Berlin is speaking Russians’ language

Issue Number: 
Dmitry Bulgakov

BERLIN — On Sept. 8, 1994, the last of Russia’s troops pulled out of East Berlin, ending a nearly 50-year stay after their World War II victory. But the departure didn’t mean an end to the Russian presence here, with the soldiers soon replaced by thousands of fellow Russians who came to settle in the land of their ethnic-German ancestors.

Citizens of the former U.S.S.R. now make up the second-largest non-German group — after the Turks — in Germany’s reborn capital city. Estimates of the number of Russian speakers here vary between 100,000 and 160,000. One reason that it’s hard to count them is that most are ethnic Germans and blend in with their German-born neighbors.

During a recent windy, snowy February week, Russian could be heard throughout the city, on the subways, in museums, in luxury boutiques and in nightclubs. Around Alexander Square and near a memorial to the Soviet Army — which dealt the final blow to Nazi Germany in May 1945 — Russian-speaking families walked about and greeted others in their native tongue.

In fact, in Berlin, once Ground Zero in the Cold War, there are so many signs of Russia that, coupled with the recent snowstorm, many Russians seem to feel right at home.

"We don’t feel ourselves cut off from the Motherland," said Diana Kuzmina, who five years ago moved to Berlin with her husband and children from Ukraine. "There’s no lack of Russian-language culture here.

"Lots of our friends moved westward with us," said Kuzmina, who was strolling around Kulturforum, a Berlin picture gallery, with friends visiting from Russia. "Russian cultural life in Berlin is just as active as back home in Kiev, if not more so."

Kuzmina’s case appeared typical of the recent arrivals. Her family has German roots, a fact that allowed her to immigrate and gain citizenship through a program run by Germany’s federal government. In the past decade, about 2 million ethnic Germans have left Russia and resettled in the land of their ancestors.

Larisa Veksler, a golden-haired veteran journalist at the Russian-language newspaper Russkij Berlin (Russian Berlin), said that ethnic Germans make up the largest portion of the Russian-speaking population. Despite some problems, she said, they have a relatively easy time integrating into society at large.

The second largest group of Russian-speakers is the Jewish community. In the late 1980s, Germany allowed Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union. Immigrants were awarded refugees status and were able to acquire citizenship after seven years.

Most of the Russian-speaking immigrants have taken up the German language and have tried to assimilate, although many say there is some discrimination. Some native Germans still refer to them as "the Russians" and express resentment — especially in the east, where unemployment remains high. However, many point out that the immigrants have not suffered from the right-wing or neo-Nazi abuse experienced by some other groups. "If they see that you are working, they regard you with respect," said Marina Kritchevsky, who moved to Germany from St. Petersburg 11 years ago.

Members of the Russian-speaking community keep in touch with their roots through several domestically published newspapers, and various radio programs and cultural events.

At the forefront of Russian life is Russki Berlin which, with sister newspapers Russkaya Germaniya (Russian Germany) and Rheinland, have a combined circulation of 60,000-70,000.

Dmitry Feldmann, head of publishing house ReLine GmbH, which publishes Russki Berlin, said his newspaper tries to examine issues related to the Russian community in Germany.

"Traditionally, German society is conservative about the political rights of national minorities," said Feldmann from his office, about 500 meters from where the Wall once stood. "Only after several decades of Turkish presence was the first ethnic Turk elected to the Bundestag [the parliament]. We are trying to do something about this in our community."

Advertisements in Russkij Berlin target the Russian-speaking audience, promoting services that provide cheap calls eastward, tourism agencies offering visas and tickets, and a TV guide for Russian channels available via satellite. There are also ads for many of the estimated 55 shops started up by Russian speakers and specializing in Russian-oriented products.

Feldmann added that it has become quite common for Russian immigrants to start their own businesses because at this time, German companies are reluctant to hire new people, let alone Russian immigrants.

"In Germany, it’s much easier to start up your own business than to get a suitable job at a German firm," said Feldmann. "So, among immigrants, the percentage of those who launch their own small enterprises is quite high. For instance, Russians own up to 75 percent of all Berlin gambling halls, the ‘Spielhalle.’"

Anna Mozhayeva, who also works as a social worker at Dialog, a Russian cultural center — and has been in Berlin six years — agreed there are many successful Russian businessmen here but added that it’s still difficult for many to get started because of the high amount of capital needed to begin a venture in Germany.

