Germany Pays to Keep Ethnic Germans in Russia
Erlanger, Steven. "Germany Pays to Keep Ethnic Germans in Russia." Special to The New York Times International, 9 May 1993.
Bezymyannoye, Russia--Katherina A. Zarya
is one of several thousand ethnic Germans who have returned from
Central Asian exile to the land their forebears settled more than
200 years ago near the Volga River in central Russia.
Though fluent in Russian, Mrs. Zarya can still speak Schwäbisch,
a southern German dialect learned from her parents and preserved
in her heart like ancestral linen. And she intends to remake her
life here, where her parents were born.
Under an agreement signed last July with Russia, the German Government
is financing a magnet settlement here to discourage ethnic Germans
from leaving the former Soviet Union. But many thousands of ethnic
Germans, including most of Mrs. Zarya's relatives, prefer to exercise
their legal right to emigrate to Germany.
Recruited By Catherine
The Volga Germans first came to Russia at the invitation of Catherine
the Great, herself a German, who recruited them to teach Russians
advanced methods of farming and other work in the late l8th century.
But when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin disbanded
the autonomous Volga German Republic and deported its citizens as
potential fifth columnists, scattering them over Siberia and Central
A thin woman with mousy hair and many gold teeth, Mrs. Zarya is
38 but appears 15 years older.
"My parents left with small bags," she said. "All
their lives they dreamed of coming back. Grandmother was 90 when
she died in Kazakhstan, dreaming of this place, and my parents died
there, too, dreaming."
Her parents spoke nothing but German, and she grew up in a little
southern Kazakh village named Gagarin, where local children chased
her down the street shouting, "Fascist! Fascist!" Even
as an adult, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, she was spat upon
and called names by Kazakh children.
"The Kazakhs more and more considered themselves the masters
there," she said. So with her husband, a Ukrainian, she moved
to this military owned collective farm, Military Sovkhoz No. 23,
30 miles southeast of Saratov, past the town of Engels and the tiny
village of Bezymyannoye, or Nameless, and then down a cratered country
The German Government is trying to draw ethnic Germans here by
building houses, a bakery and sausage factory, a school and clinic,
and offering a course in rural construction. The idea is to counter
the allure of emigration to Germany, a nation overwhelmed by asylum
seekers and the costs of reunification.
But of the 700 or so ethnic Germans who dominate this farm of 1,000
people, 80 percent have already filled out their applications to
emigrate, if only as a safety hatch in a region that resents the
special benefits ethnic Germans are getting.
A Treeless Plain Deep in Mud
The reality here is an almost treeless plain that becomes boot-swallowing
mud in the spring and fall and bakes under 100-degree temperatures
in the summer. The sovkhoz of 47,000 acres is called Burny, or Stormy,
appropriately for the ethnic Germans, whose lives have been as storm-tossed
as any in the former Soviet Union.
Asked if the place matched her parents' descriptions, Mrs. Zarya
laughed, a bit bitterly. "It wasn't such a `bardak' when my
parents lived here," she said, using slang for a complete mess.
"When we came we were surprised there were no trees. And they
said, `why plant trees? We'd rather have a bottle of vodka.'"
Germans work better than Russians, she said, echoing a common theme
even among Russians themselves. It is the reason Germans were invited
to Russia in the first place. Mostly Mennonites and Roman Catholics,
they lived in largely self-contained communities; in 1924, the Bolsheviks
established the autonomous Volga German Republic over some ll,000
The agreement signed in July 1992 by President Boris N. Yeltsin
of Russia and the Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, aims to recreate
the republic with German aid. But there has been considerable resistance
here, where the homes and lands of the deported Germans were taken
over by Russians when Stalin dissolved the republic in the 1940's.
Now, on the old territory of the Volga Republic, there are only
about 30,000 Germans and 3 million Russians.
"The tension comes partly from memories of the war, partly
exaggerated fear and partly the anti-Western turn in opinion,"
said Sergei Y. Grishin, editor of Saratovskiye Vesti, a local newspaper.
"There are lot of old slogans, like, `Better a dry crust of
Russian bread than a juicy piece of German meat.'" Among conservative
politicians, he said, "there is strong opposition to autonomy,
and people's fears are easy to manipulate."
Nikolai S. Makarevich, chairman of the provincial council, said
that more than 80 percent of the people in the region opposed autonomy.
"It puts the Russian-Germans in a delicate position,"
he said. "But the law is too rough an instrument to solve these
ethnic questions. A lot has changed in the last 50 years, and there
was also the war, and we can't ignore it. It's better just to learn
to live together."
Up to 5 Million Eligible to Emigrate
Officially, there are two million people designated "German"
on their passports throughout the former Soviet Union, nearly half
of them in Kazakhstan. But given intermarriage and previous discrimination,
when it was better to be Russian than German, as many as 5 million
may qualify to emigrate, says Heinrich Groth, director of Wiedergeburt,
or Rebirth, which represents the ethnic Germans.
The German Constitution recognizes nationality by blood and birth,
and in Germany like Israel, there is a "law of return."
Under the War-Related Compensation Act, 225,000 Germans from Eastern
Europe and the Soviet Union may come to Germany each year, Horst
Waffenschmidt, State Secretary of the German Interior Ministry,
said in a telephone interview.
In 1992, nearly 196,000 emigrated to Germany from the former Soviet
Union; about 147,000 came in both 1990 and 1991.
