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Culture

Recapturing Russian Berlin

An exhibition at the Moscow Historical Museum paints a wistful picture of Berlin between 1918 and 1941 -- a time when thousands of Russian emigrants arrived in the German capital and made it their new home.

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Berlin was a different city between the two world wars

A Russian snack counter on Berlin’s famous shopping boulevard the Kurfürstendamm, a Russian duchess preening in the restaurant Fiametta, Russian bookshops in Charlottenburg and Cyrillic letters at newspaper stands – photographs displayed in the Moscow Historical Museum recreate an era in Berlin long past.

Called "The Russian Berlin 1918-1941", the exhibition reveals a German capital awash in sepia tones and offering refuge to hundreds of thousands of Russians on the run from the bloody Bolshevik revolution.

Numerous intellectuals, famous artists and authors such as Kandinsky and Nabokov mingled with those fleeing to Berlin. In the period between the two world wars, the Russian emigrants built their own teeming city within the larger city of Berlin.

The black and white photographs tell a nostalgic tale of Berlin’s past, one in which the visitor can view the famous German author Kurt Tucholsky visiting the Russian cabaret, "The Blue Bird", the Russian artist Kandinsky on a leisurely stroll and the acclaimed Russian author Nabokov travelling in the street car.

Exhibition tribute to solid German-Russian ties

The exhibition organised together with the German Embassy in Moscow sheds light on one of the most interesting chapters in the history of German-Russian relations, says Ernst-Jörg von Studnitz, the German Ambassador to Moscow.

"What these people, these artists and scientists contributed to our intellectual and cultural life in the 1920s has been deeply ingrained in our common history. Even the terrible years of National Socialism didn’t manage to destroy that, though they tried. Proof of that indestructibility is the happiness and gratefulness with which Germans and Russians alike today look back on that time and still derive new inspiration from the creativity of the time", he says.

The years between the two world wars marked the largest emigration wave from Bolshevik Russia into the German capital.

There was no place in Russia after the revolution for aristocrats, intellectuals, former officers of the Czar’s army, monarchists, democrats and anti-establishment artists. Whoever could, fled towards the West.

A love-hate relationship with Berlin

Maria Isjumskaja, curator of the exhibition, says, "Berlin was the first stop for several escaping to Western Europe. Many Russians liked the city. They settled down and stayed for long. Only once the Nazis came to power, did they have to move on."

But first the emigrants transformed parts of West Berlin's districts, such as Charlottenburg and Zoo, into a "mini Russia".

Many of them preferred to huddle together in a ghetto-like atmosphere rather than intermingle with the residents of the German city. After all, several believed they would return to Russia after the violence of the revolution died down.

"The majority found it difficult to get used to Berlin. They longed to go back to Russia. Only some of them accepted the city as their new home. For instance the Russian author and journalist, Ilja Ehrenburg wrote in a letter to his friend: "Berlin is not a city in which one can fall in love with at first sight. But believe me, I’ve fallen head over heels!", recounts Maria Isjumskaja.

Nabokov's love letter to Berlin

Even the Russian author Vladimir Nabokov fell in love with the pulsating German metropolis – and with his wife Vera, who he met in a café in Berlin.

Vladimir Nabokov

Best-selling author Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov also wrote his first novel, "Maschenka" in Berlin. In 1937 he moved to Paris and then later emigrated to the US.

Before leaving the German capital, Nobokov left a loving tribute to the Berlin street car, which the exhibition in the Moscow Historical Museum quotes:

"As the street car stopped, one could hear the chestnuts - prised loose by the wind – knocking on the roof. Tok. And then again, feathery and light: Tok, tok. The street car set in motion again, the light from the lanterns shone upon the wet window panes, and with a deep sense of happiness I listened for a repeat of the soft thuds. We stopped as soon as the brake was pulled. And once again a round lone chestnut plopped on the roof and then another one: tok...tok."

The exhibition "The Russian Berlin 1918-1941" at the Moscow Historical Museum is on till May 27, 2002

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