Networks of Influence: The Russian hand in German politics
Investigators: M.K., Vasile Popa, Francisco A., Christian Mamo, Julia Hüske, Patryk Grazewicz
Authors: Christian Mamo, Julia Hüske
Edited by: Deniz M. Dirisu, Krista-Marija Läbe
A boxy, imposing yet somewhat shabby structure overlooking Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse, the Russian House, much like its eponymous nation, has seen better days. Founded in 1984, the institution purportedly exists to promote Russian culture, language and soft power – a Russian version of the Goethe Institute. Since 2008, it has been run directly by Rossotrudnichestvo, a government agency, subsidiary to the foreign ministry, which handles the Russian state’s cultural exchange schemes.
However, details regularly emerge which suggest that the role of the Russian House in Berlin goes well beyond cultural promotion.
Rossotrdunichestvo was placed under sanctions by the European Union in July 2022 and described as a network of “agents of influence” spreading Moscow’s political narrative. The Russian House, falling under the management of Rossotrudnichestvo was affected and had to curtail many of its regular activities.
Despite this, it has managed to avoid having to entirely shutter its doors. The institution continues hosting and advertising events, ranging from film screenings to language classes. Visitors can still buy Russian food on the premises, as long as they pay cash.
On this last point, this appears to be a rather open if trivial violation of the sanctions regime placed on Rossotrudnichestvo and its affiliated institutions. Any monetary transaction with Russian state institutions is now forbidden in the EU – the Russian House remains open on the condition that it can’t generate any income from its operations. However, this appears not to be the case – any visitor can buy some Russian food from the building’s second floor restaurant or book ceramics classes for 30 euros an hour.
Beyond this, several businesses remain registered on the Russian House’s premises, presumably not for free. Some of these continue to host events, charging admission fees. Euro Pop, an annual “international” music competition hosted by the Russian House since 2003 will have its 20th edition this year in November.
The Russian House has been managed by Pavel Izvolskiy since 2017. A soft-spoken, well-mannered man, Izvolsky presents a clean image of the management of the institution and has positioned himself as a key component of cultural exchange between Russia and Germany. Izvolsky is a former employee of Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear energy agency, and earlier this year found his name mentioned in German media. German public broadcasters were forced, for unspecified “legal “reasons” to redact sections of their article on Izvolsky which quoted a claim from Russian investigative outlet “The Insider”. According to the redacted claim, Izvolsky was once registered as living in a dormitory of the Moscow Higher Military Command School (MVVKU), renowned for providing cadets for Russian intelligence agencies. Journalists from ukrainian Toronto TV could verify this information using leaked Russian databases.
In general, there do seem to be several Rosatom affiliates around the Russian House. Before May 2022, RH Events UG, a company involved in event management, e-commerce and software development, was officially registered at the address of the Russian House. The director of RH Events, Andrey Chubarov, works at the same division of Rosatom (Rusatom Overseas) as Izvolsky had, according to the two mens’ Linkedin profiles.
Then there is Evgenia Pimenova. According to her Linkedin, she is the Russian House’s current “Abteilungsleiter” – roughly translated to “head of department”. Like a surprising amount of the Russian House’s administrative staff, she is a graduate of MGIMO, a prestigious Russian university focusing on international relations, which has a reputation of being an incubator for Russian diplomats, foreign officials and spies. She has contributed to the notorious Izvestiya since at least 2016. Izvestiya was founded in 1917 as the official state propaganda paper of the Soviet Union’s politburo and describes Pimenova as a political scientist in her byline.
This work experience is conspicuously missing from her Linkedin. An October 2021 article of hers in Russian Publication “Svobodnaya Mysl” (the successor of Soviet-era theory magazine “Communist”) refers to Pimenova as a “consultant” at Berlin’s Russian House. There is also no mention of this on her Linkedin.
Connections to “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD)
Yet, at least in the German context, even more damning connections appear. Anyone with sufficient interest looking into the operations of the Russian House will find substantial ties with far-right party AfD. While it is little secret that for decades a major part of the Russian state’s policy towards Western Europe has involved the support of fringe political movements, this is particularly relevant with the AfD’s recent electoral surge.
Amram Petrosian gives a hint of these ties. Born in Ukraine, Petrosian is president of Rossotrudnichestvo “partner” the “Fund for the Development of Modern Diplomacy”. This appears to be a think tank of sorts that has been advocating lifting the anti-Russian sanctions even prior the full scale invasion. According to the recent investigation by ukrainian media “Toronto TV” from 22.10, Petrosian’s “Fund for the Development of Modern Diplimacy” is also related to Leonid Vakalov, agent of 5. Department of FSB, who attended one of the forums and also is registered in Petrosian’s company “Sfera” as a manager.
