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Pádraig Murphy

Goncharov’s Oblomov was published in 1859. It contrasts the hero, Ilya Oblomov, with “the comrade of his youth, his unchanging friend”, Andrei Stolz. Oblomov is a Russian barin, a member of the landed gentry, who, like many of his class at the time, had become demoralised as a “superfluous man” without a role in society other than to get others to work for him, although, this being the point of the novel, he can’t even manage that. Stolz, although Russianised, is the son of a German immigrant to Russia, who ran a school at which Oblomov had been a pupil. The father is described as “capable and strict, like most Germans”. As adults, Oblomov and Stolz remain friends, even as Oblomov lazes his life away, allergic to change of any kind and unwilling even to get out of bed in the morning. Stolz, on the other hand, prospers, marrying Olga, to whom Oblomov is unwilling to commit himself, and eventually taking over the management of Oblomov’s ramshackle estate and turning it around. He is finally unable to get his friend Ilya to engage with life as he sees it. In the course of one of their confrontations on this, Oblomov says to him: “You and I are of different types. You have wings; you do not merely exist – you also fly. You have gifts and ambition; you do not grow fat; specks do not dance before your eyes … my organism and yours are wholly dissimilar.” At a later stage, Oblomov tells Stolz, after he has married Olga: “In your happiness I should see, as in a mirror, my own bitter, broken life. Yet no life but this do I wish, or have it in my power, to live”.

German relations with Russia have a long history, over a thousand years. From the late tenth century the German emperors were intent on evangelising the territories to their east from episcopal sees such as Magdeburg. The regent Olga in Kiev, then the first of Russian cities, was christened as a Greek Orthodox Christian in 955 or 957, but, as if to counterbalance this, invited the Emperor Otto I to send Latin missionaries to Kievan Rus. Although Otto sent Adalbert, who subsequently became Archbishop of Magdeburg, orthodoxy was declared the state religion in 988, as it is said, because the Russians were overwhelmingly impressed with the glories of Constantinople. This was a move that was to be one of the main factors distinguishing Russia from the West, and would lead in due course to its self-declaration as the Third Rome, after which, as was said, there would be no other. This always had the potential to set it at loggerheads with the other empire which proclaimed descent from Rome, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

In the Middle Ages, Germans began to expand eastwards, in the area of Prussia and what are now the Baltic States. The defeat of the Teutonic Order by Alexander Nevskii at the Peipus Lake in 1242 put a stop to this expansion and is celebrated in Russia as establishing the western border against the Germans. It is so celebrated in a film by Sergei Eisenstein, made to compensate for the disgrace into which Stalin had cast him for another film, and all the more effective in that it was seen as boosting Russian morale ahead of the imminently expected confrontation with Nazi Germany. One of the first Western accounts of “Muscovy” comes in the early sixteenth century from Sigismund von Herberstein, an envoy to Vassily III, who took up diplomatic relations with the West. Peter the Great was of course the supreme example of the westernising tendency in Russia. . His significance in Russian history is twofold. He began westernisation, and he did so by means of a forceful change of policy, ruthlessly implemented, which, many would say, had traumatic effects on Russian society.

His first contacts in his efforts to pursue this agenda were with the German colony in Moscow, which had existed since the early sixteenth century. This colony was inhabited not just by Germans, but by foreigners of all sorts, but Germans were a notable component. Here, Peter was first acquainted with contemporary technology in woodwork, boatmaking and the exploitation of wind power. One of his significant acts of statesmanship was to support the 1697 candidacy of August the Strong, prince elector of Saxony, for the kingship of Poland, a move which was in due course to lead to the partition of Poland between Russia, Prussia and Germany, the first of many such partitions in which Russia and Prussia/Germany would be involved. The move also is the first instance of another constant in Russian history, the making of arrangements with German powers of one stripe or another as part of Russian efforts to situate itself on the geopolitical chessboard of Europe. Part of this also was the practice, begun by Peter, of the Russian imperial family marrying into German ruling families. By marrying the daughter of Ivan V to the Duke of Courland, he assured Russia of security there. He went on to secure a support point in the Holy Roman Empire itself by marrying his niece, Katharina Ivanovna, to the Duke of Mecklenburg, Karl Leopold.

