It’s time Germany brought its Russia experts in from the cold

A generation of former East Germans, hand-picked to go to the then Soviet Union to study and work, could have used their insights to guide current foreign policy and help avert the government’s embarrassing gaffes. Why were they never consulted?
Detail from 'Unsere Leben' ('Our Life') mosaic in Berlin
Detail from 'Unsere Leben' ('Our Life') mosaic in Berlin, created by Walter Womacka. Credit: PjrArt / Alamy Stock Photo.
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On 3 August, 1987, Kai Müller* arrived in Moscow on a train from East Berlin. He was 20 years old and had completed both mandatory military service and his high-school education. But, more importantly, he had completed a specialist Russian language course. Müller was headed for university studies in the Soviet Union, one of some 300 East German students selected to a prestigious undergraduate programme each year. After their degrees, many East Germans lived and worked in the Soviet Union and its successor states and, of course, spoke Russian. Courtesy of the late German Democratic Republic, Germany has a formidable cadre of experts on Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine – a body of expertise available to no other Western nation. But the German government has never tapped into this asset. Instead, its Russia policy has been guided by people with minimal experience in the country. That policy has turned out to be seriously flawed. When the Ukraine war finishes, the German government would do well to consult its unique corps of experts.

Unlike many of his fellow students, Müller hadn’t been a star performer in Russian classes (compulsory for all East German pupils). But he was good student, and he was also an exemplary one for the self-declared worker and peasant state: by the age of 18 he was gearing up for his Abitur (senior school exams) and had already gained a professional qualification as an agricultural-vehicle mechanic. When he heard about the programme for East German students to study engineering subjects in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, he applied. 

He was accepted, and in 1984 left his home city of East Berlin for Halle, some two hours to the south-west. He would be spending a year at East Germany’s training school for students going abroad to other Warsaw Pact countries. At the Arbeiter- und Bauern-Faktultät or ABF (Workers and Peasants Faculty), as the school was known, the students studied for their Abitur—with some of the subjects taught in Russian. The ABF was a veritable cadre factory. ‘To be selected, you had to be seen as part of the system,’ Müller told me. ‘Some of the pupils were SED [the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany] members, some were not, but you would definitely not be selected if you were seen as rebelling against the system. Only afterwards did I realise that the programme really was something special and that the teenagers who were selected for studies in the Soviet Union would later be able to join the government and [government-owned] companies in senior positions. But it was people from all kinds of backgrounds. Many, like me, had learned a vocational profession before coming to the ABF.’ East German universities, meanwhile, educated students from other socialist countries – nearly 80,000 by 1989, the vast majority from socialist states or developing countries, including Nigeria and Vietnam. Michele Bachelet, the former president of Chile and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, studied medicine in East Germany.

Having completed his year at the ABF, Müller was looking forward to his foreign adventures – only to be told that he was being called up for military service. Ordinarily, East Germany exempted potential future leaders from military service, but there had been few births in the mid-1960s, and Müller had to serve. ‘We did a few things with the Red Army, and I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what the Soviet soldiers were saying,’ he told me. ‘I thought, yikes, studying in the Soviet Union won’t be easy. I started getting cold feet. Some of my fellow soldiers said, “have you ever been to the Soviet Union? Do you know what’s awaiting you?” I had never been to the Soviet Union, but in the end, I decided to go through with it.’

After one and a half years as a conscripted lorry driver, he returned to the ABF for a refresher course and then he was off to Moscow, a 36-hour train journey from East Berlin. Like the other students on the train, he was going to do a one-month language course in the Soviet capital and then, he was informed, he would be sent to Minsk, the capital of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, along with two other East German students, to study agricultural engineering.

Fellow student Tilo Gärtner*, who had spent a year at the ABF followed by 18 months as a conscript in East Germany’s National People’s Army, told me: ‘It was a heavy schedule of lectures and seminars. And, initially, the language was a challenge. The Belarusians were really hard to understand. After a while, we realised that they spoke a mix of Russian and Belarussian. A couple of months after we arrived, the Belarusians were drafted to help with the potato harvest, so the university organised a language crash course for us. After a while, things improved. We were busy studying from morning to evening. Socially, though, being in Minsk had its hurdles. Because we’d had the time at the ABF and then the army, we were a bit older than our roommates. And I was put off by the sanitary conditions. But I got used to it.’ The other students at the university came from fellow socialist countries, including Syria and Madagascar. 

