Russians living in Germany feel backlash from war in Ukraine

Ilja Kaplan left his hometown of Moscow 32 years ago as a young man for a new life in Berlin and has never returned. However, he never let go of his Russian identity and opened a Russian restaurant called Pasternak – a place where Germans, Ukrainians, Russians and many others have been happily eating, drinking and also working for a quarter of a century.

But that immigrant success story was suddenly threatened after Moscow ordered its forces to invade Ukraine in February, sparking a wave of Russophobia here in a country with one of the world’s largest Russian diaspora communities. Not only did many Germans, shocked by the unprovoked attack, feel the need to “do their part” by boycotting Pasternak and other Russian companies, but Kaplan received warnings that his “Dr. Zhivago’-themed restaurant would be firebombed and Ukrainian thugs were on their way to beat up its cooks and waiters.

The situation felt surreal given that Kaplan had publicly condemned Russia’s war against its neighbor and most of his restaurant’s employees are Ukrainians. Only a handful are Russians.

“I can’t really show you what my soul is like, but it hurts,” said Kaplan, a kind 60-year-old with white hair and sad eyes. “We have always been apolitical and we are totally against this war. But I’m Russian, and Russia started this war, and now we’re facing this animosity — and our business is suffering. Why? I understand that people are upset. But what did we have to do with Putin and this war?”

Kaplan and many of the estimated 3 million people with Russian passports or roots living in Germany have felt the backlash to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 7-month-old attack on Ukraine. They report being ostracized, discriminated against and ridiculed even when they try to make it clear that they oppose the war.

At the same time, they acknowledge tensions within their own community, which includes a significant number of immigrants who consume Russia’s state-dominated media and support Putin. In early April, about 900 supporters of the Russian leader staged a much-criticized car rally through central Berlin, waving huge Russian flags and honking their horns.

In the same month, the Federal Criminal Police Office reported that in the first two months of the conflict in Germany “war-related” more than 1,700 crimes, including 162 acts of violence, had been committed against Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians. The offenses ranged from insults and threats to physical attacks and damage to property.

Woman holding an anti-Vladimir Putin sign

A woman holds an anti-Vladimir-Putin placard during a protest at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin against the war in Ukraine.

(Markus Schreiber / Associated Press)

Business at Pasternak in Berlin’s trendy Prenzlauerberg district has plummeted 30% since the start of the war – even after Kaplan adjusted the menu to turn dishes like Fruehstueck Moscow (Moscow Breakfast) simply into “Breakfast”. His dream of doubling the number of his restaurants from eight to 16, one in each Berlin district, now seems hopeless.

“It feels like all the work of the last 30 years has been destroyed,” Kaplan said. “We survived the corona pandemic and I had a future. Now it feels like I have no future.”

Germany’s Russian diaspora includes the ethnic Germans whose families immigrated to Russia from the 18th century and returned in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, as well as a large number of ethnic Russian and Jewish immigrants from Russia who have settled here in recent years settled 1980s. Many of the more recent immigrants have attempted to retain remnants of their culture, and particularly their language, while integrating more or less successfully into Germany’s strong economy and way of life.

The war in Ukraine and the accompanying backlash in Germany, but also in other parts of Europe, put an abrupt end to a short but happy era of good relations between Germans and people with Russian roots in their midst – and between the two largest countries in Europe, despite a turbulent common history marked by wars and upheavals.

Successive post-Cold War German governments embraced “change through trade,” the notion that if Russia could be inextricably linked to Western European economies, there would never be another war on the continent. German chancellors past and present, who in the process have made their country heavily dependent on Russian fossil fuels, now admit they were wrong and terribly naïve.

So great is German anger at Ukraine that Larissa Shevikova, 82, who has lived in Berlin since moving to communist East Germany from her hometown of Leningrad, now St Petersburg, in 1981, said she is even being treated by local doctors spurned when trying to get dates.

“There is fear among my Russian friends,” said Shevikova, adding that a friend was recently beaten up for speaking Russian with her mother and ended up in a hospital emergency room. “When we meet in public, we try to speak now [Russian] calm. … I used to have friendly conversations on the street with a neighbor who is a police officer when he was walking his dog. Now when I try to talk to him he just says ‘No, no’ and walks away.”

Pro-Ukraine protest rally at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate

About 100,000 people take part in a pro-Ukraine rally in Berlin on February 27, three days after Russia invaded its neighboring country.

(Michael Sohn/Associated Press)

The animosity can even extend to the playground.

“I was speaking Russian with my two daughters when two teenagers came over and asked what language we spoke in,” said Alevtina Enders, 37, who three decades after her parents moved to Germany and is still undauntedly proud of her family’s Russian traditions is. When she said that she and her girls spoke Russian, the youths shouted obscenities at them.

Calls from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and EU countries including Estonia, Denmark and Poland for the EU to ban visas for Russian tourists have further shaken the Russian diaspora, many fearing it could further cut them off from their families . The EU banned flights from Russia earlier this year.

A moratorium on visas could slam the exit door on political dissidents and anyone fleeing Putin’s autocratic rule after tens of thousands of Russians fled in the first months of the war.

EU foreign ministers are due to discuss the proposal at meetings this week, but a bloc-wide ban is unlikely because of opposition from Germany – in part because many Germans, including former Chancellor Willy Brandt, survived the Nazi era thanks to asylum in Sweden and others safe ports. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has already spoken out against an EU-wide ban, even though Baltic states such as Estonia and Finland have begun blocking or severely restricting entry by Russians.

Measures that make the visa process more difficult and cumbersome for Russians are more likely than an absolute ban.

“Travelling to and from Russia is definitely hard enough and an EU travel ban would make it more dangerous for Russians – they would feel more stuck in the country and that’s not a good thing,” said Asya Chavdar, a 32-year-old – year old Russian who lives in Berlin.

Couple who got married in Berlin

Asya Chavdar, right, a Berlin-based Russian from Russia, married American Dennis Harris from Simi Valley in the German capital this month.

(Erik Kirschbaum / For the Time)

Chavdar last week married Dennis Harris, a Simi Valley American who works from the German capital for his Boston-based company. Harris, 37, was able to fly his family straight from California to the wedding, while Chavdar’s parents had to make a detour car trip to Lithuania before boarding a flight to Berlin.

Chavdar, who has lived in Berlin since 2017, said she has not experienced direct hostility from Germans at work or on the street, but that some friends were not so lucky.

“The climate has definitely changed,” she said, noting that her tourist visa application to honeymoon in the United States with her new husband was denied. “I just hope that the world will change and will be a better place soon.”

Andrej Hermlin, a Berlin musician, has kept a Russian number called “Ochi Chernye” (“Dark Eyes”) in his swing dance band’s repertoire, despite rising anti-Russian sentiment.

“We played the song a few weeks ago and there was an older German woman sitting in the front row waving a big thumbs down at the song,” said Hermlin, who is proud of his Russian roots and language skills.

“After the show I asked her what was going on and she said it was unacceptable that we were playing Russian music. I told her about my mother and how she started learning German in Moscow in 1943 because she loved the language and wanted to read German literature,” said Hermlin.

“I told her that if my mother was able to learn German during this war, then she should now be able to hear a Russian song. She said she didn’t see it that way.” Russians living in Germany feel backlash from war in Ukraine

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