Our Countrymen Under the Soviet Regime and in Soviet Exile
M. Von, A. "Our Countrymen Under the Soviet Regime and in Soviet Exile." Bulletin of the American Fraternal Insurance Society, 1957, 9-15.
Attempts at Russification, Deprivation of Rights
German Text [PDF]
The former Volga-German Musical Group in Chicago.
We are well aware that our forefathers, since times way back, were forced to fight a tough struggle for matters of economical, nationalist, cultural and spiritual significance. Despite their promises, the Tsarist governments, from the very beginning, pursued a goal of melting the German settlers into Russiandom. In a footnote concerning the German colonists in his history text for higher institutions of learning, the Russian historian Illovaiskiy admits as much, while at the same time explaining that this goal was never entirely attained, simply due to the stubborn resistance from the German farmers. As early as 1782, Catherine II willy-nilly broke [one of] her promise[s] by dissolving the “Saratower Vormundschaftskontor [Saratov Guardianship Office]”–the highest authority of Volga-Germans–and placing the Volga colonies under the administration of a newly created Russian Gouvernement. However, the simple fact that mismanagement by Russian officials soon brought about the impoverishment of the colonies, thereby seriously slowing the payment of settlers’ debts. This caused the reinstatement of the “Saratower Vormundschaftskontor” as a German authority and entirely independent of all Russian provincial administrations (1797).
Under the pressure of gradually strengthening Russian nationalism and chauvinism the Tsarist governments carried out their Russification policy, that in due course led to the cancellation of all rights (except religious freedom) granted earlier to the Germans and, in 1871, to the dissolution of the autonomous administrations of Black Sea Germans (the “Fürsorgekomitee in Südrussland” -[the original Service Committee in South Russia] and, in 1978, to the dissolution of autonomous administration by Volga-Germans (the “Saratower Vormundschaftskontor”) and, once again, to the incorporation of the German settlement regions into Russian administrative areas and, in 1874, the elimination of the exemption from military service. Formerly purely German schools, which had been established and kept up with funds of the colonists, were placed under the Russian Ministry for the People’s Enlightenment. Russian inspectors were given oversight of the German school, and they dictated the curriculum. But despite all these measures, the German farmers successfully maintained their position and their ethnic nature at least until 1914. With very few exceptions, in village and district administrations, German mayors and super mayors and village and regional scribes continued to exercise authority and control. And in the schools it was not the Russian inspectors, but the German teachers and pastors who ho played a major role. Even under newly created conditions, the German colonists knew how not only to maintain, but to continue to develop their German traits.
Persecution (1914 - 1917)
For the colonists, the outbreak of the First World War marked the onset of real persecution and suffering, which has not ended to this day. It was not the Russian people, with whom the Germans always lived in good harmony, but certain Russian circles that were inimical to Germans, who initiated an unrestrained wave of rabble-rousing actions against German-Russians, accusing them of espionage for Germany and branding them as soldiers of an invisible German army that had long ago and quietly conquered Russian border areas. Accusing the German colonists of being outposts of Germany’s obsession for conquest, they demanded the exile of the colonists, as traitors to the country, from their Western and Southern settlements of the Russian Empire to its Siberian regions. This campaign was not without success! The aim of the “Commission for the Struggle Against German Rape,” which had been established for just this purpose, was to liquidate all Germans, the “Enemies of the Russian Empire,” to demand a laws directed at the “Liquidation of German Land Ownership,” thereby to acquire their land without cost and to drive them out of house and home. In Volhynia, dispossession of German land holders was already in full swing. Of the more than 200,000 Volhynia-Germans, over 100,000 were stripped of their possessions and deported to Siberia, where several tens of thousands of them perished. All German press organs, including religious publications, were banned, and similarly banned was the German language itself, even for public religious services and official transactions. In 1915 there followed the removal of German teachers and the closure of German schools. The totality of intellectual and spiritual lives of the colonist was thereby brought to a standstill, and the German colonist were essentially sentenced to eradication.
The February Revolution of 1917
The revolution of February, 1917 did return some longed-for freedoms for the Germans, but only for a short time. Nevertheless, this brief period was marked by a new blossoming of life in the colonies. In a very short time, a diverse German press reemerged, led by daily newspapers that represented the interests of the colonists. German clubs and associations, as well as various cultural organizations, were reestablished; German schools were reopened; and the German language once again became the official language of administration. The Germans again demanded political rights, and the Volga-Germans asked for recognition of their nationalist entity, for a “Federation of Germans on the Volga.” Black Sea Germans established a Central Committee with 64 local groups and were poised to restore the colonies from the bottom up. During a session of the “Old-Russian Congress of German-Russians” in Odessa, Germans called for their political and cultural rights. Those who experienced those times must openly admit that, after four years of suppression, a new German feeling broke out once again, and indeed with such a fundamental force as to provide all the necessary preconditions for a re-blossoming of the colonies and of German spiritual life.
