The Curious Case of a Delusional Codependency
Or: The Origins and Nature of Germany’s “Special Relationship” with Russia
Оповідь українською, Рассказ на русском
Story by Sergej Sumlenny
Illustrated by Oleh Smal
“Deep in the south of Russia, in the heart of Siberia, the deepest lake on Earth — Lake Baikal — lies dormant this time of year.”
These words introduced viewers to the film “Winter Trip to Lake Baikal” on Germany’s most popular TV channel, the public broadcasting station ZDF. It’s Christmas 2021 and the documentary fits perfectly with the traditional Christmas stories aired on German television. The cinematography is excellent, as always, but the film is full of clichés reminiscent of the kingdoms in the fairy tales which will be shown after the film on this holiday. There are long sweeping panoramic scenes. The train is tiny compared to the vast expanse of the icy lake and snowy mountains. It chugs along the shore, its blue cars gliding under the endless azure sky creating a sharp contrast with the white snow. “The lake is frozen for six months of the year. The ice cover is so thick cars can drive on it from November to May,” the narrator continues. The camera amplifies his words with dramatic images, cutting to a Russian man in a fur hat and then to an old jalopy, revealing minor details of a poor but honest life lived close to nature. You can hear the sounds of an ancient truck engine trying to start: once, twice, and on the third attempt — the engine finally turns over.
The images change, staying within the confines of the sterile, castrated narrative. Snow, ordinary people saying pedestrian things, powerful primordial nature with the mise en scène of vast expanses, exotic cold. Simple people who live somewhere out there, so far away and so differently it’s almost like watching mysterious caged birds in a zoo. This Russia, of course, cannot be compared to anything else. It is unique, peaceful, original, melodic, beautiful. One can only dream of someday traveling on this train, to meet these people, and marvel at the cold while buying their souvenirs, and with the help of countless photos taken to remind you of this trip for the rest of your life.
Melancholy oozes from the screen like honey from a beehive. Viewers can’t help but fantasize about this once-in-a-lifetime trip. Maybe someday…
But by the time this show aired in Germany, on December 25, 2021, Russia had already deployed tens of thousands of soldiers to its border with Ukraine and was preparing to launch the bloodiest war in Europe since World War II. Neither the German public nor the German political establishment was ready to respond to this threat, let alone believe it.
Germany’s relationship with Russia is the key issue for European and global security. Too often, Germany’s foreign policy decisions are made based on a “special stance” towards Moscow. There are plenty of examples. In 2016, at the peak of the Russian occupation of Ukraine (not counting the full-scale aggression in 2022), German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Yekaterinburg to give a speech at the Ural Federal University. Just a year earlier, when he was still the German foreign minister, he visited Ukraine, and for the first (and only) time traveled to the east, where he saw the destruction caused by the Russian army. Steinmeier knew what the regions destroyed by Russia looked like. But in 2016, now Germany’s head of state, he spoke with the Russians as if they were close friends: “His Excellency Foreign Minister, my dear Sergey,” he said, opening his speech, addressing Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov who had supported Russia’s aggression, and offered Lavrov a full range of cooperation.
In his speech, Steinmeier mentioned all the personal and economic ties with Russia, repeating the words “dialogue” and “understanding.”
“…We must approach each other and make use of the channels we have, such as the ‘Petersburg dialogue’ or the summer school that is about to start here… We need to find common ground and we need to work together! This applies as much to the big issues — war and peace, Ukraine and Syria — as it does to relations between the people in our two countries… Please remain curious about each other’s country and work towards a good future in German-Russian relations. That is what I ask of you.”
The German president, who is the spokesman for the fundamental values of German democracy, and former foreign minister, who should have known Russia’s role in the world better than anyone, seriously suggested working together with Russia. Working together in Syria, where for years Russian aviation had been annihilating the population, deliberately attacking hospitals, schools, and civilian infrastructure. And working together in Ukraine, where Russia had occupied a large part of Ukraine’s territory, kidnapping and torturing the population.
That same Steinmeier, in a February 2021 interview in the newspaper Rheinische Post, defended the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, saying Germany owed Russia (yes, Russia!) for German crimes committed during World War II, and should compensate Russia for its losses, namely through the construction of the gas pipeline to transport Russian gas. Steinmeier simply ignored the fact other countries who had suffered from the Nazis no less, and even more, than Russia — Poland and Ukraine for example — were against Nord Stream 2. Again, there’s no way he could have pled ignorance. Shortly before the interview, he had visited Babyn Yar, the site on the outskirts of Kyiv where over the course of two days in late September 1941 the Nazis shot dead some 30,000 Ukrainian Jews. This was the largest mass murder of Jews in the Holocaust, occurring in one place over 48 hours. This was a Holocaust before the formal Holocaust with gas chambers; a massacre of Jews even before the Wannsee Conference and the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” But neither Babyn Yar, nor the Warsaw Ghetto, nor the Koriukivka massacre (when some 6,700 Ukrainian civilians were killed in the largest destruction of a settlement during the Nazi terror), nor the quashing of the Warsaw Uprising prevented Steinmeier from ignoring Germany’s guilt towards its neighbors — Ukrainians and Poles — and singling out Moscow as the only partner to whom Germany has any obligations.
