Germans are the largest ethnic group in Russia without a republic of their own As of 1990 there were around 2 million of them in the former Soviet Union and 842,000 in Russia. In absolute terms they are the 15th largest ethnic group in Russia. According to 1989 data, 41 percent of the Germans in Soviet territory were in Russia, 47 percent were in Kazakhstan and 5 percent were in Kyrgyzstan and 2 percent were in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the Ukraine. Nearly all of them lived in settlements where they were a majority. Many of those in Kazakhstan, Central Asia and Siberia lived there as a result of the Stalin deportations.

Most Germans speak German and Russian. The German dialects they speak tend to be determined by when and where their ancestors came from Germany and where they lived in Russia. Those that live in communities that were founded some time ago and have been relatively undisturbed speak dialects that are close to those spoken in the regions they originally came from. In some families in the 1990s the older generation spoke a High German dialect, the middle generations spoke Russian and some German and the younger generation spoke only Russian.

The Germans in the former Soviet Union are sometimes called the Volga Germans because many of them initially settled in the volga region when they first came Russia. Before the Russian Revolution about 65 percent of the Germans in Russia were Lutherans, 25 percent were Catholics and remainder were Mennonite, Baptist, Pentecostal, or Adventist. In 1989 there were 300 Lutheran communities with between 150,000 and 200,000 active members, roughly 20 to 23 Catholic communities, 50,000 to 80,000 German Baptists and 50,000 or so Mennonites, Estimating totals numbers was difficult because many did not live in the communities and were scattered in different places.

History of the Germans in Russia

The first Germans to arrive in Russia were traders who arrived more that 1,000 years ago. Under Grand Duke Ivan II (1462-1505) some doctors, architects and military officers were brought to the country. Beginning in the time of Peter the Great (1682-1725), Germans began settling in significant numbers along the Volga River.

In 1762, a year after Catherine the Great became empress, she invited German farmers and crafts people to Russia to help modernize her country, giving them land, religious freedom, exception from military service and tax exemptions. Many of them settled in the Ukraine and lower Volga region, where they retained many of their German customs and continued to speak German. The German-born Catherine regarded Germans as orderly and disciplined. Some 30,000 showed up in the first wave between 1764 and 1767 and they had a profound impact on improving Russia's agricultural output. More started coming after 1789 and they kept coming until 1863.

Most of the Germans that settled in Russia came from western German states such as Hesse, Rhineland, Pfalz and Alsatia. Some also came from Austria and the Netherlands. Among the reasons they chose to emigrate were high taxes, agrarian overpopulation, religious persecution and to escape from army duty in their homelands.

Most of the Volga Germans were Catholics or Mennonites who arrived in three waves between 1764 and 1862. Most of them settled in the Volga, hence their name. Another large group settled on the Black Sea coast. The Mennonites left because the wanted to pursue their religious lifestyle. Most left Prussia for Russia between 1789 and 1811 after escaping from the Netherlands. Many settled in Siberia,

German Communities in Russia

By 1900, there were almost a half million Germans living around the Volga, south and east of city of Saratov. Many lived in communities defined by religion or region in Germany. Because they owned land and sold their surpluses they were considerably better off than the Russian peasants that lived around them. They employed tens of thousands of Russians, Ukrainians and Georgians to do seasonal farm work for them. The also established factories that produced farm tools and equipment.

In World War I, anti-German sentiments ran high and 200,000 Germans were deported from Russia. There were plans to deport them all but those plans were scrapped after the Russian Revolution n 1917 promised civil right to everyone.

Germans were given their own republic—the German Autonomous Republic—in the Volga region in 1925 centered around the the "Volga Germans" that lived there. In the 1920s and 30s there were German provinces in other places. In the 1938 as relations between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union deteriorated the German provinces were abolished. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin dissolved the republic and dispersed the German population into Central Asia and Siberia.

Deportation of the Germans in the 1930s and 40s

In the 1930s a number of ethnic groups, including the Greeks, Tatars, Koreans and Volga Germans were suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Many were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.”

In 1941 after Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin regarded the Germans living in Russia and the Ukraine as a threat and had them all deported to Siberia, Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia. Fearing them as potential spies and traitors, Stalin ordered the deportation of nearly 900,000 Germans. They were rounded up and transported in cattle cars. Some died on the way there. Thousands died in labor camps and coal mines. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide, against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

The Germans were only able leave the places they were exiled to in 1955 and 1956, after Stalin died. In the meantime their homes and land were taken over by Russians. Without an autonomous region they were unable to organize politically and were unable to do much to improve there situation.

