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The Germans by the Black Sea Between the Bug and Dnjerst Rivers

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Philipps, John Johannes. The Germans by the Black Sea Between the Bug and Dniestr Rivers. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2000.


Drawing on his first hand experiences and knowledge, Landau native John Philipps begins with a once-over-lightly history of the area above the Black Sea in which the German colonists settled. He recounts this history from memory, mixing major historical movements with lesser details. He includes the full text of “The Memorandum of the Secretary of the Interior Ratified by Alexander I,” the February 20, 1804 document under which the Black Sea Germans entered Russia. It is interesting to see how this differs from Catherine the Great’s manifesto which set the guidelines for the first Germans who settled along the Volga. (Catherine’s manifesto does not appear in this book but will be known to many readers and is readily available elsewhere.)

About the first half of the book is made up of thumbnail histories of individual mother colonies. A difference from brief histories that one might find in other books is that Philipps brings the story of their development into the time of the Bolshevik revolution. He tells of the deterioration of the villages and what became of the village and/or villagers. Brief essays in the book bear titles such as “Expansion and Founding of Daughter Colonies,” “The Barges of Ulm (Ulmer Schachtel),” “The 100th anniversary of the Beresan colonists in Landau,” “The College for Girls, During the Soviet Period ‘Agrotechnikum,” “The Educational system,” “The St. Raphael Church Built in 1863,” “The Immigration of the Beresan Colonies,” and “The Development of Agriculture.”

On page 110, about the middle of the book, essays titled “Phases of the Deprivation of Rights,” and “World War I and Its Results,” move the reader into the era when things begin to deteriorate for the German colonists. A law passed on July 4, 1871, “revoked the privileges given upon settlement to the German colonies.” The administration of the villages was put under Russian provincial governors, keepers of records had to do their work in the Russian language, and Russian patriotism was given primacy. Many colonists voted with their feet. They migrated to farms in Siberia (where laws were more loosely enforced), Canada, the U.S., and South America. Philipps then guides the reader through the sequence of accelerating degradation and destruction--the Civil War of 1917-1921, the famine of 1921-1922, the New Economic Policy of 1021-1929, the collectivization of agriculture, 1928-1933, and the terrible famine of 1932-1933. Of this period he says, “There was no end to this brutality, mass arrests, and deportations.”

His accounts, though told in straightforward narrative, are powerful because Philipps, as a young man, became an agronomist at the Machine Tractor Station in Speyer. The MTS units provided
machines to collective farms in the area and served as political centers. He tells of one chilling incident when army officers stopped at the station. “One of the officers asked ironically, ‘Can you tell me the name of this place?’ The accountant, Rafael Bleile, gave the answer, ‘This is Speyer.’ The officer, ‘O, yes, Speyerburg.’ the accountant, ‘No, just Speyer.” The officer asked, ‘Why are you still here? Waiting for your friend Gitter (Hitler)? But don’t rejoice too soon; we will return again and settle with you fascists.’ And we asked ourselves, ‘What will become of us when the Germans really come into our villages and the Soviets come back again.’” He had the opportunity to find out.

Philipps suffered deeply in the years that followed his departure from Russia but before he was able to emigrate to the United States. His mother and son died on the train back into the Soviet
Union.

Philipps includes black and white photographs of major buildings and of a few homes. Many of the photographs were taken in recent years by visitors to the Ukraine; others, which show steeples missing from churches and ruined homes, reflect the earlier communist period. He adds
maps and the dorfplans which also appear in the books by Joseph S. Height (Paradise on the Steppe and Homesteaders on the Steppe). The book ends with the German occupation of the
Ukraine, the dissolution of the colonies, the trek to the Warthegau in Poland with the German army, and a brief mention of the enforced repatriation of many ethnic Germans from Russia after the war. Philipps reviews the scope of the Gulag, gives present-day population figures in the former Soviet Union, and closes with 36 pages of names of men executed during the time the communists consolidated their power, 1932-1938. The list, he says, is not nearly complete. Subject and name indexes are so useful for researchers. His work does not have the precision a scholar would bring to a history, but he was a keen observer who felt the era in his bones, and that has great value too.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
North Dakota State University Libraries
Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
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