Do you think Russians have only America on their minds? True, the U.S. is an ideal enemy for fanning the flames of collective hate and an ideal competitor for geopolitical games. But all the alleged grievances aside, has the U.S. ever played a significant role in Russia’s past or present? Not really—but another state has. Germany, of course, has exerted an enormous influence on Russia down through the centuries, although neither Russians nor Germans like to admit it. Germans have ruled Russia (they even institutionalized favoritism: “Bironovshchina” during the rule of Tzarina Anna [1730–40]); they constituted the most successful part of its military and commercial corps; they raised the Tsar’s children and colonized Russia’s barren lands. In the 19th century up to half of all governors and high-ranking army officers in Russia were of German descent. When Tsar Nicolas I asked the conqueror of the Caucasus, General Yermolov, how he wanted to be rewarded, the general reportedly replied, “Your Majesty, make me German!” At different points of Russian history, the “German factor” had a substantial effect on Russia’s trajectory. Had it not been for this factor, Russia might have moved in a whole different direction.
How Germans Influenced Russians
From its inception, Russia has desperately needed foreign professionals—to teach Russians about governance, manufacturing, military, mining, and other trades. The Dutch, Swedes, Brits, and French were among the foreigners who came to Russia. But Germans certainly dominated, becoming a privileged nationality in Russia.
The ruling Romanov dynasty, which shared a lot of the German bloodline, became a branch of the Oldenburg dynasty under the name of Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov. Many of its members were born in Germany and spoke Russian with an accent. Germans, especially the Baltic ones, rapidly advanced through the ranks of the Russian society thanks to their talents, persistence, discipline, and loyalty to the throne (as of 1913, approximately 2,400,000 Germans lived in Russia).
Following the 1917 revolution, Germany was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with the USSR, bringing Russia in from the cold of international isolation. In the course of ten years, from 1926 to 1936, the Soviet Union received more than four billion reichsmarks’ worth of industrial equipment and machinery from Germany. The USSR used raw materials, agricultural products, and gold to pay for the shipments (more than a billion reichsmarks’ worth of Soviet gold was brought to Germany during that period).
In September 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union jointly began World War II by invading Poland—Germany on September 1, and the USSR on September 17 —as per the August 23, 1939, Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and agreement between Soviet and German military commands. Russia is still trying to gloss over that historical episode. It’s been conclusively proven, however, that at that moment Stalin took Hitler’s side in his confrontation with the rest of the Western world.
“We can’t allow Germany to lose” was the phrase Stalin uttered during his conversation with Ribbentrop on August 23, 1939. Moscow helped Hitler in his military campaigns, particularly in his confrontation with Great Britain. Hitler used Russia as a raw materials base (in 1940 alone, Moscow provided Germany with 600,000 tons of cotton, 1 million tons of grain, and 1 million tons of oil). Soviet economic aid helped thwart the British blockade of Germany.
In light of these facts, one wonders whether Hitler would have dared start the war without the deal with Stalin. And if he had done so, would he have enjoyed such early successes?
Stalin miscalculated. He thought that Hitler and the anti-Hitler coalition would exhaust one another, allowing him and his army to romp through a submissive Europe. He didn’t expect Germany to invade the USSR.
So what happened to Russia’s Germans after the war started? As of 1939, there were 1,427,300 Germans in the Soviet Union. Despite his cooperation with Berlin, Stalin ordered that all German citizens working in the Soviet defense industry be arrested in 1937–38. Although Stalin was cutting deals with Hitler, he believed that the Germans living inside the Soviet Union had to be isolated. After Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in July 1941, Soviet-citizen Germans were branded fifth columnists and deported to remote regions of the country. Thus these Germans were betrayed by the country that they considered their home.
Looking back, one discovers not a single modernization breakthrough in the Russian Empire that would have been possible without the aid of Europeans—and the Germans indeed played the role of the “European factor.” Why Germans, and what attracted them to Russia? Why did they flock to this frigid semi-savage country? Was it geography, Germany’s internal problems, ambition, a sense of adventure, or perhaps romanticism?
There is no question that Germans contributed a lot to the strengthening of the Russian empire-state. Krusenstern, Barclay de Tolly, Osterman, and other Germans have left an indelible mark on Russian history. Germans became part of the Russian elite and served their new homeland. They were often disliked. Russian nobility begrudged them their successes. It’s possible that the German dominance among the Russian ruling class triggered the first manifestations of Russian chauvinism. It’s ironic that Germans tried to improve the Russian state, whose traditions date back to the time of the Golden Horde. A strange symbiosis indeed!