Peter’s military campaigns were focused on defeating the Swedes, which he achieved at Poltava in 1709. In a second phase, he subjected the Livonian and Estonian cities and estates, so that by 1716 Russia dominated the whole Baltic coast. From that year until 1992, with only short interruptions, Russian troops were stationed on Polish soil. By the time of the Treaty of Nystad, 1721, Russia had advanced significantly westward, and thus into immediate contact with German powers. Sweden had lost Livonia, Estonia, Ingermanland, parts of Karelia and Viborg, as well as the islands of Ösel and Dragö to Russia. Once established in northastern Europe, Russia, now part of the pan-European chessboard, manoeuvred to defend and maintain its position. France endeavoured through the barrière de l’Est, a permutation of relations with Sweden, Poland and the Ottoman Empire to forestall and drive back this advance. Russia reacted, significantly through Ostermann, one of two Germans ‑ the other being Münnich – who effectively ran the administration under Peter’s successor, Anna, by agreeing with the two largest German states, Austria and Prussia, on the “entente cordiale of the Three Black Eagles”. In the Polish Succession War of 1733-1736 Russia, in alliance with Austria and Saxony, succeeded in getting the Russian candidate, August III of Saxony, on the Polish throne against the French candidate, Stanisław Leszczyński, and Poland’s feudal dependence, Courland, in compensation.

One thing that neither Peter nor many of his successors achieved was to bring about an orderly imperial succession. This was dependent on favourites, support groups and the Petersburg guards regiments. Peter himself was succeeded, thanks to the intervention of his close collaborator and friend, AD Menshikov, by his widow, a Lithuanian serving maid from a peasant family, who had first been Menshikov’s lover, then Peter’s, before he married her after she had borne several children by him. After a number of other more or less irregular successions, including that of Anna, already mentioned, some involving murder, what has been called the Romanov-Holstein-Gottorp dynasty began. One of the greatest Russian rulers, Catherine the Great, came to the throne following the disposition of the Empress Elizabeth, who decreed that she would be succeeded by the son of her sister Anna Petrovna, who had been married in Schleswig-Holstein. She brought him to Petersburg and married him to Princess Sophie Auguste Friederike of Anhalt-Zerbst. He was Karl Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp, and became emperor in 1761 as Peter III. But, at the behest of his wife, he was arrested in June 1762 by guards officers. She, although ostensibly only exercising the monarchy on behalf of her minor son, was proclaimed Empress Catherine II in a coup. Her husband was murdered shortly after. This Russian ruler, and one of the greatest, thus had a completely German blood line. This is not to say that she was anything but Russian in her policy: she is called great because of her insistent and successful pursuit of Russian grand imperial objectives. As well as extending the empire at the cost of the Ottomans along the Black Sea coast, she invited in 1763 Germans to settle the newly conquered territories here and elsewhere. This was the beginning of a long-lasting settlement by Germans in parts of Russia, a phenomenon that ended, around Saratov, for instance, only with Stalin’s deportation of German (and other) ethnic minorities during World War II.

The expansionist policy of Frederick the Great, on the other hand, tended to create problems for Russian Western policy, so that, under AP Bestuzhev-Ryumin, the country joined in alliance with France and Austria to stop him. What seemed like certain defeat of Prussia was, however avoided by a turn in Russian policy, “the miracle of the House of Brandenburg”, brought about by the new Tsar, Peter III, long an admirer of Frederick, who, after a truce, pulled back his troops from Prussia and concluded an alliance with its ruler. This ended the priority given by Catherine to an alliance with Austria. It meant, however, that the favouring of Prussia as an ally came at the cost of Poland. After the death of August III in 1764, the Polish-Saxon union was dissolved, and Poland was divided in 1772, 1793 and 1795.

