The Fate of Women of German Origin in Russia

Obhoz, Albert. Volk auf dem Weg, July, 2017, 36-37.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO, with editorial assistance from Dr. Nancy Herzog.

The fate of numerous women of German origin was in one manner or other tied up with Russia. They were represented everywhere—on the Tsarist throne and among the nobility, artists, scientists, writers, doctors, teachers, revolutionaries and exiles, especially so in the German colonies on the Volga, on the Black Sea, in the Caucasus, and even in Siberia. Tens of thousands of ethnic German women spent their younger years in prisons and in work camps, in which many had to pay with their lives at an early age.

Left to right: Sofia Tolstaya nee Behrs (1844-1919), writer and wife of the author Leo Tolstoi - Eveline von Madell nee Fran (1890-1961), silhouette artist - Volga German farmer woman.

The significance and influence of German-origin women depended on their social status, title, material situation, and closeness to the Tsarist court. Women of nobility (countesses and baronesses), in the cities, and on the farms differed from each other not only by their appearance, but also by their education and manners.

The German diaspora in Russia was the largest numerically and was made up of urban Germans and German colonists. In St. Petersburg and Moscow, as well as in other large Russian cities, there were sizable German communities in earlier times. All of these were known especially as people who clung to their denominational faiths and to their traditional ways. Many came to Russia for a military career or to attain more in their chosen careers as business people, doctors, pharmacists, teachers, musicians, architects, artists, etc. Unlike those in German colonies, urban Germans lost their national identity fairly quickly. They married Russians and Poles in their first or second generations, and not rarely did they convert to the Orthodox faith. Yet, more or less often their descendants might marry Germans.

Numerous German girls were elevated to the status of “young ladies of honor” and entered the retinue of the Tsarist court and of major noble ladies. Between 1727 and 1917, 1,662 such young ladies of honor, 368 of those (22.1 percent) being girls of German and [ethnically] mixed families served in the Tsars’ courts. These were deemed to be the best potential brides whom sons of noble families wished to have as their spouse. According to documents available to me, 140 young ladies with German surnames (of the above-mentioned 368) married men of Russian or Polish roots.

Left to right: Countess Helene Charlotte Louise von Phalen, nee Toll (1833 - 1910), who served as a lady of the state; Maria Baehr (1844 - 1928), a painter; Olga von Knipper-Chekhov (1868 - 1959), actress and spouse of the writer Anton Chekhov; Vera von Phalen (1835 - 1923), landed estate owner; welfare activist.

More than thirty-five female citizens of German origin married famous Russian writers, painters, composers, actors, or doctors. Among these men were the writers Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, and Fyodor Tyuchev; painters Alexei Savrasov and Vasiliy Vereshchagin; musicians Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Scriabin; singer Fyodor Chaliapin; actors Ivan Moskvin and Nikolai Cherkassov; dramatist and theatrical director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko; doctors Nikolai Pirogov and Nokolai Sklifocovsky; and many others.

In all practicality, the lives of urban Germans and German colonists never intersected. The colonists were almost exclusively farmers and entirely active in agriculture.

Until the end of the 19th Century, the role of women in colonist families was determined by a patriarchal structure. Primarily, their duty was to be spouse, mother and housewife. At the time, only rarely were colonist women able to acquire a minimal level of education and to assume an occupation as teacher, migrating nurse, or even as midwife. They were to marry only men of their own faith, and especially not of another nationality. Until 1941, German colonies formed the significant islands of Germanness in Russia.

With the Bolsheviks coming to power in 1917, the fate of women of German roots changed drastically. Some fled to the West, where they remained the rest of their lives. But many German women became victims of political repression, being forced to spend a miserable existence in forced-labor camps, where some simply died.

Particularly tragic was the fate of German women following the 1941 mass deportation of the German population [especially from the Volga region – Tr.] to regions beyond the Urals, and the subsequent induction of ethnic Germans into work camps. The suffering of German women and children during and after the war years very likely constitutes the direst chapter of the traumatic history of German Russians.

Germans were the only deported ethnic group in the Soviet Union whose women were massively inducted into work brigades and forced to perform hard labor in armament factories. Between 1942 and 1943, untold numbers of German mothers were separated from their children, and thousands of children were left without parents. No one has counted how many children whose mothers were slaving in armament factories and in the forests of the Far North froze to death on Siberian roads in search of food.

By December, 1955, when the Kommadantur [tight military control] affecting the ethnic Germans [in the various “special settlements”] was lifted, many German girls and women moved from their places of exile to the cities in order to find opportunities for advanced studies and even new occupations. Not infrequently, this resulted in the loss of generational connectedness and of the German language. Similarly, marriages to acquaintances of differing nationalities often accelerated assimilation, which the Soviet state was eager to support, anyway. Viewed through the same lens, German women from the original colonist regions experienced a historical process quite similar to that of the urban Germans; albeit a few decades later.

Faced with a seemingly endless number of ethnic German women, whose names are unfortunately scattered across many different sources, I have in fact been able to gather data regarding 300 women from all classes of society, and to describe their fates. This material will be collected in a book that is to be published soon.

Anyone interested in this project and wishing to contribute information for it should contact me via the following e-mail address:

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation and to Dr. Nancy Herzog for editing this article.

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