The German minority in Russia experienced firsthand the repressive policies of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Their legacy is largely forgotten and suppressed in today’s Russia.
October 18, 2022 – Joshua Kroeker –
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Today, it is hard to imagine that the culture of German ethnic minorities flourished in much of the Tsarist Russian Empire and the early Soviet Union. From St. Petersburg and Moscow to the Black Sea in Ukraine, along the Volga in Russia, and in the mountains of Georgia, ethnic Germans have lived among the local population for centuries. Until the tumultuous years of World War I and the ensuing Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the German peoples were considered a respected minority within the borders of the empire.
The 20th century has witnessed countless human tragedies. One of them, the end of the German communities in Russia, is little known today. Besides the deaths of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans at the hands of Soviet expulsion policies, the German experience – that is, “being German” – was largely lost in the vast territories of the Siberian and Central Asian steppe. History, and in particular the politics of war, brought about this turning point in the trajectory of millions of now forgotten lives.
Immediately after the outbreak of World War I and the ensuing conflict between Imperial Germany and the Tsarist Russian Empire, a number of actions were taken to suppress ethnic Germans living in the western borderlands of the Russia. These would become only the first of a series of ethnic cleansings directed against the German peoples of the Russian Empire. In the first year of the war, hundreds of thousands of Germans were forcibly deported to the eastern parts of the empire, where they were forced to wait out the war, often in inhuman conditions . Many, of course, did not survive the journey or the harsh conditions in Siberia. It was only after 1917 that they were allowed to return home, broken, suspicious and no longer welcome as before.
In 1941, after the Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union, similar actions were taken. This time around, the stakes were much higher. Ethnic Germans were not only deported from the border regions, but from all western and central parts of the Soviet Union. In total, more than 1.2 million ethnic Germans were forcibly displaced in Siberia and Central Asia. Hundreds of thousands of people died on the way or because of the poor living conditions. This was justified by national security needs – Stalin considered that Soviet Germans could be spies, secretly plotting to help Hitler and Nazi Germany destroy the Soviet Union.
For the most part, these peoples were not allowed to return to their homes after the war. Many of them were forced to work for the Soviet regime and live the rest of their lives in foreign regions far from everything they knew and loved.
Soviet policy towards ethnic Germans was one of repression and cultural denial: Soviet Germans, relatives of the Nazi invaders, were to be re-educated and reformed as Soviet peoples, not as Germans.
Over the next three decades, the history and culture of ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union was actively cleansed. German children were no longer allowed to learn German at school, thus losing their language and being forced to use Russian on a daily basis. The practice of religion, once an essential part of German culture, was forbidden. Publications, radio and literature in the German language practically ceased to exist. Many Germans who grew up in the Soviet Union today remember that they can only recite one or two fairy tales from their childhood, and nothing more. Soviet policies effectively nullified German culture.
The anti-German policy was systemic. In the field of education, quotas prohibited Germans from accessing most courses, such as law, medicine or journalism. Among the few Germans authorized to study, they are sent to engineering or agricultural schools. Of the millions of Germans living in Siberia and Kazakhstan throughout the Soviet era, less than 5% completed higher education, about half the local average for the entire population. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, ethnic Germans were transformed into uniform Soviet citizens – homo sovieticus.
The era of perestroika under Gorbachev and the ensuing collapse of the Soviet Union saw a slight renaissance in German culture. Many of the previous rules have ceased to exist. Legally, Germans were free to be German again. This, however, remained practically impossible. Little of their culture remained and many who felt connected to the German nation emigrated in the late 1980s and 1990s. Between 1980 and 2000, more than two million ethnic Germans migrated from post -Soviet to the Federal Republic of Germany. There were only a few hundred thousand left.
Of the remaining ethnic Germans living in Russia and Kazakhstan today, few continue to carry traditional German practices, language, or identity with them. For those who do, they continue to face decades-old stereotypes and anti-German sentiment. Once an integral part of the brilliant ethnic tapestry that was the Tsarist Empire, town names were changed to Russian or Kazakh names, churches were torn down and German memories faded. Traveling through the vast regions of the post-Soviet space today, one hardly encounters reminders of German culture.
The Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 was undoubtedly a huge disaster for the Soviet Union and its peoples. Ethnic Germans who had lived peacefully and prosperously in the Tsarist Empire and then in the Soviet Union, those who had nothing to do with the invasion and almost always supported their fellow Soviets, became three victims. They were victims of war, Soviet anti-German policy and history.
In today’s post-Soviet space, the memory of ethnic Germans from the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union barely exists. Their experiences were lost to posterity. Wartime policy is rarely positive in the cultural realm. As the example of the German ethnic community in the Soviet Union shows, minorities often bear the brunt of the burden of war.
Joshua Kroeker is a historian and political scientist, graduated from the University of British Columbia in Canada, the University of Heidelberg in Germany and the State University of Saint Petersburg, Russia. He is currently undertaking his doctoral studies at the University of Heidelberg. He specializes in modern Russian and Ukrainian history and politics. @jrkroeker on Twitter
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minority rights, post-Soviet memory, Volga Germans