Prussia’s relations with Russia were to be crucial during the Napoleonic Wars. The new Emperor, Alexander I, paid a visit to the king and queen of Prussia at Memel. Alexander was greatly taken with both, admiring both Frederick William and Louise – who was to charm many. The visit was important in that it established the position of Prussia as the junior partner of the by now superpower Russia, and, at the same time, was to dash the hopes of Poland. Adam Czartoryski, until then in effect Alexander’s foreign minister, had hoped to manoeuvre Prussia into the enemy side in an inevitable war with Napoleon, so that Poland would be restored in the aftermath. Unknown to Czartoryski, Alexander sent an envoy to Berlin in 1805 to persuade Frederick William to join the allies. What the envoy could not achieve, Napoleon, by marching across Prussian territory at Ansbach, did. Prussia agreed to join the allies with an army of 180,000 men. Further manoeuvrings between pro-French and pro-Russian factions ensued, at one stage leading to a tilt towards Russia, which resulted in 1807 in the Convention of Bartenstein between the two countries, which would have seen Prussia restored to its borders of 1805, or receiving equivalent compensation. In an indication of the ambitions of Alexander to dispose of the affairs of Germany, as well as a foretaste of Prussian designs on Germany as a whole, it also proposed the setting up of a constitutional federation, with defensible frontiers along the Rhine, and a reconciliation between Austria and Prussia. In the course of the Russian pursuit of the westward retreat in 1813 of the grande armėe, Prussia became the first country to the west of Russia to join in the campaign. The Russian forces were greeted in Prussian towns and villages as liberators. Heinrich Freiherr von Stein, the great Prussian administrative reformer, who had fled to Russia in 1812, had organised propaganda among the German soldiers of the grande armėe in Russia and had recruited from them a small German legion to fight on the Russian side, was placed by the tsar in charge of administration of liberated Prussian territory. The Russian forces in the area were led by General Diebitsch, born in Silesia, and one of his aides was Karl von Clausewitz, the Clausewitz who had left Prussian territory only a few months earlier because he believed Prussia should leave its alliance with France and join with Russia in opposing Napoleon. The propaganda conducted by Stein and his confederates was becoming increasingly effective in promoting a Prussian/German nationalistic feeling in opposition to the French. When the Russian forces led by Diebitsch crossed the Prussian border, they encircled a Prussian unit supporting the grande armėe, led by General Yorck von Wartenburg. In negotiations conducted in German – the Russian side consisted of Diebitsch, Clausewitz and Dohna, another Prussian, of eminent ancestry; the Prussian of Yorck, his adjutant, Roeder, and Major von Seydlitz – the Prussian side agreed on December 30th, 1813 to remain neutral for two months. Frederick William having in the meantime been consulted, agreed, after some hesitation, and concluded an alliance with Russia and declared war on Napoleon in February 1813. The agreement is known as the Tauroggen Convention, and has since then achieved almost symbolic significance as the propensity of Prussia/Germany to seek Russian support in its quarrels with Western powers, especially France.

Understandings between Prussia/Germany and Russia were almost always fateful for a third party, Poland (and, indeed, the other smaller nationalities, such as the Lithuanians, the Latvians and the Estonians who had the misfortune to come between them). The first fruit of the post-Napoleonic settlement at the Congress of Vienna was the truncation of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, with Russia receiving the largest part, Prussia getting Thorn and Posen, and Austria East Galicia.

After Nicholas I succeeded his brother Alexander in 1825, he saw his role as that of the gendarme of Europe, to use Herzen’s phrase. In this guise, he was decisive in putting down the Hungarian revolt of 1848 in the interests of Austria. The Holy Alliance, a concept that one Barbara Juliane von Krüdener, from Riga, persuaded Alexander to realise, was an alliance between the forces of “legitimacy” as seen by Petersburg, that is, the Russian, Prussian and German monarchies, against the forces of anarchy. Nicholas’s conception of what it entailed was that of a duty to fight the forces that questioned this legitimacy, also in the interests of the Germans themselves.

