The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia finds sympathy in Germany’s east, Putin’s old stomping ground

As Berlin faces calls to deepen its support for Ukraine, attitudes in Saxony show competing pressures on German leaders

The old KGB headquarters in Dresden, Germany. (Isaac Stanley-Becker/The Washington Post)
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DRESDEN, Germany — A Russian spy emerged from a villa in this eastern German city and brandished a gun at protesters celebrating cracks in the Iron Curtain.

It was 1989. The villa was the local headquarters of the Soviet security services, the KGB. The young spy who dispersed the crowd on that December day was Vladimir Putin.

More than 30 years later, most residents feel no affinity for Putin as he wages a bloody war in Ukraine. But they’re hardly lining up with the West against Russia, either.

“Both sides have made mistakes,” said Daniel Drescher, 46, who lives across the street from the old KGB headquarters, which now houses an occult society. “The truth is in the middle.”

Drescher’s views are shared by many in Saxony, the most populous of Germany’s eastern states. Sixty-eight percent of people in the state, whose capital is Dresden, say their opinion of the Russian population has not changed since the invasion, according to a recent poll. Nearly 4 in 10 say their perceptions of Putin are also unchanged. Across eastern Germany, people are 13 percentage points less likely than in the west to say Putin’s Russia is a threat to their country, polling shows.

The difference reflects the former communist east’s four-decade history as a Soviet satellite state in which Russian-language instruction was required. It also reveals the effects of economic and cultural ties cultivated with Russia in the three decades since German reunification in 1990. And it testifies to the influence of far-right forces, which are ascendant in Saxony.

As Berlin confronts calls from Ukrainian and domestic voices to escalate its response to Putin’s aggression, the situation in Saxony shows competing pressures on the German government. Many in Saxony, where Putin cut his teeth as an intelligence officer in the 1980s and returned in 2009 to accept the “Order of Saxon Gratitude,” are reluctant to pick sides in a new version of the Cold War.

Saxony’s premier, Michael Kretschmer, personifies his region’s more reluctant attitude — a kind of realpolitik tinged with lingering guilt from World War II that sets eastern Germany apart from the rest of the former Eastern bloc. “Russia,” he said, “is a fact.”

The posture has made him a lightning rod in his party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union, and his country. Russia’s war in Ukraine has transformed German foreign policy and caused politicians of all persuasions, including many in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ruling Social Democrats, to rip up old playbooks on Russia. Kretschmer stands out for rethinking some assumptions but holding fast to others.

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“President Putin deceived everyone for years, presenting a picture to people and European politicians that he was a reliable, Western-oriented partner,” Kretschmer said in an interview with The Washington Post. “That is not the case. And many people are disappointed and angry, but we also have to figure out approaches that understand that Russia exists, and not far away, but right here.”

That proximity to Russia, he said, makes Germany’s position different from that of the United States, and requires Berlin to moderate its response. He backed the federal government’s refusal to embargo Russian oil and gas — a position polls show is supported by a majority of the public in Saxony. The state received 84 percent of its imported oil and gas last year from Russia, compared to about a third nationally.

“I think it’s wrong to step out of these partnerships and say, ‘No economic interdependence anymore,’ ” Kretschmer said. “That just makes everything more unpredictable. A Russia that is at least a little reliant on Europe is a more predictable Russia.”

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Kretschmer’s position has won him scorn. Last week, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, excoriated the premier on Twitter, saying he should not be allowed to fly the Ukrainian flag from the state chancellery. In another post, Melnyk juxtaposed a photograph of Kretschmer at a Russian art exhibit with an image of corpses in Kramatorsk, the site of Russia’s deadly attack on a train station. “I invite you to go to Kramatorsk to see the true face of Russia and ‘great Russian culture,’ ” Melnyk wrote, adding, “How pathetic!”

Born in Görlitz, a town of 55,000 that hugs the Polish border, Kretschmer served in the federal parliament for 15 years before running for the state premiership in 2017. Ever since, he has prided himself on resisting the far-right Alternative for Germany. But he has been losing ground. After the nationalist, anti-immigrant party became the state’s most popular in federal elections last fall, Kretschmer remarked that the “fight for democracy, against this divisive and demagogic AfD, is becoming my life’s work.”

At the same time, he has furthered Saxony’s relationship with Russia and its authoritarian leader. In 2019, he met Putin at an economic forum in St. Petersburg and called for an end to sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea — a proposal rejected by his party. Last year, he traveled to Moscow during the “Year of Germany in Russia” and held a phone call with Putin, as Germany’s foreign minister warned him against being “exploited” by the Russian leader.

Kretschmer’s attitude reflects those of his constituents, said Thomas Arnold, the director of a Catholic academy in Dresden. The majority of people in Saxony have “no particular liking for Russia but also no dislike,” Arnold said, and hardly share the angst about the Kremlin felt in Poland or the Baltic states. Then, there are those who have fondness for Russia rooted in travel and other exchange during East Germany’s communist days, he said.

Finally, Arnold pointed to adherents of conspiracy theories and extremist ideology, spread in part by Russian media. Extremists, he said, are using Russia’s war in Ukraine as a cudgel against their own government. The far-right group Free Saxony, which advocates independence from Berlin, recently told its 150,000 followers on the Telegram messaging app that the European Union was “provoking Russia” and waging war on the “wallets of us citizens.”

Existing threats to democracy in Saxony, Arnold warned, make the war’s economic and social upheaval more dangerous here than in other parts of the country. He said the challenge for Kretschmer, who was the target of a foiled assassination plot last year by anti-vaccination activists, is to “distance himself from Putin without distancing himself from Russia.”

That balance has been difficult to strike in Saxony, where the director of a German-Russian cultural institute asked not to be identified but lamented to a reporter, “It looks like we’ll have to throw Dostoevsky into the river soon, as well.”

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Michael Nattke, a former neo-Nazi who now works on combating extremism at a Saxony nonprofit, said the experience under authoritarianism may have predisposed some Germans to appreciate the Russian model, rather than fear it. For Nattke, that realization recasts histories of the anti-Soviet uprisings of the 1980s: “It’s not pretty, but I would put forward the hypothesis that not all, but a large part, of the population took to the streets for prosperity and not for democratic values.”

“Therefore, I think there is a part of the population for whom this kind of authoritarian order is very familiar, which is evident also in the election results of the AfD,” Nattke added.

More prosaic memories may color perceptions of Russia, said Karl Schlögel, a German historian of Eastern Europe. Fondness for Soviet troops stationed in eastern Germany, he said, became the “basis for an intense nostalgia or sentimentality.”

That’s the case for Drescher, the 46-year-old who lives across the street from the old KGB headquarters in Dresden. As a boy, he played soccer with Soviet soldiers. As an adult, he regrets how his reunified nation has moved closer to the United States and away from Russia. And he thinks arming Ukrainians is a mistake, only prolonging the conflict and increasing the bloodshed.

“At the beginning of the war, you saw people standing in front of tanks,” he said. “Now everyone knows everyone has weapons.”

William Noah Glucroft contributed to this report.

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