However, serving the Russian Empire, Germans and other foreigners failed to make Russia a European country. While they did make different aspects of Russian life more European, Germans didn’t change its despotic core; they just made its despotism more efficient. The scions of the nation that produced Max Weber, with his Legal-Rational Bureaucratic Model, successfully learned the law-averse inner workings of Russian absolutism.
The Russian Empress Catherine the Great, formerly known as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, adopted the Russian mentality and treated peasants as slaves, even as she corresponded with Voltaire. Thus the Russian autocratic system, which had always rejected Europe as a civilization, was able to get the Europeans to serve tyranny.
Germans at the Turning Points of Russian History
The “German factor” influenced Russia’s trajectory at several points in Russian history. Perhaps, the German influence was accidental, but sometimes so-called historical accidents can change historical trajectories.
The Marx Infatuation. The Russian revolutionaries became infatuated with German philosophers. They went from Feuerbach to Marx, whose teachings helped legitimize Bolshevism. Who would Lenin have been without Marx? Would the Bolsheviks have come on the scene without Marxism? While we have no answers to these questions, it’s quite likely that their teaching would have been different. I think Marx would have been shocked to see how his doctrine was put to practice.
The Sealed Railway Car. The 1917 revolution in Russia gave Berlin a chance to neutralize Russia on the Eastern front as the Germans began to lose World War I. Berlin had an ingenious idea to allow Lenin and his comrades to leave Germany and return to Russia (with help from Sweden). Churchill noted that Lenin was transported to Russia as a “plague bacillus.” Immediately upon his return, Lenin proclaimed his April Theses, urging the overthrow of the current government and Russia’s exit from the war. Germany provided the Bolsheviks with substantial funds for “revolutionary purposes”: prior to October 1917, the Germans had paid them 11 million German gold marks; in October 1917, the Bolsheviks received another 15 million marks. Lenin and the Bolsheviks indeed lived up to the Germans’ hopes by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, a humiliation for Russia. What if Lenin hadn’t returned to Russia in the spring of 1917 and had missed his chance to come to power? Perhaps a bourgeois revolution could have prevailed and Russia would be a different country now.
The “Gas for Pipes” Deal. This “deal of the century”, concluded in 1970, sealed Russia’s fate for many decades to come. The USSR promised to ship three billion cubic meters of natural gas to West Germany annually. For its part, the German Mannesmann Corporation was obligated to pay for the fuel with 1.2 million tons of large-diameter pipes. The pipes were to be used for constructing a natural gas pipeline to the West. Ruhrgas was going to purchase the gas and provide it to its German clients through its own gas distribution network. The 1.2-billion Deutsche mark low-interest loan from Deutsche Bank guaranteed the financing of the deal.
This deal laid a foundation for an even more important “Infrastructure and Money for Gas” deal, which ostensibly allowed the Soviet Union to become an energy power and to make Europe dependent on its energy shipments. But in reality the agreement made Russia into a raw-material appendage for Germany and, subsequently, Europe. Thus it prolonged the life of a dysfunctional model from which Russia still cannot escape today. Otto Wolff von Amerongen, who headed the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations from 1955 to 2000 and actively lobbied for the deal, said,
Some in the West German federal government weren’t quite excited by the prospects of expanded natural gas trade with the USSR. Ludwig Erhard, who perfectly understood the significance of the eastern market, told me, ‘The pipeline is great, but we are in a state of Cold War.’ He was convinced by a simple argument. I said that if we’re connected to each other through a pipeline, the political picture in the Soviet Union will change for the better. It will be a much greater gain than selling pipes or buying gas.
This belief became a staple of German policy on the USSR (and then on Russia). Amerongen was right as to the economic dividends Germany would reap from the deal, but he erred with respect to the change of the political picture.
Ostpolitik. It’s quite possible that both German politicians and the business community, which was in fact the engine behind this policy, sincerely believed that Russia could change as its relations with Germany strengthened. But what actually happened? Ostpolitik notwithstanding, the USSR simply resisted transformation. Instead, it just disappeared under pressure from another power: the United States. The renewal of Ostpolitik under the Partnership for Modernization label didn’t help Russia to modernize. In fact, it had the opposite effect. With its rentier class now integrated into the West, Russia moved in the other direction, convinced that Germany would always remain its loyal partner.
