Berlin’s Russian community torn between war fears and loyalty

Germany's sizeable Russian community -- the biggest diaspora in Europe -- was torn on Thursday between disbelief over Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine and a lingering sense of patriotism.

Berlin's Russian community torn between war fears and loyalty
A Russian supermarket in the Mazahn district of Berlin. Photo: dpa | Britta Pedersen

Some say they’re appalled by Putin, others defend the “great” Russian president and denounce Western “propaganda” against their homeland.

In Berlin, the German capital which was cleaved down the centre by the Wall during the Cold War, the tensions are palpable.

“I am really scared and am furious at the same time with Putin,” 29-year-old Maria Khristine, who works in management, told AFP.

She has lived in Berlin since 2015 to pursue her studies “but also to escape Russia”.

She lives in the western district of Charlottenburg, nicknamed Charlottengrad in the 1920s for its large number of Russian emigres, and is
among some 3.3 million people in Germany from the ex-Soviet Union.

About 151,000 of them live in Berlin, which was carved into Western and Soviet sectors until reunification in 1990 and still bears the architectural and cultural imprint of the division.

The eastern districts of the capital are home to vast memorials to the fallen Red Army soldiers of World War II, and the imposing Russian embassy occupies a prime spot on the Unter den Linden boulevard near the Brandenburg Gate.

“I was expecting this attack, which is nothing but a shameless power grab by the Russian president,” said Khristine, whose great grandparents were Ukrainians.

She fears that “nothing will stop him, not even the sanctions: I am very fatalistic”.

‘This delicate subject’

On the other side of the city in former East Berlin, the mood veers between grim and defiant.

“We must always oppose all wars – they lead to nothing,” said a man in his 30s who gave his name as Igor, standing outside a Russian Orthodox church.

Suddenly, an Orthodox priest emerging from the building rushes at him and forbids him to speak any further.

“The church is divided on this delicate subject because it is very political,” he insists to AFP before hurrying away.

In the Marzahn district, the site of sprawling prefab housing estates built under communism, Sergei Vladim, 63, is of two minds about the Russian attack.

“The bombings are not a solution but at the same time it is not normal for NATO to try to expand to eastern Europe,” said the pensioner, who arrived in Germany in 1994 with his parents.

“Putin took that as an act of aggression.”

Ukrainians ‘belong to us’

A little further on, in front of a huge mural of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, customers of a Russian supplies shop pass each other without speaking.

“It’s very serious but I expected it. It’s unjust,” said Vira, a Ukrainian customer pushing a stroller who declined to give her surname.

She would like to take in her cousins who are trying to flee Kyiv but “are stuck in traffic jams”.

“The Russians are terrorists!” shouted one passer-by in the parking lot before climbing into his car.

It’s an outburst rejected by Mila Svetlana, 53, who says she is still counting on diplomacy to end the fighting.

Nevertheless, she believes the “great” President Putin “has only responded to the attacks on the separatists” in eastern Ukraine, whose independence she backs.

“He was right and only fired on the Ukrainian army,” says the Russian, who gets her news via the pro-Russian channel RT and “on WhatsApp messaging”.

A 36-year-old man who called himself Digat and has lived in Germany since childhood agreed.

“Western media keep saying Putin is the bad guy, but that’s pure propaganda. Russia has been defending itself against Western provocations for a long time. Now its patience is over,” he said.

“We are one people with the Ukrainians. There should be no borders because they belong to us.”

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Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest Sunday with an infectious hip-hop folk melody, boosting spirits in the embattled nation fighting off a Russian invasion that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people.

Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Riding a huge wave of public support, Kalush Orchestra beat 24 competitors in the finale of the world’s biggest live music event with “Stefania”, a rap lullaby combining Ukrainian folk and modern hip-hop rhythms.

“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azovstal right now,” implored frontman Oleh Psiuk in English from the stage after their performance was met by a cheering audience.

In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the triumph was met with smiles and visible relief.

“It’s a small ray of happiness. It’s very important now for us,” said Iryna Vorobey, a 35-year-old businesswoman, adding that the support from Europe was “incredible”.

Following the win, Psiuk — whose bubblegum-pink bucket hat has made him instantly recognisable — thanked everyone who voted for his country in the contest, which is watched by millions of viewers.

“The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Glory to Ukraine,” Psiuk told journalists.

Music conquers Europe

The win provided a much-needed morale boost for the embattled nation in its third month of battling much-larger Russian forces.

Mahmood & BLANCO  performing for Italy at Eurovision 2022

Mahmood & BLANCO perform on behalf of Italy during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2022 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” he wrote on Facebook.

“This win is so very good for our mood,” Andriy Nemkovych, a 28 year-old project manager, told AFP in Kyiv.

The victory drew praise in unlikely corners, as the deputy chief of the NATO military alliance said it showed just how much public support ex-Soviet Ukraine has in fighting off Moscow.

“I would like to congratulate Ukraine for winning the Eurovision contest,” Mircea Geoana said as he arrived in Berlin for talks that will tackle the alliance’s expansion in the wake of the Kremlin’s war.

“And this is not something I’m making in a light way because we have seen yesterday the immense public support all over Europe and Australia for the bravery of” Ukraine, Geoana said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the win “a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom”.

And European Council President Charles Michel said he hoped next year’s contest “can be hosted in Kyiv in a free and united Ukraine”.

‘Ready to fight’
Despite the joyous theatrics that are a hallmark of the song contest, the war in Ukraine hung heavily over the festivities this year.
The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the event, banned Russia on February 25, the day after Moscow invaded its neighbour.
“Stefania”, written by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother before the war, mixes traditional Ukrainian folk music played on flute-like instruments with an invigorating hip-hop beat. The band donned richly embroidered ethnic garb
to perform their act.
Nostalgic lyrics such as “I’ll always find my way home even if all the roads are destroyed” resonated all the more as millions of Ukrainians have been displaced by war.

Kalush Orchestra received special authorisation from Ukraine’s government to attend Eurovision, since men of fighting age are prohibited from leaving the country, but that permit expires in two days.

Psiuk said he was not sure what awaited the band as war rages back home.

“Like every Ukrainian, we are ready to fight as much as we can and go until the end.

Britain’s ‘Space Man’

Ukraine beat a host of over-the-top acts at the kitschy, quirky annual musical event, including Norway’s Subwoolfer, who sang about bananas while dressed in yellow wolf masks, and Serbia’s Konstrakta, who questioned national healthcare while meticulously scrubbing her hands onstage.

Coming in second place was Britain with Sam Ryder’s “Space Man” and its stratospheric notes, followed by Spain with the reggaeton “SloMo” from Chanel.

After a quarter-century of being shut out from the top spot, Britain had hoped to have a winner in “Space Man” and its high notes belted by the affable, long-haired Ryder.

Britain had been ahead after votes were counted from the national juries, but a jaw-dropping 439 points awarded to Ukraine from the public pushed it to the top spot.

Eurovision’s winner is chosen by a cast of music industry professionals — and members of the public — from each country, with votes for one’s home nation not allowed.

Eurovision is a hit among fans not only for the music, but for the looks on display and this year was no exception. Lithuania’s Monika Liu generated as much social media buzz for her bowl cut hairdo as her sensual and elegant

Other offerings included Greece’s “Die Together” by Amanda Georgiadi Tenfjord and “Brividi” (Shivers), a duet from Italy’s Mahmood and Blanco.

Italy had hoped the gay-themed love song would bring it a second consecutive Eurovision win after last year’s “Zitti e Buoni” (Shut up and Behave) from high-octane glam rockers Maneskin.