An erroneous interpretation may have led to the accusation of the German president denying the Holocaust, when in fact it was something else — a maniacal fascination with Russia. This stance towards Russia is often associated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), whose members include Frank-Walter Steinmeier, its infamous former party leader and patron Gerhard Schröder, as well as many other adherents of “special relations” with Moscow. But that would be a mistake. The unhealthy singling out of Russia in foreign policy and the prioritization of Moscow’s interests is typical of all German political parties. It’s more a national position than a simple political party platform.
For example, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, a member of The Greens, the party most critical of Russia, visited Kyiv shortly before the full-scale invasion. When speaking about the potential of providing weapons to Ukraine on the backdrop of the threat of a Russian invasion, Baerbock stressed they will not provide weapons because Germany “bears a special responsibility.” She meant Germany’s responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis. In the German foreign minister’s political and historical point of view, this responsibility extended exclusively to Russia, making it impossible to imagine German weapons could be given to Ukraine, because in Ukrainian hands they could be aimed at Russians. The German minister refused to accept the fact the Nazis had killed 16 percent of the population on the territory of Ukraine, destroyed hundreds of cities, and deported millions of civilians to serve as forced laborers (and therefore should bear responsibility today, when a new Russian nationalist, chauvinist ideology threatens the existence of Ukrainians as a nation). She denied support to the descendants of those whom the Nazis killed in WWII.
Of course, with time, particularly after the crimes committed by the Russians in Bucha and Irpin became known, this attitude changed. In May 2022, Annalena Baerbock visited Bucha, where the Russians had murdered civilians, and tortured and raped Ukrainian women. During her visit, the German foreign minister appeared shocked and firmly called for supplying weapons to Ukraine. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz started saying Russia is waging a war to destroy Ukraine. Other politicians, such as Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the Defense Committee in the Bundestag, insisted Ukraine be given nearly all available weapons as quickly as possible. The majority of the population, except for supporters of the radical right-wing party Alternative for Germany and neo-communist Left Party, demanded Ukraine be given weapons.
In the summer of 2022, Germany delivered the first powerful Panzerhaubitze 2000 howitzers to Ukraine. Soon after, the German IRIS-T high-tech air-defense missile system began protecting the skies over Kyiv. In January 2023 the German government gave in to pressure from neighboring countries and allowed the export of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. According to a May 2022 poll conducted by the Munich Security Conference, 81 percent of Germans now consider Russia a threat. According to the poll, Germans consider Moscow a greater threat than climate change and a future global pandemic. But all these changes came very late. Moreover, the Germans’ attitude towards Russia changed so suddenly in 2022 they’re likely to revert back to long-standing traditions once Putin’s regime, which the war against Ukraine is associated with, disappears and a new regime — more beautiful and sophisticated, but similarly imperialist — takes its place.
Nevertheless, the moral blindness of the Germans at the outbreak of the war was shocking. On January 25, 2022, the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine sent an open letter to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reminding him Ukraine faces the threat of annihilation, and the history of the 20th century teaches us not to appease the aggressor, urging Germany not to block the supply of NATO weapons to Ukraine. The fact Ukrainian Jews, a community almost completely wiped out by the Nazis during the Holocaust, urged the German chancellor not to obstruct them being saved from further annihilation was frightening for its inherent fear. It was hard to imagine such a letter could get no response. But not only did Chancellor Scholz not respond, he went to Moscow to negotiate a compromise with Putin. His love for Russia outweighed any sense of historical responsibility.
The Elixir of Catherine
You will often hear Russia being treated as an extremely important partner and German hypersensitivity to Russia’s interests are a result of World War II and the German people’s sense of guilt for Nazi crimes committed on the territory of the Soviet Union. This is generally true. In his lectures, which are helpful in understanding the European context, historian Timothy Snyder points out Germany ignores its responsibility to Ukraine and other countries of Central and Eastern Europe in favor of Russia. But this mystical fascination with Russia is nothing new: it is far more deeply rooted in the German worldview than in its post-war iteration.
There are several layers to the German fascination with Russia. One is purely material: Russia is a source of revenue and offers chances for social and economic growth absolutely impossible at home. For Germans in the 18th century, Russia became a country of endless opportunities outrivaling those in Europe.
The most famous German story of rapid career growth in Russia remains the rise of Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, who went from being the daughter of a Prussian general and heiress of an old but poor family, to Russian Empress Catherine the Great — the absolute ruler of one of the largest countries in the world. To this day, Germans remain fascinated by this Cinderella story of a princess who was transformed into an empress not by some miracle but by moving to Russia, an exotic country where anything is possible. For a while, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a portrait of Catherine the Great on her desk. Obviously, Merkel, who, like the empress, was also from the territory of East Germany, looked up to the tough Russian ruler who supposedly brought German order to Russia and went down in history as an exemplary absolute monarch.
The German fascination with Russia began during the reign of Catherine the Great. In 1763, the empress invited German colonists to Russia. To understand the context of this invitation, look no further than Friedrich Schiller’s classic play “Intrigue and Love” (1784). In one of the scenes, which takes place at approximately the same time as Catherine’s invitation, the duke sells off young men to serve as mercenaries in the American colonies in order to pay off his own debts. Most Germans were very poor in the second half of the 18th century, and emigration looked like winning the lottery, even if the conditions were tough. It’s important to underscore the tens of thousands of Germans who accepted Catherine the Great’s invitation to go to Russia received almost fairytale-like resettlement conditions. The German colonists were guaranteed not only freedom of religion, but they were also released from military service, given money to start their new lives and awarded swaths of land, exempted from paying taxes for thirty years, and guaranteed local self-government. Such “benefits” are unimaginable, even in today’s free economic zones. But in Catherine the Great’s Russia, they were legendary.
