War polarizes debate. And the sympathies of post-Soviet migrants living in Central Europe have come under extra scrutiny since war broke out in Ukraine. A closer look at the immigrant demographic in Germany reveals a more complicated picture of suspected Russophilia.
Almost every overheard conversation on German streets, in its cafés and shops is about the war in Ukraine. But it affects Germany’s inhabitants in different ways, updating different memories, evoking different reactions and actions. Due to their origins, those from the former Soviet Union – post-Soviet migrants – feel particularly affected by this war, regardless of their stances towards it. The war has a direct impact on their lives: it affects family members and friends in Ukraine and Russia, and is leaving a mark on their local migrant communities.
The 3.5 million people living in Germany from a post-Soviet migrant background are not a homogeneous group.1 Around 2.3 million moved to Germany in the 1990s as ‘repatriates’ (i.e., as ‘ethnic Germans’ or members of their families). A further 220,000 people immigrated as Jewish ‘quota refugees’ and their relatives. In addition, there are immigrants from various former Soviet republics who moved to Germany as educational migrants, labour migrants, refugees, and so on.
While the majority speak Russian, only a minority identify themselves as Russians: according to a representative survey conducted by the Boris Nemtsov Foundation (BNF) in 2016, 18% of post-Soviet migrants in Germany identified themselves as Russians, compared with 44% Germans, 19% Europeans and 2% Ukrainians.2 We therefore cannot speak of the attitude of the post-Soviet migrant community towards the war.
There are significantly different responses within the broad groups. We can offer just a few highlights based on longer-term research into these different communities and on current observations from ongoing field research.
Complex fault lines
Since the ‘Lisa incident’,3 post-Soviet migrants, especially the more numerous Russian-German demographic, have been considered particularly sympathetic towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But the actual situation is not that simple. The BNF study found that about one sixth of respondents could be described as extremely ‘pro-Russian’. These were disproportionately, yet by no means exclusively, aged 55 years and older.4 The authors of the study identified another sixth as ‘particularly German’ (a somewhat unclear category that referred to both ethnic self-identification and progressive or liberal values).5 The remaining two thirds of the respondents could not be clearly assigned.
In addition, while 52% of all respondents fully or partially agreed that the West treats Russia with prejudice in foreign policy, only 14% affirmed that Russia has the right to interfere in Ukrainian politics – the lowest rate of agreement of all questions related to Russian foreign policy. Indeed, 42% disagreed.6 Thus only a small portion supported an expansive ‘Greater Russian’ agenda in Ukraine.
The complex fault lines within post-Soviet communities and families are now coming to light. As suggested by the above data, these run partly along generational lines – there are even support groups for young people who argue with their parents about these issues. But partly these divisions cut across generations: some older people criticise Putin’s policies and young people support them. A similar trend was observed following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. However, now, the arguments are more heated. ‘The war has moved into people’s living rooms’, as one interviewee put it.
Nevertheless, disputes are not limited to just being ‘for’ and ‘against’ the war or Putin, as complex feelings across different groups show: a young Russian-speaking man, who has clearly taken a stand against Putin, returns saddened from visiting relatives in Russia. Despite his political views, a significant part of his life is linked to Russia. He cannot understand what the political decision to seal off Russia will mean for his family’s transnational life.
An elderly man, who has argued with his relatives about these events, criticizes EU politicians for their willingness to negotiate with the Russian government: ‘How many countries has Russia already attacked? Nothing was done. Poisoning people in Britain with polonium. Also nothing. Putin has always been a criminal Communist.’ A couple who wanted to move back to Russia are worried about the future. While one woman questions who exactly is to blame for the war, another speaks out against it and all Russian-speaking people in Germany who would support ‘something like that’.
There are certainly those who follow the official Kremlin line, as conveyed in Russian state media, in part even intensified by the war. But there are also those who now doubt Putin’s measures or speak out against the war. And solidarity and assistance for Ukraine has been mobilized: among young ‘post-Ostis’ in Berlin and other Russian-German individuals; among the Association of Germans from Russia (Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland); among Jewish communities, whose members often come from Ukraine; and among Russian-German and Russian-speaking Free Church congregations, which collect donations of money and food for Ukrainians and travel with buses to pick up Ukrainian ‘sisters’ and ‘brothers’ from Romania.
Fear of hostility
Personal biographies, transnational relations and previous experiences in the German context variously shape these reactions. Even if political interpretations of the situation crystallize into clear patterns, people’s perceptions cannot be so easily categorized. Many aspects complicate the picture, not least the fears and dividing lines associated with one’s everyday life.
Since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, concerns have been spreading among these communities that ethnic German immigrants and other Russian-speaking people are being held responsible in Germany for Putin’s policies. Videos, photos and texts circulating on WhatsApp are supposed to prove hostility: from the window of a Russian shop smeared with the graffiti ‘Putin the murderer’ and negative comments towards Russian restaurants to video stories about armed attacks on Russian-speaking truck drivers.
Even if the credibility of these and many other examples cannot always be confirmed or turn out to be outright fakes, they are often interpreted by Russian media as signs of Russophobia in Germany. AfD-affiliated Russian-German groups such as the International People’s Council of Russian Germans further fuel these fears.
These stories do, however, confirm experiences from everyday life, which people share with each other out of fear and despair. A woman, who came to Germany in the 1990s as a late repatriate, says that the war has spread beyond the borders of Ukraine and is influencing the experiences of post-Soviet migrants. ‘It hurts’, she says, to be called a Russian again and, thus, automatically a Putin supporter.
