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Scene in Berlin

Borscht and snow remind Berlin's Russians of home

Berlin's Russian community recently came out en masse for a long-awaited concert by post-Soviet star Maxim Galkin. While he draws the older generation, Berlin's Russian bars and cafes enliven the youthful subculture.

Scene in Berlin

On this cold winter night, there was little to indicate we weren't in Moscow. It was snowing, the women were dressed up in their best fur coats and even the doormen spoke Russian.

However, we were in the heart of Berlin, at the monumental Friedrichstadtpalast theater. The excitement in the packed hall rose as Maxim Galkin made his entrance with a song about Russian immigrants in Tel Aviv, New York, and, of course, Berlin.

The song had the intended magical effect - the enormously popular entertainer knows how to charm an audience, and Berlin's Russian community was especially responsive.

Maxim Galkin

Maxim Galkin is one of Russia's most popular entertainers

Both together and separate

An estimated 200,000 Russians have accumulated in Germany's capital as a result of several waves of immigration since the 1917 October Revolution. It is common to hear Russian in the streets, whether from a mother chastising her kids, a drunkard uttering expletives, or hand-holding lovers.

The weekly Russian-language newspaper Russkii Berlin can be found at newsstands all over the city and some bookshops cater specifically to Russian readers. Some Russians say they can get by without speaking a word of German.

One of Berlin's most famous Russians is writer Wladimir Kaminer. He came shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and has garnered a strong following with his witty, anecdotal bestsellers. His ironic take on the city's immigrant communities and parallel societies has earned him a fervent fan following.

Russendisko - a monthly event held at the Kaffee Burger club that Kaminer co-founded with his best friend Iuri Gurzhy - also has cult status. Fuelled with vodka, clubbers dance the night away to a mixture of Soviet classics with a twist, Balkan beats and Anglo-Saxon pop standards.

Revelers might then - as I did when I could dance no more - make their way to one of the many Russian cafes in the city for a pick-me-up.

Caviar, pancakes and berries for brunch

Pasternak, a cafe in the trendy Prenzlauer Berg district, has a very popular Sunday brunch that features a whole selection of Russian delicacies, from caviar to berry pancakes. Pictures of the author of Dr Zhivago and other Russian writers adorn the walls. A strong brew is served with lemon according to tradition in the ornate tea glass holders. At other times of the day, customers can order borscht soup, Siberian ravioli or beef Stroganoff.

Berlin's Russia House

Berlin's Russia House holds concerts or readings

More laid-back Russian haunts are Gagarin down the road, the Datscha in Friedrichshain or Kuschlowski in Neukoelln, which has a vodka list that any connoisseur would die for.

However, you are unlikely to meet any older members of Berlin's Russian community at these cafes, or at Russendisko. They are more likely to be spotted in one of the ubiquitous Russian supermarkets, at a reading put on by Russia House, or, indeed, at a post-Soviet concert at the Friedrichstadtpalast.

Songs, anecdotes and impersonations

These were the Russians Maxim Galkin was in Berlin for. Despite his relative youth, the 34-year-old seems to understand the pain of immigration and his audience's nostalgia for their homeland.

For two-and-a-half hours, he kept his riveted spectators entertained with anecdotes about fellow Russian entertainers, such as his current partner, superstar Alla Pugacheva, or her ex-husband Phillip Kirkorov.

He also delivered compelling renditions of chansons and opera arias, as well as hilarious impersonations of politicians, from Khrushchev to Yeltsin. Tellingly, his jokes about contemporary Russian politics were rather tame - he is, after all, a massive television star with a lot to lose.

Newsstand

Newsstands often have a selection of Russian-language newspapers

But Galkin's fans hadn't come for a lesson in post-Soviet politics. They showered him with flowers and vied for his attention when he made his way around the hall for some quick snapshot sessions. Two bodyguards followed his every move, although it was unclear whether they were protecting him from an over-enthusiastic devotee or a bullet.

Back on stage it looked like he could go on till dawn, but he brought the night to a close shortly before midnight. The exhilarated audience members gave him a standing ovation, before donning their furs and dispersing into the freezing night, smiling broadly and humming tunes from the extensive Russian repertoire.

Anne Thomas likes a Russian song with a shot of vodka once in a while.

Editor: Kate Bowen

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