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Living with the enemy? Ukrainians and Russians find common ground in Germany

For a short time every Friday evening, the world feels orderly once again at the Mayer family's home. For two hours there will be no news about the war, no pictures of dead civilians and no sad thoughts of home. Instead, British comedic personality Mr. Bean will hold sway here – he has become an important and recurring part of this family's weekend plans.

"When we watch Mr. Bean all together it just relaxes everybody," Natascha Mayer said. "It puts everybody in a good mood and Polina's laughter is so contagious that none of us can stop laughing."

Mayer was born in the Caucasus but moved to Germany around 20 years ago. Today she lives with her husband and two children on the outskirts of Bonn. Since March 16, Polina, 12-years-old, has been the family's guest along with Polina's mother, Anna, and her grandmother, Larissa. The trio fled the Kyiv suburbs to Germany, via Poland.

The Mayers actually have another surname but Natascha was worried about reprisals against her family in Russia so requested DW use a different surname. But this family still wants to tell their story. It is one of international togetherness and understanding, at the kitchen table in Germany, hundreds of kilometers from the war. They want to show that Ukrainians and Russians can actually live together in peace, now and in the future.

'Why should we be enemies?'

For Natascha, as soon as the war begin, it was clear that she had to help somehow. For her, taking in some Ukrainian refugees is a form of protest as well as a way of showing empathy with the people of Ukraine.

"Belarusians, Ukrainians, Russians – we all have such a lot in common in our cultures," she said. "I actually have to ask how we are actually different. And now, since this war began, we are supposed to be enemies? Why?"

The Mayer family cleared out their children's playroom for the new arrivals. The children actually wanted to give them all their pocket money, Natascha said, laughing.

The names of the Ukrainian family are already on the Mayers' letterbox. They expect that the two families will likely live together for at least six months.

"So far it's working out really well. It's like our relatives came to stay," Natascha said. "We haven't had a single conflict."

'It's about character'

The Ukrainian women — Larissa, Anna and Polina — fled via Poland and Berlin, leaving their male relatives, father and grandfather, behind in Ukraine.

Everyone in the temporary Ukrainian-Russian house speaks Russian. Anna has taken over in the kitchen as the women don't want to be a burden on their hosts even if they're still feeling traumatized by the journey and the war.

"We are very sad but we feel really comfortable here and we have had such a warm welcome," Larissa said.

But isn't it odd that they have fled Russian attacks and then have ended up finding shelter with a Russian family in Germany? What do their family in Ukraine feel about that?

Anna and Larissa don't think much of these kinds of questions.

"For us, it's no problem to stay with Russian citizens," they said. "A lot of Russians are actually leaving their own country in protest and to show they are with Ukraine. We are all human beings and it's about how we treat each other. It's not Ms. Mayer's fault that she was in Russia. Where we are born is simply where we end up. Character is another thing altogether."

Natascha's husband says that, as one might expect, they don't talk a lot about politics here. Their positions are clear and everyone's on the same side: Against the war and against Putin. There is one ongoing question in the house though: When will there be peace?

The three Ukrainian women want to go back home as soon as possible. Polina has already spent a few days in a German school and has a few words of German. But when Natascha wanted to register the mother and grandmother for an integration course, they thought there was no point.

"You don't have to do that," they explained. "We'll be back home soon."

Divided communities

In the three weeks that the Ukrainians have been in Germany, they have come to understand that the Russian expat community here do not all share the same opinions. On one side, there are people like Natascha Mayer, who condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and who are sharing their own homes with refugees. On the other side, there's a loud minority who are expressing their support for Russia in controversial demonstrations, waving huge Russian flags.

Natasha has also found herself caught between those who empathize with Putin and those who oppose the Russian president. For years she has belonged to a WhatsApp group of friends with whom she studied foreign languages in Russia. Five remained in Russia, four now live in western Europe. For two weeks, nobody mentioned the war. Natascha was the first to dare, and she criticized the invasion.

"The friend who had the greatest career of all of us and who still lives in Moscow left the group in a rage," Natascha said. "On the other hand, another friend wrote me privately that the situation in Russia was like Germany in 1937. One of the other women, who lives in Europe, has broken off contact with her family [in Russia] and wants nothing more to do with them."

Of all people, it is Natascha's Ukrainian guests, refuges of the war, who comfort her when she despairs of the impact that Russian state propaganda is having on her friend circle. People there actually believe the lies told by a member of Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany party that white crosses were being painted on the homes of Russians living in Germany.

But it is contact with her own family back in Russia that upsets Natascha the most.

"This war is destroying families and dividing friends, depending on what their political position is," Natascha argued. "But In this situation, you cannot sit on the fence. You have to decide on one side or the other. My mother and I always fight if we talked about the war so we're trying to avoid the subject as much as possible. They don't even know that we have taken in some Ukraine in refuges," she confesses.

This article was originally written in German.