A Newspaper for you; Walking a Fine Line Between the Possible and the Impossible

"Zeitung Fuer Dich" - Gratwanderung Zwischen dem Moeglichen und dem Unmoeglichen

"A Newspaper for you; Walking a Fine Line Between the Possible and the Impossible." Volk auf dem Weg, February 2006, 11-12.

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

Fifty years ago, in December of 1955, the very first German-language newspaper of the postwar era, "Arbeit [Work]," was established in Barnaul in the Altai region. It constituted a silent hope after the "long period of silence" and official efforts of "silencing to death" the existence of the German ethnic group in the Soviet Union. But only a year and a half later, the paper was shut down because of allegedly propagating an "autonomist mood."

Fifty years later, in December of 2005, the German-language "Zeitung fuer Dich [Newspaper for You]" (successor to the paper "Arbeit" and to the paper "Rote Fahne [Red Banner]," founded in 1957; and appearing as of 1991 as a regional weekly) was closed down in Slavgorod in the Altai region. This marked the demise of the last of three German-language newspapers of the postwar era. Among other things, it demonstrates, in a rather eloquent manner, declared at the highest government levels, how "generous" the concern was about the continued existence of the German people (at least of German literature and culture) in Russia (as well as in all the other republics of the former Soviet Union); also how little this matters to the remaining German-Russian organizations.

No one is Interested in Retaining Germanness

The "Zeitung fuer Dich," after 48 years of ups and downs, was closed down at the behest of the regional administration (its erstwhile publisher). It became a victim not only of the Russian market economy; deeper reasons also seem to be at work, and they all combine to point up the sad state of a continual loss of identity of the German-Russian ethnic group in the former Soviet Union, largely due to the consistent lack of support from political circles.

One consequence of this dramatic development is the migration of the German population into its historical homeland. Those with sufficient command of the language have moved to the West, with potential readership still left, and one that still identifies itself with its Germanness remains silent. "One could argue at length about the reasons: how difficult it was for the editors to maintain the paper during the last years and to find new readership; that most Germans who have good command of the language have emigrated to Germany ... During the past week we in the editor's office have asked ourselves: is this paper still needed? ... According to a census there are still about 70,000 German-Russians living in the Altai region ... We are turning to all German-Russians, to all of our longtime, loyal friends, to those who still have a great interest in the German language. We must, after all, demonstrate that a German-language newspaper is still in demand, that German-Russians also love their mother tongue as much as other minorities in Russia. But given today's thoughtless attitude of Germans, particularly the younger generation, toward their mother tongue and culture, the fear is that the German minority in Altai will simply dissolve into the masses -- irrevocably, to be sure!" This was the message of the editors two months before shutting down the paper. It was a cry in the wilderness. Thus is the current picture of reality.

As of January, 2006, a monthly paper with the same name (with a circulation of 1000) is to be published as a 4-page (DIN-3-size) addendum to the regional newspaper "Atlaiskaya pravda." Even so, the 3-man editorial group is still negotiating and fighting even this reduced status, being confronted with laughable demands such as "everything has to be translated for the publisher because you might perhaps write about Hitler," etc.). This situation, in an allegedly "democratic" Russia, is not dissimilar to that of 50 years back. But whose concern is that?

The fact that the last German-language newspaper with a long, established tradition had to shut down demonstrates that cultural matters for Germans in Russia -- there are, after all, several tens of thousands of Germans living in the Altai region and in Siberia as a whole -- are not really of any concern to anyone. For the administration of the Altai region, as well as for the party and Soviet functionaries before, it had always been a thorn in their side, especially as Germans were leaving their long-established areas in streams. However, no organization of German-Russians in Russia (e.g., The Society for German Culture, National Cultural Autonomy, the German-Russian House in Barnaul), no organization or institution in Germany that stands for the preservation of German culture and who might have liked to use the newspaper as a political platform or forum, during the critical phases made any moves in support of the continued existence of the only remaining German-language newspaper in Siberia.

For Years, the Sword of Damocles Hangs over the Newspaper

The German-language paper "Arbeit" in Barnaul of 1955, as well as the "Rote Fahne" (1957) were given the official directive by the Party to propagate the "Soviet way of life." Hence its employees for decades were caught up in the difficult situation of producing a German-language newspaper for their countrymen, who were interested in only one question: "Why can't we be allowed to return to our old homes (in Ukraine and on the Volga)?" As the "Rote Fahne" began to be published in 1957, with its two pages and a circulation of 600, its first employees, Peter Mai and Karl Welz, could hardly look forward to longevity.

The other men of the first hour (Waldemar Spaar, Andreas Kramer, Friedrich Bolger, Peter Klassen, Waldemar Herdt, Edmund Guenther, Johann Schellenberg, and Alexander Beck), too, those who formed the paper with their poetic talent, not only came to it with thorough knowledge of the German language, but also with the experience of how to survive suppression and discrimination in the extreme. The very existence of a German editorial staff and the publication of a German-language paper, however, never meant mere conformance to the Socialist system. On the contrary, they developed a decisive and unique form of preservation and care of the German mother tongue and culture, as well as informing the readership of its past and present.

