Thursday, 9 May 2013

Alexandrowka - The Original Russian Colony in Potsdam

Alexandrowka Haus1 : Russisches Restaurant und Teestube
Potsdam, the Hauptstadt of Brandenburg, is no stranger to Russian residents. Stalin himself stayed in a villa nearby (at Babelsberg) when he attended the Potsdam Conference at Cecilienhof between 17th July and 2nd August 1945. In the division of Germany hacked out at that conference, Soviet Russia took a large chunk that included Potsdam itself. The Russian army had quickly moved into the former Nazi barracks at Krampnitz on the north of Potsdam, whilst the army's officers and their families turned the Neuer Garten area into a Soviet Forbidden City where the KGB had their German HQ and a terrifying prison on Leistikowstrasse. The Russian military left after German unification, but it is still not at all unusual to hear locals chatting in Russian.

But these weren't the first Russians to live here. On 29th October 1685 Friedrich Wilhelm, Elector of Brandenburg, proclaimed the Edict of Potsdam in which he offered to give asylum to protestant Huguenots fleeing for their lives from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by King Louis XIV. Not just asylum, but a plot of land, a business start-up grant, a tax-break, and the assurance that they could set up their own schooling system.

Friedrich Wilhelm was a canny bloke, and invited the immigrants in the hope that they would kick-start the Brandenburg economy after the disaster of the Thirty Years War had flat-lined the population and agriculture of Brandenburg. Potsdam became the place to be in Europe if you wanted a degree of religious freedom, and as well as the persecuted protestants of France, Holland and Bohemia, Russians also flocked here.

But the most lasting impression of Mother Russia in Potsdam (if you discount the Soviet occupation after the war) is the totally charming Russische Kolonie Alexandrowka. Its origins go back to 1812; Prussia had been conquered by Napoleon, and a forced alliance was uneasily forged between France and Prussia against Russia. More than a thousand Russian prisoners of War were brought back to Potsdam, but if you know the background to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture you will know that Napolen's Russian campaign ended in disaster, and the badly damaged Grand Armée was forced to withdraw.

Sixty Two of the Russian prisoners of War remained in Potsdam, and from these a choir was formed for the amusement of the King (Friedrich Wilhelm III) and the Prussian First Foot Regiment. Prussia and Russia then allied against France in Spring 1813, and Tsar Alexander I allowed the remaining Russian prisoners to be incorporated into the Prussian Foot Regiment. The choir was allowed to keep on going as entertainment, and to make up for the loss to the regiment, the Tsar supplied Russian Grenadiers to make up the shortfall.

On the death of Tsar Alexander I in 1825, only twelve of the Russian choir remained in Potsdam. In memory of the deep bonds of friendship that Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia had made with the dead Tsar, FWIII resolved to create a colony in Potsdam for the Russian choir and their families to live in. Twelve farms were built to the north of Potsdam, in an area shaped like a horse racetrack, intersected with two roads forming a saltire of St Andrew (apart from Scotland, St Andrew is also national saint of Russia (and Greece)). At the intersection of the cross, a Sergeant's House was built.

Each farm was furnished with a purpose-built wooden block-house after the Russian style, and a large orchard garden, and a cow. The farms were legally bound not to be sold, leased or sublet, and to be passed down the male line of each family.
Orchards at Alexandrowka

More orchards at Alexandrowka.
It's just like something by Chekov!

A Russian Orthodox church dedicated to St Alexander Nevsky (Tsar Alexander's patron saint) was built on a hill nearby.

The church is a small, exotic, rather pink building designed St. Petersburg court architect Vasily Petrovich Stasov with neo-classical additions by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. It is well worth the haul up Kepellenberg to visit (and afterwards you might as well continue further up the hill to the Bellevue with its magnificent views over Potsdam and the Havell). Apparently this little church still administers to the spiritual needs of a thousand Russian Orthodox believers in the area; I just hope they don't all turn up for a service at once.



In 1861 the last singer in the choir died. In 1927, a hundred years after the founding of the colony, only four of the original families were still living there, and by then the colony was the private property of the House of Hohenzollern (i.e. the Kaiser). At the time of the Soviet land reform (die Bodenreform of September 1945, when all private property over 100 hectares were taken by the state and redistributed as publicly owned estates or  Volkseigene Güter - VEG), there were only two families who were direct descendents of the original singers.

Nowadays, only the family Grigorieff lives in Alexandrowka, the rest of the houses being in private ownership.

The colony has been much restored and should be on the itinerary of  any trip to Potsdam. Especially recommended is the Russian restaurant and Teestube at Haus 1 where you can eat Russian snacks or meals, washed down with Russian beer, vodka, or a samovar of tea.

In the tea / beer garden at Alexandrowka Haus1

Russian tea, beer, and assorted biscuits!

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