A couple dozen Russian neo-Nazis were arrested over the weekend for brandishing swastikas and shouting fascist slogans in downtown Moscow. They had turned out for the “Russian March,” an annual procession of skinheads, soccer hooligans and other Neanderthals on the Day of National Unity.
Russian nationalists’ embrace of Nazi ideology might seem especially masochistic given Hitler’s plans to enslave and butcher his eastern neighbors. In a love-hate relationship that goes back a millennium, few deviances have been left unexplored.
On the whole, however, Russians and Germans have gotten along just fine, as a fascinating new exhibition in Berlin’s Neues Museum shows. Two world wars in the space of 30 years are the exception; commerce, migration and cultural exchange are the rule. Russia’s earliest contacts to the West came via Germany, and German chancellors since Willy Brandt have bet that closer economic ties would help liberalize Russia internally.
Today, Germany is Russia’s biggest trade partner after China, selling machines and technology in exchange for oil and gas. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is one of Vladimir Putin’s only foreign friends; Angela Merkel, despite her well-known antipathy toward the Russian president, puts on a brave face for the sake of business that was worth 75 billion euros in 2011.
“Russians & Germans: 1,000 Years of Art, History and Culture” takes a long look back at the twists and turns in the fortunes of Europe’s two biggest nations. I lost myself in the exhibition on a rainy afternoon last week.
Besides being overwhelmed by the sheer wealth of assembled artifacts, I found the show’s recurring themes both reassuring and disturbing. Over the centuries, the exchange of people, goods and ideas with western Europe has been crucial for Russia’s modernization. Yet all too often, the country’s autocratic rulers believed they could reap the benefits of foreign know-how while denying their people political freedoms. Putin is no exception.
Russians and Germans have been trading with each other as far back as the 10th century, a time when the city-state of Novgorod was gaining in wealth and prestige. (The town in northwestern Russia is now called Veliky Novgorod, not to be confused with Nizhny Novgorod on the Volga.)
By the end of the 12th century, German merchants from the Hanseatic League had set up a trading post in Novgorod called Peterhof. Just as they do today, Russians coveted foreign luxury goods, while western Europeans couldn’t get enough of Russia’s resources. Beer, wine, metalwork, cloth, ceramics and salt traveled east in exchange for leather, tallow, honey, wax and furs.
The first hall of the exhibition is filled with archaeological finds attesting to this vigorous trade, including amber jewelry from Russia, a horde of German silver coins and 800-year-old contracts written on birch bark. It was certainly no coincidence that Novgorod soon began to resemble other medieval European towns with an assembly of citizens who elected their mayor and archbishop.
War followed trade as the Teutonic Knights began their march up the Baltic coast in the 13th century. Novgorod waned as upstart Muscovy consolidated the Russian principalities. Ivan the Terrible, the ruler of the expanding state, went on a diplomatic offensive, sending an embassy to Maximilian II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, in 1576.
When the Russian envoys arrived in Regensburg, they caused a sensation in their luxurious robes, long beards and gigantic caps. A period woodcut shows the Russian delegation presenting their letter of credence on a pillow and bearing gifts of sable.
Trade intensified, and by the middle of the 17th century, Moscow boasted a “German Quarter” with 1,500 inhabitants and 200 houses. Yet locals’ contact to the western European merchants and craftsmen was strictly regulated. An early 18th century engraving depicts the foreigners colony on the Yauza River, located at a safe distance from the onion domes of the Kremlin.
Growing up, Peter the Great often visited the German Quarter, where he picked up foreign ways and made the acquaintance of his mistress Anna Mons. As czar, Peter was determined to drag Russia into modernity kicking and screaming.
He challenged the entrenched Moscow nobility by building a European-style capital on the Baltic Sea.
He cut off their beards, stuffed them into three-cornered hats and forced them to move to St. Petersburg. He enlisted ever more foreigners to modernize the military and state bureaucracy.
Cooperation with the West – and with the rising Kingdom of Prussia in particular – was unstoppable. A painting of Grenadier Schwerid Redivanoff, a Russian “lent” to the Prussian Army by Peter, towers over the hall dedicated to relations in the 18th century.
Germans came to Russia as scientists, explorers and engineers. Catherine the Great, born a Pomeranian princess, invited the first wave of German settlers to fill the vast spaces of her growing empire.
Intermarriage among monarchs helped reinforce military alliances. Nicholas I had a giant, gilded porcelain vase made for his father-in-law, Prussian King Frederick William III.
In 1843, Hessian Prince Frederick William and Nicholas’s daughter, Grand Duchess Alexandera Nikolayevna, fell madly in love with each other at a ball in St. Petersburg. They were wed after half a year, but Alexandra died a few months later after giving birth to a premature baby. She was 19.
By the end of the 19th century, big German companies such as BASF, Bayer, AGFA and Siemens were all doing brisk business in the Russian Empire.
The exchange also went in the reverse direction. Young Russians – including Jews who were prohibited from attending the czar’s universities – flocked to Germany to study. Fashionable Russians took the baths at Baden-Baden or lost fortunes gambling at the town’s casino, as Fyodor Dostoyevsky did in 1863. Wasilly Kandinsky was one of the founding artists of the Blue Rider movement in Munich 100 years ago.
All these ties couldn’t prevent the two wars that marred the first half of the 20th century. Even though he was Nicholas II’s cousin, Kaiser William II allowed Valdimir Lenin to be smuggled across Germany so he could foment revolution and sue for peace. As a result of the communist takeover, Berlin temporarily became home to 250,000 Russian exiles – until an even more horrific orgy of violence came to pass.
Stalin imagined he could stave off the Nazi legions by entering a treaty with Hitler that would carve up eastern Europe and follow the time-tested formula of Russian resources for German technology. The Soviets ended up lavishing the Nazis with vital supplies, while Stalin waited in vain for the delivery of a warship and airplanes. On June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.
The purpose of the Berlin exhibition isn’t to dwell on the low points of the German-Russian relationship. A darkened room is dedicated to the memory of World War II with oversize photographs depicting five battlefields as they look today: Stalingrad, Leningrad, Kursk, Novgorod and the Seelow Heights outside Berlin.
Audio-video installations capture the last 67 years since the war’s end, with rooms covering the return of prisoners of war, the division of Germany and the immigration of millions of former Soviet citizens – ethnic Germans and Russian Jews – to Germany following the collapse of communism.
The last hall touches on the biggest remaining dispute between Russia and Germany: the fate of thousands of objects of cultural value that were destroyed or looted in the course of the war. Mutual recriminations still linger, though the very venue of the exhibition hints at the promise of reconciliation: the Neues Museum, reopened in 2009, had been badly damaged in the Battle of Berlin.
The ambitious retrospective of such a tangled relationship is a joint venture of the German and Russian governments. Perhaps it’s only appropriate that the corporate sponsor is German utility E.ON, the best customer of Russian energy behemoth Gazprom.
The new coziness between Germany and Russia has raised alarm among smaller nations who have had an unpleasant history dealing with Prussians and Russians. Backers of a common European Union foreign policy have been frustrated by the Berlin-Moscow axis, as have Atlanticists concerned that Germany is drifting away from the U.S. and Britain.
The biggest difference with the past is that Germany today is a model of democracy and federalism.
Putin, who worked as a KGB agent in Dresden in the 1980s, is still trying to transplant his lessons from communist East Germany to contemporary Russia: from fake opposition parties in a sham parliament to an overarching security apparatus that crushes all dissent.
Putin’s view of Germany is as irrelevant and outdated as that of Russia’s neo-Nazis.
Russia’s new generation is getting to know a different Germany – and demanding a different Russia.