But 557,000 had applied to emigrate in 1991 and 402,000 more in
1992, and Mr. Waffenschmidt said that about 650,000 applications
were pending. About 100,000 Germans have received permission to
immigrate but have not yet done so, he said, "and some never
That suits Bonn nicely. It is already trying to cope with absorbing
East Germany and with increased political resentment over immigration,
including well-publicized attacks on Turks and Vietnamese. Most
of the former Soviet Germans need sustained, expensive help to resettle
and find jobs while many East Germans themselves have none.
Germany's policy is clear, if optimistic. The interior Ministry
is providing increasing sums to try to better the lives of ethnic
Germans where they already live, to try to dissuade them from coming
to Germany, where they are not really wanted.
In the last three years, Germany has spent about $240 million in
predominantly German areas of the former Soviet Union and Eastern
Europe on housing, cultural centers, factories, bakeries and the
like. For 1993 alone, about $155 million has been set aside, subject
to parliamentary approval.
Most Want to go to Germany
But the vast majority of the ethnic Germans now scattered on the
territory of the former Soviet Union--up to 90 percent, according
to Mr. Groth--want to emigrate. A German diplomat in Kazakhstan
whose job is to try to keep them from leaving said: "They don't
have to create a better future here. They want to pack."
Last year, about 150,000 of Kazakhstan's Germans left, though some,
like Mrs. Zarya, came here or to other "magnet" areas
where Germany is concentrating aid, like Omsk and altai, in Siberia,
and southern Ukraine, where Germans also lived before the war.
"They're leaving fast," said Seytkazy B. Matayev, a spokesman
for Kazakhstan's President, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev. "We're
very sorry to lose them; they taught many Kazakhs how to work."
Mr. Groth says magnet communities will fail. "I don't see
these projects nearly as positively as the German Government would
claim," he said. "They can't really change the situation,
with their orderly construction of some schools, factories and housing.
This can only weaken for a brief moment people's desire to go to
Even in Altai, he said, where there are some 18,000 Germans now,
3,200 left last year for Germany. "What kind of future can
it have?" he asked.
Erna Miller, 79, her face deeply furrowed around a sunken mouth,
sat in her daughter's living room in Burny reading from a German
Bible brought from Kazakhstan two years ago. She came with her ailing
husband, who wanted to be buried near his birthplace; he died six
They were deported to Kazakhstan in 1941 and lived with another
family in a barn with geese and pigs. Evicted, they moved to the
mountains, where her 7-year-old son starved to death. "It could
be a whole book," she says now. "But I'm forgetting it
When they returned here, they hoped for the re-establishment of
the Volga Republic; now, she hopes to go to Germany. "I'm going
to die soon," she said, "and I'd rather it be on German
Exacting Customers For New Homes
At Burny, on the relentless plain, local workmen under contract
to a German company, Inkoplan, are building houses for the new residents
from Central Asia. with pitched roofs, stucco walls and a garage,
the two-family houses are an intentional contrast to the decrepit
Soviet apartment blocks built 10 years ago when the collective farm
Russian workmen say the Germans are exacting customers, rejecting
poor materials. "Before, we'd just use it," a carpenter
said. "But with bent lumber, you can't build straight."
A half-dozen houses are finished; there is money for 58 more. A
new bakery is turning out 1,000 loaves a day for about 4 cents a
loaf; a new sausage factory uses sovkhoz meat. There are plans for
a new school, cultural center and health clinic.
As important, Heinz-Jörg Wobst, a Russian-speaking engineer
and former East German Army officer from Saxony, has been here since
October with a team of 12 to organize a two-year course in rural
construction. The program began on March 1 with 23 students, 13
of them ethnic German. Twenty-five more will start in September,
including five young women.
If No Magnet, `They'll All Leave'
Though the classes are approved by the military, Mr. Wobst operates
independently. The whole settlement is so controversial that the
sovkhoz director has been ordered by the military not to speak to
the press. "We have to build a magnet for Germans," Mr.
Wobst said. "Otherwise they'll all leave."
Why won't they take their new skills and go to Germany? "Some
will think that way," Mr. Wobst said. "But he students
are enthusiastic, and if they feel they're building something that
will last, it's not futile, and it benefits everyone."
Graduates will get Russian diplomas with a German seal, and not
the German diplomas that might enable them to get construction work
When he proposed the project to the Interior Ministry, Mr. Wobst
and his team were without work in a unified Germany. He tells the
ethnic Germans that life is not perfect there. "They hang on
every word," he said. "I say East Germans are second-class
citizens and Russian Germans would be third-class. They listen,
but don't believe it."
Mrs. Zarya now works for the Germans as their cook and housekeeper.
As she makes a stew in the kitchen, a German song is playing on
a cassette: "You're going to come home, I know you will. I
know it in my heart." Her sister and niece are waiting to leave
for Germany; another sister and her brother have applied to go.
She sighs. "My niece dreams of it, but my daughter wants to
stay, and my husband," she said. "someone has to live
and work here, too. Nothing comes without work."
Asked if his project will succeed in keeping Germans down on the
farm, Mr. Wobst turned out of the wind and said, "It has to."
The German Government is trying to draw ethnic Germans to the village
of Bezymyannoye, Russia, by building houses, a bakery and sausage
factory, a school and clinic. The idea is to counter the allure
of emigration to Germany. Vladimir P. Ogarinkov worked on the new
When Erna Miller returned to Russia from exile, she hoped for the
re-establisment of the Volga Republic. Now she hopes to go to Germany.
"My parents left with small bags," said Katerina Zarya,
who returned to Russia from exile in Asia. "All their lives
they dreamed of coming back. Grandmother was 90 when she died in
Kazakhstan, dreaming of this place, and my parents died there, too,
Some ethnic Germans are returning to the former Volga Republic.
Reprinted with permission of the Special to the New York Times International.