There were also hundreds of thousands of German prisoners of war that were stranded in the Soviet Union after World War II. German remained in the Soviet Union after the war but most returned to Germany in the decades that followed.

German Diaspora in the Soviet Union

The result of their unstable situation was diaspora of Germans. Many stayed where they were in Central Asia and Siberia because they had nowhere else to go. Others traveled around and went where the jobs were. Others stll tried to claim their old homes. The German population became dispersed and mobile. Many moved to cities. The number of Germans involved in agriculture declined while those involved in other lines of work rose. The diaspora also caused Germans to lose some of the cultural uniqueness—their language, arts, customs—and they become more Russified.

After the diaspora, the clustering of Germans into regional and religious groups broke down somewhat. The Germans had fewer options where the could live and tended to live with any other Germans they could find. They could not afford to be picky and live with Germans of the particular group they belonged to. Many Germans moved in among non-Germans. The trend toward in urbanization caused a decline in the birthrate and the size of families. It also resulted in more mixed marriages with non-Germans. By 1991 less than half of the German Russians claimed German as their first language.

Germans Invited Back to Germany

Because of the discrimination suffered by the Volga Germans, the postwar constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) granted ethnic Germans in Russia the right to citizenship if they moved to Germany. Only about 20,000 or 30,000 a year made the trip until the late 1980s. Germans from Russia who couldn’t speak any German got automatic citizenship while Turks from families who had lived in Germany for three generations couldn’t

After the collapse of communism, German in Russian were invited back to Germany to start new settlements there. In 1991, almost 150,000 Germans left the former Soviet Union and 700,000 applied to leave. In 1995 about 75,000 Russian Germans settled in Germany.

Germans in Germany debated whether or not ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union should be allowed to emigrate into Germany simply because they were of German ancestry. According to poll taken in 1995, 70 percent of all Germans in Germany believed the number of “Aussiedlers” (ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union) should be limited.

In 1992, Russia and Germany signed an agreement to restore the German republic in the Volga but a new Volga German republic was never created because so few Germans lived in the Volga region and the Russians and other groups that lived there opposed. Russia's German population began lobbying for reestablishment of the prewar Volga German Autonomous Republic in 1990. In 1991 President Yeltsin began discussions with the German government on creation of a German autonomous republic on the lower Volga near Volgograd. A protocol of cooperation signed in 1992 arranged for such a republic in exchange for significant financial aid from Germany. However, the proposed German enclave encountered strong local resistance from populations that would have been displaced by the Germans on the lower Volga; official discussion of the issue ended in 1993. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Germans in Kazakhstan and Central Asia

Germans in Central Asia were deported from their homes in the Volga region in World War II or came as settlers in the 19th century. A few are Mennonites. By the late 1970s there were ove 1 million Germans in Central Asia, with the vast majority of them in Kazakhstan, Many ethnic Germans in Central Asia fled after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For a while about 150,000 a year left.

Most of the Germans deported to Kazakhstan made the journey in cattle cars. One German woman told National Geographic, “We were on the way for about six weeks. When the train stopped we would try to cook, but all of sudden the command would come,’Immediately to the cars!’ My youngest child died of hunger. I didn't have breast milk, and we had nothing to feed a baby except dry bread...A lot of people died. When we stopped the soldiers gave us spades to bury them. But today we don’t know where the graves are.”

Many of the Germans sent to Kazakhstan were from the Volga region. Many of the survivors took over managerial and professional jobs. At the time of independence in 1991, there were about 1 million Germans living in Kazakhstan. Many ethnic Germans in Central Asia migrated from the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The exodus has robbed the region of able managers and professionals.

Germans in Kazakhstan Gulags

Reporting from Dolinka, Kazakhstan, Maria Golovnina of Reuters wrote: “Their only crime was to be German. An icy wind lashing against his face, Viktor Fast gazed at rows of crumbling barracks in the snows of central Kazakhstan where his parents — along with millions of other Russian Germans — endured years of cruelty in Soviet labor camps. "It was a bitter time," said Fast whose family members were accused of collaborating with the Nazis in the 1930s despite having lived in Russia for centuries as ordinary farmers. [Source: Maria Golovnina, Reuters, December 21, 2009 ^^^]

“Millions of people including ethnic Germans and Russian dissidents died between 1930 and 1960, unable to survive starvation and torture in a network of gulag camps scattered from Russia's Arctic tundra to the inhospitable Kazakh steppe. "It was not a good time to be German," said Fast, 58. Now a resident of Frankfurt, he often comes to this remote spot to pay respect to those who died here as part of Stalin's purges. ^^^

