Cover Story: 20 Years of German Unity

The Sympathetic Brother

By Sergej Sumlenny

To many Russians, the GDR seemed like a consumers’ paradise enjoying comparative freedom. When the East German “brother nation” chose the West, this surprisingly aroused not disapproval, but sympathy in Russia – a sympathy that continues to this day.

“What I don’t understand about the Berlin Wall …,” a good friend visiting me in Berlin once said, “… if the Wall divided the city of Berlin from north to south – why did people have to flee over the Wall into the West? Why didn’t they just go south or north, then on through GDR territory to Potsdam, and get to West Berlin from there?”

The question initially baffled me. I didn’t know where to start explaining. It shows how little the average Russian citizen – in this case a well-educated and very cosmopolitan one – knows about Germany’s recent history.

For the citizens of the Soviet Union, the GDR was not a cruel country and not the dictatorship that it was to Germans. Compared to the USSR, it was a consumers’ paradise; almost part of the free world. German jackets or pencil cases were well known among generations of children of Soviet army members completing their military service in the GDR – and the cause of boundless envy from the other children in school. Soviet officers were fascinated by German beer (even Vladimir Putin admitted to putting on 15 kg during his service in the GDR). The fact that the GDR had a multiparty system and one of the parties was called “Christian Democratic Union” or that GDR citizens were occasionally permitted to travel to Bulgaria or Hungary left Soviet citizens speechless. The fact that the East German parties were mere puppets was irrelevant – in the USSR even puppets were unthinkable. The GDR was basically the “USSR as it should be”.

Selfevident to Russians – the Wall must fall

It is all the more noteworthy that the citizens of the Soviet Union responded extremely positively to the news that the Wall had come down – although the story was not highest on the agenda because the Russians were experiencing significant upheaval in their own country at the time. Somewhere deep within the Russian world view the idea was firmly rooted that Germany is a united country – and that the Germans are one nation. It seemed only natural that the Germans should remove the Wall that separated them.

Some time ago, I conducted a survey on my blog: What did my readers think back in 1989 when they heard that the Wall had come down? Most of them replied that they had considered it important and good news. This positive perception continues to this day. At a time when the pro-Americanism previously widespread in the USSR had almost disappeared, the positive attitude towards German reunification remained perhaps the one emotion that had originated in the Perestroika period and had continued to gain supporters over the years. “Show me the remains of the Wall,” say all my friends and acquaintances who come to Berlin and freely and admiringly cross the former border at the Brandenburg Gate.

“Consumers’ paradise GDR: even Vladimir Putin admitted to putting on 15 kg during his service in the GDR.”

As unanimous as their joy over the reunification of this foreign country may be, Russians are greatly disappointed by how little the role played in this event by the USSR is recognised, and that recognition is limited to the impact of the then General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.

At the time of the fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989, the Soviet government and Mikhail Gorbachev had – from a short-term point of view – a successful record of stamping out peaceful demonstrations. In December 1986, more than 8,000 people attending a demonstration were arrested in the Kazakh city of Almaty; reprisals against students followed. In April 1989, the Soviet army crushed a demonstration demanding independence from the Soviet Union in Tbilisi, Georgia: 16 demonstrators were killed; almost 300 were injured. In the following two years, the communist dictatorship spilled further blood on the streets of Riga, Vilnius and Moscow. So the Soviet government really had no reason to accept the peaceful reunification of Germany – yet the Soviet troops remained in their barracks!

The Soviet flag as a symbol of freedom

It was even more remarkable that the Soviet Union did not raise any objections to German reunification in the months following 9 November – by contrast with the rather sceptical British and French. If American General Lucius D. Clay saved West Berlin for the free world with the airlift he initiated after the World War II, Soviet party leader Gorbachev was the man who secured Germany for Europe. In the opinion of the Russians, who view Germany’s reunification in the context of the liberation movement in the Soviet Union, the Soviet flag therefore stands not only for the division of Germany and the repression of a communist dictatorship, but also for peaceful unification and Germany’s present-day democracy. Many Russians believe that in Germany, by contrast, the fall of the Wall and the liberation movement in the Soviet Union are seen as two entirely separate things. They find this all the more disappointing because they relate closely with the fall of the Wall.

Regardless of this disappointment, the perception of the reunified Germany in Russia is more than positive, as a survey conducted by the broadcaster Deutsche Welle in Russia in September 2010 shows. According to this survey, 9 percent of Russians believe that Germany is “a reliable partner” for Russia. 31 percent see Germany as a “Russia-friendly country”. For 48 percent of those surveyed, Germany is “a European country like any other”, and only 1 percent fear that Germany is “a country hostile to Russia”. The survey also indicates that Russian hopes of developing close ties with Europe are strongly linked to Germany: 21 percent of Russians say that Germany is the major defender of Russian interests in the European Union ... (second came France with 15 percent, while Poland came third with just 6 percent). In other words, the Russians consider Germany the most important European country and the quintessence of Europe.

published in Humboldt Kosmos 96/2010
Sergej Sumlenny
Sergej Sumlenny
Photo: private

Sergej Sumlenny is the German correspondent for the Russian business magazine Expert in Berlin. He worked at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as a German Chancellor Fellow from 2005 to 2006.