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Learning to Trust the German Nanny State After Going Native in Russia
Berlin 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 way to success.
The best proof may be in the cast of characters thrown up by the ongoing election-meddling scandal. All these Russian lawyers, oligarchs, lobbyists, and spooks who did their best to make Donald Trump president seem less like a formal conspiracy than a bunch of schemers who sensed the Kremlin’s general intent and pulled whatever strings they could to make it happen.
This is basically how Russia works. What it rewards is cunning and opportunism, favoring those who develop camouflage or poison-tipped talons. Germany, by contrast, favors people who trust the system. It’s no surprise that the country’s eternal chancellor, Angela Merkel, has emerged as the chief defender of the rules-based global order — and it’s no surprise that neither Putin nor Trump can stand her.
I understand the long-term benefits of the German approach, which has yielded decades of peace and prosperity. (Germany’s per-capita GDP is nearly five times larger than Russia’s.) But it can also feel a bit stultifying, and under the influence of my years in Moscow, there were some elements of life in Berlin I couldn’t help but resist. Particularly the taxes.
In Russia, taxes are effectively voluntary. There is a 13% flat tax on income, which Putin instated during his first term as president in an attempt to make Russians cough up at least that much. He didn’t succeed. For all its power, the Russian state lacks the will or the resources to go after all the deadbeats. It uses selective punishment to spread fear, especially among the wealthy, but with little effect — Russia’s own central bank governor said in 2013 that the country was losing more than $30 billion a year to tax evasion.
But on some level, the Kremlin may have preferred for regular folks not to pay taxes at all. It’s easier — and probably safer — to fund the state by selling Russia’s abundant oil and gas than to have a tax-paying populace that begins to think their government actually owes it something.
This is how Russia works: it rewards cunning and opportunism, favoring those who develop camouflage or poison-tipped talons.
Germany could not be more different. In addition to the usual income taxes, the government charges for a variety of services that never seemed very useful to me, but which have the ultimate aim of creating a sense of shared fiscal responsibility. There is the Solidarity Charge, a sum that residents of Germany are obliged to pay to help finance the development of the formerly communist East. It doesn’t matter that I have no intention of living in the East, nor that I was a 7-year-old in the U.S. when Germany reunified — I still have to pay.
Then there is the GEZ, the broadcasting fee. Germans are required to pay a couple hundred euros a year to support the public television channels, whether or not they watch those channels or, for that matter, own a TV.
The GEZ levy is what caused my first conflict with the German state. It took more than a year, and a number of progressively sterner letters, before the authorities referred my GEZ debt to an “enforcement official” named Matthias. My then-girlfriend, who is now my wife, explained that enforcement of the GEZ is pretty serious. In lieu of payment, Matthias would come to my house and seize whatever valuables were not bolted down. It didn’t matter that my German was not yet good enough to appreciate the public television programming the government was demanding I pay for. Matthias would not be deterred. The only choice was to settle the bill or barricade the door, remove the name from my mailbox, hide my electronics, and possibly buy some pepper spray.
Two things astounded me about the whole Matthias situation. I couldn’t believe that the German government had the will and the means to physically enforce a debt that came to all of 248.44 euros, less than $300. But the broadcasting authorities also expected me to believe that they would use my euros properly, in the service of some greater good — and that I would voluntarily fork them over.
Much the same expectation came from my German landlords and insurance companies when they insisted on the right to withdraw payments directly from my German bank account; a perverse level of trust, I think, to give to any institution. It feels as though they want me to say, Please, here are the keys to my safe, just take whatever you feel I owe you.
And after the trauma of being robbed, repressed and swindled for centuries, Russians know to curb their expectations.
Even now, after five years in Berlin, this arrangement makes me miss my elderly landlord in Moscow, who would come to my place to pick up the rent in cash at the end of each month. We both knew the purpose of this errand was for him to avoid giving a cut to the Russian government. And that was fine; neither of us trusted the state to do anything good with that money anyway.
It was only in the last couple of years, with the birth of my daughter, that the realities of German residence have grown on me. When my wife was near the end of her pregnancy, the state assigned us a midwife who came to our apartment once a week to give us instructions on the finer points of parenting, from the appropriate temperature of bath water to strategies for avoiding marital strain. Frau Kaller was the literal embodiment of the nanny state, and her services were practically free. So is the daycare in Berlin for children as young as 18 months, and if parents want to take leave from work, stay home and care for the baby, the government will pay them to do that for 12–14 months.
No one in Russia, or anywhere else, expects the Kremlin to build a safety net. Its economy is less than half the size of Germany’s with nearly twice the population. And after the trauma of being robbed, repressed, and swindled by their leaders for most of the last few centuries, Russians usually know to curb their expectations anyway. When it comes to raising children or caring for the elderly, they trust close friends and family — certainly not the government. In 2014, the Kremlin plundered the national pension system in order to fund the annexation of Crimea. No major protests followed that decision, which wasn’t much of a surprise. For Russian men, the average life expectancy is just a few years higher than the retirement age. So why should they expect to see much of a pension?
I must not be completely Germanized; I can’t quite shake that Russian fatalism. Germany’s pension system isn’t as generous as some of its European neighbors, but it’s financially solid, and there’s little chance of Chancellor Merkel raiding the piggy bank to fund a military adventure abroad. Germans trust their pensions will be waiting when they retire. But I can’t help suspecting that the odds of the world being turned inside out by some great calamity, manmade or otherwise, are a lot better than the German state remembering to start sending me checks in 30 years.
For all the generosity, the benefits my family gets today also make me a bit uncomfortable — perhaps defensive is a better word. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
What if Frau Kaller was some kind of spy? What if Matthias the German repo man is loitering outside our apartment, even now, ready to seize what the state is owed? To most trusting Berliners, these thoughts would not seem healthy, and certainly wouldn’t be very German. But such is the baggage I brought here from Moscow, and I wouldn’t abandon it, even if I could.