Russia might have wished to remain faithful to the ideology of the Holy Alliance as she saw it, but realpolitik was to divide the members of the alliance. The Crimean War saw Austria take what was seen in Petersburg as an opportunistic stance which advanced Vienna’s position in southeast Europe, an area in which, as the century progressed, Russia came to regard itself as having a paramount interest in, for geopolitical – read, hoping to take advantage of the decline of the sick man of Europe, the Ottoman Empire – and, later, in addition, for ethnic, panSlavist, reasons. Prussia, on the other hand, had remained neutral in the war. Russia was, accordingly, and crucially, a relatively benevolent bystander during the spectacular rise of Prussia, in the process of which Saxony, Denmark, Austria and France were defeated and forced to cede territory. This period was dominated in Prussia/Germany by the figure of Bismarck who, significantly enough, in the course of his rise had served as ambassador to St Petersburg, and was profoundly convinced of the vital necessity for his country to maintain good relations with the tsarist empire; that this was so was after all evident from the stance taken by Russia during Prussia’s rise. A first gift of the new Prussia under Bismarck to Petersburg came in the shape of – what else? – assistance in the suppression by Russia of the Polish revolt of 1863. In what has gone down in history as the Alvensleben Convention, Bismarck offered the Russians the cooperation of Prussian forces in suppressing the revolt. Referring to the Poles, he had already claimed in his Petersburg time “I have every sympathy for their position, but, if we wish to maintain ourselves, we have no alternative to exterminating them.”

And so Bismarck conducted while he was in power an extraordinarily complex set of international agreements, some – the most important elements – secret, with a view to avoiding what he called le cauchemar des coalitions (the nightmare of coalitions) and sustaining his and Prussia’s realpolitik-based diplomatic position. Perhaps the centrepiece of this elaborate construction was the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887 with Russia, the culmination of almost thirty years of his diplomatic manoeuvring. This astonishing construct provided that each side would maintain neutrality in any conflict with third countries, except that if one party attacked Austria, when Germany would have to enter on Austria’s side, or that the other attacked France, in which case Russia would have a free hand in deciding what to do. The Balkans were recognised as a Russian sphere of interest, while Russia’s interests in the Straits were endorsed. Given the determination of France never to accept the loss of Alsace-Lorraine and the equally clear intent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to expand in southeastern Europe, it seems unlikely that even a political genius like Bismarck could keep such a system in being. Indeed, it did not survive his departure from the scene in 1890, famously caricatured in Punch as the pilot leaving the ship of the German Empire. When Bismarck reproached his successor, Caprivi, with not renewing it, Caprivi, a military man, replied: “A man like you can play with five balls at the same time, while others do well if they can manage one or two.”

The soul of the Russian people is characterised by keen-wittedness, deepness of feeling and national pride. Changes between cheerfulness and melancholy are typical of Russians. It has in abundance the impregnable rawness of nature, patience and submissiveness, but is also brought up to fatalism, so that with the exception of the Great Russian people of the Cossacks, they have lost the power of action. The long winter encouraged the Russians and trained them in skill with their hands, skill in trading (peddlers) and practical good sense, but led them also to sluggishness and drunkenness. The Russian peoples are half Asiatic. Their spirit is not independent. A sense of truthfulness was replaced by blind belief. They lack the drive to research. Grovelling, corruption and uncleanliness are genuine Asiatic qualities. E. von Seydlitz, Geographie:Kleines Lehrbuch, Breslau 1908.

The Russian Socialists’ emigrant organisation in Berne proposed in 1918 to the German minister there that, if their friends could travel without hindrance to Petrograd, they would see to it that pacifists came to power and that the war on the eastern front would end. In due course, thanks to a decision taken by Erich Ludendorff, the famous sealed train brought a group of sixty revolutionaries, including Lenin, across Germany to Rügen, from where they got to Petrograd through Sweden and Finland. True, the Bolsheviks’ eventual offer of a peace without annexations cut little ice with the German High Command. After inconclusive negotiations on this basis at Brest-Litovsk, Germany imposed on Lenin’s new regime, after Russian troops had just left the front without concluding any agreement, a settlement which had German forces occupying Latvia, Estonia and the Ukraine without contest, and reaching further, to the Crimea and the Caucasus. It was, of course, only a matter of some more months before all this and more had to be renounced, the renunciation formalised at the Versailles Peace Conference.

