Kremlin Reaches out to Homesick Germans
Twickel, Nikolaus von. "Kremlin
Reaches out to Homesick Germans." Moscow Times, 12 September 2007, 1.
For truck driver Boris Renner, a native Siberian, the prospect
of returning to Russia after seven difficult years in Germany is
an attractive one.
"I tried everything, from gardening to being a caretaker in
a school, but there is just no work here for me," Renner said
by telephone from Neuenkirchen, near the French border in Germany.
New legislation may help tip the scale in his decision.
In the face of a worsening demographic crisis, Russia is formulating
plans to lure some of Germany's more than 2 million immigrants from
former Soviet republics back to quickly depopulating regions. In
a move to attract the ethnic Germans back -- or at least keep them
from leaving -- the government is promoting a program worth more
than 2.8 billion rubles ($109 million) to improve local infrastructure
-- specifically improving housing, health care and education.
While some observers welcomed the initiative, immigrant representatives
suggested that it came too late and that only a few thousand people
would come. Last week, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov officially
sanctioned the funds, the lion's share of which will come from the
The program, published on the government's web site, aims to develop
Germans' potential by calling for their return to compact settlements
on the Volga and in western Siberia. The government says some 8,000
have returned so far but that many have had to live in makeshift
homes, including railway cars.
Germany's Association of Germans from Russia says that while some
are willing to return, the plan only would have worked if it had
been adopted three or four decades ago.
"Russia has missed the boat," the association's deputy
chairman, Adolf Braun, said by telephone from Chemnitz.
Braun said he was amused to see that his countrymen's plight had
suddenly risen to such a political priority. He criticized Moscow
for not yet having made amends for the Volga Germans' expulsion
from their autonomous republic in what is now the Saratov region.
Most of Russia's Germans are descendants of farmers invited by
Catherine the Great in the 18th century to settle along the southern
Volga. They were deported to Central Asia and Siberia as potential
traitors under Stalin in 1941 and began resettling in West Germany
in the 1950s, where legislation then granted them, their spouses
and descendants citizenship -- an opportunity still open to them
After the Soviet collapse, their exodus swelled, with about 100,000
to 200,000 leaving each year. More than 2 million ethnic Germans
from former Soviet republics were repatriated from 1990 to 2006,
according to government data from Berlin.
The government said that in 2004 around 600,000 Germans still lived
in the country. Germans living in the Soviet Union numbered about
2 million, according to the last census, in 1989.
Experts explain the discrepancy by the fact that ethnic Germans
tended to underreport their nationality in the census, while the
German government data includes citizenship bestowed on spouses
The mass departure has almost halted, with just 7,600 immigrants
from former Soviet republics arriving in Germany in 2006, including
some 5,100 from Russia.
Though there are no reliable numbers, there is evidence that the
number of those heading back is growing.
Renner, 59, left the republic of Altai, for Germany seven years
ago and found work through a government agency. But since he was
laid off for the second time in 2004, he has not found suitable
He is torn. He wants to be near his daughter and two grandsons
in Germany. But his son, Yevgeny, has already returned to Siberia.
"He found work and is happy. He always asks me to come,"
Renner is typical for returnees who arrived since the late 1990s
and found it difficult to adapt to life in Germany. "It is
unemployment, cultural and mental differences, as well as language
difficulties that make life hard for these people," said Elmar
Welt, who assists immigrants wishing to return to their home countries
with Heimatgarten, a German nongovernmental organization.
"They are just homesick," he said.
Welt said he believed that there were probably tens of thousands
of Germans who wished to return to Russia. He said the program was
not bad and could help, though there was still little evidence of
how it would be put into practice in the regions.
But Braun predicted that there would be no exodus and said the
returnees were isolated cases. He conceded, however, that conditions
in Germany had worsened. "People here are no longer prepared
to integrate Germans from Russia as they did in the 1970s and '80s,"
he said. Furthermore, tight labor markets and bureaucratic hurdles
made life harder for newcomers.
Braun also said those arriving more recently tended to be poorer
and some were even forced to immigrate because of economic hardship.
This gave them a more difficult time than their predecessors, who
also tended to be better educated, he said.
Russia, on the other hand, urgently needs immigrants. The population
has declined by 6 million since 1993 to a current total of about
142 million people, according to the State Statistics Service. The
government has warned that the population could fall below 100 million
The main reason is a low birthrate and a very high death rate,
which is not being offset by the country's existing immigration,
said Anatoly Vishnevsky, director of the Institute of Demographics
at Moscow's Higher School of Economics
Vishnevsky said he did not believe that the Germans would solve
the country's woes. "I do not think they will come," he
But a Kremlin spokesman defended the program, pointing out that
it was long term. "One should not expect it to have an immediate
effect," said the spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
It is associated with efforts to bring back ethnic Russians living
in other former Soviet republics, he said.
Last summer, President Vladimir Putin endorsed a six-year plan
encouraging compatriots living abroad to return by promising them
cash and social benefits. Two years earlier he personally handed
a passport to Andrei Schmemann, a Russian emigre who had lived in
France for 75 years without citizenship.
Peskov conceded that returning was often a difficult decision.
"For many families, Russia is terra incognita although it is
their motherland." It is the government's job to create more
favorable conditions for returnees, he said. "This job takes
a lot of time and effort, but it is being done," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Moscow Times.