Forty years ago, East German workers helped construct the Druzhba gas pipeline running through the then-Soviet Union. Decades later they remain friends — and reminisce about their special connection to Ukraine.
By the end of the year, Russian natural gas could stop flowing through Ukraine and into the West — as talks to reach a new agreement between the two countries have stalled. This would not only directly impact both Russia and Ukraine, but it will also indirectly affect Germany, which played a role in constructing the pipeline in question.
It all began in the 1970s, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union and East Germany, or German Democratic Republic (GDR), was east of the Iron Curtain. At the time, thousands of East German citizens packed up their things to take part in the construction of a major gas pipeline through central Europe.
Hajo Obuchoff, now 72, was one of the first East Germans to head to the Soviet Union to get involved — and he says he remembers nearly everything about the experience. He spent four years there and in 2012 wrote a book, titled Die Trasse (The Pipeline), about his experience and that of others in constructing the pipeline that led all the way from Ukraine, to the Urals over to Kazakhstan.
Obuchoff, who today lives in Berlin, had studied sports and geography in the GDR and briefly worked as a teacher. "Then word got around that a big gas pipeline is being built through Ukraine and that young people should sign up to help," he says. Back then, they were starting work on the so-called Sojus pipeline to transit gas from Orenburg, Russia, through eastern European states part of the Soviet camp into the West.
Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and East Germany were involved in the project. East German workers took care of the 500-kilometer-long pipeline between the Ukrainian cities of Krementschuk and Bar, which was dubbed the Druschba, or Friendship pipeline, though not to be confused with Russia's oil pipeline of the same name.
The Druzhba gas pipeline is considered East Germany's biggest-ever foreign investment project. The pipes themselves, meanwhile, were purchased from Italy and West Germany, and paid for with Soviet gas. They used Japanese Komatsu pipelaying vehicles and heavy Soviet KrAZ trucks, which were built nearby.
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Beatles and Boney M.
Obuchoff, who was 28 at the time, was a so-called "kulturnik," meaning he saw to it that the pipeline workers — or "Trassniki" — got to enjoy and experience different cultural events and music. Obuchoff says workers were shown movies, a library was set up, and that they "organized a disco and cultural evenings." He recalls that they had "music not only from the GDR and the eastern bloc, but also from the West, like the Beatles and Boney M."
Obuchoff, who was in charge of music, says pirated copies of Western music albums were common in the Soviet Union. That's why, he says, "We had material from the Rolling Stones, which was banned in East Germany."
Together with a friend, Obuchoff was given an East German army vehicle that had been converted into a kind of disco on wheels. Then, in the summer of 1975, they hit the road bound for the Ukrainian city of Cherkasy, where the East German construction effort was being coordinated.
Obuchoff says he had mixed feelings about driving to Ukraine just 30 years after World War II. "We were the first Germans to go to the Ukraine," he says, adding that they encountered senior craftsmen and engineers who had actually experienced the war.
But despite the recent past, Obuchoff says the Ukrainians were very welcoming towards the Germans. He says there was no animosity, though he recalls that some Ukrainian teens sometimes shouted "Heil Hitler" at them. Obuchoff once confronted a young boy about this, asking him why he insisted on it. But the teenager did not understand his question.
Obuchoff later learned that Soviet war films could have led young Ukrainians to believe the greeting was normal for Germans. "They probably thought it was customary in Germany to greet one another in this way," he says.
Importing East German beer to boost morale
Some 6,000 East German laborers worked on the pipeline at the same time. Usually, they would spend two years abroad. They would not only build the pipeline, but also housing. Officially, the Druzhba pipeline was completed in autumn 1978. But in reality, small improvements were made for almost another year.
"The summer of 1975 was really hot and we were drinking Ukrainian beer," recalls Obuchoff. But the "beer went off really fast, giving you an upset stomach." So the East Germans, he says, threatened to stop working until proper beer was made available. And It worked. From then on, each week, trucks would drive over from East Germany to deliver beer to the workers.
Theodor Hermeneit from Thuringia, who worked as a welder between 1976 and 1978 in Ukraine, remembers that it paid well and that conditions were good. The 64-year-old recalls being told not to even bother applying as he had not served in the East German army. "Then, suddenly, that did not seem to be a problem anymore," he says. Adding that he was given only a few days to pack his bags, before flying from Berlin to Kyiv, and then continuing onward to the construction site in Kremenchuk.
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Workers still feel special connection
Obuchoff thinks that if Russian gas really does stop flowing through Ukraine, this will deprive Kyiv of significant revenue, and could also have military and "military and strategic risks."
Hermeneit has also been closely following the talks between Russia and Ukraine over gas deliveries. He says he is "a bit sad" that the pipeline he helped construct may now become obsolete. "This was part of our life, I guess we will discuss this at the Zabakuck meeting," he says.
Every two years, former "Trassniki" gather in the village of Zabakuck in Saxony-Anhalt. The meetings are organized by Olaf Münchow, who helped build pipelines through Russia in the 1980s. He says his fellow "Trassniki" always insist they would happily return to Russia to help, if ever asked.
"It's not for nothing that, to this day, we still have a special feeling of togetherness that is unique," says Münchow. The principles of camaraderie, friendship and mutual help, he says, were important in the past — and remain so in the present.