Some people connect the current situation with broader feelings of being treated as ‘others’ in Germany. They tell us how their legitimate German identity was disputed upon arrival, and this demarcation between ‘natives’ and ‘foreigners’ was never properly processed. ‘Once my granddaughter came home and asked “Grandma, am I Russian?” It was painful to hear something like that.’
For many, their very language seems to be a source of great discomfort and a personal explanation for possible exclusion and hostility. Even before the Ukraine war, the often poor German language skills of many older ethnic German immigrants and quota refugees served as a reminder that they did not really belong.
Today, the old experiences of this trauma are being examined with new intensity and used as layers to interpret everyday public encounters. ‘I was in the bakery yesterday,’ a woman quietly tells the others in Russian, ‘and when I spoke, everyone went quiet. Everyone was staring at me.’ Two other women greet each other in Russian in a café and one of them notices that a family suddenly looks at her: ‘Watch how they look at us, probably because we are speaking Russian.’
Even though many people have not been personally affected by such incidents, stories like these are seen as credible and feed further into the subjective feelings of fear linked to their own past biases.
Georgians in Germany
The current war in Ukraine is not the first military conflict in the post-Soviet space in recent years and decades: there are post-Soviet migrants in Germany who have experienced war already, which shapes their view of current events. When migrants from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia talk about the current situation in Ukraine, for example, different memories coalesce. They are overwhelmingly imbued with fear and sadness. The various wars that Georgian citizens have experienced are being remembered, and these past events are colouring their interpretations of today’s events.
The fact that the war in Ukraine is a humanitarian catastrophe is not controversial among Germans with or without immigrant background. However, this war has further implications beyond its human cost. People from Georgia see it as a catalyst for a ‘turnaround’ in Europe’s policy towards Russia, which could have a huge role in shaping their country’s future as Russia’s neighbour. In this respect, today’s war is not only a fight for peace but also a war for the hope of Georgia’s security.
It has been almost fourteen years since the 2008 war that saw Russian troops advance deeply into Georgian territory. But, in the face of recent events, the sad memories ‘from back then’ come to the fore again, ‘like it is happening today’. For migrants from Georgia, today’s war was not as ‘unexpected’ and ‘unimaginable’ as many European citizens may have thought. For them, it is another link in a long chain of steps that Russia’s government has taken towards several countries in the post-Soviet space, some of them even before Putin’s administration began. There are those who see the whole process as Russia’s ‘imperialist’ project to ‘reconquer its peripheries’, as one respondent puts it.
Migrants from Georgia are more surprised by Europe’s position than Putin’s and are hopeful that this time something will change. There’s hope that the war in Ukraine will make Georgia’s past wars visible to the West and the unseen suffering of the war in 2008 could become comprehensible in Europe. They consider this ‘turning point’ in European attitudes as a very important ‘window of opportunity’ for Georgia, which should be seized. And it is at this imaginative moment ‘where we stand’ (in the words of these respondents) that opinions diverge and lines of conflict from their country of origin multiply.
We observe four main positions. First, Ukraine is fighting for all of us, including Georgia’s citizens and Europeans. Second, if Ukraine falls, the fate of many other countries in and outside Europe is at risk. The Russian government’s imperialist project will not end there. Third, for people in and from Georgia, the hope of membership in the European Union is the hope for a peaceful existence. And four, there is a political division among migrant circles regarding participation in the sanctions against Russia.
One side believes that Georgia is not in a position to participate in sanctions, because it should avoid further military conflict with Russia: ‘after all, we saw what happened back then, no one will protect us.’ The other, however, sees today’s situation as a choice between ‘good’ and ‘evil’: ‘let’s decide where we stand’.
Ongoing, peaceful pro-Ukraine demonstrations in front of the Georgian parliament in the capital, Tbilisi, signal which side at least a large part of the Georgian population is on. The visibility of Georgians at Ukrainian demonstrations, for example in Berlin, is also significant. Georgian contributions along the lines of ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ were particularly well received. Feelings of togetherness between these two groups of migrants have increased. People meet here, on ‘foreign’ German soil, to demonstrate against past and present suffering together.
This sense of belonging has a very practical dimension. When an aid campaign for Ukraine was announced, respondents did not hesitate to get involved. They gathered items from home (clothes, blankets, etc.) and bought personal hygiene items and sweets. Children painted pictures for their peers in the warzones. As has often been the case, times of war bear witness not only to atrocities, misery and failure but also to humanity, compassion and solidarity. It may seem like a tiny drop in the ocean, but it is what each and every one of us says and does that counts.
This is a slightly expanded and updated translation of an article first published in German on Zeitgeschichte Online. It is based on project field research undertaken by Alina Jašina-Schäfer and Nino Aivazishvili-Gehne within the framework of VW Foundation-funded research by the Ambivalenzen des Sowjetischen: Diasporanationalitäten zwischen kollektiven Diskriminierungserfahrungen und individueller Normalisierung, 1953-2023 (Ambivalences of the Soviet: Diaspora Nationalities Between Collective Experiences of Discrimination and Individual Normalization, 1953-2023).
For a detailed account of the different communities, see Jannis Panagiotidis, Postsowjetische Migration in Deutschland: eine Einführung (Post-Soviet Migration in Germany: An Introduction), Weinheim: Beltz Juventa, 2021.
Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, Russian-speaking Germans, Berlin, 2016, p. 3.
Russian media coverage-fuelled nationwide demonstrations of the alleged rape of a Russian-German girl in Berlin-Marzahn in January 2016.
Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, Russian-speaking Germans, Berlin, 2016, p. 32-33.
Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, Russian-speaking Germans, Berlin, 2016, p. 37-38.
Boris Nemtsov Foundation, Russians in Germany, Berlin, 2016, p. 29.
This article was taken from Eurozine
published: 19. 4. 2022