Illustration: Karin Sunvisson

Lectures Investigating russian berlin in weimar Germany Culture and Displacement in the Age of War and Revolution

The author argues that, despite the disastrous effects of the enormous brain drain for Russia’s development, the emergence of Russian communities abroad can also be seen as an indicator of a normalization resulting from the opening up of the country after a long period of isolation. For Berlin, it is the regeneration of the mixed and more cosmopolitan society of the pre-Nazi and prewar epoch.

Published on on September 22, 2011

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When I did my first research project on Russian Berlin — that is, on the community of Russian émigrés in Berlin in the 1920s — one could hardly imagine that Berlin would again have a large Russian community.2 Everybody living in Berlin today has the impression that there must be thousands of Russians or at least Russian-speaking people in town. At newspaper stands, you can find dozens of Russian newspapers, dailies, weeklies, yellow press, and highbrow. Russian sounds can be heard everywhere, but more intensively in special locations such as KaDeWe, the upper part of Kurfürstendamm, in bus number 19 or 29, called “Russenschaukel” in the 1920s — the Russian roundabout. One of the most popular writers of the younger generation is Vladimir Kaminer, who came to Berlin in the early 1990s and who has published a series of bestselling books like Russendisko and whose Cafe Burger in Berlin-Mitte is one of the attractions for EasyJet tourists from all over the world. You can find Russian kindergartens, schools, bookstores, and large sections with Russian food in supermarkets if you don’t prefer shopping in one of the central places where you can get almost everything Russian, from everyday products to video-blockbusters — for instance in the Rossija shop at Charlottenburg station on Stuttgarter Platz. You can discover the infrastructure of widespread community life, with subtle differences reflecting the diversity of the Russian-speaking colony: the urban Jewish immigration of the 1970s and ’80s, the post-1990 immigrants, the Russian Germans, and the people in transit. You can listen to Russian conversations in the steam baths and fitness clubs, you can navigate through Russian cafes and restaurants, attend openings of Russian galleries and exhibitions. Sometimes you can get the impression that Berlin has become the twin city of Moscow, with people moving back and forth — even on planes that take off in Berlin-Schönefeld at midnight, timed to land in one of the Moscow airports at sunrise.

Twenty years ago,   Russians entering Berlin used to be called the “New Russians”: this was the label for the rich and superrich, people who had made money overnight in the “troubled time” of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the meantime, the picture has changed slightly. The rich and superrich do not settle down in Berlin, but in Kensington and similar neighborhoods. The Russians of Berlin are quite wealthy, but more of the upper middle class. There are also masses of tourists and a lot of young people, among them many students. If you have a Schengen visa, you can move around — from Helsinki to Berlin or Paris. You can buy anything from a cup of coffee to an apartment without significant problems, and everything is cheaper in Berlin than in Moscow. The official statistics of the Berlin authorities do not reflect the number and the presence of Russians in the town. I am quite sure that the numbers are much higher than usually assumed, maybe around 150,000. But this reappearance of a Russian community is only one cause of the new interest in this issue, and at the end of this talk we have to discuss in what respect the community of today differs from that of the interwar period.

When I started research, we had brilliant studies on Russian Berlin. I will mention only Robert C. Williams’s Culture in Exile: Russian Émigrés in Germany 1881—1941, published in 1972, and Hans-Erich Volkmann’s Die russische Emigration in Deutschland 1919—1929, published in 1966.3 The new situation in the late 1980s and the early ’90s came about with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reassessment of the Russian emigration and the cultural heritage of “Russia Abroad”. For the first time since the Revolution and the Great Exodus, the fate of Russia outside Russia was not only debated by historians but by the public at large. The Russian public, not just historians, discussed the topic without restrictions. For the first time the archives were opened up to research, and the treasures of the captured Prague archives, transferred to Moscow after 1945, were declassified. This was a revolution in the approach to the émigrés who, in Soviet propaganda, had always been stigmatized as “White Guardist” and “counterrevolutionary”. Thousands of documents, books, and works of art have been published, reprinted — decades and generations after their publication abroad. They include famous writers, poets, artists, politicians, scholars of all disciplines. The late 1980s and 1990s were a time of homecoming for a culture hitherto banished and exiled, forbidden and stigmatized. The great names of Russian culture finally returned home — sometimes with their bodies from the cemeteries in Paris, Monte Carlo, and Prague. The discovery and reevaluation of the cultural heritage of Russia Abroad can be understood as a substantial element of the reintegration of a culture that had suffered heavily from the consequences of civil war and international conflicts, especially from the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War. The rediscovery and reconsideration of Russian emigration constituted a kind of reconciliation for Russia at the end of the 20th century.4

It was Marc Raeff   who took the lead in this reassessment with his Cultural History of the Russian Emigration 1919—1939, published in 1990.5 I had the good fortune to meet him and to work with him. Raeff, born in Moscow in 1923, lived with his family in Berlin in the ’20s, then moved to Czechoslovakia, France, and finally the United States, where he taught for decades at Columbia University. There he made ample use of the treasures of the Bakhmeteff Archive, representing in many regards the fate of this generation in exile. So in close cooperation with Russian colleagues we did some basic research on the Russian diaspora and its centers: in Constantinople, Sofia, Belgrade, Helsinki, Riga, Prague, Paris, New York and other places. Many monographs have been published since then in Russia and elsewhere.

But when I go back to this subject now, I do so with a new interest and new intention. Let me briefly explain.

