Very Best Friends
1968 to 2018: 50 years of partnerships between the St. Petersburg State University and Freie Universität Berlin were celebrated in St. Petersburg
Dec 03, 2018
Besides researchers of various disciplines from Freie Universität Berlin, Prof. Verena Blechinger-Talcott, Vice President for International Affairs, and Chancellor Andrea Bör joined in the festivities as well.
During the festivities on November 19 and 20 in the honor of the 50th anniversary of the partnership, remembrance was paid to the tumultuous history of both universities. Emphasized was the strategic partnership between both institutions which was established in 2012 as well as the possibilities for future endeavors within the framework of this collaboration. 1968 of all years, the year of student uprisings, happened to be the backdrop in front of which the cooperation was initiated.
It is January 1968: While student protests at Freie Universität Berlin are reaching their fever pitch, protestors are occupying the Henry Ford Building to demonstrate against the government of the Federal Republic of Germany and the foreign affairs policies of the United States, Freie Universität Berlin concludes a partnership agreement with Schdanow-University Leningrad, today’s St. Petersburg State University.
From today's perspective, the alliance raises questions: How could it be that Freie Universität entered into a partnership with a state university from the Soviet Union? It was precisely Freie Universität, which was founded in West Berlin as a counter-model to Humboldt University in East Berlin, and which was to rule over the freedom of teaching. And why, during the politically charged year of 1968, in which the then Rector of Freie Universität, the dentist Professor Ewald Harndt, accused the protesting West Berlin students of being ideologically close to the GDR and Soviet Communism?
In January 1966, Contact was Established
"There is some evidence," says Tobias Stüdemann, head of the Moscow Liaison Office of Freie Universität. For example, in January 1966 two representatives of the USSR embassy in East Berlin, Embassy Counsel Boronin and the first secretary of the embassy, Beletzky, made their first contact with Freie Universität Berlin. They visited Freie Universität and asked for a meeting with the then Rector Hans-Joachim Lieber. "This visit was unusual because the diplomats had come without prior notice," says Eckard Matthes, who worked as a research assistant at Freie Universität's External Affairs Office from 1971 to 1982. Lieber greeted the two gentlemen and then referred them to Horst Hartwich, the then Head of the university's External Affairs Office and founding student of Freie Universität.
The diplomats inquired whether Freie Universität was interested in cooperating with a Soviet university and suggested three possible universities: Kiev, Moscow, and Leningrad. Hartwich made it clear that Freie Universität was not interested in a formal contract, he regarded an international cooperation at a faculty and institute level as more fruitful. Hartwich, who would later play a decisive role in the cooperation with the University of Leningrad, initially remained cautious at this early stage. Hartwich wrote that against the backdrop of a planned German-Soviet cultural agreement, one was keen of preventing any reason to arise, which could be used as an argument against an inclusion of West-Berlin in the planned agreement.
Different Interests and Focal Points
"But Freie Universität was interested in a partnership with Soviet scientists," says Eckhard Matthes. In the summer of 1966, Leningrad State University presented Freie Universität Berlin with an official partnership offer, which was accepted shortly afterwards.
However, both universities had different areas of interest. Freie Universität was particularly interested in expanding regional research, for example in the areas of Slavic studies, Eastern European history, and Eastern European law. Leningrad University was more interested in contacts in the natural sciences, initially especially in crystal structure analysis. Contacts between individual scientists at Freie Universität had already existed in the Soviet Union. These could now be expanded through the partnership.
The partnership agreement was signed by Nikolay Penkin, Vice-Rector of the Leningrad State University, and Ewald Harndt, Rector of Freie Universität, in January 1968 on the occasion of the visit of a Leningrad delegation to Berlin. The parties decided that each university should annually send two to three professors for lectures and two young scientists for research purposes to the other respective institution. In addition, a lecturer in German or Russian could be invited for the duration of one academic year.
First Fellows of Freie Universität Arrived in Leningrad in October 1969
Together with Peter Jahn, Eckhard Matthes was one of the first two scholarship holders to travel to Leningrad State University for ten months from October 1969. Both worked on their dissertations on the German image of Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries. "The allocation of research stays was still carried out quite informally at this early stage of the partnership," says Eckhard Matthes. Both scholarship holders worked mainly in libraries and improved their Russian through individual tutoring.
At the beginning of the 1970s, the development of the cooperation was still laborious, "the cooperation for both universities was still untested uncharted territory," says Eckhard Matthes. He can still remember well how he tried to persuade scientists to travel to Leningrad: "There was scepticism about the new possibilities, and sometimes fear. It was really amazing that I not only had to convince physicists and chemists, but also scientists from the Institute for Eastern European Studies". Even Slavicists didn't want to go to Leningrad at first.
From 1971 onwards, students of Slavic studies from Berlin were able to attend six-week Russian language courses at the Leningrad State University. In 1974, a second language course with a four month-long duration was launched. Under the name Rossicum I and II, these courses became an integral part of Slavist education at Freie Universität. In the following 25 years, a total of about 700 people took part.
Approaching One Another Through Cooperation in Culture and Science
"Against the background of the Cold War, the student movement of the late 1960s, the Prague Spring, and the newly built Berlin Wall, the beginning of this cooperation between Freie Universität Berlin and Leningrad State University was particularly remarkable and gratifying," says Eckhard Matthes. It was as if therapeutic measures had been sought to solve the East-West conflict, both sides had approached each other through cooperation in culture and science. The university cooperation that began in 1968 was already a step in the right direction, which then followed the path of Willy Brandt's policies in his Ostpolitik.