One also has to understand the conditions in which Russian peasants lived at the time. Catherine seized power following a coup and the murder of her husband Peter III. From the perspective of the Russian aristocracy, Catherine the Great wasn’t a legitimate empress, which is why she started buying the nobility’s loyalty by massively expanding their rights, particularly property rights over serfs. During her reign, serfs in the Russian Empire lost all their rights and became true slaves. The aristocrats could torture and kill serfs, rape women and children, and split up families (a husband, wife, and children could be sold to different owners in different regions of the country) with impunity. Therefore, compared with the status of Russian peasants, the lives of resettled German peasants seemed a dream come true.
Considerable differences between the Germans and the Russians could be seen in other segments of society as well. German architects were allowed to build in Russia what they couldn’t back home, using disenfranchised serfs for labor. Almost every Russian writer or poet has a description of an ethnic German who cruelly oversees a strategic construction project or some other state or private enterprise. “It’s over — the German is already laying the rails. The dead are buried in the ground; the sick hidden in trenches.” This is how Russian poet Nikolai Nekrasov described the construction of the first Russian railway between Moscow and St. Petersburg in his poem “Railway” (1865). In another poem —“Who Lives Well in Russia” (1866) — he described a German estate supervisor, the aristocrat Vogel. A fictional but quite realistic character of the time, Vogel embodies all the negative traits of a German manager in Russia. He is exceedingly cruel, giving his subordinates harder and harder tasks. “The German has a deadly grip: he will suck until he leaves you a beggar,” is what Russian peasants said about his management style. German supervisors of construction projects or aristocratic estates basically served as overseers of slaves, and were hired precisely for their cruelty and lack of emotional ties with their subordinates. This gave the Germans three privileges at once: they were paid lots of money, received emotional satisfaction and felt superior, and could implement projects which could not be realized back home.
The situation with the nobility was similar. The privileged German nobility — mainly from the Baltic Sea region — held a firm grip on power. According to Tomáš Masaryk’s book Russia and Europe (1913), at the start of the 19th century, Germans were a disproportionately dominant group in the top political and military leadership of Russia. The Ministry of Internal Affairs was 27 percent German, the military command — 41 percent, the Senate — 33 percent, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — 57 percent, and the postal service — 62 percent German. Legend has it when Emperor Alexander I asked General Yermolov, whom he greatly admired, which award he wanted, the latter replied: “Make me a German,” alluding to the privileged position of the Germans in the empire.
Of course, this idyll was not infinite. The German diaspora in the Russian Empire also faced discrimination. The worst manifestation of anti-German sentiment in the empire was the series of pogroms in 1914 and 1915, when Russian mobs ransacked and robbed German businesses first in St. Petersburg and then in Moscow (a second and much larger wave of discrimination occurred in 1941, when Stalin’s Soviet Union deported half a million Germans to Kazakhstan and other countries of Central Asia). They plundered the Emil Zindel Textile Factory, Einem Confectionary Factory, Ferrein Pharmacy, and other German establishments. But despite this, for nearly two centuries the Germans’ attitude towards Russia was mostly optimistically positive.
The reason for this positive attitude is for 150 years, Russia gave the Germans an opportunity to drastically change their lives, and receive the social, financial, and political capital to become the kind of people they were not back home: wealthy and influential members of the ruling class.
It would be naïve to say this attitude disappeared in the 20th century, when the countries fought against each other in two world wars, and then when the Soviet Union walled itself off from the West during the Cold War. But national traditions remain traditions because they have a long history, and reappear at the first opportunity.
In 1964, a boy named Stefan was born to the Dürr family of farmers in Eberbach, in Germany’s Baden–Württemberg region. He was interested in agriculture and enrolled in the agricultural science department of the University of Bayreuth — the Bavarian hometown of Wagner, known for its music festivals showcasing the composer’s works. In 1989, as he proudly writes today on his company’s website, Stefan was one of two West German students to participate in an internship exchange in the USSR at the state-owned collective pig farm named in honor of the “50th Anniversary of the USSR” in Naro-Fominsk, outside Moscow.
Today, it’s hard to image what the collective farm looked like to the Bavarian student in the final years of the USSR, when even official Soviet publications were officially allowed to write about their dirty and poverty-stricken appearance, hopelessly abandoned by the staff. In contrast, it isn’t hard to imagine how the 23-year-old blond-haired Stefan from West Germany was treated not only on the collective farm but also in Moscow, which was just a few kilometers from Naro-Fominsk. He was given the imperial life of an esteemed colonial man among the natives.
Like the tens of thousands of Germans centuries before him, Stefan understood: in the destitute territories of central Russia, he could have what he couldn’t back home — not only money, but respect and power. In 1991 he returns to intern in the USSR, this time at the collective farm named in honor of the “40th Anniversary of the October Revolution” near Kursk. And in 1993 he becomes an advisor to the Russian State Duma on agricultural reform and the German-Russian agrarian policy dialogue.