Back in East Germany, the academic elite factory continued its operations. For years, the German Democratic Republic had been selecting some 300 teenagers a year for the prestigious foreign postings which, with their five-year duration, were more ambitious in scope than, say, a Rhodes scholarship. By 1987, the programme had seen thousands of East Germans, primarily engineering students, receive their degrees at various Soviet universities, to which they had been assigned by the two governments, and return home for fast-track careers in government and business. Their expertise, of course, meant that East Germany had managers who not only spoke Russian fluently but also had intimate knowledge of the Soviet Union, East Germany’s main partner and benefactor. As part of the same programme, a smaller number of East Germans were sent to other Warsaw Pact states.

In 1988, 18-year-old Martin Schmidt* from Karl-Marx-Stadt arrived at the ABF. One year later, he too was conscripted by the National People’s Army. But while he was serving, the Berlin Wall fell. After eight months, as it was becoming clear that East Germany wouldn’t survive, he was dismissed from the military. Now he faced a dilemma: should he proceed with his Soviet university studies, or should he bet on quick German reunification and the prospect of studying in the West? He decided to stick with his Soviet plans, and in July 1990 he was sent to Moscow. He learnt that he, too, would be doing his degree, in mechanical engineering, in Minsk. ‘Everyone asked me, “why would you want to go now?”’ Schmidt told me. ‘But I’d already done so much preparation that I wanted to go and see what it was like. We were curious about the new possibilities in Germany but, of course, it was a precarious situation, while I knew I had a safe place to study in Minsk.’

Schmidt was one of East Germany’s last students to arrive in the Soviet Union. By the time the GDR ceased to exist three months later, it had sent some 12,000 students to the Soviet Union for five-year-long degree courses, while another 8,000 had spent an exchange year in the Soviet Union or conducted their doctoral studies there.

From their outpost in Minsk, Müller, Gärtner, Schmidt and their fellow East German students watched as Germany reunified. Then they saw the Soviet Union collapse and Belarus become independent. But with their studies underway or nearly complete, they — like most of their fellow East German students in the Soviet Union — decided to stick it out. They received unexpected aid from a diplomat at Germany’s newly combined embassy in Moscow. ‘He essentially said, “these East German students in the Soviet Union are huge asset for reunited Germany. These are the people who know both systems, they know the languages, they’re young and haven’t been shaped by a long career in East Germany’s plan economy”,’ Schmidt recalled. ‘And he encouraged us to complete our degrees. I think it was thanks to him that we received very generous Bafög [student financial aid]. And this encouragement convinced me to finish my degree and do it well.’ 

Financial aid for German students in the Soviet Union, in fact, became so generous that the East Germans still there found themselves suddenly able to crisscross the crumbling superpower. ‘We didn’t have to travel by train anymore but could travel by plane,’ Müller recalled. ‘And we travelled a lot, to St Petersburg and other Russian cities, to Vilnius, to Riga, Tallinn, Kaunas, Kyiv, Odessa, Kazakhstan.’ By the time he graduated in 1992, Gärtner had spent time in most Russian-speaking parts of the now dissolved Soviet Union. ‘It was an amazing time,’ Schmidt added. ‘We learnt so much about the country in a way that the Russian students never did. We did things like flying to Kyiv over the weekend. Even today, when I speak with Russian and Belarusian colleagues, very few have been able to visit as many places in the former Soviet Union as we did.’

When they graduated with engineering degrees in 1992, Müller and Gärtner both knew there was no future for them in the former East Germany, which was going through a painful transition to a market economy that had already resulted in rampant unemployment. But through dogged efforts, they both secured positions with West German firms eager to get a foot in the exploding but enigmatic Russian-speaking markets, especially Russia itself. ‘A few weeks after graduating, I was back in Moscow working,’ Müller told me. ‘Soon I started travelling to Belarus as well. I was the connection between these two worlds, Germany and the former Soviet Union.’ So were many of his fellow scholarship students. The secure career plan in the East German government’s fold that had been the programme’s purpose had obviously vanished, but the graduates found positions with West German firms desperately in need of ex-Soviet expertise.

Russia’s emerging entrepreneurs, meanwhile, were eager for contact with Germany. ‘People were super interested in Western technology, especially because their own technology was in tatters,’ Gärtner told me. ‘But they didn’t have any hard currency so it was really mostly a matter of German aid, which meant we always had to bring money from German state governments to finance projects in Russia. And Russia was extremely chaotic. But everyone I met in business said, “things have to get better, things are getting better”. It was a positive atmosphere.’ Schmidt, still at university, even launched a copy shop using a photocopier he’d transported from Germany in his Lada. After graduating in 1995, he found a German company wanting to set up an office in Moscow. He took the job. ‘The nineties in Russia were a fantastic time,’ he said. ‘You felt things improve every day.’

