The Volga-Germans and Their Society

Die Wolgadeutschen und Ihre Verein

Lobes, Helmut. "The Volga-Germans and Their Society." Volk auf dem Weg, November 2006, 15-17.

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

NOTE: This is the conclusion of a series of installments of this article from Volk auf dem Weg, the previous articles are listed below:


Four years later the Volga-German Republic participated in the spring exposition at Leipzig and at the "East exposition" in Koenigsberg. As on earlier occasions, the Volga wheat here, too, was met with great interest among the exposition visitors.

In 1926 the Volga Republic was given its own representative to the Soviet trade mission in Berlin, whereby our fathers entered the diplomatic realm and were able to move in it splendidly, as attested to by foreign observers. There resulted regular exchange traffic of economic experts, teachers, doctors, engineers, workers and artists between the Spree [Berlin's main river] and the Volga.

Dr. Auhagen, Professor of Agricultural Science at a University in Berlin, too, got himself acquainted with agriculture by the Volga-Germans by visiting the Volga Republic in September of 1927. He found the grain operations to be "simply excellent", and stated that the state-operated concerns could "provide competition to the best farming operations in Germany." Furthermore, he wrote, "in today's Autonomic Republic an economic and cultural development is under way that will allow us in old Germany to view our faraway ethnic relatives with great pride."

Although these developments were to suffer destructive political and economic setbacks in the 1930s, our fathers were still able, despite a lifestyle forced upon them, to draw the best out of their agriculture. For example the Volga Republic, at 83 percent motorization of all agricultural work, and introduction of agricultural-technical measures, by the end of 1937 placed first in the entire Soviet Union. And until the deportations of 1941 our Volga region remained a grain producer of prime ranking.

Also, in the area of industry, our fathers, following the chaos of the revolution, of the civil wars, and of the famine catastrophe, were able to deliver outstanding results by simply expanding and reconstructing traditional concerns and operations to a degree that self-sufficient industrial branches began to take hold, as for example the cotton and textile industry, the food industry, construction, and the like. A number of large enterprises developed that were of significance for the entire Union: the power station in Engels; a sawmill at the same locale, with a capacity one and half times as much as that of all prewar sawmills combined; the giant meat combine with a daily turnover of 315 cars of raw materials; a bone processing factory with a 1926/27 capacity of 10,000 tons of bones and 1,300 tons of lime; plus a cannery. Among other giant plants of this kind were the machine construction factories "Wiedergeburt [Rebirth]' and "Kommunist" as well as the meat combine in Marxstadt, the tool and machine factory in Grimm, etc.

Given the successes listed above, and some we did not have room to list, our forefathers were clearly on the optimal path toward turning the Volga region into an industrial/agricultural giant. Of special significance, in the sense of the developments indicated by Prof. Dr. Auhagen, was the cultural buildup of the Volga homeland. It cannot be denied that the cultural inheritance which the old Germans brought to the Volga was the only cultural and spiritual source our forefathers were able to draw from extensively, and by which they were able to maintain their cultural superiority over their Russian environment. But by the turn of the [19th] century, this source, due to national distress and the lack of their own education system, gradually ceased to satisfy their needs in the turbulent 20th century. Far from the mother nation and without any cultural assistance from the German-speaking area, this source eventually began to dry up. Within a foreign sea of nationalities, the tribe was threatened with a cultural and spiritual impoverishment, with all the dramatic consequences a minority would be forced to endure.

Our forefathers recognized this peril and took action. The strongest impetus, and the conviction that they could be successful, was the structure of their autonomous status and the assurance therefrom for use of the German language in all areas of political, spiritual and intellectual, and cultural life.

Although from the very beginning of settlement, and under difficult circumstances, the school always held a special value for our forefathers, and even though each colony had a school, success was rather meager, especially because the schools lacked any kind of modern stimulus or assistance, be it from Germany or elsewhere. However, this situation was in no way comparable to state of general illiteracy in the Russian Empire. The more evident were the successes once the right to self-determination was attained.

By 1928, the Volga-Germans, with 54.7% of them capable of reading and writing, were second only to the population of the Leningrad Gouvernement. During the 1930s the educational system of the Republic boasted 421 schools (107 middle schools among them) with 104,000 students, plus four high schools, eleven technical schools, and three six-semester workers universities. These studies were attended by Germans from all areas of Russia; in the time span of 1936-37 their number came to 4,500. In addition there was a network of vocational schools where specialists for all economic branches were trained and educated.

As of the 1930s, the Volga-German Republic also had its German State Theater, three local theaters, and a theater for Russian drama. In the capital city of the Republic there was a State Philharmonic, there were schools of music in Engels and Marxstadt, and schools of fine arts in Engels, Marxstadt and Balzer. In 1937, ninety libraries containing 575,660 volumes constituted the library system of the Republic. Thirty-four newspapers, twenty of them in German and fourteen in Russian, appeared regularly, with a total circulation of 100,000.

The German State Publishing House in Engels produced for the German population of the entire USSR, and between 1933 and 1935 published a variety of titles, totaling 2.8 million copes, among them school texts with total printings of 1.4 million copies. In 1938 alone, the institution published 293 titles, among them 69 school texts.