“Snow crunched under his feet as Fast toured Dolinka, a village at the center of the Kazakh gulag system. Only scraps of barbed wire and a scattering of crumbling barracks — many converted into houses — remind visitors of Dolinka's past. Decades on, Stalin's Great Terror campaign is recognized globally as one of the biggest crimes against humanity. Yet survivors and campaigners lament what they see as Russia's reluctance to face up to the horrors of its past. "People don't cherish their memories," said Fast, speaking Russian with a German accent. "Seventy years of Soviet policies have erased their memories." ^^^

Gulag Mass Graves in Kazakhstan

Maria Golovnina of Reuters wrote: “It is unclear exactly how many died in the Kazakh gulag camps, collectively known as Karlag. The overall gulag death toll also varies from 1.5 million to 20 million. Dolinka residents describe the surrounding steppe as one big mass grave.One field is dotted with crosses, a place where hundreds of children — "the offspring of the enemies of the people" — were buried. It is known as Mamochkino — or Mummy's — cemetery. [Source: Maria Golovnina, Reuters, December 21, 2009 ^^^]

“A chilly 1943 note by the NKVD Soviet security service, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, states: "The death rate among prisoners has increased sharply in Karlag ... Having spent a work shift in the frost many are unable to warm up in the cold barracks ... and die without receiving any medical help." ^^^

“The nearby city of Karagandy, many of its imposing Stalin-era buildings constructed by gulag prisoners, is dominated by a big statue of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. A tiny marble memorial to gulag victims stands in a local park.” ^^^

Legacy of Stalin’s Gulags in Kazakhstan

Maria Golovnina of Reuters wrote: “Many former camps are now part of Kazakhstan's jail system. Some, like a row of abandoned barracks in Dolinka, are used as a waste dump. Wrapped tightly against the biting cold of -30 C (-22 F), villagers turn away as they walk past briskly. A tiny village museum is packed with gulag items, its walls plastered with photos of prisoners' gaunt faces. A journal kept by one prisoner lies on display, showing a hastily written entry dating back to March 1953. "Today there was an announcement ... that Stalin died ... I can't believe this." [Source: Maria Golovnina, Reuters, December 21, 2009 ^^^]

“Karlag was closed after Stalin's death. Often unable to find anywhere to go, many survivors and their wardens settled down in the same villages, forming an uneasy fusion of tragedies that were never discussed in public. After the Soviet collapse some of them were worried that they would be tried for crimes against humanity," said Kuznetsova, the researcher. "But of course no one came." Russia denies accusations that it is whitewashing Stalin's totalitarian system. In October, President Dmitry Medvedev said the crimes of the past should not be forgiven. ^^^

“Survivors think otherwise. Mikhail Shmulyov was jailed for not killing himself when captured by German troops in the 1940s. The 90-year-old feels bitter about Russia's stance on history. "I was never a communist. But after this experience I became a true anti-Sovietchik (dissident)," he said in his wooden home in Almaty which he has elaborately decorated with Buddha statues, paintings and old black-and-white photographs. "Today we see pictures of Lenin and Stalin everywhere again. I find it shocking. Communism must never be forgiven." ^^^

Germans in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan had a sizable German population and there are still some living there. Many are Mennonites or are Germans who were shipped to Central Asia from the western Soviet Union during World War II when Stalin regarded them as potential traitors. Germans have a reputation for working hard and doing things well. Houses “built by Germans” or “formally occupied by Germans” can command higher prices than other houses, the idea being that they are better built than Russia- or Kyrgyz-built houses. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia “edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

In the Terskey Alatau mountains there is a three-hectare fir forest shaped like a swastika. Located about 10 kilometers north of the village of Eki-Naryn, which in turn is 50 kilometers east of Naryn, it was made by German POWs brought to the area in the final days of World War II to work in the logging industry. The POWs planted seedlings in a swastika shape on deforested land. For some reason Soviets never had it cut down.

There were 100,000 ethnic Germans in Kyrgyzstan in 1991. Today there are only about 10,000. Many of those who moved, moved to Germany, where they were given automatic citizenship, after Germany was unified. The German government provided them with a free ticket to Germany and gave them help finding a job. The German invitation has always been there. In the Soviet period Germans were not allowed to leave.

One German who stayed in Kyrgyzstan told the New York Times, “Naturally I’m tempted. My whole family has gone and my husband’s whole family have gone. They’re always writing us to tell us we should go too...What holds me back is that in Germany, we’ll be penned up in an apartment, maybe a big city. Here we live in a beautiful place with clean air. The children have the whole outdoors as a playground, plus animals to play with.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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