Wanderings: The Germans From Russia Today

Never-Ending Journey

Wood, Carter. "Wanderings: The Germans From Russia Today." Grand Forks Herald, 4 July 1994.

Beginning in the 1760s, German farm families migrated by the thousands to the Russian Empire in search of land and freedom. The same search later sent their descendants, now Germans from Russia, to settle the Dakotas. Those who remained fell prey to the worst horrors of the 20th century: Two world wars, Communist repression and exile. Today, Germans from Russia in the former Soviet Union are wandering again, this time emigrating to Germany. Herald staff writer Carter Wood recently joined a delegation to the Ukraine and Germany to examine the conditions affecting Germans from Russia today.

ODESSA, Ukraine - More than a hundred years ago, ethnic Germans began abandoning the Russian empire, seeking freedom and prosperity in America. Hundreds of thousands made the long journey to the United States, many settling in the central Dakota prairies.

Today their distant relatives, those who stayed behind, are making a similar trek from one world to another. Weary of the economic and political hardships of the Soviet Union, these Germans from Russia are emigrating en masse to Germany.

There they hope to find work and future for their children. Instead, many encounter isolation unemployment and rejection by the native Germans.

It's another difficult chapter in history. In America, Germans from Russia faced the burdens of farming the land and adjusting to a new country. In the Soviet Union, they faced political repression, forced collectivization, anti-religious campaigns, the horrors of World War II and post-war exile to the hinterlands: Siberia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

"Everyone talks about the Jews and how they were persecuted during the war, and of course they were," said Georg Steiner, a retired welder who approached an American visitor to inquire about distant relatives in South Dakota.

"But when the war was over, all that was over with, too," he continued. "We're still suffering the consequences of the war, even now."

Steiner's life mirrors that of thousands of Germans from Russia. A native of the Black Sea port of Odessa, he was arrested in 1938 by Soviet authorities, another victim of the Stalinist purges.

Invading German troops freed him in the fall of 1941, and he worked in a machine shop for several years. He was drafted into the German army in 1944, fighting for two years before becoming a prisoner of war in Brussels Belgium. The British forcibly repatriated him to the Soviet Union, and Steiner was shipped to a mining camp above the Arctic Circle.

Authorities permitted his return to the Ukraine in 1976, but he was forbidden to live in Odessa until the political liberalization of the late 1980s.

Four years ago, Steiner applied to emigrate to Germany. He is not alone in wanting to leave the pale of tears.

Since 1949, more than 1 million Germans from Russia have resettled into the Federal Republic of Germany. The migration reached a peak of 200,000 annually in 1992 and 1993; similar numbers are expected this year.

Germany's constitution guarantees ethnic Germans abroad the right to citizenship if they prove their heritage. The vast majority of the more than 2 million Germans remaining in the former Soviet Union want to exercise that right.

"Because of their heritage, the way they think and the way they feel, Germans from Russia have always seen themselves as part of the German people," declared Alois Reis, chairman of the Association of Germans from Russia, at the group's national convention in Stuttgart.

Forty thousand people attended the gathering, which prominently featured the motto, "Germany - Our Homeland."

Historically, the slogan rings true. Germans were invited into the Russian empire first by Catherine the Great in 1763. She sought settlers to shore up the Russia frontier along the Volga River.

Between 1774 and 1794, Russia defeated the Ottoman Empire and took control of the Black Sea coast. The capital Odessa was founded in 1794.

Czar Alexander I invited Germans to settle the lightly populated but fertile region in 1804. Like Catherine, he offered an array of privileges to encourage their immigration: Free land, an exemption from the draft and political and cultural autonomy.

The invitation appealed especially to the farmers of Wuerttemburg, a harshly ruled duchy where farmland was in short supply. Their Swabian dialect became the language of the Black Sea and, later, the Dakotas.

But in 1874, Czar Alexander II introduced universal conscription. The government started Russifying German schools and administration. The next great wanderings began as freedom-seeking Germans from Russia journeyed to the grasslands of North and South America.

Their descendants - primarily from the Black Sea and Bessarabia - now form upward of 35 percent of North Dakota’s population. Five million Germans from Russia live in Canada and the United States, largely in the central prairies between Kansas and Alberta and in the Pacific Coast states.

Last century's immigrants settled the empty lands of the Americas. This century they arrive to a crowded Germany and a populace fed up with immigrants and refuges who place demands on tight budgets.

Nor do all Germans recognize the claim Germans from Russia have on their "homeland."

"No one's interested," said 54-year-old Herta Kiess, a pediatrician from Siberia who has been unemployed since coming four years ago to Offenburg, Germany, four years ago. "No one knows about us. They condemn us for being Russians."

One hears the complaint over and over again. From their early childhood, Germans in the former Soviet Union were called fascists of Nazis. Their Soviet passports bore their nationality. They suffered for being German. Now, in Germany, they're often "lousy Russians."

But in many respects, they are Russians. Television, English-language school, mixed marriages and the job world and a hundred years of living in the United States have vitiated German from Russia culture in the Dakotas. Few people younger than 40 speak the dialect of their ancestors.

In the Soviet Union, an oddly similar integration grew out of political oppression, exile across Siberia and Central Asia, punishment for talking German, and yes, mixed marriages and the job world.

At the national convention in Stuttgart, only the older generation chatted in German. The younger generation of immigrants danced like Russians, dressed like Russians, drank like Russians and spoke Russian.

But there's more to being German than speaking German, Reis reminded officials who rely on language abilities to screen potential immigrants.

"Expropriation, deportation, exile, internment - all the pressures of Russification and assimilation - have given the Germans from Russia a sense of themselves as people," he said. "It has only strengthened their self-awareness, their subjective feelings, of being German."

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