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Friday, June 21, 2024

Russia freezes German Goethe Institut accounts

15 April: In the week following Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, the Russkij Dom, the Russian House of Science and Culture in central Berlin, was targeted by various attacks by unknown individuals. Eggs were thrown at windows, a wall was smeared with hate speech and members of staff were met with hostility.

Unlike the Russian embassy nearby on Unter den Linden, the huge 1980s concrete building on Friedrichstrasse was not guarded by guards, making it easier for people who wanted to express their anger over the war in Ukraine to get to it.

For safety reasons, those responsible have decided to shut down operations until the situation cools down. But in September 2022, the Russky Dom reopened with a regular program of films, exhibitions and language courses. It was business as usual.

But not for Ukrainians in the city. In October, Vitsche – an association of young Ukrainian activists – held a “referendum” a la russe on whether the building should be “annexed” and handed over to Ukraine. Those who took part in the protest gave a resounding yes.

The Berlin Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation into the Russian House
In January of this year, prosecutors in Berlin opened an investigation into the organization, whose accounts were frozen on suspicion of violating sanctions. At the end of the month, the Russian Foreign Ministry threatened to introduce “reciprocal measures” against the Goethe-Institut’s subsidiaries in Russia if access to the accounts was not granted and the situation was not “normalized”.

The accounts of the Goethe-Institut in Russia were frozen at the end of March. The Goethe-Institut describes itself on its website as Germany’s “globally active cultural institute” that promotes “cultural exchange, education and social discourse in an international context”. It receives much of its funding from the German government and has three branches in Russia: Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Novosibirsk.

The Russian House in Berlin has a similar function. The seven-story building was opened in 1984, when the fall of the Soviet Union was not yet imaginable, and is the largest Russian cultural center in Europe.

In 2018, events were held in the building to celebrate the football championship. As the host of the Men’s World Cup, Russia presented itself as a modern, open and warm country. The suggestion was that the stereotypes of the past have been overcome and Russia is no longer a country to be feared.

EU sanctions affect Russian culture
Today the situation is very different. The relationship to Russia and even to Russian culture, with its apparently non-political character, was also poisoned by the war in Ukraine. Last summer, the EU imposed sanctions on Rossotrudnichestvo, the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, compatriots living abroad and international humanitarian cooperation. This Russian government agency, which claims to promote a better understanding of Russia abroad, also owns the Russian Cultural Center in Berlin.

The Russian Dom strengthened its security measures and continued its operations, showing visible restraint towards Ukraine. Meanwhile, international media became more interested in the building. In January, a Reuters investigation revealed that the Russian House had bought tickets for two pro-Russian activists living in Germany to travel to a conference in Moscow. They allegedly co-organized pro-Russian protests in Germany. In the end, both did not fly to the event.

Berlin prosecutors did not respond to DW’s questions about the status of the investigation against the cultural center. The director of the Russian House was equally laconic. The Goethe-Institut also declined to comment, but confirmed that the accounts of the Russian branches had been frozen and a solution was being sought.

German SPD lawmaker: “Not a very surprising escalation”
At the moment, the Goethe-Institut branches in Russia remain open, as does the Russky Dom in Berlin. However, all visitors must go through an airport-like metal detector and pass a bored security guard. This is not so common in Germany, but standard in Russia.

When I visited DW on Friday afternoon, there were five exhibitions but only a handful of visitors. Russian culture is not in vogue these days.

German SPD (Social Democrats) lawmaker Helge Lindh, who is also a member of the Bundestag’s cultural affairs committee, said the freezing of the Goethe-Institut’s accounts was “another, unfortunately not very surprising, escalation”.

“This is clearly retaliation for the investigation against the Russian House in Berlin. The Russian government is showing its dictatorial face,” he said, adding that there was good reason to believe the institution was not one of “democratic cultural exchange, but closely connected.” with the political strategy of the Russian government, which is now waging an offensive war.”

He said that this was not an “entirely new development” and that in the past there had also been “a deliberate strategy of using cultural politics and also the culture of memory to push certain agendas and spread propaganda”.

When it comes to the politicization of Russian culture, he said people face a dramatic dilemma. He warned that not every Russian artist should be considered a collaborator with the regime in Moscow, but said he understood why the contracts of those who understood their work in terms of propaganda were terminated.

“You can’t ignore the fact that this is a criminal war and that everything is political in this situation.”

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