Germans from Russia Symposium
North Dakota State University
Fargo, North Dakota
James Kusler, Secretary of State
Bismarck, North Dakota
Thank you, Mike, for the warm introduction.
It's unusual for Germans from Russia to be involved in politics.
I grew up believing Norwegians and Swedes could do a better job.
The fact that the Office of Secretary of State has stayed in the
hands of a German from Russia for two successive administrations
is an anomaly in itself.
Today I'll talk about a recent journey
some North Dakotans made to the Soviet Union. It was a mission with
business purposes on behalf of North Dakota. One of the stops was
Volgograd on the Volga River, which was at one time the home of
a large Germanic community. Much to my surprise, it turned into
somewhat of a personal journey. My ancestors came from the Black
Sea region and my understanding of Germans from Russia was purely
an academic understanding from college history courses. At Volgograd
I began to gain a personal understanding of what it meant to be
a German from Russia. Today I'll share with you some of my experiences
Three important points need to be
made. First, we need to understand that for the Russians the suffering
from World War II isn't over. Second, we need to understand the
significance of sister city relationships. Third, we need to understand
the importance of having a convertible currency.
Let's consider the first point: Russian
suffering from World War II. Enough time has passed since the end
of World War II for Americans to look at the war in a historical
context. Yet, throughout Eastern Europe and especially Volgograd,
World War II is an issue. In Eastern Europe, within minutes, just
about any conversation would include references or discussions of
World War II.
Try to look at it from the Russian
perspective. The Soviet Union lost about twenty million people during
the war. In 1939 Volgograd, previously named Stalingrad, was a city
of approximately 450,000 people. On January 1, 1946, of those 450,000
people, 30,000 survived. Approximately 1.5 million to 2 million
Russian and German people died in the battle for Stalingrad. In
the city square of Stalingrad there were 34,000 dead. Everyone in
Volgograd by experience and history, be they Russian or Germans
living in Russia, is a veteran of the Battle for Stalingrad. The
entire city was destroyed during the battle. One shelled building,
owned at the time by a German miller, survives as a memorial to
the Battle for Stalingrad. When we read about glasnost and perestroika
and attempt to discern what it means for Germans from Russia, we
must do it in the context of their historical experience. Our perspectives
are different. Reunification of Germany is an issue. Their own fears
and history with German immigrants who settled in the Volga region
are issues. The knowledge, which we gleaned while we were there,
can be put to good use.
My second point emphasizes understanding
the importance of sister city relationships. From the Russian perspective,
sister city relationships are viewed as an avenue for international
communication and trade. The Russian view may differ from our view.
I believe most of us view sister city relationships as a people-to-people
program emphasizing cultural issues. Some of us may view it as a
super pen-pal program between cities. Their viewpoint is considerably
different. The sister city program has official standing with the
government. Therefore, it becomes a vehicle for the participants
to use the program as they see appropriate within the boundaries
their government permits. As a result, the Russians see the program
as more than a people-to-people exchange. It's a vehicle for exchanging
expertise, economic development ideas, and developing economic investment
and trade ties.
Talk of trade brings me to my third
point: understanding the hard currency issue. One theme ran throughout
our conversations with government and business leaders: We need
hard currency now! The big question was, "Why are American
companies holding back?" "Europeans are willing to invest,
but Americans are reluctant, they said. The main reason is because
the Russian ruble is not convertible to any other currency. Russian
rubles have no value beyond the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the
press for hard currency continues.
At this point I brought out a map
of the United States and drew an oval stretching from southern Canada
down to northern Mexico and back to Canada, encircling portions
of several Great Plains states. I pointed out that a significant
percentage of the people living within the oval were Germans from
Russia with ancestral roots in the Volga region and the Ukraine.
I pointed out they could attract hard currency by making church
records, death certificates, birth certificates, baptismal records,
and cemetery plots available to researchers and archivists researching
Germans from Russia. In my opinion this process could begin to attract
tourists and hard currency to the Soviet Union.
Those comments brought us back to
the first point: World War II. The very first comment, I emphasize
the very first, is as follows: A Russian, speaking in clear English,
said, "If we allow these Germans from Russia to come back to
the Volgograd region in search of their genealogical roots, in light
of our recent experiences in Lithuania, will we be sowing the seeds
of political insurrection here in the Volgograd region?" I
responded, "We're more interested in coming back to find our
ancestors, laying a wreath, saying a prayer and going home, than
starting a revolution. Nevertheless, I felt doubt and suspicion
In the end, the mayor of Volgograd
provided a proposal. He suggested assembling a delegation of people
whose ancestors were from the Volga region. He asked [that] we forward
the names to him in advance and he would attempt to make a connection
between the names of the proposed delegation members and any records
he could access. The mayor saw this as a possible demonstration
project, which could lead to tourism and trade. Ironically, our
search for our roots may be wrapped in their search for hard currency.
The idea of the possibility of using
official help to get at certain records may underscore the desperation
throughout the Soviet Union for some kind of change. Not all may
agree on what that change should be; however, the word "desperation"
is not an overstatement of their discontent and hunger for contact
with the West. Please keep in mind I do not stand before you as
an expert on Soviet affairs or internal matters. I'm simply attempting
to relate to you my experiences, as I understood them.
To successfully research our
historical past as Germans from Russia I believe we must be keenly
aware of the residual impact of World War II; understand the significance
of establishing sister city relationships and further understand
the door of opportunity; it opens for them and for us; and view
tourism and their need for hard currency as a persuasive tool for
official cooperation in searching for our past. I'd be happy to
respond to any questions.