In Germany as a student, Stefan had stable but not exceptional prospects of working in an industry primarily relying on subsidies. Farmers’ voices aren’t heard because they are scattered among all the countries pursuing their own interests in the EU. Being a successful farmer in Bavaria or Württemberg meant your influence was limited to the region and extended at most to city hall. It’s an honest but provincial life. Russia offered Stefan a whole new caliber of influence.
In 1994, Stefan starts the agricultural company EkoNiva. In 1998 he begins importing Western agricultural machinery and seeds into Russia. In 2002 he establishes subsidiaries in the Russian regions. In 2006 Dürr builds livestock breeding complexes for 1,400 cows, and the following year wins Russian prizes and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. Stefan is visited by governors and even by the president of Russia — to honor a “proper German” who understands the deep connection between Germany and Russia. In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin grants Dürr Russian citizenship. By the way, giving Russian citizenship to German entrepreneurs is a fairly common practice by the Russian government. For example, in 2016, after Russia had already attacked Ukraine, Andrea von Knoop, the long-time president of the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce and member of the German-Russian Forum Board in Berlin, was granted Russian citizenship. Nevertheless, Stefan Dürr is quick to act on the opportunities Russian citizenship offers.
In 2014 Russia attacks Ukraine and it is Stefan Dürr who approaches President Putin with the idea of declaring sanctions against the West and banning the import of agricultural products into Russia. Putin listens to the good German and in 2014 Dürr’s EkoNiva becomes the largest milk producer in Russia.
The thirst for glory or power, money or one’s mystical personal desires — which of these prevailed in the story of the West German student who followed the example of an 18th century settler and was transformed into a courtier? In 2012, the German magazine Der Spiegel published an article about Dürr. “When he enters a kindergarten, it looks like an impromptu state visit. Tea is suddenly served. A guest book is pulled out. The children line up to take a picture with the latifundista (landowner) and give him gifts they made themselves.” In 2017, the Franco-German TV channel Arte produced a documentary about Dürr. In it, Dürr proudly says he built a church in the village where his company’s headquarters is located. “I needed a church. Building a church was my passion,” Dürr says in the film. “The village head wasn’t happy. He said: if you have the money, then build a hospital.” Dürr built a church anyway.
But it would be a mistake to say the German fascination with Russia is based solely on money and careers. Yes, making lots of money and becoming a local quasi-prince and advisor to the president of a nuclear state is a powerful incentive. But something else was needed for financial interest to turn into true love: German mysticism, which was and remains part of the German national worldview. Like the financial and career-based fondness for Russia, this motivation has a long history.
In 1900, one of the best German authors, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote the story “How Treason Came to Russia.” It begins with a conversation between two neighbors. The narrator has just returned from a trip. He meets his neighbor, Ewald, a lame man who looks out his window attentively every day.
“Good morning, Ewald,” I stepped up to his window as I always did in passing. “I was away.”
“Where have you been?” he asked impatiently.
“Oh, so far away,” he leaned back, and continued: “What kind of a country is it, Russia? Very large, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said, “it is large, but besides for that…”
“Did I ask a stupid question?” smiled Ewald, blushing.
“No, Ewald, on the contrary. You’re asking what kind of country it is makes various things clearer for me. For instance, what countries border Russia.”
“On the east?” my friend interrupted.
I paused for a moment to reflect.
“On the north?” inquired the lame man.
“You see,” I had an inspiration, “maps have spoiled people. There, everything is flat and even, and when the four points of the compass are indicated on the map, they think that’s all there is to know. But a country is not a map. It has mountains and valleys. It must border something both above and below.”
“Hm,” my friend considered. “You are right. But what could Russia border on in those two directions?” His facial expression transformed into one of an innocent child.
“You know…” I encouraged him to figure it out.
“Perhaps on God?”
“Yes,” I confirmed, “on God.”
This one moment of enlightenment can be dissected into dozens of layers. As so happens when something is written by a true genius, Rilke wonderfully mirrored Vladimir Putin’s conversation with a schoolboy in front of the TV cameras in November 2016, during an awards ceremony for students by the Russian Geographical Society. Putin asked one of the schoolchildren where Russia’s borders end. “At the Bering Strait, with the USA on the opposite shore,” Miroslav Oskirko began his answer. The Russian dictator interrupted the boy and said, “Russia’s borders don’t end anywhere.”
In Rilke’s story, Russia’s lack of borders turned it into a spiritual empire where the tsar was God’s deputy. Which is why the Russians loved and feared the tsar: all the greatest powers were combined in him. Although the German author was writing about Ivan the Terrible, undoubtedly, he was referring to any leader of Russia. And these views were shared by more than Rilke’s character. The view that in Russia unlimited tyranny is a natural state, one Western observers can only but admire and exoticize, exists to this day. The idea dictator Vladimir Putin is the most natural leader for Russia because the people want a strong ruler, could be heard for years from Germans working with Russia. You would often also hear them make comments about Russia’s absence of borders.
