The Volga German Republic – Brief Upswing Preceding the Deadly Stab

Paulsen, Nina. "The Volga German Republic – Brief Upswing Preceding the Deadly Stab." Volk auf dem Weg, March 2019, 32-33.

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

In addition to the short-term economic upswing in the Volga Republic beginning in the mid-1920s, the autonomy granted the Volga Germans led to a transitory flowering of German culture and the German language. The construction of a German educational system, the establishment of publishing houses and theaters, as well as a plethora of German-language publications stabilized the German language and German cultural life in a remarkable manner. The capital city of Pokrovsk-Engels became the home for German cultural and educational institutions.

The short-lived strengthening of the German language was accompanied by a tendency toward devaluating the Russian, which resulted in inadequate competency in Russian among the population. However, the efforts toward maintaining the German would not enjoy long-lasting success. Moreover, these efforts delayed merely temporarily the incursion of Russian into the public administrative sphere and the Russification of everyday language in the Volga Republic.

1928: Emma Dinges and Gottfried Schmieder recorded German folk songs in the Volga German colonies. Photo from the HSDR's 2014 Calendar, taken from archive of Johann Windholz.

Researching Dialects in the Volga Area

German dialects continued to form the primary basis of everyday language in the German settlements of the Volga Republic. High German was used mainly in its written form. The Volga region, with its numerous German settlements and its variety of denominations, dialects and lifestyles, was a fertile field for research by linguists, who organized ethnographic and folkloric expeditions.

Mainly represented in the Volga region were Rhinish-Frankish dialects (Middle German dialects). In villages of mixed geographic origins, dialects either influenced one another, or the “minority” adapted to the “majority.” Their melting together resulted in the “Volga German” dialect, in which the South Hessian dialect dominated. (The majority of settlers had come from the area of Rhine-Hessen and the Palatinate.) Because the colonists were cut off from linguistic development in the motherland, the German Russians for quite some time ended up preserving a version of the language rooted in the 18th Century.

Intensive research into dialects became possible only after Volga German autonomy took hold. Georg Dinges (1891-1932) from the village of Blumenfeld on the Volga began researching the state of language among the Volga Germans. His direct dialect research, which he had begun as early as during his studies at Moscow University, was largely broken off by the outbreak of World War I. In 1921 he became lecturer for German Philology at Saratov University, and in 1923 he was appointed Professor of Western European Languages and Culture at the same university. Dinges traveled to Germany in 1924 to do some “scientific work in the area of linguistics.” In Marburg he met Professor Ferdinand Wrede, the Director of a German Language Atlas project, plus other German dialectologists, with whom he would maintain exchanges during subsequent years.

In 1925 he began working in Saratov as the leader of the Center for Research on Volga German Dialects. Among others, he was supported by the lecturer and author August Lonsinger (1881-1953). Even before World War I, Lonsinger had concentrated on collecting materials related to dialects and folklore in Volga German settlements. The task of the Center was to bring together from all Volga German settlements everything relating to dialects and to analyze the materials linguistically. The goal was the production of a dictionary of Volga German dialects, a language atlas, a collection of Volga German adages, and a complete bibliography of works on Volga German dialects.

Dinges was arrested early in 1930. His collaboration with German dialectologists had become his undoing. He was accused of conducting espionage for Germany and condemned to three years’ exile in Siberia (in the Tomsk region), where he died of typhus in 1932. [The endnote is by the translator.]

The Atlas of Volga German Languages was not completed until 1997 (and published in Tübingen), although it had owed its early start to an initiative of Hugo Jedig, long-time director of research on dialects of the Soviet Union. It is a historical atlas of regional languages that documents the state of the Volga German language around 1920 until 1928, a situation which is non-existent today.

After Dinges’ arrest, the leadership of the Center was taken over by Andreas Dulson (1900-1973), who in later years would become noted in the Soviet Union as linguist, ethnographer and archaeologist. Following his studies in Saratov and Moscow, he had attained the position as Lecturer of Germanic and General Linguistics, and by 1934 had become a Professor at the Saratov Pedagogical Institute. By 1923 he had begun intensive work at the side of Georg Dinges on researching dialects.

In 1933, the Center for Research on Volga German Dialects was turned into a Volga German Language Commission with the goal of creating “a new Soviet German language on the basis of the language of the German Proletariat.” It, too, was dissolved soon. In 1935, Dulson was also sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, having been accused of “anti-Soviet, counter-revolutionary, Fascist” activities. After his release in 1936 and until his deportation to Siberia, he taught at the Saratov Pedagogical Institute.