When I started   my research on forced migration in Central and Eastern Europe, ten or so years ago, I discovered that the best and often sole publications on this subject were written by Russian and mostly Russian-Jewish authors. Most of them were familiar to the specialists on demography and migration, but not to a broader audience. I have in mind Eugene Kulischer, with his monograph Europe on the Move, which was published in 1948; Joseph Schechtman, with his two-volume work Forced Migration in Europe; and Jacob Lestschinsky’s work on Jewish migration.6 None of these works have been translated into German despite the fact that they represent the most detailed studies on forced migration and population transfer, including the expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe and the former Eastern provinces of the Reich. Three observations came together here: Eugene Kulischer was the author who invented the term “displacement” and “displaced persons”. Joseph Schechtman was the author who wrote the most detailed study on forced migration to this day. Jacob Lestschinsky was the demographer and scholar who first analyzed the human losses of the Shoah, which he estimated at about six million lives. All three of them were Russian Jews, all three of them spent most of the 1920s in Berlin, all three were in close contact with the German scholarly world, all three of them succeeded in escaping Europe under Nazi rule. Alexander Kulischer, Eugene’s brother, was arrested crossing the border in Southern France and died in a German concentration camp.

This was the main impulse for me to go back to Russian Berlin. I had the strong impression that the discovery of the huge migration processes of the 20th century as a core element of modern demography has to do with the personal experience and collective fate of those who moved through the turmoil of the Russian and German revolutions, and that Russian Berlin was the intellectual place for the emergence of this new theme, new in scholarship and in politics.

But this attention placed on Kulischer, Schechtman, and Lestschinsky was to a certain degree the trigger for new and not-so-new questions and discoveries. Going back into the intellectual fabric of Weimar Berlin, I realized that there were many more networks, nodes, hubs. And I want to talk here about some of them. I am convinced that Berlin has been the transition point for very specific insights that shaped and revolutionized our perception of the epoch, which Eric Hobsbawm called the “Age of Extremes”. I will try to show this in the impact Russian scholars in exile, many of them Marxists, had on the development of modern Russian and Soviet studies in the United States. But it is necessary to keep in mind that intellectual transfer and transmission went in both directions, not only into the United States. With some examples, I will show the fate of those scholars and scientists who returned to Russia.

Michael Marrus, in his great study on exiles in the 20th century — The Unwanted — focuses on the émigrés/refugees of Hitler-dominated Central Europe.7

I am convinced that, if we include the history of the Russian émigrés into our panorama of emigration, we will not only get a more comprehensive picture, but the picture itself will somehow be transformed. And that is essential in the process of creating a “pan-European memory” which has overcome the great East-West divide of our perception and the asymmetry of attention usually linked to it.

Interwar Russian
Berlin — the stage, the actors, the time

The Berlin of the Weimar Republic has found its historiography: from Peter Gay and George Mosse, from Fritz Stern to Heinrich August Winkler, it was called “Faust’s Metropolis” and “Grand Hotel Abyss”. The impact of the Russian communities — the White and the Red — is best reflected in Walter Laqueur’s study of the intimate German-Russian relations in that period.8 The fascinating aspect of Russian Berlin in Weimar is that Berlin for a very short period was the “capital of Russia outside Russia” and simultaneously an outpost of the Russian revolution, represented by the Comintern, German communists and the Soviet representatives in Germany. In Berlin both factions of the Russian Civil war could meet — and they did. Both factions had their impact on cultural and intellectual life. Both factions did their best to fight for their aims. Weimar Berlin was a transitional period, covering a bit more than a decade. But for few years Berlin was the home of 200,000 to 300,000 émigrés, and proletarian neighborhoods like Wedding and Moabit were called “Little Moscow”. For a short period Berlin was the informal capital of Russia Abroad with the former political elite, army representatives, provisional institutions in touch with German official institutions, networks of organizations, professional associations, more than 100 publishing houses, dozens of newspapers, dailies featuring the most prominent writers and analysts of prerevolutionary Russia, literary circles, magazines, shops, hotels, travel agencies, etc. — a parallel world inside Berlin, a community functioning quite well, based on traditional prerevolutionary loyalties and suffering from prerevolutionary factionalism and partisanship. All the maladies of an émigré community that is kept alive by despair and the hope of returning home. And all kinds of alliances can be observed, extreme-right terrorists from the Russian “Blackhundred” movement and the extreme-right terrorists from the German Freikorps and the early Hitler movement. We do not have time and space here to give an overview of Russian Berlin; it may suffice to generalize as follows.

For most Russians — and I have in mind the citizens of the former Russian Empire, including ethnic non-Russians such as Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, Jews, Balts, etc. — Berlin was the place of a double displacement. They had to move twice: the first time after the defeat in the Civil War in 1920/21, and the second time in the wake of the crisis and after the collapse of the Weimar Republic. For most, the demise of the Weimar Republic was a reiteration, a kind of déjà vu of the Russian Revolution. They were experienced in studying the impact of war on the disorganization of social and political life. They all had gone through periods of disobedience, rebellion, insurrection, destabilization, the radicalization of the masses. They were “experienced observers”. They all had experience with forms of military dictatorship and the impact of arms and violence. They felt that prewar Europe had passed away and that conventional wisdom did not help in finding solutions. They could observe a process of exhaustion of the institutions of civil society and the emergence of a new type of mass politics. Their experience was international and transnational. In Berlin, two organizations — or more precisely, two worlds of transnational, and international character — were operating. The Russian emigration was by definition a transnational and international phenomenon, and the sections of the Communist International were also, by definition, operating across national borders. Reading the émigré press with correspondents in almost all countries of the diaspora reminds one in many respects of the press of the Communist International. The Russian Berlin of the émigrés as well as the Russian members of the Comintern contributed a lot to the specifically international, cosmopolitan spirit of the German capital at that time. Investigating the intellectual and cultural topography of Weimar Berlin, we make the discovery that, up to now, most research succumbs to the partitions that are the result of the division of academic labor: research on German Communism and Soviet Russia is one thing, research on White Russia and German culture is another. The really fascinating subject, however, is the entanglement and interrelationship among them all. For example, we have Mensheviks working in the Soviet Embassy. One of the greatest archivists of the 20th century — Boris Nicolaevsky — worked for the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow and simultaneously for the Menshevik delegation in exile. The editor of the leading liberal Russian daily, Rul, Iosif Gessen, encounters the Soviet ambassador at diplomatic receptions and parties. On the street or in the barbershop, the victim of an anti-Jewish pogrom in the Ukraine could easily meet one of the perpetrators, an officer of the White Army, now in exile. Many such situations are recounted in the memoirs of Russians in Berlin.