For a time after the end of the war, extending indeed to 1923, there seemed every prospect that Germany would follow the Russian path to revolution. Local “Soviets” were proclaimed in different parts of the country, most famously in Munich. Reaction against this trend was an important factor in the genesis of the Nazi party. In the wider international perspective, two pariah states emerged in the Versailles system, Weimar Germany and the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic, founded in July 1918. They were soon to find one another, on the German side to escape restrictions on military build-up as well as to avail of a promising market; on the Soviet side, to benefit from prospective technological innovation through investment. Rapallo is the name given to this rapprochement. The agreement concluded in that Italian town in 1922 between Walter Rathenau, the Weimar foreign minister, and Grigorii Chicherin, the foreign commissar, was in most respects a classical trade agreement, incorporating accords on the establishment of diplomatic and consular relations, renunciation of military and civilian reparations and regulation of the status of each country’s citizens in the other. But the really significant rapprochement had begun earlier, as of 1920, at the behest of Hans von Seeckt, the head of the Reichswehr, who planned to evade Versailles restrictions by building up a new Wehrmacht of sixty-three divisions and establishing armaments factories in Soviet territory, above all, aircraft factories. This he achieved; the counterparty on the Soviet side was delivery of war matériel to the value of 300 million gold marks, at first on credit. It is to be remarked that, as well as evading the Versailles provisions, a shared aim of constricting Poland was a motivation for this cooperation among the losers. Versailles had left the Reich’s eastern border without definitive demarcation, and Polish efforts, under Piłsudski, to expand its territory in Silesia had provoked the reaction of the Freikorps. On the Russian side, Piłsudski had managed to expand his territory into the Ukraine, at one stage taking Kiev, before being beaten back by Budyonny’s Red Cavalry. Seeckt it was who said “he wished for a strengthening of Russia in the economic and political fields, that is, the military field, and thus, indirectly, Germany’s own strengthening”. His declared final objective was the overthrow of “one of the strongest pillars of the Versailles Treaty”, meaning Poland. This, he hoped, could be brought about by a Soviet-Polish war, in which Germany should take part, of course, “on the right side”. A more clearly expressed ambition to partition Poland once again could hardly be asked for. The military cooperation became so important for each side that in 1930, when Stalin was already in power, a further treaty on armaments cooperation was signed by both sides, on the German side this time not by a representative of government but by the firm Rheinmetall.

This was the prologue to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, a Russian-German non-aggression pact which also went much further, in effect carving the whole of Eastern Europe into Russian and German spheres of influence. It was so counter to the image that the Soviet Union wished to present of itself to the rest of the world that, even in Gorbachev’s time, it could not be admitted that the Soviet archives contained the protocols dividing up the huge territories. What subsequently happened in these territories was unprecedented in human history, if only because the technology used to implement the unheard of savagery was itself the most advanced in human history. Timothy Snyder has described it all in his aptly named book Bloodlands, summing it up in the preface:

In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered fourteen million people. The place where all the victims died, the bloodlands, extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States. During the consolidation of National Socialism and Stalinism (1933-1938), the joint German-Soviet occupation of Poland (1939-1941), and then the German-Soviet war (1941-1945), mass violence of a sort never before seen in history was visited upon these lands. The victims were chiefly Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians and Balts, the peoples native to these lands. The fourteen million were murdered over the course of only twelve years, between 1933 and 1945, while both Hitler and Stalin were in power. Though their homelands became battlefields midway through this period, these people were all victims of murderous policy rather than casualties of war. The Second World War was the most lethal conflict in world history, and about half the soldiers who perished on all of its battlefields all the world over died here, in this same region, in the bloodlands. Yet not a single one of the fourteen million murdered was a soldier on active duty. Most were women, children, and the aged; none were bearing weapons; many had been stripped of their possessions, including their clothes.

