BERLIN (Reuters) - From beeswax and birch bark to war booty and gas pipelines, an exhibition now showing in Berlin chronicles the long, colorful and sometimes tragic history of relations between Germany and Russia, Europe’s two most populous nations.
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 emphasize 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.
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’, signaling 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 industrialization 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