The October Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War
However, the Bolshevist October Revolution (1917) suffocated in its very onset the newly flowering life in the German settlement areas. With great ferocity, this revolution swept like a devastating hurricane over the German settlements. Especially the prosperous German colonies became a magical focus for attracting roving bandits. “Red, white, and green armies,” independent guerillas, anarchists and plainly thieving gangs flooded the settlements and succeeded each other in controlling them – but also leaving behind everywhere a swath of destruction and death. To protect themselves against these destructive and murderous waves, the Germans saw themselves forced to establish their protective units in various locales. This naturally led to confrontations as, for example, on April 10, 1918 in Warenburg on the Volga, when more than 100 leading Volga-Germans were killed; 300 in the Kutschurgan area (Black Sea region); and, on November 29/30, 1919, a total of 214 German men, women and children in the Sagradov area (also in the Black Sea region) were killed by the roving gangs of the robber captain Machno. In the latter area, some of the most beautiful German colonies were partially destroyed (Gnadenfeld, Reinfeld, Orlov, Tiege), and Münsterberg in its entirety. In Crimea, over a hundred Germans fell victim to the Machnovzies. These are only a few examples. Throughout the colonies there was death and destruction.
Famine (1920 - 1923)
The civil war that raged from 1917 to 1920 prevented nearly all free movement and organized work activities, wrecked agriculture in all of Russia, and thus led to a catastrophic famine that eventually claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Even the Soviet government openly admitted to this catastrophe and allowed foreign assistance organizations and the International Red Cross into its country to enable help for the starving population. The famine raged most extremely in the Volga-German villages. Mothers and fathers were forced to watch helplessly as their children were dying of hunger before their very eyes. In fact, entire families died of hunger. In his book [translated title:] “The German Farmers in Russia, Earlier and Now” (published in 1926 in Moscow), Communist author B. Bartels (pp. 67 - 69) estimated that the number of Volga-German deaths from the famine ranged between 50,000 and 70,000 and the number who evacuated and fled was 80,000. G. Löbsack, one of those who were most knowledgeable about the Germans in the Volga region, and an eyewitness to the famine, reported in his book “The Solitary Struggle of the Volga Land” that the number of deaths from the famine was as high as 166,000. According to official information, the number of Volga-Germans was from 455,532 in 1919 was reduced to 325,000 in 1923 – a difference of 130,532 folks. The number of Germans who died of hunger, were killed outright, or became refugees can not be established precisely, due simply to a dearth of documentation.
The Era of NEP
To counteract the general chaos and famine, Lenin made short shrift of militant Communism, and in 1922 he introduced the so-called “NEP” System, that is, his “New Economic Policy,” which once again allowed at least limited private ownership of property. Despite dispossession, persecution, and impoverishment in the German villages, the colonists, within the framework of opportunities provided by the NEP System, by1928 had recovered economically to some extent, and they had outperformed their Russian farmer counterparts. Even under this new limiting economic system, they proved to be the most diligent and the most productive farmers of Soviet Russia. Even the Soviet government and other Soviet authorities acknowledged fully and totally their performance in agriculture and heaped them with praise.
Soviet Nationalist Policies
Politically, culturally, intellectually and spiritually, the Germans still remained enslaved under the Soviet regime. In this regard, the Soviet government’s direction was in accord with Lenin’s words: “The struggle for any kind of nationalist development, and for ‘national culture’ per se, will be fundamentally denied, and unified! – Marxism and Nationalism, must be replaced by a single Internationalism, namely, via the melting together of all nations into one single higher unity ...” (Lenin’s works, volume 19, pp.52 - 53). Thus, via a revolutionary wearing down and international dissolution of peoples, Communism would see the true solution of the question of nationality. Even if the Volga-Germans were granted their own “Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic,” and the Black Sea Germans were allowed “autonomous nationalist regions,” (e.g., the “Spartakus-Grossliebtal, the Liebknecht-Landau, Kronau-Hecker, Molochna-Halbstadt” autonomous regions), though there was only one single administrative rayon in Soviet Volhynia–Pulino), in reality this merely meant that local administration was limited, and effective only in minor matters. De facto, these autonomous regions were merely sham constructs, while operative organs of Moscow’s central government and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR were imposing directives and orders that they had to be obeyed implicitly. By an order from the Central Government in Moscow, the Germans were also forced to dissolve their purely German organizations (German Societies, church-associated schools, credit cooperatives, and so on) and to establish purely Communist organizations (such as the Communist Party, the Komsomol [Communist Youth organization], Communist schools, the Association of the Godless, Communist press organs, etc.). The autonomy of German settlement regions existed merely in that they were formally nationalist, but international and Communist at their very core. Even through their mother tongue, the Germans were to be inculcated in the ideology of Communism and to be “reared into” formless and spiritless mass humans. Everything – including the German press, the schools, and all of public life – the Communists complemented with the subversive spirit of Marxist materialism, and they introduced the tough struggle against old customs and mores as well as against the Christian world view of the colonists.