The partnership withstood all political and historical upheavals and intensified considerably after the fall of the Berlin Wall: St. Petersburg State University is currently one of Freie Universität Berlin's most important partners. "This is another reason why researchers from St. Petersburg State University come to Freie Universität every year as guest researchers," says Liaison Office Director Stüdemann.
Continuation of a Historical Heritage
However, the partnership also continued a historical legacy: St. Petersburg State University was founded in 1724 by decree of Peter the Great, with the instruction to appoint German professors - and German was the official language of the university until almost the end of the 19th century. In addition, German was the first foreign language in Russia until the end of the 1980s. "In the 1950s and 1960s, one million people in the Soviet Union learned German every year," says Günter Kaindl, "and many of the older German scientists were still proficient in Russian, whether through captivity in war or family backgrounds. Kaindl was one of the first profiteers of exchange. In 1968, the physics professor was still a scientific assistant to Nobel Prize winner Rudolf Mößbauer at the Technical University of Munich, who cultivated intensive scientific contacts with Soviet scientists in his institute as early as the mid-1960s. After a three-year stopover as a Miller Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, and a brief interlude as a junior professor at the Ruhr University Bochum, the Bavarian earned a full professorship at Freie Universität in 1976. At the Department of Physics, he continued the cooperative contacts of his predecessor Stefan Hüfner with the Faculty of Physics at St. Petersburg State University and intensified them. "This German-Russian partnership has considerably expanded and enriched my scientific career and my view of the world," says Kaindl today.
"Exchange Between People, Between Scientists".
Was it not a contradiction for him, as an employee of Freie Universität in the western sector, to work together with a university in the Soviet Union that lay behind the "Iron Curtain"? Were there no reservations? "Not at all," says Kaindl in retrospect. "I'm a conservative-progressive Bavarian who travelled the world during my school days in the 1950s. Everyone at Freie Universität knew I wasn't a friend of communism." But even then, he made a clear distinction between Soviet politics and the population. Back then, as well as today, he was mainly keen on the exchange between people, between scientists. "Political aspects were of secondary importance to me.”
In the era of Soviet communism, however, dialogue was not always easy. After being appointed to Freie Universität, Kaindl was in the Soviet Union for the first time in 1980 to participate in a German-Russian workshop at Leningrad University. "It was a small meeting in the historical lecture hall of Professor Dmitri I. Mendeleev, organized jointly with the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart. Seven or eight German professors took part." Each German participant had their own interpreter and driver, recalls Kaindl. At this workshop, he also met a young postdoctoral fellow who had previously spent a longer research stay in his research group at Freie Universität as part of the partnership agreement.
One afternoon the young postdoctoral fellow was supposed to give a lecture. "I was chairman of the meeting, but my postdoctoral fellow didn't show up." It was only in the evening, when Kaindl was invited to dinner in his apartment in Peterhof, that he should learn the reason: The postdoctoral fellow apologized and explained that he had to stand in various queues for so long to get the food for the evening.
Rebuilding the Relationship After the Fall of the Berlin Wall
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union, Russia found itself in serious financial troubles, also due to an extremely low oil price, virtually all aspects of the Russian economy were experiencing shortages. "A professor at that time did not earn much more than 100 marks a month. Kaindl, however, was very concerned about German-Russian relations, especially because of the enriching experiences in the context of the partnership agreement. For this reason, he was also committed to funding programs and scholarships - such as the Leonhard-Euler Scholarship Program, which was supported by the German Academic Exchange Service and the Federal Foreign Office and provided Freie Universität with about ten scholarships each year for particularly talented young Russian scientists. These sholarships were given out within the framework of the partnership with St. Petersburg State University. The young scientists received funding for one year at their home university, combined with a one-month guest stay at Freie Universität.
In 1994, Kaindl also proposed to Paul Krüger, the then Federal Minister of Research and Technology, that two measuring stations for research with X-rays and neutrons be built, which would be dedicated specifically to cooperation with Russian scientists. The Minister liked the proposal - but did not make any funds available. From the Russian side, this project was enthusiastically supported by Kaindls colleague at St. Petersburg State University, Professor Vera K. Adamchuk, as well as by her former doctoral student, Serguei Molodtsov, then a postdoctoral fellow in Kaindls research group. Four years later, however, Kaindl succeeded in acquiring a considerable part of the necessary investment funds for the establishment of a Russian-German laboratory at the Berlin Electron Storage Ring for Synchrotron Radiation (BESSY II in Berlin-Adlershof, today part of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie, HZB) through a successful application to the Stiftung Deutsche Klassenlotterie Berlin. While no team of scientists could be found for the construction of a neutron measuring station, which for example could have been built at the Berlin research reactor BER II of the Hahn-Meitner Institute (today also part of the HZB), the measuring station for research with X-rays was put into operation at BESSY II in 2001. Today, after 17 years, the station is one of the most successful measuring stations at BESSY II - with more than 650 publications in scientific journals to date.
"None of this would have been possible without the partnership agreement which was signed 50 years ago, without the cooperation with the scientists from St. Petersburg," says Günter Kaindl. And perhaps not without the two diplomats who visited Freie Universität unannounced in January 1966.