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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

President's German Makes the Grade

When President Vladimir Putin announced in the German parliament this week that he was switching into the language of Goethe, Schiller and Kant, he was taking a big risk.

But his speech in German before the Bundestag on Tuesday won him a standing ovation from the deputies and glowing reports the next day in the German press. And it made some German teachers in Moscow proud.

Svetlana Gorbachevskaya, deputy head of the German language department of Moscow State University's School of Foreign Languages, said the teachers at the school were impressed.

"At last one of our heads of state was speaking wonderful German. There were a few mistakes, but many wise things were said. It was great," she said Thursday in an interview. "At last we don't have to be afraid that our leaders will let us down on such international occasions."

Asked if she was referring to Leonid Brezhnev, who mumbled his way through speeches in the last years of his rule, Gorbachevskaya said, "and Yeltsin." Former President Boris Yeltsin had a tendency to embarrass his compatriots on trips abroad.

Gorbachevskaya said the teachers may use copies of Putin's speech in their classes.

Putin learned German in St. Petersburg and honed his skills while working for the KGB in Dresden from 1984 to 1990 as a liaison officer to East Germany's Stasi secret police.

Putin's press service declined to comment on who had written the speech but said that Putin had been involved "because of his excellent knowledge of the German language."

A government official who was present as Putin gave his speech said that speaking in a foreign language in a foreign parliament had been a big risk.

"It worked, but it was the kind of thing that will work well only once," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Putin may speak English with U.S. President George Bush, but he is unlikely to speak English in public."

Heike Uhlig, head of the language department at the Goethe Institute in Moscow, said Putin had spoken an accent-free German.

"From the little of the speech that I heard, he had no accent at all, certainly not a Dresden or a Russian accent. He spoke very charming German," she said.

Uhlig said about 3.9 million Russians are learning German in school, and German-language courses are in heavy demand at the Goethe Institute, a German cultural center. She said there were no figures to show whether demand had increased since Putin became president.

"The speech was a great sensation," said Benedikt Brisch, deputy director of the German Academic Exchange Office in Moscow. "Of course, everyone knew that he spoke good German, but they had never heard him speak more than a couple of sentences before the speech to the Bundestag.

"The speech was not written by a native speaker and had not been corrected so that it would be perfect," Brisch said. "But this gave it authenticity.

"Putin probably did this on purpose so that people would really accept it as his speech. Ever since he took up office, people have been asking 'Who is Putin?' It was suggested that he was a puppet and had no ideas of his own. He shattered this image through his speech."

German political scientist Alexander Rahr, author of a German-language biography of Putin titled "The 'German' in the Kremlin," said Putin's speech had won people over. "I think Germans are starting to trust him," Rahr said in a telephone interview from Berlin. "I think that they think there is a man with whom they can build business structures and who has a sincere interest in bringing Russia into the West."

After the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, Rahr said Putin could have taken a much more nationalist line but instead decided to work with the West against terrorism. "Putin came here and said in a soft sort of language, 'Don't worry; whatever happens, we are with you.' He did it very cleverly, very intelligently and to the point. He won the hearts of ordinary Germans.

"He wants to reach people; he thinks he can do this. His problem was, as he saw it, that his speeches and his comments were always translated and had to undergo filtration from journalists," Rahr said.

Had the Berlin Wall not fallen, Putin might have gone to work in West Germany, which would have been a step up the KGB ladder and a bigger challenge than the communist East. "He was really prepared for that. He studied not only the German language but also the culture, people, politics, everything. He planted the German mentality in his head," Rahr said.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der said Thursday that Putin's three-day trip to Germany had been a "big personal success." "His significant, one can say historic, speech in the German Bundestag directly contributed in boosting relations, also in the eyes of the general public," Schr?der said.