The economic restoration of the farmers came to be seen by the Soviet government as a great peril to its position of strength and its rule by force. It therefore decided in favor of destroying the restrengthened farmers as a whole, that is, to implement the so-called process of “de-kulakization,” (“kulak” actually means “fist,” and the name was directed toward owners of large farms), most significantly affecting that stratum of farmers who would be liquidated by special means and methods. While trying to maintain a sham image to the outside of justice and proper rights, the Communist state imposed such extremely high and unbearable taxes that the so-called ‘kulaks” eventually were entirely unable to pay. And if someone attempted, as a loan, to pay the taxes of those farmers destined for liquidation, those taxes would be increased even more, usually to the extent that they exceeded the actual value of the farmer’s entire property. Consequently this was equated to a sufficient basis for arresting the “malicious non-tax-payer” and to exile him to perform forced labor in the Far North of European Russia or Siberia. The farmer’s property was subsequently auctioned off in its entirety, a process that for the most part fetched only minimal prices. For example, good working horses were sold for 3 to 10 rubles, cows for 5 to 20 rubles, chickens for 10 kopeks each, a mower for only 10 rubles, etc..Generally, buyers were the newly established collectives. In many cases, the properties of those “malicious non-tax-payers” were merely handed over to the collectives without any cost whatsoever. In this manner, hundreds of thousands were driven off house and home and dragged off to many different exile locations within the Soviet Union.
Mass Flight (1928)
All these measures hit German colonists particularly hard, because in economical terms they were classified as part of the strongest tier of farmers. In order to avoid the process of “de-kulakization,” many German farmers left house and home and all of their belongings and fled to Moscow, where they attempted to move to Germany. However, even with mediation by the German embassy, only about 8,000 of them succeeded in reaching Germany by way of Latvia. All other Germans who tried to escape in flight – numbering in the tens of thousands – were arrested along the way by Soviet authorities and, branded as “enemies of the State,” were exiled to Siberia.
Those colonists who remained behind – by far the majority – first had their properties confiscated by the Communists and subsequently were forced to join the collectives. For them this meant a complete loss of independence., for within the collective a farmer was forced to perform work only under constant supervision by state overseers, and he had to fulfill his daily work quota, which not rarely was so high that only very few were able to satisfy it. A particularly hard system that pressured people to work ever harder consisted of the so-called “Socialist competitions,” which were intended to increase workers’ performance and often demanded every last ounce of strength from them. The collectives’ lands were the property of the State, certainly not of the collectives’ farmers, who in that system were mere agricultural peons and were paid so poorly that their earnings – remitted in money and in kind – was hardly sufficient for food.
The process of collectivization was accompanied by the closure of all churches and the banishment of all clerics. Therewith, the colonists lost the last remaining support for their Christian world view and for their spiritual life. The Soviet government then transformed all church buildings into cultural centers or warehouses, movie theaters, communal meeting halls, dance locales, grain storage places, etc. By the end of the second Five-Year Plan, the colonies had nothing but collectives, in which the farmers plied as poorly paid agricultural hands – all of them without their own land an property, without any cultural institution of their own, without their German schools, churches, clerics, religious instruction, etc. On top of all of this, the Soviet government in 1938 introduced Russian as the only language of instruction in all subjects in all schools, thus forcing a Russification project with the sole aim of Russifying nationalist minorities within the entire USSR. Under these kinds of conditions, Germans, too, came into peril of becoming mere members of the masses and of being merged into everything Russian.
Famine (1933 - 1934) and Human Losses
The reckless implementation of the process of collectivizing agriculture, plus serious mismanagement within the collectives resulted in yet another famine, one that would demand many deaths during the years 1933/1934. Even if no one officially documented the totality of victims among the Germans, we have sufficiently authentic numbers that serve as a basis for an estimate. According to a census in 1926, the Volga-German Soviet Republic included 379,630 Germans, whereas the October 19, 1938 issue of the “German Central Newspaper” listed the number of Germans at 330,000, that is, a decrease of 49,630. Compared to the analogous number of Volga-Germans in the year 1914 (600,000), the total of 330,000 in 1938 showed a drastic decrease of 270,000 Germans.
At this juncture, no one is able to state the percentage of those who died of hunger, those who were killed outright, and those who died in the forced-labor camps, at least as compared to the above total losses in population.
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.