What I wanted   to say is that despite all antagonism, rivalry, and factionalism, Berlin was the stage for a very mixed society, and that in this mixture, in this belonging to two or even more cultural fields, lies the productivity of Weimar Berlin in general, and of Russian Berlin in particular. Thus, it was a short period, but a period of radical ruptures, discontinuities, extremely disparate experiences — the experiences of one or two generations in “normal” time, telescoped into a few years. In short, the Berlin years were extremely intensive and instructive.

Laboratory Berlin — The privilege of place

It was the young George F. Kennan, who clearly described the advantages, or, I would say, the privileges, of the place. As a member of the US mission in Riga, he came to Berlin in 1929 in order to get “training for Russia”. He found everything he needed here: academic surroundings, linguistic training, contact with everyone involved with Russia — Soviet or émigré — and finally a Norwegian girl who later became his wife. He participated in the seminars of the outstanding professors of Russian history, Otto Hoetzsch and Karl Stählin. His private tutors were for the most part simply highly cultured Russian émigrés. He heard lectures on strictly Soviet subjects: Soviet finance, Soviet political structure — Berlin was the only place where he could study this at that time. Building on this training in Berlin in 1929—1931, Kennan became one of the greatest experts and diplomats the United States ever had.

It seems to be   a paradox that Berlin became the first center of the Russian diaspora — Germany was the enemy country in World War I, and after the Rapallo Treaty in 1922 was on good terms with Bolshevik Russia. But there are reasons for Berlin to be the center of Russia Abroad. Berlin was close, easily accessible. The city had a good Russian infrastructure of printing and publishing houses. And there were more important reasons. One of them was that, for many Russian intellectuals, Germany had been a home in prewar and prerevolutionary times. The universities of Berlin, Freiburg, and Heidelberg, the technical universities of Charlottenburg, Darmstadt, and Karlsruhe were traditional places of study and training of the intellectual elite, sometimes the only places where Russian women or Russian Jews could go. So many prominent representatives of Soviet Russia as well of the Russian exile community graduated from German universities. The poets Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak were students at Heidelberg and Marburg, respectively. The philosopher Semen Frank was a student of the Frederick William University in Berlin. Sergei Gessen, the son of the editor of the Berlin-based Russian daily Rul, Iosif Gessen, was student of the universities in Heidelberg, Freiburg, and Marburg, and called himself a Neo-Kantian from the school of Windelband, Emil Lask, and Friedrich Meineke. Iosif Gessen’s brother was a student of the universities of Zurich and Dresden. Alexandre Koyré, born 1892, studied in Göttingen — under Edmund Husserl and David Hilbert — and later at the Sorbonne. There were many others: Mark Vishniak, a former social-revolutionary and prominent figure of Russian Berlin, was a student in Freiburg and Heidelberg before World War I. So for many émigrés the exile was a kind of homecoming.

The research institutions of Wilhelmine Berlin, above all the university (for the humanities) and the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft (for the natural sciences), had an international reputation, and even in the Weimar period there were centers which attracted young Russian students — expatriates as well as Soviet citizens. The young Wassily Leontief, the Nobel Prize winner in economics in 1973, was attracted by the seminar of Werner Sombart and Ladislaus von Bortkiewicz at the Berlin University and defended his inaugural dissertation Die Wirtschaft als Kreislauf, on December 19, 1928. It was later published in Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft and Sozialpolitik, the most prestigious journal in the social sciences of the time.

Alexander and Eugen Kulischer, the sons of the great Russian scholar of economic history and anthropology Mikhail Kulischer, wrote their fundamental study Kriegs- und Wanderzüge, Weltgeschichte als Völkerbewegung under the influence of the great German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer, and published their monograph in one of the most renowned publishing houses, Walter de Gruyter, in 1932. This work was also the basis for the letter of recommendation the Kulischers got from Marcel Mauss after 1933 when they applied for an academic post and visa for the United States.

Another center of attraction was the Seminar für osteuropäische Geschichte and the journal Osteuropa, directed by Otto Hoetzsch, a famous historian and Russophile deputy of the Deutsch-Nationale Volks-partei in the Reichstag. Many people from the émigré community found some work in and around the institute and found ways of publication. This was also the place where George F. Kennan found contacts.

