By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
Reading the memories Russian diplomat Yevgeny Schmagin who spent almost half a century in Germany, as Cultural Attaché in Berlin, Embassy Secretary in Bonn as well as in Vienna, then as Ambassador in Berlin and from 2010-2015 as Consul General in Bonn, is quite fascinating. The book offers a rare insight into some phases of Soviet and Russian diplomacy in Germany. Its basic message is that Germany and Russia for their own interests must do everything to maintain a friendly dialogue (Yevgeny Schmagin: Meine Botschaft. Ungeschminkte Erinnerungen eines russischen Diplomaten, Droste Verlag, 2017, 375 Seiten).
The preface for the book was written by former SPD Minister President of the biggest German Federal State North- Rhine- Westphalia Wolfgang Clement, who also served as former Interior Minister of the German Federal Government. Clement characterizes Russian Ambassador Schmagin as a man, who is “one of the best Russian experts on Germany” and who enjoys “a deep respect and esteem” among many people in Germany. The disappearance of the Soviet Union from the World map, according to Clement, had a deep effect on Schmagin and in his book the diplomat commented at one point, that at that time there were only very few decision makers in Europe, such as former Austrian Chancellor Vranitzky, who demanded in summer 1991 some kind of “Marshal Plan” for the Soviet Union and later for Russia and the post – Soviet States. Schmagin was personally convinced that it would have been possible “to modernize one of the largest European countries, make it really a part of Europe, drop all dividing walls and ban the Cold War forever.” Clement describes that Schmagin very harshly criticizes in his autobiography Yegor Gaidar (Prime Minister under Yeltsin 1992-1994) and the latter’s belief in the omnipotence of the market. Thanks to him the notions of liberalism, freedom, democracy and the market economy have been discredited for decades, if not longer in Russia. Even if Clement disagrees with Schmagin’s criticism against the “unexpected anti-Russian hysteria” in the German government and in many German media during the Ukraine crisis, he also emphasizes that all those who condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea are not “enemies” of Russia. Despite deep political rifts, Clement argues, it is important to overcome these differences. This means a frank discussion which is the basis of a true friendship and partnership, “which a clear majority of the German People wants.”
The carrier of Yevgeny Schmagin
In his book Schmagin reviews his career as a Russian diplomat. Starting with his studies at the Moscow “State Institute for International Relations”, he spent nearly half a century in the diplomatic service of Russia. “Gradually, I climbed every step in my diplomatic career, from simple interpreter to Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. Germany became the most important stage of my life both professionally and privately.”
Schmagin was born in 1949 in Ostashkow, a small town in the Kalinin region, today Tver. The living conditions under which he grew up were at that time extremely modest (similar to the living conditions of Germany and other European countries in the first years after the war EH). The five family members lived in a kind of residential community, a squat wooden house with an outhouse in the courtyard. Oven and stove were heated with coal. The conditions were no worse than “the one of millions of other citizens of the country who gradually recovered from the aftermath of a terrible war,” Schmagin remarks. Dark hallways full of household junk, scant electricity in the rooms, people queuing up in order to use the public bath, but also in front of the shops and the cinema, this was part of the daily routine. At that time, when television was not so widespread, teenagers listened to radio and read books or went to the cinema in the culture house. “Potatoes were the basic food during all stages of socialism,” Schmagin remembers. You couldn’t buy most things, you had to organize them and Russian provincial life was a struggle for survival and eternal procuring. “Our family, like most Russian families was used to Spartan living conditions.”
A historically significant event for the citizens of the Soviet Union at that time was the news of Yuri Gagarin’s landing in space. After the boundless suffering of the Russian people during the war, April 12, 1961 became a festival of joy. “Three times the Soviet people cried: tears of pain in May 1945, tears of anxiety in March 1953 after Stalin’s death, 1961 for the first time tears of joy,” Schmagin writes.
After graduating from high school in 1967, Schmagin applied to the “Institute for International Relations” (MGIMO) in Moscow. “Under the MID (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation) graduates of my year were the future Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and many others whom today everybody knows well in Russia. Nearly all alumni from 1972 who came to the MID, reached high positions and became ambassadors or Consul Generals.” After having worked for a while as an intern at the Soviet Embassy in the GDR (former Deutsche Demokratische Republik) in 1971, Schmagin began in 1973 to serve as Cultural Attaché, as member of the Soviet Consulate in West Berlin and campaigned for intensive cultural exchange between the Federal Republic and the Soviet Union.
The years in Bonn
In the 80s, Schmagin worked as Third Secretary of the Embassy at the Russian Embassy in Bonn, a city which fascinates Schmagin up to this day. “I found myself in one of the most exciting times of Soviet-German history, among great people. (…) In my first service in Bonn I worked for over a year with Julij Kwizinski(1936-2010) and for nearly five years with his successor Vladislav Terekhov. Later, shortly before the end of my stay in Bonn, I would again meet Kwizinski, this time he was Ambassador of the Soviet Union during Perestroika times. Terekhov was the last Ambassador of the Soviet Union and the first Ambassador of the new democratic Russia in Bonn. Schmagin underlined how much he enjoyed “working under the direction of Kwizinkis and Terekhov. These were well educated professionals, real personalities, excellent speakers, and brilliant analysts(……) To work under them was a vocational school in the truest sense of the word, almost a school for Germanists, which no longer exists this way”. Schmagin was impressed by Julij Kwizinski- one of the key architects of the Four power agreement on Berlin(1971), his ‘exuberant fantasy’ and his talent as speaker who once got a lot of applause when he spoke as guest speaker at a Rhenish Carnival Festival.
