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The People who Cried: Kartoffel, Kartoffel! II in St. Petersburg

Seebach, Helmut. "The People who Cried: "Kartoffel, Kartoffel! II in St. Petersburg." Die Rheinpfalz, 11 June 1994.

Translation of German to English by Alice Morgenstern, Munich, Germany


Each important Russian city had a colony of Germans. The biggest and most famous colony could be found in St. Petersburg. In 1881 there were 740,000 Russians, 65,000 Germans, 17,000 French and 8,000 of British origin registered.

The Germans had come first. They had been invited by Tsar Peter I the Great (1696-1725) to settle there. The St. Petersburg Germans were mostly scholars, particularly carpenters and shipbuilders who were needed for building the Russian fleet. There was also a number of bakers, brewers and butchers among them, the latter being famous for their sausages.

German colonies were also founded in the surroundings of St. Petersburg. The best known colonies were Peterhof, Oranienbaum and Kronstadt, and Neu-Saratowka and Friedental, near Zarskoje Sselo, followed later. All of them came into existence between 1765 and 1819.

Hardly anything is known about their history but colonists who arrived during the reign of Tsarina Catherine II (1762-1796), who by birth was Princess Sophie Auguste von Anhalt Zerbst, were supposed to have come from the Palatinate and from Wurttemberg. According to Karl Stumpp, the number of inhabitants of German colonies, with finally about 30 villages, was 2,869 in 1848 and 112,360 in 1926.

Dialect research 1929

Research in the field of dialects, the so called 'language islands' (communities with a specific dialect surrounded by villages where a completely different language was spoken) was a Leningrad specialty. Victor Schirmunski (1891-1971), professor of German linguistics and folklore, was teaching there.

Victor Schirmunski was the first to deal with the southern German-Palatine dialects spoken in the colonies around St. Petersburg. In 1926-27 he published "Deutsche Mundarten an der Newa” ("German dialects at the Newa"). It is the first scientific treatise that attempts to locate the original homes of the earliest Russian-German settlers by analyzing their dialects.

Professor Christmann, the 'nestor' (i.e. the oldest then living expert) of dialect research in the Palatinate, wrote in 1929 about the methods of Professor Schirmunski. He set to work with several assistants by comparing some of the settlers' dialects he had already taken down with German publications.

He went to Marburg, Germany (Marburg/Lahn), where the "Deutscher Sprachatlas" (the map of German dialects) was being edited and to the Palatinate, to continue his research work at the Kanzlei des Pfalzischen Wörterbuchs (the office for the Palatine dictionary), and thus could trace some of the regions and villages where settlers had come from.

Only recently these efforts have been taken up again officially in Russia, and again they are carried on in St. Petersburg. This time they are at the Institute of Linguistics at the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). The outstanding scholar there is Larissa Naiditsch, who identifies herself with her work.

She even travels at her own cost to Kasachstan to collect material. At the beginning of the German Russian War in 1941, the Russian Germans from the western parts of the Soviet Union were deported to Siberia, the Altai region and to Kasachstan. She interviews the descendants of the pioneers of the St. Petersburg colonies where she finds them and makes tape-recordings of their language, their stories, their songs etc.

Conditions for Larissa Naiditsch are far more difficult now than they were in the twenties. The sources will have dried up in a few years when the older generation who still speak their dialect will be dead.

Larissa Naiditsch travels to the settlements in Kasachstan searching for information. Together with the so-called "Wenkersätze" (Wenker sentences), standardized phrases to locate a dialect, she hears stories of suffering and injustice in the Stalin era.

Valuable documents of the continuity of customs and usage are provided by her notes on the culture of the colonists, such as house building, regional customs, food and beverages, and festivities such as weddings. The latter was celebrated with considerable pomp and in a south German style right into the thirties.

Her studies confirm Professor Schirmunski's results. The homes of the colonists must have been in the Kurpfalz (palatine Electorate). All the New Colonies were south German Rheno- Franconian (oberdeutsch-südrheinfränkisch). The dialect of Srednjaja Rogatka is very similar to the dialect spoken in the region between Mannheim and Speyer, Germany. Several daughter- colonies show corresponding characteristics like "gaul" (horse), "pepper" (pepper), "geschloofe" (slept). The dialects of Neu Saratowka and Wiesloch (Germany), Kolpino and the Waibstadt- Sinsheim region show striking similarities.

In Strelna, once one of the biggest German colonies, a Palatine dialect was spoken. Mixed dialects were also spoken because the settlers had emigrated from different parts of Germany, but even they were dominated by the type: Mitteldeutsch -badisch -pfälzisch (middle German - Baden -Palatinate).

There is one street in St. Petersburg that has preserved its German background. It can be found where Strelna used to be. Its name is "Nemezkaja kolonja." Several old houses, some in good shape, have survived. Tombstones, there are not many, bear frequently occurring family names like: Herleman, Eidemüller, Brenner, Kraubner, Stienmüller, Bitsch, Aman, Schäfer and Gehweiler. So far no information could be gained from the archives.

Therefore language analysis has remained the most important means of finding traces. According to these results, the first colonists in the government of St. Petersburg have most probably come from a region that was the "Rechtsrheinische Kurpflaz" (Palatine electorate, east of the Rhine river) and Baden Durlach as well as the smaller diozese of Speyer. The wanderings were caused by the French Wars (mostly Napoleonic wars).

Friedrich Meyer von Waldeck, a traveler to Russia, visited the colonies around St. Petersburg in 1884. He wrote that he had found a south German world there. He continued that the colonists were well known and well liked in St. Petersburg, when they arrived in the early morning selling potatoes from their one-horse carts and crying "Kartoffel, Kartoffel!" Their neat houses, adorned with flowers, used to be a lovely and cheap summer resort for those St. Petersburgers’ who could not afford a summer house of their own.

The article is based on a manuscript for a book of Dr. Larissa Naiditsch’s "Die deutschen Kolonien um St. Petersburg (Leningrad), Geschite, Sprache, Volkskunde" (The German Colonies around St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and their history, language and culture). Dr. Larissa Naiditsch is teaching in Jerusalem for the time being.

Our appreciation is extended to Alice Morgenstern for translation of this article.

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