox churches in Char­lot­ten­burg. Fa­ther An­drej seems widely re­spected in the com­mu­nity: while we make our way to his of­fice, he is rev­er­en­tially greeted by the vis­i­tors of the parish, many of whom drop their chil­dren off for the Sat­ur­day re­li­gious and lan­guage classes.

When I ask him about his views on Eu­ro­pean in­te­gra­tion, the priest is cat­e­gor­i­cal: “The EU is a fail­ure. Here, in the parish, we do dis­cuss Eu­ro­pean pol­i­tics. We all won­der when the EU will crum­ble and fall apart. Who be­lieves in this Eu­ro­pean pro­ject any­way? A pro­ject of peace? Oh, come on. What about the trou­bles in North­ern Ire­land? Or the an­i­mos­ity be­tween Ger­mans and Greeks today?”

War of Pro­pa­ganda

While blam­ing the EU for being docile and gut­less, un­crit­i­cally kow­tow­ing to the US on the Ukrain­ian issue, Fa­ther An­drej is slightly milder to­wards his coun­try of res­i­dence: “We feel a re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards the Ger­man state, of which many of us are cit­i­zens. But def­i­nitely not to­wards the EU.”

Many in the com­mu­nity point to the per­ni­cious ef­fects of the media, held re­spon­si­ble for a widen­ing gap be­tween Rus­sia and the EU. While Fa­ther An­drej ve­he­mently warns of a 'pro­pa­ganda war', re­sort­ing to vague ex­am­ples of what he sees as US-paid cov­er­age of the 2008 Geor­gian War, David is more pru­dent. “But it is true that if you look at the West­ern cov­er­age of the Ukrain­ian cri­sis, you see stereo­types rem­i­nis­cent of the Cold War pop­ping up,” he ar­gues.

“Think about the image of Volker Beck (Ger­man politi­cian — Ed.) being beaten up by ag­gres­sive, ho­mo­pho­bic and hos­tile Rus­sians. This is the image being con­veyed, there is no counter-dis­course. While Rus­sia feels proud to be a Eu­ro­pean na­tion, peo­ple here tend to look at Rus­sia as some far-away east­ern, even Asian coun­try. I think we are in need of more bridg­ing fig­ures.”

Wait­ing for Merkel

Is it up to Ger­many to ful­fill such role? After all, the coun­try has a his­toric legacy of bridg­ing the gap be­tween East and West, and is cur­rently gov­erned by a chan­cel­lor who speaks flu­ent Russ­ian, while her Russ­ian peer keeps close ties to the coun­try where he was sta­tioned for five years. “Ger­many is a key player, but they are mak­ing big mis­takes in han­dling the Ukrain­ian con­flict. Merkel is re­spected, both in Rus­sia as in the Russ­ian-speak­ing com­mu­nity here. She is try­ing her best, but she’s sim­ply not step­ping up to the Amer­i­cans,” snorts Fa­ther An­drej.

David is less crit­i­cal to­wards his home coun­try. Yet, he is con­vinced that Ger­many should do much more to im­prove the frag­ile EU-Rus­sia re­la­tion­ship. “When I see all the po­ten­tial that Ger­many has, and I see how un­der­ex­ploited the op­por­tu­ni­ties are, I can get re­ally angry. Ger­many needs to step in as a me­di­a­tor and en­gage with Rus­sia. Oth­er­wise move­ments such as Front Na­tional or Job­bik will do it, but not in a way that is good for Eu­rope.”

For more in­for­ma­tion about the Ger­man-Russ­ian Ex­change or­gan­i­sa­tion or Deutsch-Rus­sis­cher Aus­tausch, visit their web­site.

This ar­ti­cle is part of a spe­cial se­ries de­voted to Berlin. It's part of eu-topia: time to vote, a pro­ject run by cafébabel in part­ner­ship with the hip­pocrène foun­da­tion, the eu­ro­pean com­mis­sion, the min­istry of for­eign af­fairs and the evens foun­da­tion.