And Nina Belitz, a former radio journalist who moved from Russia to Berlin a quarter-century ago after marrying a German, said unemployment remains high among the Russian diaspora. "Newcomers need either to change their profession or somehow receive credit for their Soviet-era diploma, which is quite a complicated task," said Belitz, who also works as a social worker at the cultural center.

However, most said the situation has not led to many social problems, basically because of the financial support that newcomers receive from the German government.

Kuzmina said her family receives state help for rent, telephone bills, medical insurance and clothes. Additional payments can put up to $600 a month into the pockets of recent arrivals.

As for the jobs that Russian speakers fill, experts said that computer programming tops the list. Medical personnel also have a relatively good chance of finding employment, but former teachers, librarians, journalists and others in humanities fields have had major difficulties.

Many say that the high concentration of Russians in Berlin can, in itself, be a disadvantage, as it discourages members of the community from mixing with general German society.

"I lived in Duesseldorf, and Russians integrate much easier there," said Kritchevsky, the former Petersburg resident. "In Duesseldorf, there’s a much smaller Russian-speaking minority, so you have to mix with the German population."

"I don’t have any communication problems, because I can speak and write in both languages," she added. "But, here in Berlin, I don’t have even one German friend, and I don’t feel myself to be German. Mainly, my friends are Russians and foreigners. Maybe my child will be more German than I am."

For many, maintaining their Russian culture while trying to explore their German heritage is a delicate balance. Kuzmina, from Kiev, said she and her husband insist that their children speak Russian at home, and have found a Russian language and literature tutor.

Apart from the emigrants themselves, there are many signs of a Russian presence here in the heart of Europe. The central Alexander Square, Alexanderplatz, was named in 1805 after a visit to Berlin by Tsar Alexander I. On Unter den Linden boulevard stands the Russian Embassy, a symbol of stately Stalinist architecture. The soil around the embassy was actually imported during the 19th century from Russia to help make the ambassador and guests feel at home.

Just a few kilometers away, an enormous monument to Soviet soldiers in the Treptower Park honors those who gave their lives in the fight against Nazism. Ironically, on a recent Sunday morning, a lone, shivering German stood next to the monument. Helmut Tomschi said he was collecting signatures on a petition for the "freedom of the Chechen people." He said he had gotten about 30 signatures that weekend.

‘How’s Putin?’

Nearby, two Russian-speaking families walked around the monument. They said the Treptower Park was a regular strolling place for them, and added that they were ethnic Germans who had moved here several years ago. But they hadn’t turned their backs completely on their homeland. "What’s happening back home? Is it colder in Moscow? How’s Putin?" they asked a visiting Moscow journalist.

But the real center of Russian cultural life in Berlin is the grand, seven-story Russisches Haus (Russian House) in the center of Berlin, occupying 29,000 sq. meters of space. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the building became the property of the Russian government.

Russian house Financing, staff are ‘small’

Sergei Zhuravlev, head of the Russisches Haus’ Cultural Department, said that one of the organization’s major tasks is to introduce Russian life to Germans. About half of the center’s 100,000 visitors last year were people from the former U.S.S.R. who came to see Russian concerts, watch films and talk with each other.

"Our staff is pretty small, about eight times smaller than in Soviet times," said Zhuravlev. "Financing from Moscow is quite small, but we can still afford many events and host many festivals and exhibitions."

Several visitors to the center agreed that the Russisches Haus played an important role in keeping the community informed and tied together. On the third floor, for instance, a group of people in their 60s and 70s was gathered around a television set showing programs from Russia’s ORT television.

At the Russisches Haus and elsewhere, through informal talks with both native Germans and former Soviet citizens, one gets the impression that the presence of a Russian community in Berlin is no longer the emotional issue it was in the past.

The Russian troops who occupied the eastern part — and the Western allies stationed in the western half — are gone from the capital. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent reunification of the country, the Cold War is no longer on the minds of the city’s residents. Russian speakers now appear intent on occupying their place in the German business and cultural community.

‘Among immigrants, the percentage of those who launch their own small enterprises is quite high.’ - Dmitry Feldmann / Publisher, ReLine GmbH

‘Financing from Moscow is quite small, but we can still afford many events and host many festivals and exhibitions.’ - Sergei Zhuravlev / Russisches Haus