In October 2021, the Fund boasted that Petrosian was admitted to the AfD’s expert council of the Inter-Parliamentary Commission on Human Rights – Kazakhstan-born AfD deputy Waldemar Herdt, signing off on the admission, praised Petrosian’s “valuable expertise”. No longer in the Bundestag, Herdt has been a regular guest on Russian television and is known for propagating dubious Kremlin narratives.
Perhaps the strongest of these connections are seen with Jürgen Elsässer. Elsässer is an outspoken political activist of the German right. A founder of the anti-Deutsche movement, Elsässer was a major figure in German left-wing media before making an ideological pivot to the right. In 2010, he founded COMPACT, a media company which has functioned as the semi-official media mouthpiece of AfD. In 2021, German intelligence branded COMPACT as an “extremist” publication.
According to German media, Elsässer and COMPACT have regularly held events at the Russian House since 2010 – every two weeks at times. One of these events, in 2014, was a presentation of a COMPACT publication, a collection of translated Putin speeches. This event was attended by the Russian embassy’s press attaché. COMPACT has also developed a reputation for inflammatory rhetoric, often bordering on outright racist. At one point, the publication called for the release of Beate Zschape, a member of a neo-nazi gang found guilty in the murders of ten immigrants. Unsurprisingly, the publication’s editorial stance favours the Russian state in its invasion of Ukraine and the writings regularly reference Russian pseudo-fascist “philosopher” Alexander Dugin.
The connections with AfD don’t end there, and Elsässer appears to be an important conduit between the party and the Russian House. In August 2023, together with André Poggenburg, the COMPACT founder organised a summer festival in Saxony-Anhalt under the motto „Freedom for Germany and Peace with Russia“. Poggenburg, once part of the extremist „wing“ of the AfD, left the party after a racism scandal in 2019. Among the invited guests was the pro-Russian activist Elena Kolbasnikova, known in Germany as “Putin’s fangirl”. The activist and Poggenburg co-founded the initiative „Awakening, Peace, Solidarity, Justice“ (Aufbruch, Frieden, Solidarität, Gerechtigkeit), which regularly organises pro-Russian motorcades across the country. According to a Times investigation, suspicion of state orchestration arises from pro-Russian motorcades held across Germany and Europe, with experts suggesting Rossotrudnichestvo may be directing diaspora members in these activities.
On September 9, a pro-Russian rally was held in Berlin, co-organized by Kolbasnikova and Poggenburg. As usual, the rally was filled with the usual slogans of “peace” and stopping weapons deliveries to Ukraine – it also involved a rendition of the “full” German national anthem, including redacted verses containing Nazi-affiliated slogans. These were played alongside the typical Russian patriotic songs. After the rally, the organisers made a video with their closing remarks – stills from the video clearly show that it was made on the premises of the Russian House.
Vadar e.V., an association founded by AfD members during the Russian invasion, has been campaigning for Russian interests since 2022. Among the co-founders and chairmen are AfD former member of parliament Ulrich Öhme, AfD MP Eugen Schmidt and Berlin AfD candidate Dr. Michael Adam. Other members of the association are also affiliated with the right-wing party, such as Harald Weyel, AfD vice treasurer, Gunnar Lindemann (AfD Berlin) and Olga Petersen (AfD Hamburg).
Lindemann attracted attention in the years before the war through his various trips to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. The annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine are seen as symbols of the Putin regime’s imperial aspirations, a harbinger of the Russian war of aggression against their neighbour. This did not stop the spokesperson for local public transport for the Berlin AfD from flying to „business forums“ in Yalta and speaking at an „anti-fascist congress“ in Sevastopol. Beyond that, the politician has received an „Order for Peace-Promoting Measures“ at a „Peace-Keeping Forum“ and has stated that he had also been to Luhansk and Donetsk several times before last year’s invasion.
Oehme, who is now employed by an AfD MP, travelled to Crimea to participate in a referendum at the expense of the Russian State Duma, and praised the conduct of the parliamentary elections.
According to the purpose section on its website, Vadar aims to combat the alleged discrimination against Russian-speaking people in Germany. The activities of the group provide information about its questionable understanding of discrimination. As per their own statement, the association provided financial support for the legal representation of pro-Russian influencer Alina Lipp. The Putin propagandist is being investigated in Germany on charges of showing approval for the Russian war of aggression and thus criminal offences on social media.
