An autonomous German state deep in Russia. The Volga Republic borders in 1941.

Home Sweet Volga: Catherine the Great Invited the Germans to Russia. Boris Yeltsin Intends to Keep Them There

Morais, Richard C. and Andreas Wildhagen. "Home Sweet Volga: Catherine the Great Invited the Germans to Russia. Boris Yeltsin Intends to Keep Them There." Forbes, 3 February 1992, 45.

On the Ulrich-von-Hassel Strasse Bonn, Germany's Interior Ministry is setting up a new department. It is called Volga Republic Development.

You probably have never heard of the Volga Republic. Neither had we until recently. It doesn't exist yet but soon will, on some 1,860 square miles of land straddling the poetic Russian river (see map) just north of Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad.

What's it got to do with Germany? Just this: The republic will be inhabited mostly by ethnic Germans and will get a heavy subsidy from Bonn. On Nov. 21 Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Little-known Item 12 committed Russia to "recreating a Republic of Germans in the traditional settlements of their ancestors." Kohl has earmarked $66 million a year for development of the Volga Republic, with an equal sum targeted at other German descendants in eastern Europe.

Stalin must be turning over in his grave. His remote successor President Boris Yeltsin wants to assure some 2 million descendants of German settlers spread across the former Soviet Union that their culture will be preserved and their autonomy will be recognized.

Why is Yeltsin catering to German sensibilities? Easy question. He needs German financial support.

Germany's motives are equally simple and direct. Germany has perhaps the most liberal immigration laws in Europe: Any immigrant who can claim even the slightest German blood has the right of citizenship and financial support. In the last two years alone, Germany has absorbed 619,000 immigrants of German descent from Eastern Europe. Wiedergeburt (Rebirth), a militant cabal of Soviet Germans, has threatened Kohl with immigrating en masse if its needs are not met. Kohl would as soon they stayed home.

Kohl hopes to pump enough money and incentives into the Volga Republic to keep these Soviet Germans in Russia. The German Volga Republic government will be autonomous. It will have its own German-language newspaper, TV and radio stations. Its building of a modern infrastructure and trade schools will be aided by Bonn, as will housing for the 300,000 Russian Germans expected to move to the Volga Republic from elsewhere in the old Soviet Union. Russian officials have informed the Bonn ministry they are prepared to launch a Soviet wide advertising campaign inviting German descendants to immigrate to the new Volga state. German companies--from grocery store chains to construction companies--will be invited to do the rest, with or without Bonn aid.

All this is something of a gamble for Yeltsin. While a Volga Republic is strong bait for German know-how and capital, it could also produce dangerous nationalistic unrest and envy all over Russia. Already there have been demonstrations in Moscow and Saratov, with fist-shaking at what some are calling "The Fourth Reich." Yeltsin has not yet signed the decree that will formally bring the republic into being. But that isn't stopping Bonn from roaring ahead with its development plans.

How did so many Germans end up deep in Russia? Blame Catherine the Great. Anxious to create a European buffer in southern Russia, and intent upon stimulating the economies of rural regions, Catherine formed the Chancery of Guardianship for Foreigners in 1763, promising religious tolerance and state land to immigrant farmers and artisans. By 1775 some 30,000 foreigners, mostly German, had settled along the Volga.

In 1924, under Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the Soviet Union established the autonomous Volga Republic. Joseph stalin crushed the state in 1941, as the Nazis attacked, dispersing the local Germans to the farthest and coldest reaches of the communist empire. Now many of the descendants of this diaspora are returning to their ancestral home along the Volga. "German [Russians] are striving toward this center on the Volga," says Parliamentary Secretary Horst Waffenschmidt, pointing at a reprint of a Third Reich map of the autonomous Volga state. "They are saying, `This is the land of our forefathers that Stalin stole.'"

German business people are smacking their lips at the prospect. They will soon have a handy base for entering the Russian market: Deep in the nation's heartland will be a German-trained and German-educated labor force, backed by German-built infrastructure. The ideal
launch pad.

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