By way of all this happening, Poland was partitioned for the fourth time between Germany and, effectively, Russia. But this was, of course, only one instance of the ultima ratio of realpolitik: the fate of those caught up between cynical powers to their east and to their west in an age of technologically fuelled ideological confrontation. What is notable is its persistence, the ideology apart, over centuries.

It is not necessary to rehearse what happened after 1941, when the cynical cooperation came to an end, except perhaps to note that, strikingly, the German colony in Moscow did not suffer discrimination in the midst of this disaster. There was, it is reported, no Germanophobia among Soviet citizens at the outbreak of war, the feeling being that ordinary Germans could be brought around to the Russian/Soviet point of view.

The 1945 settlement saw Poland shifted as a whole to the West, with a border now along the Oder and Neisse rivers. The Russian sphere of influence extended much further west, to the very centre of Germany. When Stalin was congratulated on this achievement, his response was to point out that Tsar Alexander had got to Paris. The Yalta and Potsdam agreements were designed to so tie down the Germans that they could never again unleash such a war. We know that this sentiment ruled the day in Moscow long after it came to be regarded as passé in the West. The Germans west and east quite simply became recruits into the opposing sides in the Cold War. On the western side, the Federal Republic under Adenauer had so wholeheartedly committed to the western alliance that he resisted Stalin’s blandishments to abandon it in favour of a dangled reunification. On the eastern side, the GDR became such an exemplary pupil under Ulbricht that it saw itself in the position of exhorting Moscow on the correct interpretation of Marxism-Leninism, and, eventually, had to be warned by Gorbachev that history punished those who came too late. The division between East and West ran through the centre of Germany. I recall when speaking of Germans to Russians in the eighties being asked whether the reference was to “our” Germans or “their” Germans.

With time, of course, the German-Russian relation has taken on again some, if by no means all, of its historic colouring. The collapse of the Soviet system saw Germany resuming a central place in Russian calculations. Gorbachev, in his efforts to promote perestroika, resorted to using his leverage with Germany to get sorely needed aid and more general support internationally. His main Western champion was Helmut Kohl – for a time, of course, Kohl’s objective of reunification opened the way to Gorbachev’s need for a quid pro quo. Kohl, for his part, held out on formal recognition of the Oder-Neisse line until quite late in the Two plus Four negotiation. After reunification, Germany, at least in the person of the then defence minister, Volker Rühe, saw the country’s role as an exporter of security to the extent of pushing for NATO membership for Poland, the Baltic states, Romania and Bulgaria. This is seen by many in Russia as a breach of faith on the part of the West.

For some time now German-Russian relations have been marked chiefly by energy concerns. The Soviet Union and its successor, the Russian Federation, has become the most important supplier of natural gas to Germany. In the eighties, when Ronald Reagan was trying to discredit the very concept of East-West detente, Germany was the driving force of those who thought, in contrast to Washington, that Western financing of a gas pipeline from the USSR to Europe could serve the dual purpose of promoting energy security and detente. Since then this aspect of German-Russian cooperation has taken on much greater prominence. One-third of all gas reserves of the world are in Russia, and Germany gets 45 per cent of its gas from Russia. While there is some debate – mainly on the Russian side – as to whether Russia uses its gas supplies for purposes of political blackmail, there is little doubt elsewhere, particularly in the lands between Germany and Russia, that it does. Already during the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin turned off the gas supply to the Baltic States. In winter 2006 the supply to Ukraine was turned off for a few hours, when Kiev did not wish to accept Russian price proposals. This was repeated the following winter in Belarus. At this time too, supplies to Georgia were cut off, allegedly because North Caucasian “terrorists” had damaged the pipeline. On New Year’s Day 2009 the pressure in the pipeline to Ukraine suddenly fell – Russia and the Ukraine had been arguing about the price. Soon the supplies through Ukraine were turned off, and with that, not only heating and energy for Ukraine, but also for Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Slovakia. After eighteen days, Ukraine submitted, and the prime minister, Yulia Timoshenko, agreed a new contract under which shortly after the gas price in Ukraine became the highest in Europe. In due course, Timoshenko lost an election, and her successor, Viktor Yanukovich, signed a new agreement, which also included a twenty-five-year extension for the Russian Black Sea fleet in the Ukrainian harbour Sevastopol.

