30 years – The Fall of the Berlin Wall: What about Russia?

Thirty years ago the Berlin Wall fell and so did the old world order. The Soviet Union only survived a couple of years. Some might remember the dream of Mikhail Gorbachev about the common “European house”. But now Russia and the European Union seem to stand on opposing grounds. In our three-part publication, our Polish, German and Ukrainian authors describe how people’s opinions towards Russia and the EU in their countries have changed in the last 30 years. In this first part, we publish the reflections about Russia after Berlin Wall falling.  


Dirk Anger (Germany) 

Born 1969, works as an assistant managing editor in the Münster department of the newspaper Westfälische Nachrichten in Münster. He covers topics of Polish politics and society as well as issues of the Polish-German relationship.

No, at the end of the 1980s, you did not have to be one of the very few in the West of Germany, a country divided by a wall and barbed wire, who spoke Russian, to be able to understand a few key words. Glasnost and perestroika, three decades ago, were as common to the collective vocabulary of Germans as vodka or “good morning” from the English beginner’s course. Openness and transformation in Russia were suddenly on everyone’s lips.

The reform efforts initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party Soviet Union at the time, greatly affected the giant empire, which was suffering from severe economic problems. The political thaw unexpectedly opened a window which, with the “Wind of Change”, gave the necessary impetus to the peaceful revolution in East Germany. And the rock ballad almost incidentally became the anthem of the so-called Wende in Germany and of independence in other eastern states.

Gorbachev did not look like former apparatchiks, but rather bore the traits of a people-oriented reformer. In Germany, he received as much gratitude and recognition as probably no Russian politician had before. A certain euphoria spread across the country – not only among Münster-based students in schools in 1989.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the initial impression was that the Russian giant really wanted to build a bridge to Europe. Perhaps it could have been a sign of relief that the end of the post-war world order was nigh, and that a new order with more freedom for all was about to begin.

Thirty years later, not a few Germans are still attached to this aspiration and hope, partly because of a deluded ideology among the extreme left, but mainly, and more likely, because of the fact that for many Germans Putin at least conveys stability to the outside world, regardless of his authoritarian governing style. In contrast to this, an angry, barely calculable US president named Donald Trump shows himself to be the exact opposite.

And because Germans obviously feel a deep longing for stability on a broad front, not only when it comes to political issues, and have a certain fascination for powerful people, they overlook many of the Kremlin’s actions that should be viewed critically.

This is particularly noticeable when you, as a German, immerse yourself in conversation with your Polish friends. Their deep-rooted fear of the Russians usually leads to the question of why Putin is so highly esteemed in Germany and why even a former chancellor is allowed to become a member of the supervisory board of a big state-owned company in Russia.

In fact, the annexation of Crimea in violation of international law, the Kremlin’s protection of the Syrian dictator, the deliberate destabilization of Europe, are all proof of a policy that cements Russia’s  own position of power, and is not evidence of any wish to share common goals with the rest of the continent.

But all this seems to have little effect in Germany and has not led to Russia’s image and behavior being viewed more critically. This is due not least to mutual economic relations, which have gained strategic importance with the construction of the North Stream 2 gas pipeline.

And, of course, Moscow’s media strategies and Gazprom advertising on Bundesliga football jerseys doubtless have their intended effect. At the same time, German football fans are well aware that the host country and Vladimir Putin are definitely not to blame for the embarrassing elimination of Germany from the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.


Kaja Puto

Born 1990, is a journalist, editor, publisher. Her main area of interests includes Eastern Europe, Southern Caucasus, migration and European issues. She has contributed to many magazines and newspapers, including “Krytyka Polityczna”, “Gazeta Wyborcza”, “Polityka”, “New Eastern Europe”, etc. She studied philosophy, political studies and culture studies in Kraków, Berlin and Tbilisi.

Several years ago I had dinner with a Polish-Russian crowd. I was the youngest one – I’m 28 years old and professionally interested in Eastern Europe – while most of the people at our table were way over 50. When one of the Russians cited a quote from the cult soviet movie The Irony of Fate, it turned out that I was the only one among the Poles who had seen it. To the Russians’ surprise, no one else had even heard of it.

Poles who remember the communist times treat Russia with huge reservations. While they seem to understand that Russia does not equal the Kremlin and declare that Russian culture is close to their heart, in practice these statements have little to do with reality. I often hear statements from liberals about Russia that are full of stereotypes or even insults – the same ones they would never dare use against other nationalities.

By 1989, Polish discourse for at least two decades had been significantly detached from what was going on and being discussed in the USSR. The least valuable fashion from the West was more precious to this generation than anything being promoted in the seemingly rough-and-ready USSR. Having bad school grades in then-obligatory Russian was well-perceived, which is why it is still difficult to communicate in this language in Poland even with the older generation.