From the Russian   side, the Russian research institute was the most prestigious. Assisted financially by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, prominent scholars, exiled from Soviet Russia, could find jobs there before most of them left Berlin for Prague, where conditions were much better as a result of president Masaryk’s “Akcia Russka”. Around the Russian Scientific Institute, we find all the prominent figures and personalities who arrived in Berlin after being deported from Leningrad to Stettin: Nikolai Berdyaev, Fedor Stepun, Boris Vysheslavtsev, Ivan Ilyin, Semyon Frank, and many others who later on became quite famous in the West.

Another center of attraction and encounter was the close contact between the intellectuals of the Menshevik organization abroad and the SPD, especially in the editorial boards of the journals Vorwärts and Die Gesellschaft. The leadership of the Russian Mensheviks, the rival Marxist party, banned and forced to go underground in Soviet Russia, had been in exile in Berlin since 1922. So the legendary figures of this revolutionary party — Martov, Abramovich, Stein, David Dallin, Fedor Dan, Boris Nikolaevsky and others — were in close cooperation with the leadership of the German social democrats, direct colleagues of Rudolf Hilferding, Eduard Bernstein, Rudolf Breitscheid and others. The Russian Menscheviks in Berlin were not only comrades in the struggle for a just society, but the most distinguished experts on Soviet Russia, and, as we will see, the hard core for future Soviet Studies in the United States.9

Berlin in those   years was the privileged place of encounters between Russians with the “Red passport” of the USSR and the émigrés with the Nansen passport, given to stateless people. Thus Berlin was the place where filmmakers from the Soviet Union could meet actors in exile, artists and painters like Leonid Pasternak could visit the vernissages of their colleagues who preferred to stay in Soviet Russia, and a writer who hated all things Soviet — like Vladimir Nabokov — could observe the success modern Soviet literature had in the Weimar culture.

The ’20s were still years of the open door, and scientific exchange was still possible between Germany and Soviet Russia. One of the most prominent representatives of the cooperative movement in Russia and a fascinating author of utopian fiction, Alexander Chayanov, visited Berlin several times and met other specialists in the field of agrarian economics, such as Professor Otto Auhagen. He also published in German journals such as Schmollers Jahrbuch. The other example is the geneticist Nikolai Timofeev-Ressovsky, who was on academic exchange in Germany and decided not to go back when he was recalled in 1937. Together with his wife and sons, he lived and worked in Berlin’s Buch district, and became one of the pioneers of genetics. We will see that Chayanov’s and Timofeev-Ressovsky’s fates ended in catastrophe: Chayanov was killed with some of his relatives and pupils in 1937, together with his colleague, the famous economist Nikolai Kondratiev, who devised the “Kondratiev cycles”. Both perished in the year of the Great Terror, 1937/1938.

Timofeev-Ressovsky, whose son was killed in Maut-hausen for his active underground struggle against the Nazi regime, was deported in 1945 to the Soviet Union and forced to work in a special camp for scientists — Solzhenitsyn describes him in The Gulag Archipelago — and only in his last years was he able to publish the results of his pathbreaking research, much respected by the elite of Soviet natural scientists and Nobel Prize winners such as Petr Kapitsa, Lev Landau, Igor Kurchatov and others.

Besides institutes, Russian Berlin had created journals for historical documentation and analysis, the first scholarly journals dealing with contemporary Russian history — Archiv russkoy revolyutsii and Na chuzhoi storone, up to our days a source of eminent importance.

What I wanted to show in this part of my presentation is the networks, the nodes and the hubs of intellectual encounter and cooperation, the fertile ground and environment for intellectual innovation — salons, institutes, journals, boards, seminars, centered on activities and personalities, representing the modernity of Berlin.

Modern times,
new questions

Russian Berlin had become a hotbed of new experiences. Russian Berlin was Russia outside Russia, beyond Soviet censorship. In many respects, Russian Berlin opened up a third space for reflection and reconsideration of what had happened to Russia and Europe. It was George F. Kennan who characterized World War I as “the great seminal catastrophe of this century”. This feeling had been articulated by various authors almost simultaneously and independently of one another. The German cultural philosopher Oswald Spengler published his Untergang des Abendlandes [The Decline of the West] in 1918, almost simultaneously with the Russian-Jewish thinker Grigory Landau’s book carrying almost the same title — Sumerki Evropy [the twilight of Europe].10 It was a common feeling in the post—World War I period that old Europe and the bourgeois world had come to an end. The spiritual and artistic world during the Weimar years of Berlin reflected the seismic repercussions of the age of war and revolution. There was no single problem which was not untouched by radical reinterpretation and reevaluation. A time of “Umwertung der Werte”, to use the Nietzschean term, a general sense of a global crisis, political as well as spiritual, resurfaced again and again: in the financial and economic collapse after Black Friday in 1929, in the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany, in Stalin’s revolution from above with forced industrialization, warfare against the Russian village and subsequent famine with millions of deaths.

For most members   of the intelligentsia it was quite clear that the fall of the empires was not just the result of a mistake by this or that statesman or party leader, but something more fundamental: that a way of life, a way of thinking had come to an end. The fall of the empires and the birth of a Europe of dozens of minor nation-states created an entirely different outlook. The transnational structures of dynasties were replaced by nation-states in which territory, state, and people were to coincide, and where this was not the case, a process of forced homogenization and assimilation had to transform the existing society. The fall of the empires provided space for the rise of nationalism and the creation of the minority question all over Europe. From Wilson’s declaration of the 14 points of self-determination and Lenin’s proclamation of independence for all nations of the former Russian empire, the new postwar order may be said to have begun. Everywhere in Europe, ethnic conflicts and minority problems emerged, and the minority that suffered most, because it had no territory, no state, and no legitimate representation, was the Jewish minority. The new order after the fall of the empires and the Paris peace treaties produced a new class of human beings, the apatrides, the stateless people, the outcasts. Many of the refugees in the interwar period were outlaws, Vogelfreie, as Hannah Arendt called them in her book Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft.11

The falling apart of age-old empires and the new borders, the new front lines between new nations and new social orders, provoked a series of movements all over Europe. “Europe on the Move”, the summary of the great analysis of Eugene Kulischer, reflects perfectly what had been going on since the prelude to World War I: the Balkan wars and the first experiments in mass population transfer. The new Europe would be one of redefining borders and citizenships, of inclusion and exclusion, of privilege and persecution. It is quite clear why Jewish authors like Eugene and Alexander Kulischer, Schechtman and Lestschinsky were particularly sensitive: the handling of the Jewish question was the most precise indicator of respect for  universal rights.

