Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by German-Russians in the Soviet State (Part 1)

Verweigerung, Protest und Widerstand der Russlanddeutschen im Sowietstaat

Krieger, Dr. Viktor. "Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by German-Russians in the Soviet State." Volk auf dem Weg, February 2007, 14.

NOTE: This is Part 1: Farmer uprisings during the years of militant Communism, 1918-1921

Translation from the original German-langauge text to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

"Under the Ice," a painting by the noted Volga-German artist Jakob Weber. Tradition has it that during the winter of 1921 he was taken into custody by rebellious men under the leadership of Pyatakov, but was soon set free thanks only to the intervention of his students and village residents.
From the beginning of immigration to Russia, the German colonists proved themselves as peace-loving and submissive to authority. So it is not surprising that the Volga-German Duma deputy Jakob Dietz characterized his countrymen as follows: "The colonists obey their elders and authorities ... Any instructions by authorities, even if seemingly unlawful, is heeded by the colonists without objection."

However, only a few years after the above sentences were written, numerous and bloody uprisings as well as armed disputes would severely shake the formerly so ideal-seeming colonists. What were the extraordinary circumstances that caused such a radical change and eventually cost thousands of people their lives?

It was not the new state leadership that heated the emotions of the German farmers, rather it was what they considered to be unjust demands and flagrant disregard for traditional notions of values and justice. A violent protest erupted primarily as a result of the Bolsheviks' reckless demands for deliveries of foodstuffs, while the farmers received no recompense for the agricultural products extracted from them, which in their eyes was equivalent to state-organized robbery.

Moreover, the militant atheism of the Bolsheviks, the transfer of power within the villages into the hands of land-poor or land-less colonists, plus the dispossession and redistribution of land stirred up strong dissatisfaction.

Still, the new people in power did receive support that was not to be underestimated, but it was from a considerable portion of Russian and Ukrainian farmers: a "wild" redistribution of estate acreage had effectively been legitimized, and in the course of agrarian reform, the village poor were compensated at the expense of landowning larger farmers. In this respect, their view of
what was just was considerably different from that of the Germans: on the other hand, the appropriateness of private ownership was fundamentally beyond question even for the landless colonists.

The great war that lasted four years, and the subsequent bloody civil war with its human and material victims, also contributed to the moral brutalization and a heightened readiness toward violence.

Unrest and Rebellion in the Volga Region

At the time of the civil war, the settlement area of the Volga-Germans was right in the midst of the area where the Bolsheviks held sway. Under threat of violence, the farmers were forced to deliver large amounts of foodstuffs to central authorities as well as to provide recruits, horses and feed to the Red Army.

There were many occurrences of arbitrary acts and incursions. As early as July and August of 1918, there were armed revolts in Balzer and in the Kamenka district. In reaction to an act of particular brutality by two procurement commanders and the continuing forced mobilization, the unrest in Warenburg in 1919 quickly took on the characteristics of a popular uprising. The angered settlers murdered several Red Guard members. It took a whole week for the uprising to be quelled; but in the subsequent wave of retribution, 32 active participants were shot, and the prosperous portion of the village was assessed a fine of 780,000 rubles.

Reckless exploitation became the main reason for the fact that the Workers Commune (the autonomous region) of Volga-Germans [later to be upgraded to an Autonomous SSR - Tr.] was hit the hardest during the famine of 1921-1922. A contemporary witness expressed himself about it as follows:

There were moments, redeeming moments, when the bread of the (German) Commune in Petrograd and Moscow would arrive on time, when it had appeared that the local authorities had lost hope of receiving the daily rations of an eighth of a pound of bread.

During the years 1919/1920, the area was required to deliver 14.5 millions pud of grain [1 pud = ca. 36 lbs. - Tr.], but if one considers that the colonist territory was not more than an eighth of the territory of the Gouvernement of Saratov, and a tenth of that of the Gouvernement of Samara, and that the Gouvernement of Saratov was obliged to deliver only 36 million pud that same year, one does tend to realize ... the obvious discrepancy of these obligations.

At the time there seemed to be an assumption that in the smaller Commune there was 'a lot, and plenty of everything,' which may explain the mistaken approach in the demand for grain deliveries and the wrong approach to the local population."

The armed protest actions by the German farmers reached their peak during the winter of 1920/1921. It was actually a desperate reaction, and for nothing less than naked survival, because the procurement commanders used hostage taking, sham shootings, and beatings to extract the last remaining supplies for the state.

The actual impetus came from abroad. The so-called "Rebelling Army" that had forcible entered the area under the leadership of the former officer Pyatikov conquered Seelman on March 17, 1921. Its uprising quickly spread across the entire German region. State-owned grain stores were broken into and the previously requisitioned grain distributed among the farmers. Animals were slaughtered or driven out of the villages.

A siege of the district centers Balzer and Marxstadt followed a few days later, but they were not actually taken. The entire uprising was marked by extreme brutality; nearly all apprehended Communists and Komsomol members [Communist youth - Tr.], Red Guard members, and members of the requisition commandos in the German settlements were murdered, some were dunked under the ice while still alive, and many Soviet activists were severely mistreated.

Not until April 16 was the area once again brought under complete control of the Bolsheviks. Punishment wrought by them was no less severe: hundreds of participants or sympathizers, not seldom even the totally uninvolved, lost their lives during the reconquest or were at a later time sentenced by hurriedly called tribunals and then shot.

Regarding events in Mariental, one of the centers of the Volga-German unrest, we have detailed statements by the eyewitness Peter Hunger:

Because of the senseless confiscations and the arbitrariness of the local Revolutionary Committee (Revkom), tensions in the village had risen to a high level in 1921. After Seelman had fallen, a local "Fiver Committee" formed as part of an underground action, which on March 23 rested power in Mariental, arrested the eleven members of the Revkom and killed them the following day. Most of the residents acted passively during the entire happening; many disapproved of the killing of those people.

On April 2, a group consisting of 75 villagers was assembled and sent to face the approaching penal unit of the regular army. Five kilometers away, a cavalry unit of the Red Army smashed the badly armed locals. The following day, by order of the village committee, all male residents were to take up designated positions in order to "fall upon the entering penal unit with loud noise and using forks and lances." The action ended in a bloodbath: more than 220 Marientalers lost their lives, and another 66 were condemned to death after a brief interrogation by a military tribunal.

Smaller, scattered groups of rebels emerged in the region until 1922. Larger, collective forms of farmer protests did not occur; and the terrible famine transformed most of the colonists into a state of apathy or forced them to leave their homes.

Left with the lingering impression of the threat of forceful protests by the famers in the entire country, the Soviet party and state leadership on March 24, 1921 decided to retreat from the policy of militant Communism and to introduce a national tax levy, with which it associated the right to sell any surplus on the open market. This marked the onset of the New Economic Policy, which ushered in a period of recovery for the country.

To be continued ...

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller