How culturally uniform is Russia

April 24, 2015
Russia and Germany as a cultural nation

Keynote speech by Klaus-Dieter Lehmann for the conference "70 years since the end of World War II" of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung

On November 9th, 2014 we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. After decades of division, the Germans had come together again in freedom and unity.
The uniqueness of this peaceful revolution, which arose in the GDR and became a shared experience, is part of our collective memory and influences our thoughts and actions. In terms of real politics, it was sealed by the Two Plus Four Treaty and the 1990 Peace and Neighborhood Treaty between the Soviet Union and Germany and the 1992 cultural agreement between Russia and Germany. In 1994 the last Russian troops left Germany. After the horror of the Second World War, with which Germany had covered the Soviet Union, after the Cold War, which made a divided Germany a front-line state and the Soviet Union an enemy on the one hand and an occupying power on the other, a new chapter in mutual relations began, which was not only political and stimulated economic but also culturally lively interest.
The phenomenon of taboo has long shaped the way Germans deal with their history and cultural tradition and pushed the entire past into the distance, cut it off and shattered the unity of historical time. The events of the last decades have created new approaches and intensified reflection on one's own history, perhaps enabling an “identity in responsibility”. In any case, it is worth thinking about German culture.
Language and culture were at the core of what Germany had in common before it became a political nation in the 19th century. This has shaped Germany's long historical development.
Despite this national approach, the spiritual and geographical reference space for dealing with cultural evidence is still less the nation than the region or the city. It also makes up the cultural wealth. Germany has a rich infrastructure of theaters, concert halls, museums and libraries.
Even if the political and economic aspects determined the public discussion of the reunification, this process was to a very decisive extent a cultural event. The exclamation “We are one people” makes it clear that they were aware of the common culture, history and language, that this bond continued over the decades of division. The presence of Thomas Mann in the Goethe year 1949 in Frankfurt am Main and in Weimar and in the Schiller year 1955 in Weimar was highly symbolic for the unity of Germany through its poets.
Culture Article 35 of the Unification Treaty of August 31, 1990 begins with the sentence: "In the years of division, art and culture - despite the different development of the two states in Germany - formed the basis of the continuing unity of the German nation."
How was it with the design of the realities of life and the framework conditions for art and culture in the Federal Republic and the GDR?
In the occupation zones of the Western Allies, a process of democratization was consistently started on the basis of the rule of law. With the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949, the federal structure of the country and the cultural sovereignty of the states were an integral part of the constitution. Municipalities financed and promoted a large part of cultural institutions, theaters, museums, libraries; likewise the countries. The federal government was active on a subsidiary basis. A great good was the freedom of art and culture. Freedom of expression also had a high social value. Politicians set the framework, but did not interfere in content and design. The art judgment of political or state function holders should not be decisive. According to the Basic Law, the Federal Republic defined itself not only as a constitutional and social state but also as a cultural state. According to a decision of the Federal Constitutional Court in 1974, Article 5, Paragraph 3 of the Basic Law, which guarantees artistic freedom, not only provides protection against interference by the state in the artistic field, but also defines the task of maintaining and promoting a free artistic life. The self-organization of artists and cultural actors received a formative influence. The private foundation system developed again as civic action for art and culture.
Developments in the Soviet occupation zone were completely different. The Kulturbund was founded by the Soviet Military Administration (SMAD) as early as June 1945, with Johannes Becher as its first president. When the GDR was founded, it was structurally integrated into the state and the SED. The SED party cadres were in charge. The Kulturbund worked with state funds and political influence in all specialist committees, central commissions and clubhouses. For the visual arts, the most important instrument for socialist cultural policy was the Association of Visual Artists (VBK of the GDR). He managed the promotion of artists, awarded public contracts, organized exhibitions and a tightly organized system. Without membership, the artists were effectively excluded. The official task of culture in the GDR was to promote socialism. Article 18 of the constitution of the GDR only mentions culture as “socialist culture”. Only art in the service of socialism receives protection and support from the state. This policy was consistently supported by a centralized territorial reorganization of the country with subordinate districts. The publicly funded cultural life was deliberately large and diverse, and access was attractive thanks to the low prices. In the GDR there were last 18,000 libraries, 3,000 theaters, 700 museums and 850 clubhouses.
Despite all paternalism and influence, there were critical artists and subcultures in the GDR. Artists repeatedly caused unrest and there were conflicts over socialist art. For example, Bernhard Heisig was dismissed as rector of the Leipzig Art School in 1964. Wolf Biermann's expatriation in 1976 is remembered as the climax of the repression. In the documentary "Ausgebürgert" published in 1990, Werner Schmidt (GD Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) lists a total of 655 emigrated visual artists.
After reunification, it took years for a common public perception of art from separate times to emerge. In 2003 there was the first comprehensive exhibition “Art from the GDR” in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, with a considerable response from the public. A successful example of bringing together artists from East and West was the artistic design of the Reichstag building with contemporary art by East German artists, artists who emigrated from the GDR, and West German artists.
It is interesting to take a look at the development of literature. While a uniform German literature was still assumed in the 1950s, in the late 1960s an independent GDR literature was recognized with representatives such as Christa Wolf, Johannes Bobrowski, Günter de Bruyn, Peter Hacks, Wolf Biermann or Heiner Müller. There was no doubt about the unifying function of a uniform German language, but the different worlds of experience justified their own topics. That changed in the course of the following decades, so that from the 1980s onwards there were hardly any discernible differences between East and West German literature.
The book market itself was regulated and controlled by the Ministry of Culture. Restrictions alternated with phases of a certain liberalization. Censorship remained the constant companion.
Today you can see that the process of unification among the young artists no longer shows any ideological differences, but rather has a common space of experience and a common reality of life.
In the meantime, a new, relaxed self-confidence about one's own culture has emerged, and a new desire for the historical is noticeable. Daniel Kehlmann published a novel about Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss "Measuring the World" and was a huge success not only in Germany. Uwe Timm, Uwe Tellkamp (German Book Prize 2008), Ingo Schulze, Julia Francke or now Lutz Seiler, who received the German Book Prize 2014 for “Kruso”, successfully address new topics from recent German history and inspire critics and audiences.
Some time ago Hanno Rautenberg described the influence of contemporary history on German artists in the weekly magazine "Die Zeit" and thus about German in art. Many artists, who are receiving outstanding attention in the world today, were shaped either by the consequences of National Socialist barbarism or by overcoming the change of system in the GDR. And he names Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz, A.R. Penck, Neo Rauch.
The cultural institutions such as museums, archives and libraries were severely damaged by the war, and some of the collections were burned, looted or abducted. The restoration and reconstruction of the heavily damaged buildings in West Germany proceeded reasonably quickly, while the GDR could only heal the bare minimum, especially in Dresden and East Berlin. The air raids in 1943 and 1945, for example, turned the famous Berlin Museum Island into a field of rubble, the renovation of which is still ongoing.
The cultural assets in the catchment area of ​​the Soviet army were brought to the Soviet Union millions of times by trophy commissions, a war practice that Hitler had already pursued. After the end of the war, the Western Allies closed all depots on German territory and returned the stolen goods to their countries of origin, including the Soviet Union.
In the 1950s, under Khrushchev, a surprising partial return of the cultural goods brought to the GDR by the Red Army during the war began. First, the masterpieces of the Dresden Picture Gallery returned in 1955, including the Sistine Madonna by Raphael. In 1958, on the 10th anniversary of the GDR, it was returned to the Berlin museums, including the mighty Pergamon frieze. There were more than 1.5 million works of art, more than 3 million books and archive units. Without the restitution to the GDR, the museums in Berlin and Dresden would be “empty shells”. Today there are still 1 million works of art in Russia. The enthusiasm and public sympathy at that time was enormous, the queues in front of the exhibitions never stopped. Today the Museum Island and the Dresden painting collections are the most visited places.
The art form of the theater also has a specific German character. The German theater certainly does not exist as a homogeneous unit, but it is unmistakable at international festivals. What unites critics and supporters there is the admiration for the vitality and expressivity of the actors, but also the ability to bring social reality onto the stage, not as a didactic piece but as an open discussion and with all contradictions. In the theater, the discourse ability that has developed in Germany over the last few decades is particularly evident.
In any case, the German musical landscape is one of the most diverse and demanding forms. On the one hand, this has to do with historical developments, the ambitious small states in the 18th / 19th centuries with their own orchestras and theaters, the educated middle class, especially in the 19th century, which, with its cultural commitment, gave itself the freedom to shape its own form vis-à-vis the state authorities and the conscious Promotion of new music in the Federal Republic until the 1990s. In addition, there is high-quality training for young musicians, which also attracts many foreign talents to Germany.
This topic is not just about the so-called country children, it is about the people who live and work in Germany today, who have decided in favor of Germany and who position themselves culturally. Germany is not just a country of immigration for skilled workers for industry. 20 million people with foreign roots live in Germany: guest workers and their children, repatriates, war refugees, asylum seekers, voluntary and involuntary migrants. There have long been musicians, writers, filmmakers and visual artists of non-German origin who see themselves as part of German culture as a matter of course. The great attraction that makes Germany so attractive is its openness and its design options.
I would like to take a look at the writers here as an example. The Chamisso Prize has been awarded to authors who have made a change in language and culture since 1985. At the beginning the focus was still very much on one's own biographical reference. Today this literature is being used more and more in Germany. The authors themselves neither want to exclude themselves nor have a special status. Only the literary quality should count. Ann Cotton, Sasa Stanisic, Terézia Mora and Feridun Zaimoglu are important prominent voices in German-language literature who enrich the German language with new images, metaphors and topics.
This versatility, openness and curiosity about other cultures, which not only Goethe but also Alexander von Humboldt conveyed to us, are a good basis for dialogue in a globalized world. "Everything is interaction" said Alexander von Humboldt as early as the 19th century.
We always speak of the fact that Europe lived out of its cultural diversity and should continue to live in the future, that there should be a shared responsibility for the European cultural area, that after all the previous catastrophes, European cultures should be effective as creative variations on a basic European theme.
Of course, Russia also belongs to cultural Europe. Literature, music, theater, the fine arts have always had a great influence on European cultural development and vice versa. Germany and Russia, on the other hand, have a long common history based on a strong mutual interest, in part also on fateful connections. Germany and Russia used the time after reunification to strengthen cultural partnerships.
Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Germany experienced a veritable spirit of optimism in their cultural exchange, which was fed less from the continuation of relationships from socialist times than from curiosity about new artistic developments. There was great curiosity, especially on the Russian side. There were collaborations and co-productions. The interweaving of the cultures of Germany and Russia focused heavily on the capitals of Berlin and Moscow. In the fine arts there was, among other things, the major exhibition in 1995 Moscow / Berlin - Berlin / Moscow 1900 - 1950, a great success. The contemporary sequel Berlin / Moscow - Moscow / Berlin 1950 - 2000 followed in 2003. In 2007 the fascinating Merovingian exhibition could be seen in Moscow and St. Petersburg, developed jointly by German and Russian curators, which had early medieval Europe as a theme, but in Germany could not be shown because of the kidnapped treasures shown there in 1945. The contemporary museum in Moscow (2012) showed a retrospective by Joseph Beuys under the title “Call for Alternative”. The museum experienced an overwhelming number of visitors, all artists and art scholars seemed to be gathered. The Beuys exhibition was part of the Germany Year in Russia with around 1000 events at 50 different locations, coordinated by the Federal Foreign Office and the Goethe Institute 2012/2013. A large number of partnerships between cities and federal states, universities, museums and other cultural institutions in Russia were involved. The approval for Germany, for the German language and culture could be increased significantly.
It has been shown what a decisive contribution cultural relationships can make to the respective image of the other, even beyond political irritation. 1000 events mean thousands of personal and personally enriching contacts, from which credibility, knowledge and curiosity for one another arise, from which in turn new ideas and new developments arise. This form of dialogue is more important than ever. But it must not be a non-binding dialogue, not a dialogue of abstract principles. It has to be a dialogue that really gives answers and thus accepts and takes responsibility, a dialogue of practical action, a dialogue of openness and a dialogue of sustainability. Basic principles should be: appreciation of diversity, equality of others, intercultural competence of the actors.
The political framework for this has now become much more difficult. The foreign policy upheavals caused by the annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine are also having a domestic impact.Although approval for the current Russian policy at home is very high at 86%, the media are also massively controlled, the political opposition marginalized and civil society organizations (NGOs) registered as foreign agents.
The restrictions listed by way of example already have an impact on the willingness of foreign artists and authors to go to appearances in Russia and also on the cooperative work of Western cultural institutions with Russian cultural institutions, which in turn fear state interference.
Despite the difficult political terrain, it would be wrong to consider a cultural boycott. While politics has very formalized procedures and the economy represents its interests, culture can perhaps initiate processes where there is a standstill, offer alternatives where there are blockages - it can simply be surprising. Using cultural dialogue in times of upheaval and conflict is an opportunity that should definitely be used.
It is still noticeable that young people are very interested in Europe, especially in relation to non-political Europe with its educational and professional opportunities and with its cultural diversity. 40% are in favor of strengthening ties to Western Europe. The concrete work experience of the Goethe-Institut confirms this very impressively.
The Goethe-Institut is currently responsible for one year of German language and literature in Russia with more than 200 events across the country. For the opening, more than 18,000 young people came to Gorki Park with a keen interest in Europe. There are currently around 1.5 million German learners in Russia. 1,600 German teachers came together at the opening of the All-Russian German Teachers' Days in Moscow on November 22, 2014. A milestone in language policy was the establishment of the supraregional Russian Association of German Teachers.
Demographic change is also affecting the Russian Federation. Now that the migration of qualified skilled workers continues and the young people trained in the system, which is mainly oriented towards vocational schools, do not meet the requirements of the economy, dual elements of vocational training based on the German model are to be introduced. The Goethe-Institut Moscow is a partner in the project for the "Professional Language German" segment.
Open forms of conversation, exchange programs with young people, educational programs, German-Russian co-productions in culture, yes - but for that you need freedom and a corresponding creative framework. The freedom of art is a great good! You can make politics with culture, but you can't make culture with politics!
The spoken word is valid.