At the same time — the early 1920s — waves of anti-Semitism raged over Europe. Somebody had to be responsible for the apocalyptic disasters, for the fall of the empires and the old classes. Pamphlets like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion attracted public attention, an international of anti-Semites was organized, and the simultaneity of the assassinations of Walther Rathenau and Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov in 1922 by German and Russian right-wing terrorists was not just a coincidence. Many among the Jewish intellectual elite all over Europe immediately perceived the deadly threat of the new combination of Anti-Semitism and Anti-Bolshevism, and some of them started a campaign to explain that despite the presence of prominent Bolsheviks of Jewish background — Trotsky, Zinovev, Kamenev and many others — the Bolshevik regime and the social upheaval in Russia were in fact radically undermining the social and cultural foundations of the Russian Jewry. One of the most shocking controversies, initiated by prominent liberal and conservative Russian Jews in Berlin in 1923 and 1924, concerned the struggle against identifying Bolshevism with Jewry in order to fight the rising tide of anti-Semitism all over Europe, especially in Germany.12

It is no surprise   that Russians who had been eyewitnesses to the explosive rage of the masses had a specific sensitivity to the new dangers of populism, mass violence and ochlocracy, the dictatorship of the lower classes. And it is no surprise that Russian thinkers like Nikolai Berdyaev were trying to find a way to transform the old system by means of consensus and through corporativistic institutions. Ideas of a “third way”, of organized capitalism, planned market economies, even monarchies of the people and national bolshevism, were commonplace in that time.

Finally, the exiles of two dictatorial regimes, of the “Red Dominicans” and the “German National Socialists”, as the Jewish historian Simon Dubnov called them, contributed to the early diagnosis of the new phenomenon of totalitarian rule, of unlimited power and despotism, in combination with ideological manipulation and the ruthless use of violence. Thinkers who had passed through both the Soviet and the German systems were confronted with a new phenomenology and unseen forms of political power. And it is obvious that the new terms of “total” or “totalitarian” states date back to the 1920s and 1930s, long before the Cold War was staged. We find the new word, coined for a new phenomenon, in texts of Simon Dubnov, Waldemar Gurian (who was, by the way, the author who characterized Carl Schmitt as “Kronjurist des Dritten Reiches”), and prominent Russian Mensheviks.13

To summarize we can state that Russian Berlin had been the laboratory or the studio in which central experiences or implications of the “great seminal catastrophe” were reflected. But the time was short, too short. The circumstances forced people to move, to save their lives, to escape. Berlin was stimulating, but too dangerous to stay in. It ceased to be a haven for refugees. Berlin in 1933 is the place from which Russian refugees started anew in order to save their lives.

Let’s have a look at the directions and destinations of survival and transfer.

Parting of ways,
final destinations, new junctions

There is no event more symbolic of what happened to Russian intellectual life and Russian culture than the systematic deportation of a huge group of Russian intellectuals in the autumn of 1922. The deportation put into practice the decision of the Soviet leadership, and of Lenin personally, to get rid of any possible focus of autonomous spirit. The decision was prepared and formulated in the summer of 1922 by the inner circle — Lenin, Trotsky, Dzerzhinsky, and others. The individuals selected for deportation from Russia were highly representative of the Russian intelligentsia. The 225 people in question represented almost all disciplines and professions, political parties and religious confessions; they came from all ethnic groups of the former empire. The sole criterion was that they could be a risk, a danger — that they could become an element of opposition of which the leadership was so frightened even after their victory at the end of the Civil War. The lists of deportees encompassed philosophers, writers, physicians, scientists, journalists, political leaders, sociologists and economists, and lawyers, among them well-known figures. Since we have the lists, the records of discussions and interrogations, and the application forms for German visas, we can reconstruct the whole process of extradition, deportation, and dislocation of representatives of the Russian intellectual elite. In the list we find the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, who later held a chair in sociology at Yale; the philosophers Nikolai Berdyaev, Nikolay Lossky, Boris Vysheslavtsev, and Semyon Frank, who were successful in continuing Russian thought in France; brilliant journalists of the leading newspapers of Petrograd and Moscow like Alexander Izgoev; writers like Michail Osorgin; and representatives of the local political and intellectual elites outside the capital cities. This fairly representative body was placed on board two rented steamships, the Preussen and the Oberbürgermeister Haken, bound for Stettin in Germany. They continued on by train to Berlin, where they were received by the Berlin émigré community at Stettiner Bahnhof, now the site of Nordbahnhof in the central borough of Berlin. Some members of this group established the Russian Scientific Institute in Berlin; some continued on to Prague, where the government of the recently founded Czechoslovakian republic had the intention of creating a kind of Russian Oxford. In retrospect, we may say that this act of deportation saved the lives of many among this group of Russian intelligentsia. Others who did not have the good luck to get on board perished in the Stalin era, while their colleagues made their way into scientific institutions and built their reputations. But the act itself, in its surgical precision, in its ruthlessness and shamelessness, was something new, unthinkable under the old regime, which had indeed made frequent use of internal exile, prison and other forms of persecution, as we all know. But the surgical act, of dislocation and displacement, was something new, and a very carefully calculated measure.14