Our forefathers were particularly proud of their Volga-German State Museum with its invaluable ethnographic department, that had been opened as early as October 1, 1925. For those times, this constituted a unique cultural phenomenon for any national minority. But should the pioneering history of the Volga-Germans per se, a history of a national minority, of a new ethnic tribe, not be viewed as unique occurrence in the entire history of colonization? Indeed it should. And it is the phenomenon on which the deeds and greatness of our forefathers, our Volga-German ancestors, are founded.

In writing this article I was forced to some extent to neglect the historical aspect of the Volga-German phenomenon, to its disadvantage, as this writing was aimed more specifically at economic and cultural aspects, and even so it was necessary to be brief and to describe only in fragments the achievements of our fathers and ancestors in the Volga homeland. What I was not able to mention are the determining economic, spiritual, and intellectual contributions by the colonists toward the blooming of the cities of Saratov and Porkrovsk and of other cities along the Volga, as well as toward the good reputation the German colonists and changing relationships enjoyed from their non-German neighbors. Also not mentioned are a considerable number of personalities as well as the poetry of our people, just as is the Volga-German phenomenon overseas and thus the achievements of our forefathers worldwide. Only in passing have we dealt with the topic of the unfathomable suffering and the countless victims during the settlement years, and also the reasons therefor. Finally, unmentioned as well is the immense ingratitude of Russia toward its sons and daughters of German nationality, toward its people of Volga-Germans, and much else.

Still, even these brief and abrupt fragments speak clearly about the enormous cultural, spiritual, intellectual and material heritage that generations of our ancestors have bequeathed us. It is also true that not much of this heritage remains, after decades of systematic and single-minded obliteration of our homeland. Still, the little bit that is left, to this day also remains without ownership, as if the heirs had died out long ago. Did we truly die out? It is to be hoped that a sufficient number of Volga-Germans has not been lost to our ethnic tribe and likely does not have to be reanimated. However, we must finally wake up, to refresh ourselves in soul and in mind, to shake off our paralyzing indifference toward our own ethnic history, and to face the responsibilities that are ours. This involves not only this responsibility toward our forefather's heritage, and not only the resulting task of maintaining and retaining this heritage. For us, the members of a persecuted people, this task touches directly our dignity and self-respect, and its implementation, besides being a responsibility fulfilled, should also be considered an act of self rehabilitation, which, of course, should certainly not preclude in any manner the complete official rehabilitation of all arbitrarily repressed Volga-Germans.

The Church at Zug (Gattung)

The responsibility we need to fulfill toward our history of our ethnic people may generally be formulated as follows: The history of the Volga-Germans, in all its facets, as well as the cultural heritage, must be collected, secured, and cared for, within the homeland of the Volga-Germans, in order that this heritage is retained in the consciousness of Volga-Germans, in the consciousness of the German people and the Russian people as well as overseas.

Of course, the realization of this task is not one unique act, but a continuing process of restoration and preservation that must be carried out by generations of Volga-German descendants and by many other people of good will. A few examples should illustrate what individual components of this great work still needing to be made up might look like:

Example Number 1:
The history of the Volga-Germans, to its complete extent, must be entered into history texts of two States participated in a significant way in its coming into being.

Example Number 2:
Those few halfheartedly maintained historical buildings, churches, monuments to architecture and building craft that remain within the Volga homeland must be placed under historical protection by the State.

Example Number 3:
The history of the Volga-Germans, in all its appearances and in every place that it occurred and was lived or was hidden in any way at all, must be made manifest to everyone.

These three examples alone demonstrate that we are dealing with an enormous, time-consuming work, the extent and multifaceted nature of which, as well as social, financial and other details may have to reach higher echelons of government of two States.

Who is to get this work to progress? Only we, the Volga-Germans. With the help and support from other people of good will. Most especially in best agreement with and support from folks living in our homeland today, for these as well, one should hope, the message of an internationally declared right to one's home might have reached by now.

There should be no doubt that a task of this magnitude and significance can be accomplished only with the combined strengths of the entire corresponding ethnic group. Therefore, should we be ready to fulfill our responsibilities toward our forefathers with dignity, our first step in that direction must be to build up a respectable, independent, capable society that is able to unify the ethnic groups and to carry their names. Doesn't that appear to be natural? Well, at least the question "Why a second Landsmannschaft?" would thereby receive an answer.

In any case, it need not necessarily be a Landsmannschaft, it could simply be a common "Society for Volga-Germans," one which takes as its objective and purpose the responsibilities and tasks outlined above.

One certainly need not establish a Landsmannschaft for organizing toward its own purposes for such things as gatherings, cultural days for a handful of folks, other meetings, etc. No question. These are the responsibilities for various committees, circles, work groups, etc., just as until recent time they have been functioning under the umbrella of the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland.

However, we are dealing here with an organization in which people of a group who have been driven from their homes, come together for the purpose of a singular, determined, common action. Of course, also highly welcome in such an organization, called a Society, will be various musical, literary, theater and other events, especially if the Society is able to demonstrate greater or lesser successes toward its tasks. These will not be achieved without effort, since the Society must, as indicated, set as its objective to maintain and care for that which might have caused many a person fewer problems had it disappeared ...

Now the following question naturally poses itself: do we really want this?

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