Trust Issues

Learning to Trust the German Nanny State After Going Native in Russia

I still can’t quite shake that Russian fatalism

Simon Shuster
GEN
Published in
7 min readJun 20, 2018

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Photo: Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty

BBerlin wasn’t exactly my choice. After spending seven years as a reporter in Moscow, most of them for TIME magazine, I had initially asked for a transfer to Athens, where the weather is better, the government less stable, and the transition — between two cities with no shortage of political drama — would probably have felt less abrupt, like gradually decompressing as you ascend from the depths. But my editors decided otherwise. The German capital is the center of Europe, so that’s where they sent me in the fall of 2013.

The move made me realize a lot about myself, especially how Russified I’d become after spending my grown-up life as a subject of Vladimir Putin. My faith in government was shot. My contacts with every arm of the Russian bureaucracy, from the migration office that renewed my visa to the postal clerks who rifled through my mail, had taught me to avoid the state whenever possible. And so I carried those impulses with me to Germany.

The sight of the police still made me do a mental cash count and an inventory of my pockets, even though cops in Berlin are more likely to offer to fix your bicycle than they are to frisk you or demand a bribe.

My new home should have felt like paradise. I was free from the churn of Moscow, where a long history of autocrats and thieves still haunted the present, and I had landed in the capital of Europe’s richest welfare state, with an apartment near Goerlitzer Park.

Angela Merkel has emerged as the chief defender of the rules-based global order — it’s no surprise neither Putin nor Trump can stand her.

But the move actually got me down. You might even say I was homesick. For all its social dysfunction — the state’s inability to provide decent health care or education, a level of corruption on par with some third-world kleptocracies — Russia breeds a kind of guileful mistrust of the system that, despite its ills, has always struck me as reminiscent of that American cliché: the self-made individual, sidestepping the system on the…

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Simon Shuster
GEN
Writer for

Reporter for TIME covering Europe east of the Rhine, Russia, Ukraine and wherever else they send me. Based in Berlin. Born in Moscow. Bred in San Francisco.