The political sensitivity of gas supply is also illustrated by the North Stream pipeline, a joint German-Russian project, already realised, which brings Russian gas across the North Sea to Germany, avoiding such countries as the Baltic states and Poland, through which this gas had hitherto transited. At a stroke, so to speak, the Germans and the Russians had once again done a deal over the heads of their intervening neighbours, leaving them completely open to the kind of Russian gas blackmail that some of them had already suffered, and that has become regrettably clear in the meantime in relation to Ukraine. To add to the insensitivity, Gerhard Schröder, having failed to retain the chancellorship, joined the board of Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly. Not that Angela Merkel has been any less enthusiastic about North Stream. But there is now a greater awareness in Berlin that the EU as a whole has an interest in avoiding a Russian supply monopoly, as well as Russian attempts to increase leverage by also buying into delivery infrastructure in Europe. This is a move away from an earlier approach that suggested that, on the analogy of the Coal and Steel Community, there might be an interest in firmly binding Russia into European energy structures, given that there were no immediate prospects of Russian membership of NATO or the EU. Favouring such a move away from binding Russia to Europe with gas are technological developments. Shale gas production can prospectively replace Russian supplies. The production need not necessarily be in Europe itself, although it seems likely enough in Poland, for example. But liquefied natural gas (LNG) can be supplied across greater distances, and both Ukraine and Lithuania are building re-gasification stations to process it.

Since last year, indeed, the mood music in the Berlin government in regard to Russia has radically changed. The chancellor candidate of the SPD, Peer Steinbrück, following a line propagated by former Chancellor Schmidt, earlier this year stated that under all circumstances Russia would remain a partner, explaining that it had to be understood that Western categories of pluralistic democracy were not without qualification transferable to Russia. This does not seem to be a line destined to prosper in the general election campaign, nor is it that of Chancellor Merkel. The difference would appear to be the re-election of Vladimir Putin. His moves since re-election against foreign-subsidised organisations in Russia, particularly the raid on the Konrad Adenauer Foundation office in Moscow, have been very badly received in Berlin. The coordinator of the federal government for relations with Russia, Andreas von Schockenhoff, laid out in the Bundestag even before this raid the following critical concerns: an absence of progress in modernisation of Russian society, a growing alienation between society and government, including in connection with the staged succession Medvedev-Putin, the falsification of parliamentary election results, the maintenance of vertical power and centralisation and, consequently, f bureaucratisation and corruption. As well as this, the German federal president, Joachim Gauck, has now publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with deficits in the state of law, an imperialistic attitude and hindrance of critical media. Chancellor Merkel has been notably cool, and the declared Year of German-Russian relations, which ran from mid-2012 to mid-2013, has not gone well in terms of relations between her and Vladimir Putin. The Russian reaction to this has some similarities with the stance of the SPD. Vladislav Belov, of the influential Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, puts it this way:

German and European politicians must understand that, although the processes of economic and political modernisation in Russia proceed in parallel (and indeed they are developing), their speeds differ substantially. Economic/technological changes will always happen essentially quicker than political ones, at the same time producing favourable preconditions for the latter. For this reason, it is necessary to reinforce state support in those areas where it will result in the fastest possible result, and not put pressure on those questions which need both time and delicate handling.

This is remarkable in its correspondence to the Marxist theory of the superstructure and the base, the former, culture essentially, being dependent on development of the latter, essentially the economy. It will be seen not only in Germany as too self-serving a thesis, saying in effect to Putin, please go ahead and develop your economic potential to the maximum and we don’t care how many human rights eggs you break on the way.