Researching Folklore and Cultural Heritage

Even before World War I, leading Volga German intellectuals were discussing the need for maintaining and retaining the Volga German language and cultural heritage. During the early 20th Century, materials on the traditions and customs of the German colonists in the Volga region were being collected by clerics, teachers, and dialect researchers such as Johannes Kufeld, August Lonsinger, Peter Sinner, Georg and Emma Dinges, Johannes Schleuning and others. The very first collection of songs, entitled “Wolgadeutsche Volkslieder und Kinderreime aus den Wolgakolonien [Volga German Folksongs and Children’s Rhymes from the Volga Colonies],” which included an appendix of puzzles, was published in 1914 by the teachers and folklore researchers Johannes Erbes (1868-1932) and Peter Sinner (1879-end of the 1930’s).

In nearly 100 Volga German colonies, August Lonsinger, teacher and author, gathered folkloric materials, which were published (much) later under the [translated] title “Practical Folklore of the Volga Germans: Settlement, Housing, Food, Clothing.” In it, he describes household appliances of the colonists and provides each item with its most broadly used dialect name. In addition, Lonsinger wrote a detailed description of the homes and of entire villages of the colonists, including specific parts of the homes and of other farm buildings.

Following the founding of the Central Museum of the Autonomous Republic of Volga Germans (1925) in Petrovsk/Engels, Lonsinger became one of its most dedicated volunteer workers. Although he had completed the manuscript for “Practical Folklore …” by 1925, it was not published until seventy-seven years later (Göttingen, 2004) and edited by the German Russian historian Victor Herdt.

Between the mid-1920s and the late 1930s, numerous folkloric expeditions were conducted in the Volga German settlements. Participating between 1926 and 1929 were the Marxstadt Pedagogical Technicum, the Association of German Writers, the German State Philharmonic, and the Pedagogical Institute of Engels.

Georg Dinges - researched the linguistic situation in the Volga region.
Cover of a newsletter of the Central Museum (Petrovsk, 1927) - by Paul Rau.
Center for Volga German Dialect Research (Address of the Center, listed on the back of a questionnaire that, for research purposes, was sent to all places in the ASSRdWD. From the Archive of Nina Berend.
The publication "Practical Folklore of the Volga Germans" by August Lonsinger

At various times, among the organizers and participants of these expeditions were the folklore collector Peter Sinner, the dialect researcher Georg Dinges, the linguist Viktor Schirmunski, the author Andreas Saks, the teacher Victor Klein, and the musician Gottfried Schmieder. During the expeditions, Andreas Dulson collected not only data regarding dialects, but also folkloric materials regarding the multi-faceted traditions of colonists in the villages Grimm, Yagodnaya, Polyana, Rosenthal and Preiss. He received support from, among others, his wife Viktoria Dulson.

Possibly the most productive folkloric expedition was the one intended to collect folk songs. As of 1927, it was directed by Georg Dinges. Other members of the expedition were his wife Emma Dinges and the archaeologist and artist Paul Rau. From twenty-two colonies, they recorded more than 600 folk songs, for which the Volga German musician Gottfried Schmieder provided musical notation and Paul Rau produced various drawings.

The collection “Wolgadeutsche Volkslieder mit Bildern und Weisen [Volga German Folk Songs, Including Illustrations and Melodies],” which included fifty folk songs from various villages and seven drawings by Paul Rau, was published in Germany (Berlin and Leipzig) in 1932. By that time, the authors had died. Rau committed suicide in 1930, and Dinges had died in 1932 in Siberian exile.

The Central Museum of the ASSRdWD
[Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic of the Volga Germans]

The Central Museum of the Republic in Petrovsk/Engels was established in 1925 at the urging of Georg Dinges, who was appointed its Honorary Director. The entral Museum had the following departments:

History, Ethnography and Folklore (directed by Georg Dinges)
Archaeology and Art (directed by Paul Rau)
Nature (Directed by the botanist Emil Hummel)

Volunteer contributors for the ethnography department were the ethnographers Viktoria Dulson, August Lonsinger, Erich Kufeld, Klara Obert, Emma Dinges, and many other members of the Volga German intelligentsia. Later, Dinges split the department into two sections: folklore (directed by Andreas Dulson) and dialect research. He called the latter section Center for Research on Volga German Dialects.

The arrest in 1930 of Dinges (1891-1932), who died in exile, interrupted successful work in collections and research. To avoid imminent arrest, Paul Rau, one of the three department directors, committed suicide in the same year.

Subsequent to its reorganization in 1932/1933, the museum was increasingly transformed into an institution with clear propagandist aims. Nevertheless, by1940 it housed a remarkable collection of 5,400 items, among them a collection of art pieces by Jakob Weber (1870-1958), the well-known landscape painter and graduate of the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg.

After the republic was dissolved, the museum closed, and most exhibit items were lost, either due to lack of proper storage or by theft. The public exhibit rooms of what became a Heimatmuseum in Engels after the war had been carefully cleared of any exhibit items relating to Germans who had lived there formerly, or which might have pointed in any way to the earlier existence of the ASSR of Volga Germans. Only after 1980 did the Volga German topic return to its rightful place in museum exhibits and in historical publications.

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