“Russia is our neighbor,” (and this is why you must negotiate with Russia, while ignoring the interests of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe) is a standard phrase used in every German political debate in recent decades. It was spoken by nearly every German politician, including those most critical of the Kremlin (but still in love with Russia). The idea, “Russia is our neighbor” has become so banal it raises the question: where did it come from? Is Russia really a neighbor of Germany? Of course not. Germany’s neighbors to the east are Poland and Czechia, if you don’t count the Kaliningrad Oblast (former East Prussia), which until the 1960s was drawn on German maps as part of West Germany when giving the weather forecast for Königsberg or registering automobile license plates. Poland’s and Czechia’s eastern neighbors are Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Slovakia. And Russia, which has a border with Ukraine, is a third order neighbor. But as Rilke’s character said, don’t look at maps, they’ll only spoil your mystical sense of a “great Russia.”
The perception of a Russia with no borders, slumbering in the snow, wielding unlimited power and resources, possessed of a mysterious spirituality, ready to live without the comforts of modern society in its own unique way, always seeking a true tsar, etc., etc., etc., fascinated and continues to fascinate Germans. Today, it’s difficult to say whether Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev came up with the quote Russia “cannot be understood with the mind alone,” you can “only believe in it” on his own, or whether he, as a Russian diplomat in the Kingdom of Bavaria, heard it from a German. Although there is a third possibility: this phrase could have been part of Tyutchev’s mission from Emperor Nicholas I to create a positive attitude towards Russia in Europe. Whichever of these three versions is correct, the attitude towards Russia being a state and society which cannot be judged by common measures (therefore, they can be forgiven almost everything, because they are unique and incapable of normal behavior) prevails in Germany to this day.
In fact, for decades Germany had been creating its own, singular image of Russia. From the point of view of modern political ethics, it could be interpreted as as a racist view or appropriation (in some ways it is). Germany created images for domestic consumption embodying everything incomprehensible, wild, and fascinating German society admired about an imaginary, fictitious Russia.
This fiction about Russia, and infatuation with it, was present in every iteration of German statehood. There was space for this infatuation even when German chauvinism reached its peak under the Nazis. In 1939–1940 the acclaimed Austrian film director Gustav Ucicky made a film “Der Postmeister” (The Postmaster) based on Alexander Pushkin’s book The Stationmaster (1831). The leading role in the film was played by renown German actor Heinrich George, who also starred in the masterpiece “Metropolis” (1927). The film, where the officers’ fur hats are set against endless snowy fields, and extravagant champagne parties flow into absurd love scenes with incredibly beautiful Russian women, reflected all the clichés about Russia. This love for Russia existed outside Germany as well. In 1940, the film won the Mussolini Cup for best foreign film at the Venice Film Festival. Interesting, Ucicky was directing another film at the same time as he was making his panegyric on Russia: “Homecoming,” a Nazi anti-Polish propaganda film depicting the alleged relentless oppression by the Poles of the German minority in Lutsk. Also interesting is the fact the film’s star, Heinrich George, was arrested in 1945 by the Soviet security services and sent to the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen, then already under the control of the USSR, and was murdered by starvation while imprisoned by the Soviet occupying forces.
The romanticization of Russia in “The Postmaster” was no longer appropriate after the Nazis attacked their former Soviet allies in June 1941, and the film was banned. But a few years later, after the Nazi Reich fell, the love for fur and snow returned to its former state of affairs.
A fat, stocky man with an unruly bushy beard, wearing a tall fur hat shaped like a house, dressed in red velvet garments trimmed with gold and fur, and with garish rings on his fingers, walks onto the stage. It’s the 1960s and the singer is Ivan Rebroff — the face of traditional Russian music, the “golden voice” of Germany, star of numerous albums and performer of Russian-language songs which made German hearts melt. Rebroff was born Hans-Rolf Rippert in Berlin in 1931. He began to perform, including singing Russian songs, and at one point his mentor suggested he sing exclusively in Russian. And thus, the German singer Ivan Rebroff “was born” and went on to make millions. He was an ambassador of Russian culture in Germany until his death in 2008.
Rebroff was just one of many examples of how Russian musical culture was exoticized. Countless “Don Cossack” choirs and other musical performers who are famous only in Germany — not in Russia — support this phenomenon. The image of Russia is, on one hand, that of a country with remarkable opportunities, and, on the other hand, a mystical territory of endless snow, unusual music, golden-domed churches, and frightening, but very attractive, authoritarianism.
Interestingly, the love of Russian authoritarianism and readiness to forgive Russia for any international crimes it commits is often seen in parallel with German anti-Americanism. This is odd, since it was the United States which freed Germany from the totalitarian Nazi regime and did not impose another form of totalitarianism on the Germans, like Moscow did. Cooperation with the US helped the West Germans build up their economy, achieve the highest quality of life in German history, and for the first time in history build a stable German democracy. It was the presence of the US in Europe that protected West Germany from a Soviet invasion and saved West Berlin during the Soviet blockade in 1947–1948. Meanwhile, the Soviet occupation of East Germany brought with it a totalitarian dictatorship, arrests of innocent people, the construction of a closed society, and ultimately led East Germany to economic collapse. Nevertheless, in the minds of many Germans, Russia looks like a reliable partner and important pillar of world democracy, while the United States undermines international stability. According to a survey of Germans in 2019 by the Center for Strategy and Higher Leadership in Cologne, 59 percent of respondents considered the US the biggest threat to world peace. The second biggest threat, according to the Germans, was North Korea, followed by Turkey and Russia. 21 percent of eastern Germans polled considered Russia a threat, compared to 45 percent of western Germans.