The ways out of Berlin were much less clear. The Russian émigrés had to go where they could find jobs, in order to make a living for their families. There were institutions in other centers of the Russian diaspora — in Belgrade, Prague, Paris, later in the United States. For a very important and influential group in Russian Berlin in 1933, the Russian Jews, Hitler’s rise to power was the last exit. The Russian community was now — and in 1937, completely — under the control of pro-Nazi Russians like General Vasily Biskupsky, who had been collaborating with the Nazi party since the Munich putsch of 1923. In 1937, Vladimir Nabokov and his Jewish wife, and the philosopher Semyon Frank and others left Germany. Where did they go? Or, more precisely: To what places were the intellectual and cultural heritage of Russian Berlin transferred?

To a minor degree, it was to Paris, as a traditional center of Russian life with its very effective religious world of churches, monasteries, libraries, and theological institutes. Many prominent Russians settled in Paris.

Another way out was to go to Palestine. Since the 1920s, there had been lively communication between Berlin and Palestine, encouraging not only German intellectuals like Gershom Scholem to move to Eretz Israel, but also members of the Ostjuden community, the Yiddish-speaking Hebraic community that existed in Berlin. Some prominent figures of Russian-Jewish Berlin turn up again in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, including Vladimir Zhabotinsky and Joseph Schechtman, repeated visitors to Berlin, the eminent economist Boris Brutskus, and others. The center of this “East European Jewish connection” was the house of Simon Dubnov in his Berlin years. Research on this Berlin between Charlottengrad and Scheunenviertel was subject of a fascinating research project in recent years, sponsored by the German Research Foundation, and based mainly at Freie Universität Berlin.15

The center of   the Russian diaspora moved overseas. We do have some analyses of the impact of the German and Austrian refugees on American life and culture, for instance Martin Jay’s great book on the Frankfurter Institut für Sozialforschung, but not one of the Russian colony.16 To a certain degree, this has to do again with the self-perception of Russia Abroad. The Russian diaspora in the European capitals regarded itself as in transition, on a provisional stopover on its way home, it fulfilled the mission of preserving Russian culture as the émigrés understood it from communist and Soviet depravation. They promised to bring back the real, authentic Russian culture. The situation in the United States was entirely different. Millions of emigrants had moved to the United States between the 1880s and the First World War, millions of Russian Jews from the shtetls in the Pale of Settlement came to the United States in search of a better life and in pursuit of happiness. The Immigration Act of 1922 drastically reduced the numbers of immigrants. But the main fact remained: Russians came to the United States not in order to create centers of Russia Abroad, or a diaspora, but to leave Russia behind and enter American society, to become Americans. Russians coming to the United States had no intention of returning, but wanted to plunge into the melting pot of a new society.

Having said this, it is of great interest to follow the traces of Russian immigration, or to be more precise, immigration from the Russian empire and its successor states. We could show a list of prominent scholars and scientists, actors and film directors who come from Russian backgrounds: the great aviation engineer Igor Sikorsky, the pioneer of electronics and TV, Vladimir Zworykin, the great man of twentieth-century chemistry Vladimir Ipatev, engineers like Stepan Timoshenko, the great economist Wassily Leontief, the conductor of the Boston Symphony orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky, the founder of New York City Ballet, George Balanchine, the Hollywood movie star Yul Brynner, who was born in Vladivostok — they are all representatives of the first wave of emigration after the October Revolution and Civil War. Or take the much-discussed case of Ayn Rand, the Leningrad student, pupil of the Russian philosopher Nikolay Lossky, bestselling author and initiator of an intellectual group to which people such as Alan Greenspan belonged.

Significant centers of research in the field of Russian history, war and revolution were established in the United States. I have in mind the depositories of the Hoover Institution, a unique archive in all respects, the Bakhmeteff Archive at Columbia University, and many other important places. To a certain degree, they represent the memory of Russia outside Russia. The archivists and especially the great Boris Nicolaevsky represent this heroic effort of preservation in a century of destruction and oblivion. Boris Nicolaevsky was the man who saved the archives of the German Social Democrats as well as the papers of the Russian Mensheviks. Berlin played a central role in the making of this great pioneer of the archival science.

The place for training for Russia, to use George F. Kennan’s phrase, were transferred from Europe, from Germany, from Berlin, to the United States, due to the Nazi rise to power. If we look at the prominent figures in teaching Russian history since the 1930s, we cannot avoid mentioning the scholars of American universities who quite often came from a Russian background and quite often via Berlin.

