Germans and Russians have an enduring fascination with each other. They share a long history steeped in warfare. Hitler’s siege of Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg) took place only 71 years ago, leaving over 630,000 Russians dead. It is hard to forget or forgive such destruction.
They also have a highly emotional history built on a long relationship of respect, rivalry and jealousy. Over the centuries, Slavs and Teutons have struggled to understand each other’s culture, language and way of looking at the world.Despite these immense differences, Germans and Russians continue to grapple with a relationship that keeps bringing them together. Exhibitions can provide the ideal opportunity, as “Russen & Deutsche” — Russians and Germans — has proved since it came to Berlin’s Neues Museum in October after opening last summer in the State Historical Museum in Moscow. Some 100,000 visitors have seen it in Berlin, where it will continue until Jan. 13.
Spread over several rooms — with very poor lighting that makes it difficult to read the manuscripts and even see some fine jewelry — it is an ambitious attempt to show how the ties between both cultures have developed over a thousand years. The exhibition is highly selective, however, and comes close to idealizing the past.
That may have something to do with the fact that the exhibition opened under the aegis of President Vladimir V. Putin, a fluent German speaker and former K.G.B. chief who was based for a time in Dresden in the 1980s, when East Germany was under Communist rule. He signed the foreword to the huge, two-volume catalog.
The other patron is Joachim Gauck, who became the president of Germany in March, too late to be involved in the long preparations. The exhibition was developed by scores of cultural bodies in both countries.
Gernot Erler, a Social Democrat lawmaker in Germany with a deep knowledge of Russia, said the exhibition took several years to organize. A plethora of ministries and cultural organizations from both sides had to agree on the contents and the presentation. Mr. Erler said he did not want to speculate about the arguments that arose.
The theme is established from the beginning by an intricately carved woodcut, dating to 1360 or 1370, that shows Russian hunters armed with axes, bows and arrows, and sticks. Once they have caught their prey, they select the finest furs and hides. The Russians then approach German traders who stand, arms folded, waiting to bargain.
It is clear who has the upper hand. The elegant dress and demeanor of the Germans contrast with the simple clothes of the peasant hunters. The allure of things German — money, business savvy, confidence and culture — marks the entire exhibition.
Catherine the Great, the German-born princess who ruled Russia as empress from 1762 to 1796, invited Germans to Russia in the mid-18th century. Not for the salons. That was the prerogative of the French émigré intellectuals. The Germans were called in for their entrepreneurial and scientific skills, and they would help modernize Russia. Peter the Great, who co-reigned or reigned from 1682 to 1725, had already recognized that as he tried to open Russia to Western influences.
Russia continues to look to Germany to modernize its industry and infrastructure. Germany still looks to Russia in the hope that modernization will bring Russia’s political and economic systems closer to European norms. The long perspective of hindsight shows how tantalizingly difficult it has been for Russia to modernize and for Germany to persuade today’s Russia to embrace that path.
The Russian organizers of the exhibition wanted it to show that the relationship under Peter and Catherine was not so one-sided, and that some Germans eagerly went to Russia because they were forced to seek a new livelihood.
Natalia Kargapolova, the Russian curator, said the arrival of large numbers of foreigners was not an accident. “In Europe, there was either a plague or cholera,” she said at the opening in Moscow, Pravda.ru reported. “In addition, it was difficult to find a job. It is not surprising that many Germans were happy to move to Russia.”
Germans “had very successful careers at the royal court as it was believed that the Germans were reliable,” she added.
For all the respect shown to the Germans, they were not encouraged to integrate. They received tax concessions but had to live separately from Russians. Although Catherine was brought up in Prussia, there was a fear that foreign ideas would prove contagious.
She designated a settlement along the Volga in southern Russia where the Germans preserved as much as they could of their language and way of life. After the reunification of Germany in 1990, they were allowed to leave what was still the Soviet Union to return to Germany.
Russia’s suspicion of foreigners persisted through the centuries. Among other measures in the past few years, Mr. Putin has imposed restrictions on nongovernmental organizations with ties to European and American foundations.
The ambiguous welcome given Germans by Catherine did not impede the commercial flow or artistic influences. On the contrary: See in the exhibition how Siemens, the electronic and engineering company already had a foothold in Russia in the 19th century when it provided modern lighting infrastructure. Now Siemens is building high-speed trains in Russia. Or how Dostoyevsky and the artist Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941), to name just a few, spent time in Germany. The exhibition includes some marvelous Jawlensky paintings.
Economic and cultural ties are not enough to capture or explain the complexities of the Russian-German relationship. This is where the exhibition falls short, brushing aside how deeply the relationship has been affected by war and ideology.
For example, little in the exhibition is devoted to the relationship between Prussia and Russia, both absolute monarchies that opposed the French Revolution, allied against Napoleon and took part in carving up Poland. There is also little space given to the world wars or the interwar years.
There is no reference to the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of August 1939, which led to Hitler and Stalin’s invasions of Poland and allowed Moscow to focus on the Far East.
“This is an appalling gap,” Tagesspiegel, a Berlin daily newspaper, said in a review of the exhibition. “Both sides must face the truth that in the past they were never closer to each other than during this moment of the most awful policy of violence.”
The room devoted to East Germany is baffling with its pictures of smiling people. There is no sense of the repression of Soviet occupation and no reminder of the East German workers’ uprising of 1953, which was crushed by Russian tanks. There are some passing references to Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.
Generally, this part of the exhibition shows snapshots of Russians, Jews and elderly Germans now living in the reunited city of Berlin.
Instead, there is praise both in the exhibition for the close energy ties forged between West Germany and the Soviet Union, beginning in the early 1970s. One of the main sponsors of the exhibition is E.On, Germany’s big energy company that cooperates with Gazprom, the energy giant owned by the Russian state.
The newspaper Die Welt commented: “This exhibition is being sponsored by the energy company E.On, which is a reminder of which energies really tie Russia and Germany together.”
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