What’s the secret behind this anti-Americanism and love of Russia? Certainly, there are many explanations. Some believe the Germans consider the US part of the Western world, and therefore demand more from it than Russia, which by default is perceived as “foreign” and “different.” But it seems the real answer lies elsewhere. On some level, most Germans understand the US will always be the cultural, technological, economic, and military leader in the trans-Atlantic partnership. Germany remains a subordinate, a weaker partner, despite the Germans’ certainty of their cultural and technological superiority.
Meanwhile, in contrast with being the weaker partner to America, a partnership with Russia promises Germany completely different prospects. In an alliance with Moscow, Berlin would play first fiddle on economic and technology issues, leaving military matters and world politics to the Russians. Moreover, by siding with Russia, those German elites who dislike the overly egalitarian nature of the US and Western democracy in general, can finally move to a more anti-egalitarian, hierarchical, racist, misogynistic, and conservative way of life. In this union, you can ignore the interests of Poland and Ukraine, women and minorities, even your own downtrodden social groups, while restoring the traditions of Prussia and other monarchical and conservative (and stuck in the 19th century) German states. Leaping into the arms of Moscow becomes an act of revenge against the US, revenge for building an overly free, open, globalist, and technological society in Germany. Unlike the German dream of a conservative, somewhat backwards and anti-progressive society (a society where doctors prescribe and insurance companies cover homeopathy, where communication with state authorities is done via fax, and which has one of the world’s strictest bans on Google Maps photographing streets), which shuts itself in, and in every discussion — sooner or later — starts scolding the US for having once attacked Iraq.
So, Russian authoritarianism isn’t something scaring off many Germans. It may be the contrary; it may attract more interest towards Russia. But like other factors in German-Russian relations, this phenomenon should also be explored in terms of economics, not just morality. For many years, some of the most active pro-Russian lobbyists were German businesses operating in Russia. Germany’s economic interest in Russia was unusual. In the media and politics, Russia was portrayed as one of Germany’s most important economic partners, a partner who can and must be forgiven any transgressions because of this importance. But Russia’s importance has always been a myth without a foundation in reality.
For example, in 2021 the volume of trade between Germany and Russia was 59.8 billion euro. That same year, the volume of trade between Germany and Poland was 146.8 billion euro, nearly three times more in absolute terms, or 9.3 times more per capita. This fact, however, didn’t make Poland an “important eastern partner and neighbor” the same way the business and political community painted Russia.
What’s more, in 2021 Germany’s total volume of foreign trade with the whole world was 2.579 trillion euro (1.2 trillion in imports and 1.3 trillion in exports). Thus, Russia accounted for only 2.3 percent of German foreign trade. This figure, of course, is more than what could be seen as within the statistical margin of error, but it’s not something extraordinary. For example, in terms of German exports, Russia as a buyer country ranks 14th, between Hungary and Sweden. When it comes to countries selling goods to Germany, Russia was in 12th place, after Spain and before the United Kingdom.
Obviously, the image of Russia as an extremely important partner has been based on something more than economic statistics. Of course, much of Russia’s economic influence is rooted in Germany’s dependence on Russian gas. During the construction of the first (still Soviet) gas pipelines to Germany, the West German political elites adopted an unofficial rule: Germany’s dependence on a single gas supplier cannot exceed 20 percent of the country’s overall gas needs. After former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder went to work in the Russian energy sector and under Chancellor Angela Merkel, this dependence jumped to more than 40 percent. Russian gas wasn’t only used for energy: many chemical companies depended on Russian raw materials. Given the structure of German exports is similar to newly industrialized countries (the export of goods far exceeds the export of services), it’s hard to overestimate the importance of cheap raw materials. Thanks to the titanic efforts of “Green” economy minister Robert Habeck, Germany managed to give up Russian gas in the second half of 2022. But for fifty years, German industry lived and thrived under circumstances where gas contracts with Russia were the norm.
Additionally, the Russian market, although not vital for the economy overall, is key for certain companies and industries. For example, at the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2014, Russia was the fifth largest market for German machine manufacturers, after China, the US, France, and the United Kingdom. For some companies, mainly from East Germany, Russia is their first and second largest market.
The Russian World of German Privilege
But the main lobbyists for special relations with Russia aren’t even companies — they’re the German managers working in Russia. For years, the German community in Moscow willfully turned itself into a powerful pro-Russian lobby. And we’re not even talking about businessmen like Stefan Dürr. At the start of the war in 2014, some 6,000 German companies were working in Russia (and almost none of them left after the annexation of Crimea). Most of these companies had German management, at least on the level of the general director of the rep office. What does a move to Moscow mean for the manager of a medium-sized German company? The same thing it meant in the 18th century for a poor German craftsman or an impoverished aristocrat who moved to St. Petersburg: a significant increase in social capital and living standards.
No relocation within the EU would offer a German manager such an increase in influence and income as a move to Moscow. First of all, the salary in Russia was typically higher, to compensate for the distance from home, climate, and other difficult working conditions. Secondly, thanks to the Russian-German agreement on the avoidance of double taxation, they only paid a 13 percent income tax on this salary. And to be more attractive to Western expats, Russia allowed Western managers to get special work visas which didn’t require them to pay any social security payments from their salary other than this minimal tax. Compared with German taxes and social security contributions, this looked like a ticket to a neoliberal paradise.
