Living in Berlin


It’s not just the rumble of S-Bahn Charlottenburg’s train tracks above that makes you feel in-transit. In the Rossia supermarket, and attached imbiss, you feel like you’re in a waiting room from the East.

Look around at the heavy-set men slurping their Borscht and potato-filled Pelmeni and they look travel worn, as if they’ve just stepped off the train. They are watching turbo kitsch on Russian TV, scantily clad women in folk costumes, images from a departed world. A man who looks Kyrgyz is outside with the barbeque, grilling skewered shashlik. He cannot bring in the meat fast enough, to fill all those plates piled with chopped onions and flat bread. You bet they’re hungry, the direct train from Smolensk to Berlin is 21 hours and 24 minutes (and you should sneak a peek at those weary carriages as they creak into Hauptbahnhof)!

The proprietor of the supermarket that stocks Russian books, vodka, pickles and frozen dumplings is from Kazakhstan. He’s “Volga Deutsch”– one of many Germans whose ancestors went East under Catherine the Great in the 18th Century and who were repatriated with the fall of the USSR. The supermarket is open 24 hours, a touch of the metropolis in sleepy West Berlin, so you can get your Cheburashka (flavoured?) lemonade or animated video at any hour of the day.

There are 100 000 Russians in Berlin, and the ways they have found their way to the German capital are various, but their destination is predictable: Charlottenburg, the historically urban old-money neighborhood of West Berlin, now better known as Charlottengrad.

The promise of the West and wealth seems an obvious choice for both Volga Deutsch fleeing post-Communism and newer Russian arrivals who think it compatible with their Moscow billion ruble bank accounts. The latter don’t congregate in the imbiss, but rather at the Starbucks on Olivaer Platz, not far from the Gucci, Vuitton and (renovating) Prada stores on Kurfürstendamm. You need only to sit out on a warm autumn day with your Cinnamon Dolce Crème Frappucino to see the old ladies sweating along in their fur coats followed by their little dogs.

Meanwhile, if you wish to go somewhere where you will be surprised to hear a single word of Russian spoken, you need only take that train above the Rossia supermarket seventeen minutes in the opposite direction, to the Communist towers of Alexanderplatz. It’s a part of Berlin that is a little too reminiscent of the past for comfort.

The traffic from this imbiss heads only one direction, and it is not East.

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Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

4 thoughts on “Charlottengrad

    • Thanks for your comments. To reply to your question on the number of Russians in Berlin: I added together two numbers, the 15 000 citizens with the 85 000 new arrivals from Russia since the Wende. From one source (there are many): “After the German reunification 1990 and the easing of emigration requirements in the Soviet Union, about 85.000 Russian speakers arrived in Berlin building two juridical categorical migrant groups ethnic German Aussiedler and Russian Jewish Kontingentflьchtlinge.”

      • A lot of Russians have landed at this corner of Berlin, enjoyed it and started calling it Charlottenburg almost 100 years ago. Do your due diligence. No offence, those you mentioned are pale shadows of pioneers…

        • Thanks Ivan: could you provide me a source which indicates that Charlottenburg was called ‘Charlottengrad’ at the time of the revolutions? I am aware of this pre-history already, thanks, but am interested in the source material. I don’t think Russians today in the neighbourhood are really ‘pale shadows’, do you?

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