Germany became the headquarters of the complicated system of lobbying structures that support the “Let’s Accommodate!” approach toward the Kremlin (no other country has a system like it!). Apart from the older generation of politicians, including some former Chancellors, Ospolitik has traditionally been supported by Germany’s Social Democrats (who, hopefully, have started to extricate themselves from it). In addition, the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, the number one German lobbying group founded in 1952, continues to support making deals with the Kremlin. Besides these, there are the German-Russian Forum (founded in 1993) and the St. Petersburg Dialogue (founded in 2001 on Putin’s and former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s initiative), both of which boast a glut of “Putin Verstehers.”
“Not a single country in Europe managed to build anything that comes close to the cooperation with Moscow built by Bonn and Berlin for the past forty years,” said Egon Bahr in 2011. This is true. But what have been the results of this cooperation, Herr Bahr? How long would Russia’s anti-modern, resource-based system have lasted if not for Germany’s dealings with the Kremlin?
Schroederization. The former German Chancellor went to work for Gazprom, the key institution of the Russian regime. He is now the chairman of the board for Nord Stream AG. For the Western political elite, his work has lent legitimacy to the act of serving a civilization that is alien to the West; we still underestimate its impact on the mood of the Western, mainly European, establishment. One could even argue that this move, by a former leader of the most powerful state in Europe, helped to render the concept of “reputation” irrelevant in the Western political community. Now anyone offered a job by an authoritarian regime can point to Chancellor Schroeder: “If he can do it, why can’t I?” Schroederization has also had an enormous effect, not incidentally, on the minds of Russia’s elite and people, who now believe that anything can be bought, for the right price.
Perhaps, I’m exaggerating the role of some of these factors, but they have all played a part in shaping Russia’s historical development. As a matter of fact, some factors—the Gas Deal of the Century is one of them—played a decisive role.
Germany in a New Role
The German factor had benefited the traditional Russia until recently, but it looks like the love affair is over now, even if the Russians have yet to understand this. The Kremlin mistakenly believed that Germany would remain a political dwarf, ignore Russian revisionism and even revanchism, and continue to advocate accommodation. Russia’s internal problems would still force the Kremlin to turn to “Fortress Russia” on the international stage, but it might not have annexed Crimea and started a war with Ukraine had it known that Chancellor Angela Merkel would become a stalwart architect of European unity with respect to sanctions. The Kremlin put too much stake in its German lobbyists and “friends”, who were merely telling it what it wanted to hear. (I’m talking about you, Herren Platzeck, Teltschik, de Meiziere, and Die Linke parliament members, about you, Herr Rahr, and about the rest of the propagandists! The Kremlin hoped that Berlin’s anti-Americanism and its commitment to Ostpolitik would prevent the Germans from altering their traditional course—it had been such a great partnership through all these decades! Certainly the Kremlin had been sure that the Germans would stick to a trade-off that had benefitted Germany so handsomely. But Berlin instead decided to draw a red line. This, I think, was more than a disappointment for the Kremlin; it was a shock, first of all for Russia’s President Putin. The Russian side, both overconfident and poorly served by the experts, did not anticipate a change of mood in Germany. I can imagine what a cold shower for the Kremlin were the recent opinion poll numbers coming out of Germany: According to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll, 70 percent of Germans dislike Russia (against 27 percent who do), and 76 percent are unfavorable toward Putin (versus 23 percent favorable).
True, even outsiders understand how difficult it is for Merkel to stick to the new Ostpolitik. It’s also clear that the Minsk-2 formula that Merkel and Hollande orchestrated leaves Ukraine in the Russian sphere of influence and guarantees neither its independence nor its territorial integrity. To admit failure would be painful for Berlin, no doubt. Nevertheless, all signs point to the fact that Germany has begun to consider a new approach to Putin’s Russia.
Let me leave the Germans to sort out their feelings toward Russia on their own. The Kremlin and Putin have done everything they possibly could to cure the Germans of their idealism and romanticism with respect to Russia. The love affair is over (even if some on both sides want to pretend like it’s not). Trying to rekindle it won’t work for either side. It’s time for Russians to understand that Germany won’t prop the Russian personalized power system forever. In turn, Germans should finally realize the effect that their policies have had on Russia.