There were other bonuses to working in Moscow. Managers who did not have a company car at home often got one in Moscow, if for no other reason than the legendary Moscow traffic jams. For security reasons and to boost the company’s image, they lived in fancy apartments in the city center, often nicer than their homes in Germany. Their lifestyle was more like one of a colonial officer than a German manager in Dusseldorf or Hamburg. Inappropriate treatment of subordinate local staff, especially women, which would have had very negative consequences back home, was tolerated in Moscow. Respect for the labor code or (practically non-existent) anti-discrimination legislation depended mostly on the good graces of the managers. Subordinates could be fired at will and forced to work overtime without compensation, and, of course, women could be harassed and sexualized, justifying this as “a Russian tradition” the German management supposedly respects and follows to a tee.
Working in Russia also allowed you to enjoy other, usually forbidden, aspects of life. For example, Matthias Schepp, who for many years was the Moscow bureau chief for Der Spiegel magazine, wrote in his 2009 book Instruction for Moscow how his kids once demanded in Germany he “drive the way he did in Moscow,” and couldn’t understand when their dad didn’t do so. After working as a journalist for many years, Schepp, who already had a Russian wife and owned a home in Russia, became chairman of the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce in 2016.
Every aspect of the daily work of a German manager in Russia smacked of seduction. In Germany, the construction of large infrastructure projects required many years of negotiations and compromises with local authorities, environmental and cultural associations, and even private homeowners. But in Russia, large projects could be started on the basis of a political decision. And not just projects like the Olympic Village in Sochi, where hundreds of homes were razed, and local residents were forcibly resettled to make way for hotels and other buildings constructed using German suppliers. Any German company making the decision to “localize” production (i.e., move production to Russia), was given a green light from political sponsors. A German plant could get land without a problem, and, if the decision was made on the level of the president or Cabinet of Ministers, they knew the local authorities would not risk arguing with a politically backed project. Nowhere in Europe could a manager enjoy the luxury of driving history, conquering nature, and building mega-projects — only in Russia. For German managers, this was one of only a few opportunities to take on the role of a colonial officer building a railroad somewhere in the German colony of Namibia in the 19th century: ignoring the locals, laying new routes, conquering nature.
In general, Moscow offered an opportunity to enjoy life without worrying too much about morality or empathy. The quality of service in Moscow for the top strata of customers was very different than in Germany. Almost all managers list the same perks in Moscow: 24-hour luxury goods stores, the ability to order any service at any time, relatively cheap luxury taxis, digitalization of services, including online payments, high interest rates on bank deposits, convenient airports with 24-hour flights (most German airports have night flight bans or restrictions in the interest of residents of nearby cities). It’s hard to say whether the policy of the government-owned airline Aeroflot regarding foreign business customers was approved on the political level, but the fact remains: getting an Aeroflot Bonus Gold Card with frequent upgrades to business class was incomparably easier than with European airlines: take 50 flights in any class and at any price in a calendar year. Moreover, the flight attendants on Aeroflot flights to Europe look like models. Official internal management documents at Aeroflot reveal, women over the age of 40 or with a clothing size over 48 were taken off flights to Europe and reassigned to domestic flights. A German manager with an economy class ticket from Frankfurt to Moscow and a Gold Card had an excellent chance of being upgraded to business class, where he was welcomed with warm nuts and a glass of sparkling wine served by a flight attendant in a tight orange skirt and heavy makeup, crouching in front of him and saying with a smile: “My name is Irina. What is your name?” It was a non-stop ticket to a completely different life.
In some way, European sanctions even played into the hands of those German managers who remained in Russia. It was extremely important for the Kremlin to show “ordinary people” and “ordinary businesses” do not support the restrictions of the West. That’s why Kremlin working groups tasked with attracting German businessmen and managers received maximum attention after the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Never was the topic of a “single trading space from Lisbon to Vladivostok” more popular than after 2015. Small and medium-sized German businesses remaining in Moscow gained an incredible opportunity to regularly attend working breakfasts at the Russian Foreign Ministry and a level of attention from the national authorities they never would have had back home. Russia has always known how to buy people through their vanity. It gave German business the opportunity to feel more influential, more important, and smarter than it really is.
The extent to which this moral poison dulled reality can be seen in a survey of German businesses released in December 2021 by the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce. According to the study, 48 percent of German companies working in Russia believed German-Russian business relations were good or very good. Moreover, 62 percent expected economic growth in 2022. As for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline: 44 percent of businessmen believed it should be put into operation, even without the missing technical permits. Only 22 percent of those surveyed believed safeguards should be put in place to avoid Russia potentially using the gas pipeline to exert political pressure. In other words, German businessmen who were working in Russia, who should have been most cognizant of Russia and its behavior, whose salary depended precisely on being experts in understanding Russia, not only did not foresee Russia would start a European war two months later, but also couldn’t even imagine the country would resort to gas blackmail.
This dependence on toxic Russian resources — not gas, but power, influence, and dirty money — worked in an interesting way in favor of the German authorities. Starting in the mid-2000s, Russian companies, mostly with state or semi-state capital, started hunting for weak German assets. In 2008, the Russian state-owned Sberbank initiated the process of acquiring the German automobile manufacturer Opel. The German company was a wholly owned subsidiary of the American company General Motors, which was hit hard by the global economic crisis. According to GM’s internal policy, Opels were only sold in Europe, and there was only a minimal demand for them. During the global economic crisis, budget car buyers weren’t looking to buy new cars. Opel faced bankruptcy, and the company’s tens of thousands of employees faced losing their jobs.