As of 1965 the "Rote Fahne" began to publish in large format, and during the 1960s reached its highest-ever circulation (over 6,000). Thereafter, despite all possible and impossible efforts of the editorial team, circulation began to wane steadily, until by 2005 it had gone down to nearly the situation of 1957 -- proof of how quickly the loss of the German mother tongue had progressed during the postwar years. This development, along with the emigration movement, which dragged along a whole stream of readers and employees, was one of the most important reasons for other newspapers to have shut down earlier. Thanks to the enthusiasm of its workers (Reinhold Leis, Amalia and Viktor Lindt, Rudolf Erhardt - chief editor during the 1975-1992 era - Emma Rische, Olga Bader, Nina Paulsen, Erna Berg, Johann Bairit, Josef Schleicher, Nina Zerr, Tamara Kondratyev, Natalia Breinert, Maria Alexenko, and others), who succeeded the older generation, and also thanks to the measures of support by the Federal Government of Germany (which were stopped about a year ago), the "Rote Fahne/Zeitung fuer Dich" was able to stave off its demise for some time.

All along, the sword of Damocles had been hanging over the newspaper from its very beginning. Pressure from party officials set up "iron barriers." Following the first years after the Kommandatur system had been lifted, the editorial team, with great care and effort, sought to draw a path to their readers, namely, to those who had gone through the hell of the Trud Army and the special settlements and still retained immense fear for decades. Overcoming all that demanded a great deal of courage of the editorial team. Always at the forefornt were allegations that the "Rote Fahne" was printing articles with nationalistic undertones, or that the editors were inspiring the Germans to want to return to the Volga. The literature section was constantly being criticized -- with its "Stories, Poems, and Comical Tales" -- for not being "appropriate for a party organ!" At a session of the city Communist party leaders, Johann Schellenberg, chief editor between 1960 and 1975, had to defend himself against accusations that the paper was "Germanizing our children." Party leaders plagued the editors with their annually written newspaper summaries containing silly allegations and critiques, with translations of short stories, comical stories, and even poems. By 1975, Schellenberg, who had finally fallen into disgrace, was forced to leave the paper.

Island of Germanness in Siberia

To be sure, the "Rote Fahne" originally was a party organ, with the task (shared by other regional newspapers) of propagating ideological matters among the Germans in the Altai. Yet the editorial team never accepted that as its main responsibility. Even during Soviet times, the paper took up topics that actually were of interest to its readers. Even during that time, Germans were beginning to become aware that the younger generation was barely capable of speaking its mother tongue, so during the 1960s and 1970s the editors worked toward having German taught in the schools of the predominantly German villages, where most students came from German families.

For decades, the "Rote Fahne" constituted an island for the literary movement in Siberia. Poets' evenings eventually became inter-regional poetry readings and authors' seminars during the 1970s and 1980s, presented in Barnaul, Slavgorod, and neighboring villages, and bringing together many German-Russian authors from all regions of the Soviet Union.

By the end of the 1980s end 1990s, the "look" of the paper was being influenced by a new generation of journalists who, however, like their predecessors, kept in tune with the interests and needs of the German-Russians. The best traditions of "Rote Fahne" were retained in the "Zeitung fuer Dich" and developed further through its chief editors Josef Schleicher (1992-1998), Natalia Breinert (1998-2001) and Maria Alexenko (2001-2005).

The most important aspects remained keeping close contact with the readership and the popularization of the German language as well as Russian-German and all-German culture and history. Even in the face of strenuous efforts, the editors organized literature competitions and authors' readings, seminars for teachers and competitions for students. They published texts of German-Russian literature and books for children and for ten years conducted the children's books campaign "German Books for Children in Siberia." The paper had its interested readers and supporters not only in the entire post-Soviet region, but also had friends in other countries; for several years about a third of the circulation found its way to Germany, Austria, Israel, South Africa, and the US.

"Speaks German, thinks European, and doesn't cost the world"

The strengths of the "Rote Fahne" and of "Zeitung fuer Dich" (called by its readers "das Faehnchen" [diminutive of Fahne] until the very end) during their 48 years lay in their awareness of tradition, but also in their openness to any kind of positive development during the years following 1985. Even during the last decades, when other German-language papers were struggling for survival and switched to the Russian language, "Zeitung fuer Dich" remained true to itself in the most important aspects: being conservative, because it retained the tradition of appearing in German and of touching on topics of German-Russian history and the present; being liberal, because it was above party politics and allowed differing views across the spectrum of opinions. That is why the following slogan appeared on each front page of "Zeitung fuer Dich": speaks German, thinks European, and doesn't cost the world. Also, consider something not at all unimportant, especially during the last few years: the paper made great efforts to be there not only for Germans, but for anyone else interested in the German language and in German culture.

Thanks to supportive measures by the German government and by the VDA and GTZ, the editorial team over a ten-year span received assistance from young journalists and media assistants from Germany. During the 1990s the entire staff was given the opportunity to further their education via language and journalism courses in Moscow or Germany. This, too, contributed significantly in maintaining the paper's high linguistic and content level that was surely competitive with leading newspapers for the German minority across the world.

No More Supporters -- neither in Russia nor in Germany

Shutting down this newspaper constitutes an irrevocable loss for the history and present of Germans in Russia and yet another sad milestone on the path to its demise, a last cut of the spade toward the burial of all things German within the Altai region and perhaps even in all of Russia, since the other, bilingual papers are not doing very well either. Sadly, the demise of the German-language paper "Zeitung fuer Dich" highlights the current situation in the area, with its previous declaration conerning "Efforts toward the Preservation of German Culture" in Russia. Although this time no "nationalistic" objections have been raised, the fact itself speaks volumes. A newspaper which for nearly half a century brought a glimmer of hope and the German word to thousands of German-Russian families and, until the very end, was serving as an aid to numerous loyal readers, to students and school children learning German, in the final instance no longer has any supporters -- neither in Russia nor in Germany.

Former Staffers: Olga Bader, Elisabeth Bernhardt, Andreas Kramer, Nina Paulsen, Emma Rische, Johann Schellenberg, Joseph Schleicher, Waldemar Spaar.

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