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German-Russian culture in the face of political crises

The year of German language and literature in Russia comes to an official end in Moscow. Throughout the year, events promoting cultural dialogue and the German language threatened to be overshadowed by politics.

In the hall of Moscow's Pushkin-Museum, German author Hans Pleschinsky sits side by side with his Russian translator. They take turns reading his novel about author Thomas Mann - in two languages.

The reading is part of the opening of a photo exhibition documenting Thomas Mann's life. The exhibition is the final event of the year of German language and literature in Russia. The year began on June 6, 2014, in Berlin with Alexander Pushkin's 215th birthday (pictured above) and ends exactly one year later in Moscow - on Thomas Mann's 140th birthday. Like Mann, Pleschinsky, too, was inspired by Russian literature. Indeed, according to the writer, even today the "lively exchange of ideas" between the Russian and German literary scene continues.

Deutschland Literatur Geschichte Thomas Mann um 1905

Thomas Mann in 1905

Cultural exchange has been the name of the game for the year of German language and literature in Russia. The year saw 300 cities in Russia host a total of 510 events, attended by over 73,000 people.

The events included a German-Russian writers' workshop, a translation prize, several German language competitions, festivals, a retrospective of the German filmmaker Wim Wender's work and concerts by German musicians, such as well-known rapper Cro. Several events across Russia also provided workshops, seminars and conferences to teachers of German. At the same time, Germany played host to the year of Russian language and literature.

A humble triumph

Though literature and classical music fill the air at the A.C. Pushkin museum tonight, there is still a distinct political undertone. The annexation of the Crimean peninsula, the Ukraine crisis and Western sanctions on Russia have cast a shadow over the German-Russian year.

When asked about the outcome of the year, Rüdiger Bolz, the head of the Goethe Institute in Moscow as well as Eastern Europe and Central Asia, seemed relieved that despite "a politically tense situation," all the planned events had taken place, and had reached "a lot of people; particularly, young people."

Mikhail Shvydkoy

'The most important outcome of this year is that it happened at all,' said Shvydkoy.

For Mikhail Shvydkoy, the Russian special presidential envoy for international cultural cooperation, that in itself is a triumph. "The most important outcome of this year is that it happened at all, despite an icy political climate." According to Shvydkoy the year was possible because culture is separate from politics. "Cultural relations occupy a higher position than political ones; they aren't part of the political sphere."

Political cold shoulder

But Rüdiger Bolz's year of language and literature shows that the two are interconnected. "Attendance from political circles in our projects was not as extensive as I would have hoped, and not as extensive as it would have been in normal times," he says, adding that ministers and leading politicians had mostly stayed away.

But considering the increasingly traditional and repressive atmosphere that has been pervading the Russian cultural scene, the Goethe institute has been lucky. In February, Russian authorities charged an opera director with offending Christians with his production of Richard Wagner's Tannhauser in Novosibirsk. And as of May 28, the Moscow-based verbatim theater company Teatr.Doc lost its lease to a theater it was renting, after a play about the "Bolotnoe Delo" arrests during opposition protests. Half a year earlier, the company had to move out of another theater because of similar small-print wrongdoings in their lease, apparently concerning fire safety.

Russland Deutschland Rüdiger Bolz Goethe-Institut Moskau

Rüdiger Bolz, Goethe Institute, Moscow: 'A politically tense situation'

A cause for concern

These developments are worrying to Andreas Meitzner, the German foreign ministry representative for international cultural affairs, especially because the Russian government also recently passed a law on "undesirable organizations," which criminalizes Russian citizens working with international organizations labeled "undesirable."

The developments could affect the work of important cultural partners. "We hope that this law won't affect cultural cooperation, but we are concerned," says Meitzner.

Mikhail Shvydkoy, on the other hand, counters that the law shouldn't affect culture at all. "Every law is written by people and is applied by people," he argues.

Speaking one language

Even if the cultural scene has hardly remained untouched by the current political climate, on this evening both representatives of German cultural policy seemed optimistic and determined to promote dialogue. Bolz pointed to record numbers of people learning German in Goethe Institute courses, while Meitzner emphasized that this year's events concentrated on the "young generation" in order to counteract prejudices.

Bolz's speech to the audience at the museum left a greater impression than the exhibition of black and white photographs of Thomas Mann or Hans Pleschinsky's reading. Bolz says this year he has been asked frequently whether the work of the Goethe Institute in Russia makes sense in the current political climate. "When could it possibly make more sense than now?" he said.

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