Various posts defending the pro-Russian activism of Kolbasnikova and her husband Maxim Schlund, a former Russian air force officer, on the grounds of „freedom of expression“ were published on Vadar’s telegram channel. Furthermore, a man from Frankfurt am Main, who is currently a prisoner of war in Ukraine, is supported by the association. He was captured after voluntarily joining the Russian armed forces.
Research suggests that both Kolbasnikova and Vadar e.V. are active in the orbit of the Russian House. On 3 November 2022, a video showcasing donations to Donbas surfaced on the telegram channel of the operator of the house, the sanctioned agency Rossotrudnichestvo – the post named Kolbasnikova personally. A Reuters investigation published in January 2023 found that Rossotrudnichestvo paid for plane tickets to Russia for Kolbasnikova and her husband. The couple was scheduled to attend a state-organised forum for civil society activists in Moscow but missed the flight. In an online post to her supporters, Kolbasnikova herself revealed Russian House as the ticket sponsor. Rossotrudnichestvo denied involvement, but Grigory Mikhitaryants, an official at the Russian House in Berlin, confirmed to Reuters the purchase of two tickets to Moscow, without revealing any names.
Since it has become subject to investigations, Vadar has spoken out against the possible closure of the Russian House and has advertised its events in cooperation with COMPACT. On one occasion, Vadar called for an investigation into pro-Ukrainian activists – the reason they gave was that these activists supposedly protested against the screening of a Russian childrens’ film, Cheburashka, and, in Ukrainian called for burning Russian children. A search for this alleged protest yields few results and appears to actually be from a protest against an exhibition of Soviet tourism posters.
Upon closer examination of the video, Vadar’s narrative falls apart. The video in question shows one placard bearing the face of Walter Benjamin, with the slogan “the aestheticization is war”. This exact distinctive placard is seen in the exact same position in photos taken by German media of Ukrainian activists protesting against an exhibition of Soviet tourism posters at the Russian House. The banner next to the Walter Benjamin placard is also the same. Then there’s the matter of what was said at the protest. The brief clip that has been floating around pro-Russian media cuts off quite abruptly. What exactly the protesters are chanting is unclear – however it is clear what they aren’t.
For starters, the decipherable words of the protesters aren’t even in Ukrainian, as claimed, but in Russian – “vashy deti” is clearly heard, meaning “your children” in Russian, as opposed to “vashi dity” in Ukrainian. The last two words chanted by the protesters – which Vadar claims is calling for the burning of Russian children – are undecipherable. However, they sound nothing like “will burn” in neither Russian or Ukrainian.
One figure affiliated with Vadar e.V. has recently attracted particular media attention. The Ukrainian-born, Berlin-based author and journalist Vladimir Sergienko, an aide to AfD MP Eugen Schmidt, is accused of working with Moscow to delay German tank deliveries to Ukraine.
Recent “Spiegel” revelations have shown that Sergienko was involved in trying to obtain financial support from Russia to back an AfD lawsuit against German arms exports to Ukraine. The information comes from a data set that includes emails, official documents and correspondences attributed to Sergienko, accessed by the “Spiegel” and investigative platform “The Insider”.
In July, the AfD parliamentary group actually filed a complaint with the Federal Constitutional Court concerning arms deliveries to Ukraine. Still, the party denies any cooperation with Sergienko on this matter.
Diverging from Vadar, an AfD-affiliated association called Druschba Global, with several regional branches throughout Germany, existed prior to Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine. It dates back to 2016 when AfD parliamentarian Dr. Rainer Rothfuss established the organisation, catalysed by his recurrent visits to Russia. Since its founding, Druschba Global has organised numerous so-called ‚peace trips‘ to the country.
A closely-knit relationship prevails between Druschba and its co-founder German-Russian Sergei Filbert, who actively spreads pro-Russian narratives on his Telegram channel DruschbaFM and his YouTube platform ‚Golos Germanii‘. The association itself also operates a Telegram channel known as DruschbaINFO. There, Druschba champions pro-Russian activists like Kolbasnikova and Schlund, propagates the Russian war perspective and rationalises Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Under a video showing Ukrainian prisoners of war posted on the channel, Rothfuss calls capitulation the best solution for Ukrainian soldiers.
Beyond this, Druschba maintains further close connections with right-wing groups. This is evidenced by images on social media portraying the AfD politician alongside the conspiracy theorist rapper Owe Schattenauer, co-organiser of Druschba’s Russia trips, and members of the Night Wolves. Rothfuss has visited the Putin motorcycle club during a Crimea expedition in years previous to the war, and speaks admiringly of the Night Wolves‘ leader, Alexander Saldostanov.