By contrast, Schmagin’s verdict on former Soviet ambassador Vladimir Semyonov (1911-1992) is quite harsh. According to Schmagin this diplomat marks “the splendour and misery, the rise and fall, the achievements and missteps of the Soviet diplomacy. (…) Under his operational direction and direct participation, the dirtiest actions took place, which for decades aroused in many inhabitants of the Federal Republic anti-Soviet feelings. This includes the blockade of West Berlin, the suppression of the 1953 uprising in East Berlin and so on. With his ‘exposures’ and ‘revelations’ he did his best to imitate his idol Stalin”. In August 1978 Ambassador Valentin Falin left the embassy post in Bonn. During his time in business, Willy Brandt’s new Ostpolitik and the renaissance of German-Soviet relations had begun. In the memory of older colleagues in the MID Semyonov was perceived as “arrogant ruffian”, “pseudo-intellectual”, “brutal despot” and “megalomaniacal misanthrope”. It is precisely this lack of empathy and capacity for dialogue which Schmagin qualifies in his book as the “fundamental mistakes of Russian diplomacy”, which was to look for “a new Hitler” and this way showed “disregard for the German people.”
Missile Debate – The Pershing Question
In the early 1980s, the situation in the Federal Republic was quite turbulent. The trigger for this was the 1982 NATO Double-Track Decision under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to station US missiles on the soil of the Federal Republic of Germany in reaction to the Soviet SS-20 missiles (while at the same time urging to start arms reduction negotiations). The whole country, Schmagin recalls, was in turmoil at the time: “Thousands of anti-war demonstrations took place throughout Germany. Hundreds of thousands of people of all ages, professions, faith, sex and political orientation came to Bonn to gather for a huge peace demonstration.” As member of the Soviet embassy, Schmagin travelled around the country, exposing himself to questions from thousands of listeners for several hours. “Later, when it was internationally recognized that the Soviet position was absolutely unlawful and that the one of Helmut Schmidt was right (even the Soviet government finally confessed to have illegally stationed the SS 20 missiles Schmagin writes ), we were astonished that our passionate and sincere speeches were received positively by the audience, even though the facts did not speak for us.”
Schmagin reports in his book that at that time some very interesting relations were developed between him and the citizens, for example in the small Rhineland-Palatine city Sponheim (500 inhabitants). In 2010 Schmagin visited again Sponheim and its hospitable citizens, when he had become Russian Consul General in Bonn. What impressed him in Sponheim was the civil courage of the citizens and the relationship between citizens and their mayor, which is something that does not exist this way in Russia. He was similarly impressed by the city of Münster (300,000 inhabitants) and the fact that everywhere people know their mayor and he knows them. “Everywhere on the streets people greet each other and talk.” He referred in his book to the mayor of Münster Werner Pierchalla – a former German prisoner of war in the Soviet Union, who despite his captivity in the Soviet Union kept his dream of reconciliation between the two peoples and laid the foundation for a German- Russian city exchange, which has in the meantime also developed in other parts of Germany. For Schmagin this is a living proof that there is a well-functioning relationship between the citizens of the two countries.
During his work in the 1980s, Schmagin made contact with all German political parties, especially the Greens (Petra Kelly, for example). “The Soviet Embassy had at that time with no other German party such a broad, stable and confidential relationship.” Later, however, during a reception commemorating German unification in Bonn, he met Wilfried Kretschmann ( Green Party), since 2011 Ministerpresident of the Federal State Baden Württemberg. When Schmagin asked him, “Do you remember?”, Kretschmann mumbled “Can’t remember” and quickly joined another group.
Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union
From 1990 to 1997 Schmagin worked as a senior adviser to the Soviet Embassy in Vienna. Schmagin recalls that life in Vienna until his departure in the fall of 1995 was accompanied by the “aftershock of Soviet disintegration.” The West drew boundaries that were unnecessary and secluded itself from young Russia, even though , Schmagin states, it would have been possible to tackle together East and West the modernization of the largest European country, make it truly a part of Europe, and ban the Cold War forever and ever. Yet he also states, that “Russia was partly responsible for it” as the example of Russia’s new Foreign Minister Andrei Kosyrew (1990-96) showed, who unfortunately had missed the chance in those years for building relationships and who blindly trusted the US. In his foreign policy, he copied the errors of Yegor Gaidar, which contributed to the total rejection of the West in many layers of Russian society.
Bonn revisited (Consul General 2010-2015) and Schmagin’s message
After a short time serving as head of the Russian Embassy in the reunited Berlin (1997), Schmagin served from 2010 to 2015 as Consul General in Bonn. During this time he travelled around 250,000 km through Germany, completing hundreds of public appearances and getting to know countless public figures, business captains, journalists, writers, artists and average citizens. He vividly recalls that his circle of conversation in Bonn included a very specific group of people: former civil servants who had previously held high government positions and still exercised enormous influence, including formerly powerful ministers and high-ranking emeritus German diplomats,” Schmagin wrote. In addition, there were countless well- attended events and receptions. The guests included: Russian students and young scientists; high school students and students who studied or wanted to learn Russian; representatives of cities with twin cities in Russia; Germans who cared for Russian war graves and activists of German-Russian friendship societies; members of the German Army, journalists, clerics, policemen and also astronauts from the Institute of Aerospace in Cologne were among the regular guests. There were also many conferences on current issues of German-Russian cooperation.
The message, with which the Russian top diplomat Schmagin, who served in Bonn till 2015, concludes his book is clear and simple: Russia and Germany are “two inseparable parts of a holistic European organism. They belong to the same Christian cultural area.” And history shows that the continent could only be at peace when the Russians and Germans went along well and when they even were close friends. “Our two countries have no other predestination than to come together for their own interests as well as for the sake of the Good and Peace of the world, and gradually are growing closer together.”