Dealing With War, Away From War: Ukrainians freeing themselves from Russian culture, but caught in clashes with Russians in Berlin

A feature story by Nanna Christ Kiil Johansen

A Ukrainian flag is waving from the roof of Berlin’s Bode Museum. (Johansen)

Julia has been speaking Russian her whole life. Perhaps even more than Ukrainian, despite the fact that she has lived her whole life in Kyiv, the heart of Ukraine. Until February 2022.

“Why do I have to talk in Russian?” she asks rhetorically and firmly continues: “It’s not my mother tongue. It’s not the language of my country. It’s the language of my enemies.”

In a café in Berlin-Mitte, the young Ukrainian is now sitting with the view of the Spree, Bode Museum and its waving Ukrainian flag behind her. The war in Julia’s home country seems far away but is far from forgotten. Here, about 1400 kilometers from the war, she can and will not avoid the effects of it.

Julia, 34, has up until fleeing her war-torn home country, worked professionally in the promotion of national Ukrainian food, within Ukraine and internationally. Promoting the deep red colored beet soup borscht meant creating awareness for Ukrainian culture: “Even Ukrainians didn’t know much about the culture and the food,” Julia explains and continues: “the tragedy is that I also don’t know a lot about my country.” As in other cases of blurred Ukrainian heritage, the iconic soup has been mistaken for originating in the whole of the USSR, however a recent recognition from UNESCO now acknowledges Ukraine’s deep links to the dish.

Not only does Julia consider her cultural heritage in her professional life. After the Russian invasion, she is determined to empower Ukrainian culture in her personal life, taking a stand through boycotting the Russian language she grew up speaking.

Instead, Julia insists on speaking her native language. If she wouldn’t, she is afraid that “nobody in the world would speak Ukrainian, because only Ukrainians can speak Ukrainian,” she says. An act she finds small, but one that seems to be the only thing she can do.

However, Julia is not alone in her movement. Since the outbreak of the war, Ukraine has been making a break with its engraved Russian culture. Changes have especially been seen in language and culture, where Russian street names in Ukrainian cities have been changed, Russian statues have been torn down, and the Russian language has been entirely or partly removed from schools and institutions. Most recently, last Winters’ Christmas was rescheduled from the 7th of January to the 25th of December. A clear signal to Russia that Ukraine has turned towards the West, according to Reuters.

A few German words sneak in as Julia orders a coffee for herself. She is working in a café and at the same time taking a German course, as she wants to fully integrate in the country she has chosen to settle in. Despite the warm welcome that she got when she first arrived, Julia had her doubts about staying in Germany or to pursue settling in the Netherlands or Sweden.

It all came down to the conditions for refugees and another quite surprising factor: “I’m freaked out by European transportation,” she laughs. Having to travel by train with her cat, Julia back then called a friend to share her concern of those six changes reaching Sweden would take. Her friend’s response was: “Julia, you traveled from Kyiv to Berlin. And you have a concern of changing from platform 2 to 3?”

The young woman ended up settling here in Berlin, among the thousands of other Ukrainian refugees, who have come to Germany since February 2022. According to the state of Berlin, with 380,000 registered the capital is among the cities in Germany that have taken in most of the refugees.

However, not only Ukrainians have been escaping since the outbreak of the war. Since the fall of 2022, shortly after Vladimir Putin ordered partial military mobilization in his speech on the 21st of September, hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled the draft that would force them to serve in the war. According to Reuters, many have fled to Germany. Though the exact number of Russians who have fled to Germany remains unclear, one thing is certain: the number of Russians in Germany is rising.

Working in a café in Berlin means international customers, and so Julia notices many languages throughout the day. However, she tends to eavesdrop when Russian is being spoken. Julia’s colleague from the café plays a game while working. It goes as follows: is the customer gay or not? Julia’s game is different: is the customer Russian or Ukrainian?

“I had a situation. One girl. She sat, drinking coffee. We began to speak,” Julia slowly describes, looking out into the room. The girl was doing homework for her German integration course, and the two of them for a moment found common ground. One that would quickly vanish. “I asked her, oh, where are you from? She said, I’m from Russia, and I said, oh, I’m from Ukraine. And she immediately changed her face.”

An innocent conversation between two young women had in the blink of an eye built up an invisible wall, due to their nationalities. Julia softens her voice: “I said; it’s okay. It’s fine. It’s okay. It’s safe to be here with me,” while showing how she kindly tried to calm the girl by touching her arm. But the girl was shocked and felt like she had done something terribly wrong. And so, the young Ukrainian has seen changes in the faces of several Russians in Berlin.

“For now, it’s easy to be Ukrainian. Not Russian here,” Julia says, referring to their social situation in Berlin. She also points out the Russians who are suffering from big and small sanctions, but keeps a strict look as she explains: “I’m sorry that your bank account is closed. I’m sorry that you don’t have an iTunes shop, but it’s the only way we can work with it.”

When Julia meets Russians, she is adamant about not quickly judging them. Other Ukrainian friends of hers, however, see it more “black and white”, as she describes. They are unwilling to see the person behind the nationality. Some want, out of principle, to have nothing to do with Russians here in Berlin. A silent war, one might say, far away from the actual one.

Although Julia has never personally experienced hostile attitudes from Russians, she fears that this is yet to come. She points out a specific pro-Russian demonstration in Berlin on April 3rd 2022, that has made her question Russians she meets in Berlin.

The protest aimed to draw attention to hostility towards Russians, with the participation of 900 protesters in a rally of around 400 cars, according to The Guardian. But what the protest turned out to also include, was pro-war elements.

“Hundreds of cars and flags were on the Berlin streets. They just went out to the streets with Russian flags, Soviet Union flags, Z signs on the cars.” Julia takes a quick breath and repeats demonstratively: “They were here in Berlin!”

The protest was legally organized with police presence, but at least one demonstrator was removed for showing the pro-invasion “Z” symbol, which is forbidden in the state of Berlin. The outcome for Julia was, though, to partly lose trust in the safety of her new city. “I’m afraid to meet these people here and never know who this Russian is – are they from the demonstration or who are they?” she asks worriedly.

In Berlin there are Ukrainians, Russians, Germans and all other kinds of nationalities living side by side. The sun has made its way around the Bode Museum and finally illuminates the room with a golden glow as Julia is finishing up her coffee. The warmth in the room spreads, but just around the corner, the next clash between a Ukrainian and a Russian could leave the room cold.