Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by German-Russians
in the Soviet State (Part 1)
Verweigerung, Protest und Widerstand der Russlanddeutschen
Krieger, Dr. Viktor. "Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by German-Russians in the Soviet State." Volk auf dem Weg, February 2007, 14.
NOTE: This is Part 1: Farmer uprisings during the years
of militant Communism, 1918-1921
Translation from the original German-langauge text
to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
From the beginning of immigration to Russia, the German colonists
proved themselves as peace-loving and submissive to authority. So
it is not surprising that the Volga-German Duma deputy Jakob Dietz
characterized his countrymen as follows: "The colonists obey
their elders and authorities ... Any instructions by authorities,
even if seemingly unlawful, is heeded by the colonists without objection."
|"Under the Ice,"
a painting by the noted Volga-German artist Jakob Weber. Tradition
has it that during the winter of 1921 he was taken into custody
by rebellious men under the leadership of Pyatakov, but was
soon set free thanks only to the intervention of his students
and village residents.
However, only a few years after the above sentences were written,
numerous and bloody uprisings as well as armed disputes would severely
shake the formerly so ideal-seeming colonists. What were the extraordinary
circumstances that caused such a radical change and eventually cost
thousands of people their lives?
It was not the new state leadership that heated the emotions of
the German farmers, rather it was what they considered to be unjust
demands and flagrant disregard for traditional notions of values
and justice. A violent protest erupted primarily as a result of
the Bolsheviks' reckless demands for deliveries of foodstuffs, while
the farmers received no recompense for the agricultural products
extracted from them, which in their eyes was equivalent to state-organized
Moreover, the militant atheism of the Bolsheviks, the transfer
of power within the villages into the hands of land-poor or land-less
colonists, plus the dispossession and redistribution of land stirred
up strong dissatisfaction.
Still, the new people in power did receive support that was not
to be underestimated, but it was from a considerable portion of
Russian and Ukrainian farmers: a "wild" redistribution
of estate acreage had effectively been legitimized, and in the course
of agrarian reform, the village poor were compensated at the expense
of landowning larger farmers. In this respect, their view of
what was just was considerably different from that of the Germans:
on the other hand, the appropriateness of private ownership was
fundamentally beyond question even for the landless colonists.
The great war that lasted four years, and the subsequent bloody
civil war with its human and material victims, also contributed
to the moral brutalization and a heightened readiness toward violence.
Unrest and Rebellion in the Volga Region
At the time of the civil war, the settlement area of the Volga-Germans
was right in the midst of the area where the Bolsheviks held sway.
Under threat of violence, the farmers were forced to deliver large
amounts of foodstuffs to central authorities as well as to provide
recruits, horses and feed to the Red Army.
There were many occurrences of arbitrary acts and incursions. As
early as July and August of 1918, there were armed revolts in Balzer
and in the Kamenka district. In reaction to an act of particular
brutality by two procurement commanders and the continuing forced
mobilization, the unrest in Warenburg in 1919 quickly took on the
characteristics of a popular uprising. The angered settlers murdered
several Red Guard members. It took a whole week for the uprising
to be quelled; but in the subsequent wave of retribution, 32 active
participants were shot, and the prosperous portion of the village
was assessed a fine of 780,000 rubles.
Reckless exploitation became the main reason for the fact that
the Workers Commune (the autonomous region) of Volga-Germans [later
to be upgraded to an Autonomous SSR - Tr.] was hit the hardest during
the famine of 1921-1922. A contemporary witness expressed himself
about it as follows:
There were moments, redeeming moments, when the bread of the (German)
Commune in Petrograd and Moscow would arrive on time, when it had
appeared that the local authorities had lost hope of receiving the
daily rations of an eighth of a pound of bread.
During the years 1919/1920, the area was required to deliver 14.5
millions pud of grain [1 pud = ca. 36 lbs. - Tr.], but if one considers
that the colonist territory was not more than an eighth of the territory
of the Gouvernement of Saratov, and a tenth of that of the Gouvernement
of Samara, and that the Gouvernement of Saratov was obliged to deliver
only 36 million pud that same year, one does tend to realize ...
the obvious discrepancy of these obligations.
At the time there seemed to be an assumption that in the smaller
Commune there was 'a lot, and plenty of everything,' which may explain
the mistaken approach in the demand for grain deliveries and the
wrong approach to the local population."
The armed protest actions by the German farmers reached their peak
during the winter of 1920/1921. It was actually a desperate reaction,
and for nothing less than naked survival, because the procurement
commanders used hostage taking, sham shootings, and beatings to
extract the last remaining supplies for the state.
The actual impetus came from abroad. The so-called "Rebelling
Army" that had forcible entered the area under the leadership
of the former officer Pyatikov conquered Seelman on March 17, 1921.
Its uprising quickly spread across the entire German region. State-owned
grain stores were broken into and the previously requisitioned grain
distributed among the farmers. Animals were slaughtered or driven
out of the villages.
A siege of the district centers Balzer and Marxstadt followed a
few days later, but they were not actually taken. The entire uprising
was marked by extreme brutality; nearly all apprehended Communists
and Komsomol members [Communist youth - Tr.], Red Guard members,
and members of the requisition commandos in the German settlements
were murdered, some were dunked under the ice while still alive,
and many Soviet activists were severely mistreated.
Not until April 16 was the area once again brought under complete
control of the Bolsheviks. Punishment wrought by them was no less
severe: hundreds of participants or sympathizers, not seldom even
the totally uninvolved, lost their lives during the reconquest or
were at a later time sentenced by hurriedly called tribunals and
Regarding events in Mariental, one of the centers of the Volga-German
unrest, we have detailed statements by the eyewitness Peter Hunger:
Because of the senseless confiscations and the arbitrariness of
the local Revolutionary Committee (Revkom), tensions in the village
had risen to a high level in 1921. After Seelman had fallen, a local
"Fiver Committee" formed as part of an underground action,
which on March 23 rested power in Mariental, arrested the eleven
members of the Revkom and killed them the following day. Most of
the residents acted passively during the entire happening; many
disapproved of the killing of those people.
On April 2, a group consisting of 75 villagers was assembled and
sent to face the approaching penal unit of the regular army. Five
kilometers away, a cavalry unit of the Red Army smashed the badly
armed locals. The following day, by order of the village committee,
all male residents were to take up designated positions in order
to "fall upon the entering penal unit with loud noise and using
forks and lances." The action ended in a bloodbath: more than
220 Marientalers lost their lives, and another 66 were condemned
to death after a brief interrogation by a military tribunal.
Smaller, scattered groups of rebels emerged in the region until
1922. Larger, collective forms of farmer protests did not occur;
and the terrible famine transformed most of the colonists into a
state of apathy or forced them to leave their homes.
Left with the lingering impression of the threat of forceful protests
by the famers in the entire country, the Soviet party and state
leadership on March 24, 1921 decided to retreat from the policy
of militant Communism and to introduce a national tax levy, with
which it associated the right to sell any surplus on the open market.
This marked the onset of the New Economic Policy, which ushered
in a period of recovery for the country.
To be continued ...
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation
of this article.