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Millennium of love-hate

Birgit Görtz / hwOctober 5, 2012

German-Russian relations are not exactly amicable at the moment. But a new Berlin exhibition shows that over the past 1,000 years Germany and Russia were not always enemies. At times, they were even good friends.

Helmut Kohl, Michail Gorbatschow and Hans-Dietrich Genscher at a meeting on July 15, 1990.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It started with a celebration - a wedding to be exact. In 1073, Prince Yaropolk from Kyiv married Kunigunde from Weimar, the daughter of Otto I, Margrave of Meissen.

The marriage was obviously orchestrated by his mother, Gertruda from Poland. She wanted the Kyivan Rus, the first great empire in the East Slavic territory, to enter the Concert of Europe - a coalition of fledging European empires.

"It was a nice start to German-Russian relations and a nice starting point for our exhibition," said Matthias Wemhoff, the curator of the exhibition "Russian and Germans," which opens in Berlin on October 6.

But the honeymoon period in German-Russian relations did not last long. Yaropolk was murdered just a few years after the wedding. With the desecration of Kyiv at the hands of Mongolian-Tatar warriors, the Slavic East disappeared from West's radar.

St. Sophia Church in Novgorod, Russia
Novgorod in north-western Russia used to be the most important trading partner with the Hanseatic LeagueImage: RIA Novosti

That is, until the Grand Duchy of Moscow entered the stage at the turn of the 17th century.

"Moscow was observed with curiosity. But the reports from travelers and envoys heavily emphasized the strangeness. That meant the clothing, the courtly ceremony, the weeks-long - indeed, months-long wait to be accepted," explained Wemhoff. "And people were fascinated by the strongly hierarchical society."

Renewed intercultural exchange

There were few points of contact between Germany and Russia until the era of Peter I: "Peter the Great opened the window to the West," said Wemhoff. "He is the figure who broke many traditions. The image of shaving beards is the most representative."

The tsar implemented social modernization, which included adopting modern clothing styles and the order that all men with beards should either shave or pay a tax for having a beard.

Another prominent example of the new start is the new capital with a German name: St. Petersburg. The tsar traveled through the West, through Germany and the Netherlands, taking in the sights and gathering knowledge. The founding of the Science Academy in St. Petersburg was a direct result of Peter the Great's meeting with German universal scholars in Leipzig.

The young tsar was vehement about Russia establishing a connection to Europe. In doing so, he recognized the value of strategic marriages.

A portrait of Peter the Great by Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766)
Peter the Great modernized RussiaImage: picture-alliance/Imagno

"Soon enough a large proportion of marriage partners came from the West, especially from Germany." This tradition continued right up to the last Russian tsarina, Alexandra, a Princess of the House of Hesse-Darmstadt. She was the wife of Nicholas II, deposed in 1917.

Charlottengrad and the avant-garde

After 1917, many Russians fled from the turmoil of revolution to Berlin. Most of them moved to the district of Charlottenburg, which became known locally as Charlottengrad.

In contrast, German artists were fascinated by the changes occurring in Russia at that time and integrated revolutionary thinking in their works of architecture and painting. Russian and German socialists believed Germany was also heading for revolution.

The socialist revolution never materialized in Germany. "But in both countries there is one parallel: Both countries became dictatorships in the space of just a few years after the First World War," explained Wemhoff. "We continue to recognize the causes of the great catastrophe of the First World War ever more acutely, which severed and shattered everything that had previously existed."

Bonn-based historian Dittmar Dahlmann sees "a lack of understanding for democracy" as a fundamental cause of the Second World War. "In addition to that, both countries were defeated in the war from 1914-1918," he added.

The chaotic situation after World War I provided the perfect conditions for totalitarian regimes to rise to power.

Russian revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev in Petrograd, 1920
Russian revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev in Petrograd, 1920Image: picture-alliance / akg-images

Post-war German and Russians

"According to statistics, between 25 and 17 million people died in the Soviet Union alone during the Second World War. An unimaginable number of dead, and an unimaginable level of destruction." Matthias Wemhoff said he is always astounded by this number.

However, Russian and Germans tend to approach one another without reservation. "The Russians don't blame the past on Germans in general, instead they see things in a differentiated manner," said Wemhoff. This is probably because the Soviet Union also experienced its own, Stalinist dictatorship.

The fact that Nazi Germany was responsible for the Holocaust means that people in Germany tend to maintain a distanced relationship to history. "It is different in Russia. Despite the negative experiences with Stalinism, there is a very positive relationship to history," explained Dahlmann.

The politics of history

In the 1990s, there was a widespread academic and social discourse in Russia aimed at confronting the difficult truths of the past. Back then, the work of non-governmental organizations such as Memorial, whose mission is dealing with the past, received funding.

Today, the work of such NGOs is hindered and Dahlmann is highly critical of the change: "Everybody knows that it is more difficult for NGOs like Memorial in Russia - aside from maybe our government or the European Union, who simply accept it without speaking out against it."

Josef Stalin pictured smoking at his desk in 1949
Communist dictator Joseph Stalin, pictured here in 1949Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R80329 / CC-BY-SA

Dahlmann identifies a current trend in Russia towards the glorification of its own, individual history: "History and the politics of history play an important role in making Russia a major world power again. Aside from that, the preoccupation with its own greatness distracts people from current difficulties."

In contrast, the makers of the exhibition in Berlin highlight the similarities and connections with Germany. "With the exhibition we are saying we want to remember the epochs before the 20th century, the long relationships and the cultural esteem we can build on," Wemhoff said.

He personally always sensed a great love and openness to Germany from the Russian side: "That is a good basis for a deeper friendship."

But in the cold light of day, German-Russian relations look anything but friendly, not to mention stormy - with the potential to become worse.