George Karpovich,   born in Tbilisi, Georgia, formed an entire school of historians focused on Russia at Harvard, as George Vernadsky and Georges

Florovsky did at Yale, and as Michael Rostovtzeff did for the field of Byzantine history. John Normano, the brilliant economist, also a Berlin émigré, made a career for himself at Harvard. Vladimir Nabokov found a good place at Wesleyan College for teaching and writing in his “American years”, as his biographer Brian Boyd called his life after leaving Berlin in 1937. And Leopold Haimson, the child of a family that was founded in exile, in Harbin, Manchuria, then moved to Berlin and Brussels, was the teacher of at least two generations of historians of Russia in the United States.17

Important new ideas and concepts for rethinking the Russian and Soviet experience and seminal books dealing with interpretations of the contemporary Soviet Union came from authors with Russian or Russian-Jewish backgrounds, who settled down in American institutions after they had been forced to leave Europe. Here should be mentioned some of the themes and authors: forced labor in the Soviet Union (David Dallin), labor in the Soviet Union (Solomon Schwarz), memoirs of Russian revolutionaries (Nikolai Volsky/Valentinov: Encounters with Lenin), the Great Retreat (Nicholas Timasheff), input-output analysis (Wassily Leontief), German rule in Russia (Alexander Dallin), Soviet espionage (David Dallin), Europe on the move (Kulischer), a theory of the advantages of backwardness (Alexander Gerschenkron), the crisis of Western civilization (Pitirim Sorokin), the collectivization of Russian agriculture (Naum Jasny), Russia in the age of absolutism (Marc Raeff), the Menschevik movement (Boris Sapir, Leopold Haimson). In the curriculum vitae of most of these authors, Berlin left an important mark.18

Also essential for the shift of Russian studies is the rise of authoritative journals, published in the United States: The Slavic Review, The Russian Review, Novyi zhurnal [New journal] and others.

The institutionalization of generously funded Russian and Soviet studies reached its peak at the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War, with the second wave of Russian, or more precisely, Soviet emigrants and refugees, non-returnees after the end of the war and displaced persons who refused to go back to Stalin’s Russia. The foundation of the Harvard Russian Research Center and the Ukrainian Research Center and the expansion of area study institutes dealing with Soviet communism — including such different regions as Eastern Germany, Russia, North Korea, and China — marked the peak in the evolution of Russia and communist-centered studies. In the first phase these were very innovative and original both in theory and method; in the later period, rather redundant and even dogmatic. In the context of the Cold War, findings and insights accumulated earlier, in prewar times, were reactivated. In 1946, George F. Kennan sent his famous telegram, leading to the publication of his article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” under the pseudonym “X”, which again became a point of reference at the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Some of the Russian refugees who had found shelter in Berlin in the early twenties visited the city under siege in 1948, as did Alexander Kerensky, the prime minister of the Provisional Government in 1917. Some experts trained in Russian Berlin in prewar times came back to a Berlin in ruins to take part in the Congresses for Culture and Freedom in the early 1950s. And some left the United States for Europe because they preferred a place like the Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenes in Amsterdam to American institutions, as Boris Sapir did. Twenty years later Alexandre Kojève (Aleksandr Kozhevnikov) the Russian-born Hegelian with a Freiburg and Heidelberg education, visited Berlin 1967 on his way back from China for a discussion with the leaders of the radical left student movement — his recommendation to Rudi Dutschke was: learn Ancient Greek and study the Greek classics!

The way out of Russian Berlin before World War II was the way to the United States; the way to the East led many émigrés of Russian Berlin into a trap. The case of Simon Dubnov, the representative of Russian-Jewish Berlin and the most authoritative scholar on the history of Eastern European Jewry, may be regarded as symbolic. He first moved in 1922 from Petrograd via Kaunas and Danzig to Berlin, where he had the most productive period of his life, and when he was forced to emigrate a second time, he decided to go from Berlin to Riga in order to be close to Eastern Europe and the centers of Eastern European Jewry. There, in the ghetto of Riga, he was killed in 1941 when the Germans entered, whereas another brilliant representative of Russian Berlin, the philosopher Grigory Landau, was deported and perished when the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, and the Red Army occupied Riga.

Concluding remarks:   If we want to tell the story of expulsion, forced migration, emigration in the 20th century, we have to bring together the many different currents and movements of this chaotic and tragic process. And this is not because I want to demonstrate a specific theoretical approach or a certain method, but because real history has entangled the paths of refugees and emigrants. All over the world, we encounter the refugees of both dictatorships: in Shanghai we meet the White Russians and the Jews from Central Europe, in Prague German Social Democrats and Russian émigré scholars settle side by side, in Paris we find Nikolai Berdyaev and Walter Benjamin, Alexandre Kojève and Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt and Eugene Kulischer. The German invasion destroyed this exclave, as Weimar Berlin had been destroyed years before. It seems to me that there were places where the refugees, the outcasts of both totalitarian states, could meet, encounter, and reflect. Such was for instance the ocean steamer, when Ernst Cassirer and Roman Jakobson, both fleeing from Europe, tried to reach the New World. And such was probably a place like the New School for Social Research, and New York City in general, with its cosmopolitan society. There we can find the key for a comprehensive study of displacements and cultures in the 20th century.

And what about   Russian Berlin today? Many features are reminiscent of the Russian Berlin of the 1920s — for instance the size of the Russian community, the emergence of a differentiated infrastructure, the media networks, etc.19 According to a brilliant study, based on opinion polls conducted in the spring of 2011 by the Levada Center, about 50% of the respondents wanted to leave the country; the percentage among the younger and best qualified generation is even higher. One and a quarter million people have left Russia forever in the last three years — for Great Britain, Germany, France, and Austria, but also for countries like the Czech Republic, Croatia, Thailand, and, of course, the United States. In Germany we have a community of more than four million Russian-speaking people. Russian demographers compared in an issue of the journal New Times the emigration of the last five years or so with the Great Exodus after the Civil War.20 And the consequences are frightening indeed, because it is the middle class, the highly motivated and most dynamic and most entrepreneurial elements of the Russian society, that has left the country: businessmen, IT specialists, scientists, artists — a brain drain which is dangerous in the long run for any country. But at the same time, the difference from the first-wave emigration is striking: there is no political structure, no government in exile, there is no expulsion similar to the deportation of 1922. Post-Soviet Russia is quite different from the early Soviet power. The situation of the revisionist “Unholy Alliance” between the Soviet Union and Germany of the 1920s has passed. There is not even a shadow of the spirit of Rapallo; the entire scenario has changed. In more general terms, I would say: despite the disastrous effects of the enormous brain drain for Russia’s development, the emergence of Russian communities abroad can also be seen as an indicator of a normalization resulting from the opening up of the country after a long period of isolation. For Berlin, it is the regeneration of the mixed and more cosmopolitan society of the pre-Nazi and prewar epoch.≈


