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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Eavesdropper Soldiers On With Russian Law

MTLenga studied in Poland and traveled widely in Eastern Europe for six years before, at the age of 35, deciding to switch to law.
Of the various reasons for a person to take up studying Russian, perhaps one of the most unique is serving in a West German military unit charged with monitoring radio transmissions between the East German and Soviet armies.

Just as in NATO, where the lingua franca is English, "it was the same way with the Volksarmee of East Germany: They were, of course, speaking Russian," said Gerd Lenga, who served in just such a unit in the 1960s. "And we were listening."

Lenga, a senior partner in the law firm Haarmann, Hemmelrath & Partner, has lived and worked in Russia since 1992, when he was hired by Punder, Volhard, Weber and Axster to establish its Moscow office. He had been traveling between Moscow and his home in Stuttgart for five years before that, following the Soviet Union's adoption of a law allowing the creation of joint ventures.

"Of course, there were German firms that were interested in doing business in Russia, but they did not know who could advise them," Lenga said. "In Germany, we had about three or four colleagues who were able to read Russian laws. Fortunately I was one of them."

Lenga began studying Russian "by chance" in the army. Following his compulsory service, he entered university in the southwestern city of Tubingen, where he majored in Slavonic studies.

While in university, Lenga applied for permission to study in Poland. West Germany did not have diplomatic relations with any Eastern countries at that point, so he had to apply through the Polish military mission in East Berlin. Then he waited for an answer.

Two years later, the Polish mission granted him permission, giving him just 10 days to present himself in Warsaw. He liked it so much that he then stayed for six years, despite the challenging history that he had to confront as the first West German student there after World War II.

"I always thought that the Poles would look at me as a German, but they did not," he said. "A lot of people said, 'Let's forget about this, that was the war. Today we hope there will be another life.'"

Lenga married a Polish woman, and took advantage of the rare opportunity to travel around Eastern Europe -- including East Germany -- that living in Poland afforded. He said he was able to compare the reality of life there with the perceptions that growing up in the West had fostered.

"I think it's just a question of education and socialization that in any moment when I saw a policeman, I thought, 'what did I do wrong?'" he said, chuckling. "Today, of course, I laugh about this, but our education led us to think, 'If you are in this country, they will go after you and they will watch what you are doing.'"

In 1976, Lenga made the decision to move to Stuttgart with his wife and his daughter, where he began pursuing legal studies as he felt it was the fastest way to a new career in Germany.

"I was then, I think, 35. That means I was not one of the youngest," he said. "There was a material pressure. I had a wife and a child, so I had to learn quickly."

After qualifying, Lenga traveled from Stuttgart to Moscow for one or two weeks every month to work here. He eventually decided in 1992 that to work effectively, he would have to move to Moscow. His wife, who had already had to adjust in moving from Poland to West Germany, was not willing to move again.

They separated amicably, only divorcing last year in order to be able to remarry. Lenga's second wife is a German woman whom he met at Punder, Volhard, Weber and Axster, where she was working as a Russian and French translator.

"I think, if you are staying in a country for a long time and your wife does not have the chance to work it will cause problems," he said. "So I'm very happy that she had an interest in this country before we met."

Lenga acknowledged that being a German-qualified lawyer could sometimes be professionally awkward, especially following the passage of legislation in 2002 restricting the activities of foreign lawyers.

"In Germany I would never turn to a Russian lawyer to explain to me what I have to do. And therefore in principle, to ask a German lawyer in Russia about Russian law is not normal," he said.

However, Lenga said there was a small difference, even though it would obviously lessen over time: "A lot of the legal reforms that have been introduced in the last few years have come from the West, so Westerners have a higher level of understanding and an easier approach to applying the law here," he said.