Russia’s Sberbank had zero experience investing in automobile production, but its CEO Herman Gref — the Kremlin’s man — wanted to enter the German market and increase Sberbank’s presence in the European market after having acquired a Czech bank and rebranded it as Sberbank CZ. Sberbank’s proposal was transparent: the Russians buy a nearly bankrupt German company, introduce the brand to the Russian market, and guarantee jobs. In autumn 2009, Herman Gref visited the Frankfurt Auto Show and sat in a position of honor during the Opel presentation. The Germans obviously considered him the new owner of the German company. But the US government’s unexpected bailout of the American automotive industry put a stop to the purchase: the Russians were forced to go home without Opel. Their desire to gain influence in Rüsselsheim, the city in the state of Hessen where Opel directly employed 20,000 people and tens of thousands more indirectly, and other German cities was not realized. But this didn’t mean the Russians didn’t put their concept into practice in other cities and regions.
In the 2000s, the Russians made a number of investments which strengthened their strategic influence in Germany. Rosneft under the management of Putin’s pal Igor Sechin purchased German oil plants, and German gas storage facilities were acquired by Russia’s Gazprom. These investments were obviously made to have political leverage over Germany. Other Russian investments, however, are far more interesting.
In 2008, in the north German state of Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania, Wadan Yards began having significant financial problems. The company, which made ferries and freight vessels, couldn’t compete with South Korean ship building companies and was headed towards bankruptcy. Founded in 1946 in East Germany, it couldn’t handle global competition: its ships were too expensive, and the financial transactions took too long. Strategically, this meant Wismar — an old Hanseatic city with a population of 40,000 — would lose at least 1,500 jobs and thousands of other jobs relying on the shipyards would be at risk. The city faced a potential economic disaster.
In 2008, the Minister President of Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania Erwin Sellering started a campaign to save Wadan. During a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, he lobbied the Russians to purchase the shipyards. He didn’t have to wait long. In June 2009, the nearly bankrupt shipyards were bought by the young, 30-year-old, investor Vitaly Yusufov — the millionaire son of former Russian energy minister and Gazprom board member Igor Yusufov, who was close to then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The leadership of the German state was happy to rescue the company, and the Russian investors were happy to get a good deal on a key enterprise in an important city in the region, making them key players in German regional politics.
To reinforce their success, the Russians made another investment: in Wismar, another company close to Dmitry Medvedev — Ilit Timber — purchased the wood processing plant that was one of the largest partners of the Wismar port. Investors close to Medvedev essentially made the Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania region dependent on their policies. If the Russian investors left, it’s unlikely the local authorities would have found new buyers. Simply put, the first hint of a threat of the Russians leaving the market made the local authorities compliant. In Germany, regional governments have a great deal of influence on federal policy. Formally, regional representatives can block any law with their votes in the Bundesrat; and informally, regional governments take part in all political debates in the country.
The increase in Russian influence in Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania wasn’t accidental: this is where the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines reaches German territory. It was the state government of Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania who founded the Climate and Environment Protection Foundation MV which received money from Gazprom and invested its own capital to purchase equipment for the gas pipelines. Minister President Sellering, the very same one who invited Dmitry Medvedev to invest in regional companies, was the chairman of the foundation. Were these the only Russian investments in the region? No. In 2016, the Russian Kirov Plant invested in the production of bearings in Rostock, another city in the state. The opening of the plant, with fifty (!) employees and a capacity to produce two hundred bearings annually, was attended by Russian Minister of Industry and Energy Denis Manturov. Interestingly, in 2013, the Kirov Plant tried to enter Germany via the traditional scheme of buying bankrupt companies: the Russians bought the Göppel Bus manufacturer, whose business was in a slump, and before that, the tools manufacturer Monforts Werkzeugmaschinen, which was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
Russian economic influence in German was built around a simple principle: Russia gave ineffective German businesses and the overall ineffective German economic model new life. For years, Germany’s export-oriented producers bought cheap Russian gas, and paid for it with European security. German regions selfishly rescued their bankrupt local manufacturers by giving the Russians leverage over their politicians. German companies operating in Russia became hostages of their managers, who were interested in the quality of their own private lives and having the privileges of white colonial masters. German politicians satisfied their anti-American obsessions through their sense of closeness to the legendary sources of power and resources in Moscow.
Germany’s dependence on Russia doesn’t go back decades, it goes back centuries, and was built on toxic narratives of power, violence, and deception. It was and remains anti-European and intent on being in conflict with the ideals of freedom, equality, and openness. It has no objective basis other than the radically nationalist and cultish-mystical myth of Russia’s “special spiritual idea” and Germany’s “closeness” to this idea. And that is why Germany’s “special relationship” with Russia is a threat to Europe and to world peace.
Other stories written by Sergej Sumlenny
Other stories illustrated by Oleh Smal
Sergej Sumlenny is a German political analyst, founder of the European Resilience Initiative Center in Berlin, and former Director at the Heinrich Böll Foundation Bureau in Kyiv (2015–2021).
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