  1. This is the short version of the Fritz-Stern-Lecture, given May 31, 2011, at the American Academy in Berlin
  2. Karl Schlögel (ed.), Der Große Exodus: Die russische Emigration und ihre Zentren 1917—1941, Munich 1994; Karl Schlögel (ed.), Russische Emigration in Deutschland 1918 bis 1941: Leben im europäischen Bürgerkrieg, Berlin; Karl Schlögel, Katharina Kucher, Bernhard Suchy / Gregor Thum (eds.), Chronik russischen Lebens in Deutschland 1918—1941, Berlin; Karl Schlögel, Das Russische Berlin — Ostbahnhof Europas, Munich 2007.
  3. Robert C. Williams, Culture in Exile: Russian Emigrés in Germany, 1881—1941, Ithaca 1972; Hans-Erich Volkmann, Die russische Emigration in Deutschland 1919—1929, Würzburg 1966.
  4. For one of the early Soviet projects to reconsider the experience of the Russian diaspora, see Leonid K. Shkarenkov, Agoniia beloi emigratsii [The agony of White Russian emigration], Moscow 1987.
  5. Marc Raeff, Russia Abroad: A Cultural History of the Russian Emigration, 1919—1939, New York & Oxford 1990.
  6. The main publications of these authors are: Alexander Kulischer and Eugene M. Kulischer, Kriegs- und Wanderzüge: Weltgeschichte als Völkerbewegung, Berlin 1932; Eugene Kulischer, The Displacement of Population in Europe: Studies and Reports, Series O, No. 8, Montreal: International Labor Office 1943; Eugene Kulischer, Europe on the Move: War and Population Changes, 1917—1947, New York 1948; Eugene Kulischer, “Displaced Persons in the Modern World”, American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, Annals 262 (1949); Jakob Lestschinsky, Balance Sheet of Extermination, New York 1946.
  7. Michael Marrus, The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century, New York 1985.
  8. Walter Laqueur, Russia and Germany: A Century of Conflict, Boston 1965.
  9. On the Russian Mensheviks in exile, see André Liebich, From the other Shore: Russian Social Democracy after 1921, Cambridge, Mass. 1997.
  10. Grigory A. Landau, Sumerki Evropy: Stat’i i zametki [The twilight of Europe: Articles and notes], Berlin 1923.
  11. Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, New York 1973.
  12. On the Russian revolution, the role of prominent Jews and the rise of anti-Semitism, see Iosif Bikerman, G. A. Landau, I. O. Levin, D. O. Linskii, V. S. Mandel’, and D. S. Pasmanik (eds.), Rossiia i evrei: Sbornik pervyi [Russia and the Jews: The first collection], Berlin 1924.
  13. Simon Dubnow, Buch des Lebens: Erinnerungen und Gedanken; Materialien zur Geschichte meiner Zeit, vol. 3: 1922—1933; Göttingen 2005; Viktor E. Kelner, Simon Dubnow: eine Biographie, Göttingen 2010; Yuri Slezkine, Das Jüdische Jahrhundert, Göttingen 2006.
  14. Vysylka vmesto rasstrela: Deportatsiia intelligentsii v dokumentakh VChK-GPU 1921—1923 [Expulsion instead of execution: The deportation of intellectuals in Cheka and GPU documents, 1921—1923], Moscow 2005.
  15. Results of a German research project, based in the universities of Berlin, Göttingen, Munich, and Frankfurt/Oder. See Verena Dohrn, Transit und Transformation: Osteuropäisch-jüdische Migranten in Berlin 1918—1939, Göttingen 2010.
  16. Martin Jay, Permanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America, New York 1985.
  17. Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, Princeton 1991; Nikolai N. Bolkhovitinov, Russkie uchenye-ėmigranty (G.V. Vernadskiĭ, M.M. Karpovich, M.T. Florinskiĭ) i stanovlenie rusistiki v SShA  [Russian emigré-scientists (G.V. Vernadskii, M.M. Karpovich, M.T. Florinskii) and the evolution of Russian studies in the US], Moscow 2005.
  18. On Mensheviks and others, see Liebich, From the Other Shore.
  19. See the chapter “Russian Connection: Das neue russische Berlin” in Karl Schlögel, Das russische Berlin: Ostbahnhof Europas, Munich 2007, pp. 425—448; Judith Kessler, Jüdische Migration aus der ehemaligen Sowjetunion seit 1990, http//, accessed 2011-04-26.
  20. New Times,, accessed 2011-05-25.
  • by Karl Schlögel

    Professor emeritus of East European History at European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder). Historian and writer, lives in Berlin. Among his books: Moscow 1937 (Polity Press 2012), The Scent of Empires. Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow (Polity Press 2021), Ukraine. A Nation on the Borderland (Reaktion Books 2022).

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