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Russian communities in Germany face hostility

March 8, 2022

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine began, Germans with Russian roots have been reporting aggression against them: at school, on public transport, in everyday life.

Roman Friedrich sits at a table with a pen in his right hand and his left palm stretched
Friedrich worries about an increasing number of reported attacks on Russian immigrantsImage: privat

Roman Friedrich, a social worker, does community outreach in Cologne's Chorweiler district. He is organizing help for Ukrainian refugees arriving in the city, but, at the same time, he has concern for the Russian communities in Germany who are being blamed for Vladimir Putin's war.

"What shocked me the most was when a teacher in an elementary school asked a Russian child to stand up before the entire class and clearly take a stand and distance herself from Putin's policies," Friedrich said.

Friedrich, who was born in Omsk, Russia, and whose grandmother is from Ukraine, has received many calls in recent days with similar tales of hostility. A Russian boy at a Cologne high school was held down and beaten up by his classmates. A Polish woman was mistaken for a Russian and harassed in a hardware store. Every day, people say they are being hassled in workplaces, on public transport, in the schoolyard.

"This is not yet a widespread trend," Friedrich said, but the number of cases is increasing. And Russian propaganda outlets are picking up on such reports and using them for their own narratives.

What do Russians think of Putin's war?

A new stigma

An estimated 6 million Russian-speaking people live in Germany. The majority of them are German nationals: ethnic Germans who came from the former Soviet Union — largely from Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. They are the descendants of settlers from German-speaking Central Europe, who moved to various regions of the Russian Empire since the second half of the 18th century. Resettlement to West Germany started in the 1950s, but two million of them came to Germany in the 1990s.

They tend to hold conservative family values. In recent years, the "Russian Germans" attracted media attention when it emerged that a large number of them supported the far-right nationalist populists of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Right-wing German party courts voters

Before the war began, many Russians were considered AfD sympathizers, Friedrich said; now they are seen as Putin sympathizers. "The result is that they feel victimized and further isolate themselves," he fears.

Friedrich speaks fluent Russian and Ukrainian. He says he was just talking to the owner of a supermarket who was seeking his advice. Following an attack on a Russian-Polish store in the city of Oberhausen, where windows were smashed in and everything smeared with slanderous graffiti, many store owners are undecided whether they should not better remove their Russian products from the shelves.

In response to an inquiry from DW, Mix markets, a chain with about 330 stores across Europe, announced that it would no longer offer foodstuffs made in Russia: "Our pelmeni dumplings are produced in Nuremberg, tworog comes from Poland, the sweetened condensed milk sgushenka is produced in Holland, the milk product ryazhenka comes from Lithuania, the 'Russian' sausages are produced in Bavaria, beer comes from the Danish Carlsberg brewery or from Anheuser-Busch, and our pastries and sweets are produced in Ukraine."

Friedrich has called on German politicians to protect Russian communities as the mood heats up. "When there is incitement of violence, the prosecutor's office needs to take swift action. It can not be that all Russians are held responsible for Moscow's actions. The rule of law has to be applied, society must proactively and decisively fight against such developments."

Targeting children

Narina Karitzky founded a Russian-language school in the nearby city of Bonn in 2011. In the beginning, it was a small project to tutor Russian learners. Today, it serves 500 families and their children, and its 25 teachers also teach art, ballet, and even robotics.

"The other day my colleague got a call from a gentleman who lives somewhere near the school, who said we were a disgrace to the whole street. 'You murderers,' he yelled into the phone," she said.

Karitzky has also heard many stories of children and young people being harassed on the street. Of adults shouting at children on the bus because they are talking in Russian. Teachers who demand that their students make a clear stand against Putin. And of many parents who, after the attack in Oberhausen, ask whether they could still send their children to the Russian school at all. "They are afraid that something will happen to their children," she says.

Narina Karitzky outside her school
Karitzky founded Bonn's Russian-language school in 2011Image: Oliver Pieper/DW

Many of her students are not from Russia, but from other Russian-speaking countries of the former Soviet Union. When the war began, Karitzky, who is Russian but also has Armenian roots, received an email from a Ukrainian mother.

"She wrote to me that they are so happy to have their children enrolled here, but she asked: 'What do you think about the invasion? Are you for it or against it?'" Karitzky said. "For her, it was important how we felt about it. As a Russian speaker, you feel ashamed, even if you can't help it."

Karitzky condemned the invasion as a violation of international law. She even wrote a letter to the mayor of Bonn.

So Karitzky was surprised to learn that a performance by her students scheduled for May at a local museum had been canceled.

"We are withdrawing the offer for political reasons" was the brief message. That hurt a lot, Karitzky said.

The museum, which has cooperated with Karitzky's school for years, has since changed its stance and offered an apology. This is a very good example of what goes wrong between Germans, Russians, and people from the CIS countries.

"People must distinguish between a war of aggression on the one hand and families who are living peacefully in Germany, who have nothing to do with it at all," Karitzky said. "This war is being waged in the name of the people, but we say very clearly: This is Putin's war. What is happening right now is not Russia."

This article was originally written in German.

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Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.