Indeed, the Soviet university degrees turned out to be more useful than they might have seemed when the Soviet Union collapsed, because the 1990s made ex-Soviet republics extremely desirable business destinations. Entire economies had to be reformed. Companies in sectors ranging from mining to agriculture needed new equipment. Western businesses saw limitless opportunities — and German ones had the singular fortune of having at their disposal thousands of ex-East Germans who not only spoke Russian but knew the former Soviet republics from the inside. Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan became the life for many of these former East German students. Müller and Gärtner have spent their entire careers shuttling back and forth between Germany and Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with Kazakhstan occasionally part of their work too. 

After graduating in 1995, Schmidt got a job setting up a German firm’s Russian operations. That meant moving to Moscow, and he remained in the Russian capital even when the excitement of the early years began to dissipate. ‘The first years of Putin…well, he did a lot,’ he told me. ‘He lowered the taxes, he streamlined the taxation system, he made it easy to pay taxes. But by 2010, it had become a hugely corrupt system.’ Especially after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the propaganda masquerading as news became increasingly pervasive. Schmidt watched German news, too, but he wondered what his fellow Moscow residents made of it all. 

Even in the world of industrial machinery, something was changing. In the noughties and 2010s, Gärtner said, ‘we were still getting lots of contracts, but we were noticing that Russian firms were increasingly able to build machinery at the same level. I had a client who told me, “we buy spare parts from you, then we send them to Omsk, where there’s a factory that reverse-engineers it”. We slowly realised they wanted to build up their own thing and import less.’ Schmidt, too, was observing how even well-educated Russians didn’t seem to understand that the West operated by the rule of law. ‘I remember when BP’s Moscow office was raided in 2011 on very spurious grounds, and  friends of mine said, “why on earth doesn’t the UK respond?” They suggested the government should go to, say, Roman Abramovich’s office in London and tell the people there that they were violating the rules for the lighting at the desk of Abramovich’s secretary or some such, and they were going to close down his company. I told them, “we’re democracies, we can’t just punish people like that”. But the Russians can do such things to us. They can close down Western companies in Russia just because they want to. That’s something that our politicians simply didn’t really understand, and that made the West look weak in Putin’s eyes. He despises us completely.’ In December 2021, Schmidt concluded that remaining in Moscow was untenable and he returned to Germany.

Indeed, even as Germany’s government was trying to maintain a working relationship with the Kremlin — many say for the sake of German business —people like Müller, Gärtner and Schmidt realised that a train crash was inevitable. But in Berlin, politicians were assisted by advisers with little experience in Russia and often with scant command of the language. Christoph Heusgen, who was Angela Merkel’s key foreign policy adviser, is an EU specialist. The UK has no accidental cadre of experts on Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, nor do France, the United States or any other Western country. I asked Müller, Gärtner and Schmidt whether anyone from the German government had ever contacted them. Never, they told me, nor have they heard of any of their fellow graduates being contacted. ‘I would like to tell the politicians, “you’re welcome to ask us about Russia!’” Müller said. ‘We know both sides. We can read between the lines. Sure, we can’t establish world peace, but we can help German decision makers understand how Russia works. That way, they’d be equipped to make better-informed decisions. Where are the Russia specialists in the German diplomatic service? They don’t exist. As a result of such lack of expertise, we’ve had a complete failure in our Russia policy. And now ordinary people are suffering.’

Currently, the only Russian subject on Western governments’ agendas is helping Ukraine in the war. But one day it will end, and Western governments will once again face the question of how to handle Russia. Germany’s accidental Russia experts will not be able to present a complete strategy, but it stands to reason that their advice would outclass the advice German governments have received over the past years. ‘When the war is over, maybe that’s when they’ll ask our advice,’ Müller reflected. ‘I don’t want to believe that 30 years of experience with Russian-speaking countries, and with ordinary people in Russia and Belarus, can dissolve into thin air.’

(*The names of all three men have been changed)

Elisabeth Braw

Elisabeth Braw is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on defence and deterrence against greyzone threats. She is also a columnist with Foreign Policy, where she writes on national security and the globalised economy. Before joining AEI, Elisabeth was a senior research fellow at RUSI, whose Modern Deterrence project she led. Prior to that, she worked at Control Risks, a global risk consultancy. Elisabeth is also a member of the steering committee of the Aurora Forum (the UK-Nordic-Baltic leader conference), a member of the UK National Preparedness Commission and an associate fellow at the European Leadership Network. Elisabeth started her career as a journalist, reporting for Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor and the international Metro group of newspapers, among others. She regularly writes op-eds, including for the Financial Times, Politico, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (writing in German) and the Wall Street Journal. She is also the author of 'God’s Spies', about the Stasi (Eerdmans, 2019) and 'The Defender’s Dilemma' (forthcoming).

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