In sum, Germany’s relations with Russia are crucial to Europe as a whole, and have in the past been fatal for many other Europeans as well as for themselves. The most drastically affected have been the lands between. This may have changed, inasmuch as some lessons have been learned from the past. The most crucial of these lessons was learned not in regard to German-Russian relations, but in relation to France. This is what gave rise to the European Union. The very existence of the EU changes the picture radically. For one, Germany is no longer in quite the same middle position, causing cauchemars de coalitions, and the efforts to escape them, as in the past. For another, the lands between are now for the most part themselves members of the EU, and at the table when decisions vitally affecting them are taken. Much also depends on the evolution of Russia itself: in Berlin and many other capitals the prognosis in this regard is not now very good.

My name Viktor, the victor, was given to me by my parents in honour of the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany. In my youth Germany was above all a transit country where I stopped over on my way to France or the United States. In the meantime however my relation to it has become extraordinarily close. Nowhere do I find such attentive serious readers as in Germany. The Germans, in distinction to almost all other Europeans, seem to have no allergy against representatives of foreign cultures, as for example me. They don’t react to one immediately emotionally, but listen first and then come to a judgement. In Germany, I can write in practically every newspaper, something unthinkable in France or Great Britain. German culture is open and elastic and therefore attractive. It doesn’t demand from a foreigner that he leave his own culture in the cloakroom. For this reason, I feel myself almost at home as a Russian in Germany.
For us there is a saying that emigration only begins at the French border. The significance of the relation to Germany is also, because it is so close, easily underestimated in Russia. In pre-revolutionary Russia Germans occupied whole professions which we didn’t have. Pharmacists, scientists, brewers, teachers were not known by their nationality, only from our point of view, because they spoke no Russian, were called nemtzy, the dumb ones.
Today we are understood best in Germany also because the National Socialist past and how to deal with it are part of the historical horizon. Of course the hope of the Germans, that Russia might also pass judgement on its past, has not been realised. “Democracy” in Russia is hardly more than a sound. For this reason the German President Joachim Gauck recently clearly criticised the deficit of Russia as a state of law. For us the responsible thinking of the Germans is important, and the demands that they make of themselves. Nowhere except possibly in Iran are my books translated with so much deep understanding as in Germany. In return, we can offer above all creativity, and that is more important than the political games of the day. ‑ Viktor Yerofeyev, born 1947, writer, in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, July 2nd, 2013.

Further to the reference at the beginning to Oblomov, I would mention that the novel figures in Heinrich Böll’s well-known account of the Ireland he knew and loved in the fifties of the last century, Irisches Tagebuch. When Böll is beginning to acclimatise himself to Ireland, having arrived in Dublin on the boat from Holyhead, he finds himself in a boarding house in Westland Row, where he picks up a copy of the Irish Digest. He is struck by one of the brief quotations on page 23: The cemeteries, it says, are full of indispensable people. Subsequently, he sees at a newspaper kiosk a book “unnoticed between the pamphlets, its white title framed in red, already smudged, to be had as an antique for a shilling, and so I bought it. It was Goncharov’s Oblomov in an English translation. I knew of course that Oblomov lived 4,000 kilometres further east, but also suspected that he belonged in this country where early rising is hated.” Böll here, as throughout Irisches Tagebuch, is more or less implicitly making a cultural criticism of the flourishing Wirtschaftswunder of the time in Germany, but the fact that he sees some similarities between the Ireland of the fifties and pre-revolutionary Russia is not without its piquancy.

Gerhard Herm, Deutschland Russland, Tausend Jahre einer seltsamen Freundschaft, Hamburg, Rasch und Röhring 1990.
Nils Hoffmann, Renaissance der Geopolitik, Springer VS, Wiesbaden, 2012.
Peter Brandt, (ed.), Der grosse Nachbar im Osten, Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, Berlin, 2012.
Vladislav Belov in Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’, Moscow, April 2013.


Pádraig Murphy is a retired official of the Department of Foreign Affairs. He served as ambassador to the then Soviet Union from 1981 to 1985.



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