BERLIN Dec 12 From beeswax and birch bark to
war booty and gas pipelines, an exhibition now showing in Berlin
chronicles the long, colourful and sometimes tragic history of
relations between Germany and Russia, Europe's two most populous
The "Russians and Germans" exhibition at the Neues Museum
focuses on cultural and trade contacts between the two peoples
stretching back to the 10th century and largely skirts the
political controversies that still dog their relationship.
"The aim of the exhibition is to emphasise the continuity of
intensive relations in the areas of politics, economy and
culture," said Steffen Zarutzki of the agency that operates
Berlin's state museums.
"It has been very successful and has drawn plenty of
visitors, about a quarter of them Russian speakers."
The exhibition, sponsored by Germany's biggest energy group
E.ON, is one of the main cultural events in a "year
of Russia" in Germany that runs until 2013 and is paralleled by
a "year of Germany" in Russia.
It comprises some 600 works of art, including paintings,
books, costumes and weapons loaned by Russian museums. Arranged
chronologically, it starts with the mediaeval Baltic merchants
of the Hanseatic League and ends after the fall of the Berlin
Wall and withdrawal of Soviet troops from German soil.
In one of the first rooms, a large wooden panel dating from
the 14th century shows bearded Russians in tall hats and smocks
collecting beeswax and hunting squirrels and sable for their
furs and then presenting the products to German merchants.
Germans paid for the furs, wax, timber and grains with
wines, metals and luxury goods - an exchange not unlike today's
trade flows which see Russia selling natural resources such as
gas and oil to buy German cars and other consumer goods.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
Primitive dictionaries with tables of vocabulary show the
first efforts of German traders to learn Russian.
The explanatory labels of the exhibition tells the visitor
that the word for 'German' in Russian - 'Nemtsy' - stems from
the word 'mute', signalling the incomprehension with which early
Slavs greeted visitors from the west.
Russians and Germans have an easier time understanding each
other these days. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up
in Soviet-dominated East Germany, has good Russian while Russian
President Vladimir Putin, stationed in the 1980s as a KGB agent
in East Germany, speaks fluent German.
But there is still ample scope for misunderstanding and
disagreement, as shown in Merkel's latest trip to Moscow where
she and Putin clashed over Russia's human rights record even as
they signed lucrative business deals.
Underlining the often wide cultural gulf between the two
peoples, German traders living in Moscow would be required to
live in a specially designated part of town to prevent them
infecting local people with 'dangerous' ideas - a custom that
has more recent echoes in the Cold War when Soviet citizens were
discouraged from mixing with Western visitors.
But illustrating the rich cultural interaction always there
in the background, the exhibition also tells of the Russian
Orthodox archbishop of Novgorod who commissioned German
architects to build a typically German red brick palace near his
cathedral in the city's fortress, or 'kremlin'.
The exhibition recounts how German scholars and explorers
helped to open up and map the vast territories of Siberia, it
stresses the German origins of such famous Russian rulers as
Catherine the Great and the contribution of German companies
like Siemens to the industrialisation of the Russian Empire.
Writers from Dostoevsky to Nabokov and artists like
Kandinsky flocked to Germany at different times to escape
political oppression at home - or simply lured by casinos and
spas. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, hundreds of thousands
of Russians have come in search of better jobs and salaries.
"The Russian soul and the German mind are clearly nearer to
each other than is sometimes claimed," German President Joachim
Gauck, a former pastor from the communist east, said at the
opening of "Russians and Germans".
Urging both peoples to look beyond the devastating two world
wars of the 20th century in which they fought on opposing sides,
Gauck said there was much in their relationship to be proud of.
"In the shared history of Russia and Germany the horrors of
the past will not have the last word," he said.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)