Druschba’s endeavours also demonstrate a linkage to the Russian House. In August 2022, the Berlin institute featured a Druschba trip under the slogan „peace with Russia“ on its official Facebook page. The post detailed the mission’s objective: to show that many Germans „don’t like the Russophobic stance of the west“. Frieden und Freundschaft mit den Völkern Russlands e.V., located inside the cultural institute, promotes and lists Druschba as one of their partners.
Another Druschba affiliate of interest is Konstantin Ermish. A former Druschba board member, Ermish is Saxony’s representative of the Government Commission on Compatriots Living Abroad (KSORS). This state institution was founded specifically to coordinate the Russian diaspora throughout the world. KSORS gets its money from the sanctioned fund Russkiy Mir, founded by decree by Putin.
Interestingly, the Berlin chapter of KSORS is, or at least used to be registered at the Russian House’s premises. The Russian House’s official Facebook page also has multiple past posts advertising KSORS events which were to be held at the Russian House. This provides a possible hint at one of the institute’s sources of funding.
Propaganda and “Charity” Organizations
Besides the obvious Putin propagandists, DruschbaFM frequently hosts guests affiliated with purported humanitarian organisations. Among these individuals is Ivana Steinigk, the chairwoman of the Thuringian association „Action Alliance Future Donbas” (Aktionsbündnis Zukunft Donbas). While Steinigk claims that the association, established in 2016, maintains a fundamentally apolitical stance, she consistently promotes Russian war narratives in her media interviews and on social media platforms. She asserts that Russia is making every effort to minimise civilian casualties in Ukraine, thereby refuting allegations of Russian war crimes. She also claims that Ukraine is to blame for the escalation into war by torpedoing the Minsk agreement – two major Kremlin propaganda talking points.
This alliance appears to have found a comfortable place within the network of right-wing pro-Russian groups and organisations in Germany. On her Facebook profile, Steinigk, who goes by the social media pseudonym „Berntowna“, has connections with aforementioned AfD member Gunnar Lindemann and Alina Lipp. Furthermore, the right-wing extremist group „Free Saxons“ openly supports the aid convoys organised by the Future Donbas. The alliance also appears to collaborate with other right-wing groups, such as the „Patriots Novorossija“ and a branch of the German-Russian Brotherhood known as the „German-Russian Souls“ association. Photographs from their Donbas aid transports depict vehicles adorned with the Russian war symbol “Z”.
And the organisation appears to at least be attracting the attention of actual Russian state institutions. In March 2022, almost a month after the start of the Russian war of aggression, the Russian consulate in Leipzig praised the alliance’s work in a tweet. Then, in December that year, Zukunft’s Facebook page boasted of delivering 36 trucks’ worth of “humanitarian supplies” to Donbas, with the help of Russia’s federal Ministry of Emergency Situations.
Another questionable pseudo-humanitarian organisation is Friedensbrücke. This “charity” has Liliana Kilinc as its founder, a former Die Linke member who left due to the party’s alleged “inadequate anti-imperialist stance”. Kilinc has been involved in advocacy for the Donbas separatists since at least 2015 when she founded Friedensbrucke.
Photos on social media show Kilinc posing alongside boxes of “humanitarian supplies” under Russian imperial flags. Last year, the organisation found itself under investigation after publishing a video of one of its trucks displaying the Z symbol. Furthermore, there have been persistent allegations of Friedensbrücke delivering combat supplies to the Russians and their separatist proxies – in February according to investigative outlet The Insider, the organisation paid for the delivery of an anti-drone weapon and a drone system for a unit of the so-called LPR. These revelations have cost Friedensbrücke their NGO status – now they are reduced to asking for donations on GoFundMe.
And these are not unfounded accusations. According to the same article, Kilinc has extensive collaborations with the Russian nationalist types crusading for the Donbas separatists. In November 2022, in a Vkontakte post, Saule Ivanova, a coordinator of the “Moskva-Donbas” volunteer group directly supporting separatist military formations, personally thanked Kilinc for the delivery of a substantial amount of motor oil. According to the post, the substance, which is crucial for the movement of armoured vehicles, would go directly to motor rifle units of the separatists. All of this information comes from the same Insider article.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kilinc currently resides in Russia.
The Berlin GRU Community
Then, rounding off the network of questionable figures surrounding the Russian House is Oleg Eremenko. In a Reuters article from January, Eremenko admitted to being a former member of the GRU, the Russian military’s foreign intelligence agency.
