From shop fronts spattered with paint to insults thrown in the street, attacks on the Russian community in Germany have spiked since the start of the war in Ukraine.
As a result, some Russians have staged demonstrations “against Russophobia” in the form of vehicle convoys across the country, which has the largest Russian diaspora in the European Union.
But the demos have sparked a backlash, with many interpreting them as a show of support for Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine.
Christian Freier, 40, has been sent hundreds of death threats a day since helping to organise a 400-strong vehicle convoy in Berlin last weekend, along with images of burnt and mutilated corpses.
The website of his car repair shop was hacked and his online ratings have plummeted.
“My life is hell,” said Freier, who has both Russian and German citizenship.
The demonstration was largely peaceful and apolitical, though one woman was arrested for displaying the letter “Z”, a symbol of support for the Russian army and now banned in Berlin.
“My aim was only to protest against the daily aggression suffered by Russians in Germany,” Freier said, declining to answer any questions about the conflict itself.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, 383 anti-Russian and 181 anti-Ukrainian crimes have been officially reported to German police.
Germany is home to around 1.2 million Russians and 325,000 Ukrainians, plus more than 316,000 who have arrived as refugees since the start of the conflict.
‘Parade of shame’
“All war is awful and can never be justified,” said Rene Hermann, 50, who also helped to organise the Berlin convoy.
Hermann told AFP he has “no position” on the Ukraine conflict, but away from the scrutiny of journalists, he runs a blog on social network Tiktok with thousands of subscribers.
His account was recently suspended after he repeatedly spread pro-Kremlin propaganda, including allegations that Kyiv had staged a massacre “to manipulate Western thinking”.
“The motives for taking part in these demonstrations are very diverse,” said Jochen Toepfer, a sociologist at the Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg and an expert on Russian society.
“They were organised as demonstrations against discrimination in Germany. But there were certainly also fans of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, as well as people who don’t necessarily like Putin but don’t want to see their country discredited, despite the war,” he told AFP.
Though it was billed as apolitical, the Berlin demo provoked a wave of indignation in Germany, with the Bild daily calling it a “parade of shame”.
“For heaven’s sake, how could you allow this convoy of shame in the middle of Berlin?” the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, Andrij Melnyk, asked of Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey.
Giffey replied that she understood his anger but could not penalise people for merely waving Russian flags.
The security authorities are “closely monitoring the extent to which Russian, but also Ukrainian, citizens are at risk in Germany,” German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said last week.
“We must be very careful that this war is not imported into our society,” she added.
That is unlikely to happen, according to Tobias Rupprecht, a postdoctoral researcher at the Free University of Berlin.
“Most Russians here have a much more critical view of the conflict and tend to be much more Westernised than Russians in Russia,” he said.
However, “the longer the war goes on, the greater the risk that more crimes will be committed in this context in Germany”, according to Toepfer.
Several more pro-Russian demonstrations have been planned for Sunday in Germany, prompting condemnation from Russian organisations.
“We will not tolerate a few cases of discrimination being used as a cover for pro-Putin propaganda events,” warned the IDRH, a society for people of Russian origin in the state of Hesse.
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