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Little Russia

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Once seen as a model migrant community, Germany’s Russian immigrants now feel excluded – and some fear that could make them vulnerable to Kremlin propaganda. 

© REUTERS/Lutz Schmidt

Only thirty minutes from the center of the German capital, Marzahn-Hellersdorf presents an image of what East Berlin might look like today had Russian rule never ended. On one of its central squares, in the midst of a sea of gray, Soviet-style apartment blocks, a group of women eat ice cream bars, known as Eskimo ice cream in the former Soviet Union, that they bought in the giant Russian Mix Markt supermarket. Contemporary Russian pop music plays loudly in the background. The women are browsing through the window of a housewares shop, where a corpulent lady in a tiger-print vest is selling a variety of imported goods, from religious icons to a biography of Stalin in Russian.

Marzahn is the result of an ambitious construction project carried out by the East German government in the late 1970s and 1980s to solve Berlin’s housing shortage. Tens of thousands of flats were constructed from ready-made materials; the project attracted the East German establishment, its engineers and party people. After German reunification, its image changed; people with money moved westward, and several blocks were demolished.

In the public imagination, Marzahn slowly became a stereotypical East German ghetto, populated by poor, unemployed East Germans who lost out after reunification – in the 2000s a comedian calling herself “Cindy from Marzahn” joked about taking government handouts and waking up in the afternoon to watch TV. It also became known for its xenophobia. In the 1990s there were reports of violent attacks on foreigners in Marzahn, despite their representing only 5.2 percent of the district’s population at the time.

Between Russia and Germany

The neighborhood today is an undefined space somewhere between Russia and Germany, between East Germany’s past and its present, where you find everything you need to live what feels like a fully Russian life: a Russian school, a Russian church, a Russian jeweler, a Russian dance school, and a Russian bar. Russian-speakers can and do reside among themselves, indulging in a nostalgic vision of a motherland.

The Russian speakers who live in the district are mostly among the 25,000 so-called Russlanddeutsche (“Russian Germans”) in the area, descendants of Germans who immigrated to Russia in the 19th century to escape economic hardship in Germany. In the 1990s Germany established a program allowing ethnic Germans and their dependents to move to Germany and receive German citizenship. Since then, several million Russian Germans have migrated back to Germany from the former Soviet Union.

Until last year, the Russian German community had been mostly invisible. So invisible, in fact, that nobody knew how many Russian Germans there were: the number is estimated to be between 2.5 and 4 million nationwide. The biggest wave of immigration was at the start of the program, with the number of newcomers gradually decreasing since then. When the Russian Germans first arrived, it was thought that the community would be difficult to integrate: unemployment rates were high, especially among the elderly, and high crime rates followed. But that has changed over the past few decades. Today, Russian Germans are considered model immigrants. They generally speak better German and have lower rates of unemployment than others immigrant communities, even if they tend to work in more blue-collar sectors.

So why were they so nostalgic for Russia? Many in the community claim that they initially thought of themselves as German. In fact, they thought of their arrival not as immigration at all, but rather as a return. In Germany, however, they – like most immigrant populations here – still feel like foreigners. They feel that they suffered for their Germany identity: Stalin accused Russian Germans of collaborating with Nazi Germany and deported them to the Caucasus and Central Asia, and many were unable to return to their homes until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, they feel unwelcome in what should be their home.

The Russian government has been trying to manipulate these Russian Germans in order to further its own interest, says Walter Gauks, head of the youth organization of the Association of Germans from Russia (the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland, or LMDR), the largest interest group for Russian Germans in Germany. “The Russian Germans have multiple identities, that’s why they are open to Russian perspectives,” Gauks adds. In his view, Russia has been trying to mobilize Russian Germans through its information campaigns. The far right also increasingly sees an opportunity as it gathers its strength throughout Europe.

No Place Like Home

Heinrich Zertik, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party and the first Russian German deputy in the Bundestag, says this insecurity creates a desire for “recognition and a sense of home,” a desire that Russian media has been happy to fulfill.

Daria moved to Berlin from northern Russia in 1997 when she was ten years old. After spending time in emergency housing for migrants, her family was allowed to rent a flat. They moved to Marzahn to live closer to other Russian-speaking Berliners; Daria went to primary school in the area, where a majority of students were also Russian Germans. Today, her closest friends are Russian speakers because she feels closer to them than to native Germans. “I don’t really live in Germany, but in Russia somehow, in my Russian roots,” she says.

Although she speaks perfect German, Germany is not Daria’s home – she feels no loyalty to her adopted country. She and her husband are both proud Russians. “I love that country, that’s all.” Daria says that most of her Russian-German friends feel the same way; everyone is a Russian patriot.

And everyone trusts Russian media, too. Daria and her husband use the streaming service Kartina TV to access 150 Russian channels. They watch both Russian and German news, but for them only Russian sources are trustworthy. Daria and her husband are not alone: A recent study showed that while most in the community consume both German and Russian news, they trust Russian sources more.

Russian media present a German state on the brink of collapse. Over the last few months, the pursuit of terror networks was their top story in Germany, along with a mostly fictional account of Munich’s construction of a wall against refugees (in reality a sound barrier around a refugee home). The Christmas market attack in Berlin also featured prominently, presented as the result of the systematic failure of German police.  Russia, on the other hand, is consistently portrayed as a stable, righteous counterweight to the overwhelmed West, represented by Germany.

Local outlets like Russkaja Germanija and Berlin24.ru depict life in Germany as dangerous and unstable, and reproduce Russian state news with a slight German focus; “Cologne becoming capital of Morocco,” read a recent front-page headline on Russkaja Germanija, referring to a rash of sexual assaults allegedly perpetrated by men of North African descent on New Year’s Eve 2015. Daria tries to ignore bad news as much as possible, and instead focus on positive news about Russia. But others in Marzahn are less resilient.

“The refugee situation scares us,” says a young man named Sergei while strolling along the promenade with his wife and little son in a stroller. He and his wife came to Germany with the wave of Russian Germans when they were in their early twenties. They used to like it here, but news about refugees that they see on Russian TV has changed their opinion. He would never vote for the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland, but others among their friends do. “AfD promises security – that is attractive,” Sergei says.

In fact, the terms “Russian patriot,” “refugee,” and “scared” are becoming ever more common in Marzhan, and the media influence is taking hold. Last January, hundreds of Russian-speakers from Marzahn took to the streets to protest Merkel’s immigration policy after Russian media reported that a Russian girl had been raped by refugees, allegations that were later completely debunked by the German police and media.

A few months later, the district was once more in the headlines when it emerged that the AfD was canvassing voters among the Russian German community before the local Berlin elections. The party translated its electoral program into Cyrillic and distributed it in the area. Its efforts have met with a certain degree of success: The AfD’s direct candidate in Marzahn was elected and holds a seat in city parliament, and the party as a whole came in second. While the Left Party won the district with 26 percent of the vote, it is only three points ahead of the populists. And when it comes to sympathy for Putin’s government, the Left Party itself is not far behind AfD.

The Russian German community is not the largest immigrant community within Germany – and certainly not a fifth column – but it is one of several that feels excluded from mainstream German political discourse. And that renders it susceptible to outside influences, particularly from home.