The exact nature of Eremenko’s connection to the Russian House is still unclear. However, several bits of information floating in the public sphere give a hint about his role. In a September 2022 interview with Russian TV, Eremenko mentioned that he passes Checkpoint Charlie everyday on the way to his work – the Russian House is located a stone’s throw from the historical site.
Regardless, Eremenko clearly spends much of his time at the Russian House. His Facebook profile shows several photos of him on the premises of the institution. Earlier this year, when German journalists from Stern called the Russian House to enquire about Eremenko, they were told that he wasn’t on site that day.
With it being established that, at the very least, Eremenko is closely affiliated with the Russian House, it’s worth looking into his other activities. In a photo dated from 2016, Eremenko is seen photographed with Igor Strelkov (aka Igor Girkin), a former Russian intelligence officer who played the decisive role in organising the Ukrainian separatist movements in Donbas, and played a major role in the military functions of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. Eremenko claims his acquaintanceship with Strelkov resulted from his deliveries of “humanitarian supplies” to Donbas.
Eremenko is also active in a number of official and semi-official organisations, clubs and societies revolving around the Russian state and military. Officers of Russia, a highly influential civil society organisation for Russian soldiers and veterans lists him as an official representative. It was in this capacity that Eremenko participated in the Russian government-sponsored “Anti-Fascist Forum” of 2022 and 2023 – other participants included the director of Rossotrudnichestvo Evgeniy Primakov, and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. His position as representative of Officers of Russia also earned him a spot as a participant in an event concerned with the “national prestige of Russia” hosted at PMC Wagner’s St Petersburg headquarters.
Furthermore, Eremenko participates in such societies in Germany. Desant e.v. – a society of Germany-based veterans of Russian special forces, paratroopers and marines – lists him as a board member. Interestingly, the society’s headquarters are at the same address as Eremenko’s construction company, Aurus. Finally, Eremenko is a representative of KSORS, an advocacy organisation for Russian speakers in Germany – this organisation works closely with the Russian House in arranging various events on the premises of the Russian House, according to the institution’s Facebook page.
Again, Eremenko’s exact role with the Russian House is unclear. However, he is certainly involved with the institution at a high level – and one can’t help but wonder what interest a former military intelligence officer, with proven ties to state institutions and military societies, who ostensibly runs a construction company would have in cultural matters.
With an entire cast of nuclear energy officials, former intelligence officers, far-right ideologues, Russian imperial crusaders and state propaganda writers revolving around Berlin’s Russian House, the institution is certainly intriguing to anyone taking a critical look. That there are such blatant sanction violations, with staff seemingly not even attempting to hide them – like the building’s second floor restaurant – is also baffling.
Perhaps Germany’s unique position – with half of it having recently been under Moscow’s thumb, its former energy dependence on Russia, and its substantial Russian-speaking population – contributes to Berlin’s Russian House being such a hotspot of subversive activity. Or perhaps other Russian Houses throughout the world have similar webs of interesting characters surrounding them – a director of Prague’s Russian House was accused of being an FSB agent recently. A recent Wall Street Journal article took an in-depth look into Dmitry Syty, the head of the Russian House in the Central African Republic, who is also responsible for Wagner’s resource extraction operations in Africa.
While Russian ties to European far-right parties have been talked about for decades, the sheer extent of the links with the AfD is astonishing. Whether borne out of ideological conviction or political convenience, or a mix of the two, there is enough to establish substantial and fruitful collaboration between Russian state agents and the German political party.
Following the Russian state’s actions, and the backlash it faced from states like Germany, the Kremlin adopts an officially hostile stance towards the west. This makes AfD’s ties arguably tantamount to collusion with a hostile state. Already, open actions of Russian state officials underline this hostility towards towards Germany: recall how in 2016, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov promoted a bogus story of a Russian-German girl being raped by migrants. Such actions can only be interpreted as actively seeking to promote societal discord. Clearly, the German names discussed in this report – the Elsassers and Poggenburgs and Herdts – are important in whatever plans Russia has for Germany. These cogs are, to say the least, very controversial characters in Germany with very divisive views.
And most alarmingly, this network is evidently actively working to undermine the Ukrainian cause. With a fertile base of devotees within Germany eager to follow this network’s bogus rhetoric, there is a very real threat of there emerging a pro-Russian political movement which can undermine the substantial support states like Germany have given Ukraine. Undoubtedly, this poses a major threat to Ukraine’s struggle for sovereignty and warrants close attention. Regardless, there is enough smoke around Berlin’s Russian House to titillate anyone. And this is just based on information accrued from the public domain, connections which the persons of interest seem to barely attempt to hide. One can only wonder what other intriguing bits of information can be unearthed.