Conference on Establishing a German-Russian Homeland Along Volga Opens Today

Nixon, Lance. "Conference on Establishing a German-Russian Homeland Along Volga Opens Today." Grand Forks Herald, 18 October 1991, sec. 1B.

Ethnic Germans living inside the Soviet Union begin a three-day congress in Moscow today to discuss their future, perhaps with a view to re-establishing an autonomous German republic within the country.

The Soviet Union had such a republic under Vladimir Lenin’s leadership after World War I, the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, an area of 10,888 square miles that lay mostly on the east side of the Volga River with a small portion on the west.

The area was colonized by Germans in the 1760s at the invitation of Empress Catherine II. It was made a district in 1918 and made and autonomous republic in 1924, but Soviet leader Joseph Stalin disbanded it in1941 as Nazi Germany brought war against the Soviet Union. Stalin had the republic’s German inhabitants deported to Siberia and central Asia.

The talk of creating a new Soviet republic for ethnic Germans raises interest here because some 25 percent to 30 percent of the people living in North Dakota trace their families to the 120,000 Germans from Russia who came to America between 1870 and 1920 - some form the Volga region, others from the Black Sea, Bessarabia, or elsewhere.

There is even more interest in Germany because the so-called Aussiedler, or “out-settlers,” have been returning to Germany in droves—77,000 from the Soviet Union in the first half of this year alone.

Others are coming from other parts of Europe.

“As a matter of constitutional law in Germany... ethnic Germans from eastern Europe who wish to return to Germany are basically on the same footing as other Germans once they have come to Germany,” said Karl Schon, deputy consul general for the German consulate in Chicago. “I should say ‘alleged Germans.’ Some of them have digged out, in miraculous ways, German grandmothers.”

About 200,000 people have returned to Germany in the past year alone, Schon said. In a nation the size of Montana with a population of about 80 million, there is concern that the migration will add to already crowded conditions.

Schon said German policy is to help bolster the Soviet economy so that people will be able to stay where they are. The German government plans to give $40 billion in aid to the Soviet Union over the next three years, more than all the other western nations combined.
According to a 1989 Soviet census, there were 2,038,603 ethnic Germans living inside the Soviet Union, making them the 12th largest ethnic group. The Asian republic of Kazakhstan – where many were during World War II – has the greatest share of them, about 958,000. Some 843,000 lived in Russia, the sprawling republic that includes Siberia.

Despite those numbers, Schon said Germany won’t get deeply involved in the move to create a new homeland for Germans in the Soviet Union.

“This is clearly an internal matter for whatever this new country should be called, the former Soviet Union,” Schon said, “I think right now the Soviet Union has even more urgent matters to solve than creating new republics. We think it more appropriate to create a situation in which people can stay in what has been their homeland for generations rather than moving them around.”

But Timothy Kloberdanz, chairman of the department of sociology and anthropology at North Dakota State University, disagrees. He thinks Germany – at least economically – is nudging the Soviet Union to do something for ethnic Germans. Kloberdanz said he’s confident that a new German republic will be created, probably in roughly the same area as the old Volga German republic.

Kloberdanz said that according to the 1989 census, already some 55,000 Germans have returned to the Volga area during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

If no republic is set up, the emigration of the Soviet Germans will continue.

“I don’t think the Soviet Union wants to lose those people,” Kloberdanz said. “If they were allowed to return to the Volga, they could make those steppes bloom again. They have an emotional attachment to that land.”

Kloberdanz and his wife, Rosalinda, visited the Volga region this summer, he to study the folklore and she to interview German Russian women for her master’s thesis in child development and family science.

Kloberdanz said Germans living in the area were pessimistic that they would ever have a republic again.

But Kloberdanz said he is optimistic because he has visited Germany and seen the jostling for jobs and houses.

“It looks like the republic will be established not so much because of a feeling on the part of the Soviets that they want to right a great wrong, but because of pressure from the German government,” Kloberdanz said.

The Soviet news service Tass and the British news agents Reuters reported from Bonn on Sept. 24 that Horst Waffenschmidt of the German Interior Ministry and Leonid Prokopiev of Russia’s Ethnic Minority Committee had agreed on the need to restore the Volga republic as soon as possible.

Reuters reported Waffenschmidt as saying the two sides would draw up a joint declaration on the ethnic German republic to be signed during Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s visit to Bonn on Nov. 21.

Tass reported that Germans could begin returning to the Volga region as soon as 1992.

However, there is controversy over the idea. Kloberdanz said creating a German republic on the Volga would likely displace Russians and Ukrainians, and he said there was heated opposition when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed in principle to a German republic in 1989.

Kloberdanz said that on his visit to the Volga region this summer, Germans told him about Russian slogans that appeared in the time saying, “Better AIDS than Germans,” and “We stopped the Germans at the Volga, and we will stop them again.”

The Volga region is near to where Nazi armies were halted during World War II.

Kloberdanz added that restoring the Volga republic will not right the wrongs done to other ethnic Germans who were relocated to Siberia and central Asia from elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

But if one man’s letter is any indication, Germans from throughout the Soviet Union may rally around the idea of an ethnic republic.

A Soviet German named Paul Kruger mentioned the Volga republic when he wrote to Michael Miller, the bibliographer for the Germans from Russia collection at NDSU, on Aug. 30 of this year. Kruger’s family was displaced from Volhynia, an area west of Kiev, during World War I. He lives now at Piketnoje, Siberia, close to the city of Omsk.

“In October the German Russian congress is to take place where the problem of the German Russians is to be discussed,” Kruger wrote. “The main emphasis in this regard is the restitution of the German citizenship on the Volga. I am a delegate of the area of Omsk for this Congress. The problem is difficult to solve. There are various opinions where and how the republic is to be established... In the tense situation in which our land is now it is of course a complicated matter. However, this problem cannot be ignored because the emigration process of German Russians to Germany does not decrease.”

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

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