Due to this aversion caused by forced Sovietisation, in the minds of Poles, Russia constitutes little more than a blank spot. When the Polish media writes about Russia, they mostly focus on what is going on in the Kremlin. Knowledge of the country is selective, stereotypical and based on analogies with the USSR. This ignorance is one of the few things that connects the deeply divided liberal and right-wing-populist echo chambers.   

This is despite the fact that the Polish right’s politics is similar to that of the Kremlin. They promote “traditional values” against trends from the “morally corrupt West” and complain about the almost colonialist humiliation experienced at the hands of global capital. At the same time, the Polish right holds deep anti-Russian sentiments. Funnily enough, they genuinely do not see these analogies, because all they know about Russia is that it is a large, hostile country that does not like Poland.

Blank spots abhor a vacuum. Especially in rebellious countries like Poland. That is why Polish millennials started looking at Russia – but also the whole of Eastern Europe – with curiosity. The so far niche professional circles focusing on the region (although all Poles think of themselves as experts on the East) have been recently joined by young journalists, philologists and political scientists interested in Russia.

It is still not a mainstream phenomenon, but among the so-called educated youth from big cities it is noticeable. Some take a journey with the Trans-Siberian railway listening to Bulat Okudzhava, others are into “gopnik” culture and attend hard-bass parties, and still others fanatically watch Soviet science-fiction movies and wear sack bags with post-ironic slogans written in Cyrillic. With a slight disbelief, young Poles discover how much they have in common with their eastern peers and how much they can learn from each other.

This is not only a rebellion against their big-headed parents. Part of it might be due to the dynamically rising numbers of Russian-speaking students at Polish universities (mainly Ukrainians and Belarusians) and the fact that the political situation in Poland is becoming dangerously similar to the one in Russia.

Tetyana Ogarkova

Born 1979, is a Ukrainian scolar and journalist. She received her PhD in Literature (Université Paris-XII Val-de-Marne,  2007) and lectures at the National University “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy” since 2006. Head of the International Audience Outreach Department at Ukraine Crisis Media Center and journalist at Hromadske.UA.

Thirty years ago, back in the late 1980s, Ukraine was not an independent state — it was a republic of the Soviet Union. Therefore, at that time, one could hardly speak of an authentic Ukrainian national identity—what replaced it throughout the existence of the Soviet Union was Soviet identity. In those days, most people in Ukraine were homo sovieticus.

Today, Ukraine is an independent state with a relatively strong national identity and a military conflict with neighboring Russia. In 2014, after Euromaidan, or the Revolution of Dignity, the Russian Federation illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula; soon afterwards, parts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions became Russia-backed self-proclaimed “People’s  Republics” beyond the control of the Ukrainian government.

Politically, after 2013-2014, Russia lost Ukraine. In early 2015, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a resolution that defined Russia’s actions in Crimea and Donbass as aggression against the Ukrainian state; furthermore, under Ukraine’s new military doctrine, the Russian Federation was defined as Ukraine’s military opponent. In December 2018, the Ukrainian parliament terminated the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation signed in 1997. Petro Poroshenko’s presidency, which began in 2014, is very explicitly anti-Russian and pro-European, focused on Ukraine’s further integration into the EU and NATO. On February 7, 2019 the parliament cemented Ukraine’s course towards the European Union and NATO in its constitution. 

In this context, how has this political shift changed Ukrainian citizens’ attitudes to and perceptions of Russia?

Recent polls suggest a somewhat surprising dynamic. According to the results of a survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology and the Russian Levada Center, in 2018, almost every second resident of Ukraine (48%) said they had a positive attitude towards Russia, despite the dramatic events of the last half a decade.  But while this proportion may seem astonishingly high, the statistic does suggest important changes that have occurred since the start of the war. From 2008 to 2014, about 85-90% of Ukrainians felt positive about Russia.

Perhaps Russia has not lost all its supporters in Ukraine yet, but it has definitely lost the younger generation. With the introduction of visa-free travel to EU countries, Ukrainians, and especially younger ones, began to travel significantly more. People are interested in a democratic lifestyle, decent and comfortable working conditions, and environmental issues. For millennials who don’t have any Soviet past, Russia often seems to be a symbol of conservative and reactionary “family values”.  

These young adults listen to European music and want to buy Ukrainian brands. They quote Ukrainian poets, they discuss human rights and they want to read the world’s bestsellers in Ukrainian translations.

Recently, my MA students asked me to update the reading list of my course on European literary theory. When it comes to French and German sources they want to read them in Ukrainian or Polish, not Russian translations. Meanwhile, an initiative started by parents from my daughter’s school requires that the second foreign language not be Russian, but English, French or German. Not surprisingly, they are ready to pay for it.

This publication is a part of the project “Inside Ukraine”, by the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation, implemented by n-ost and financed by the German Federal Foreign Office.



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