Wanderings: The Germans from Russia Today

Caught in the Middle

Wood, Carter. "Wanderings: The Germans From Russia Today." Grand Forks Herald, 5 July 1994.

German Immigration Continues at Rapid Pace

From 1950 to 1986, approximately 210,000 ethnic Germans from Russia immigrated or fled to the Federal Republic of Germany. Nearly that many are expected just this year. Here's the number of immigrants within the last decade.












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. Grand Forks Herald reporter Carter Wood recently joined a delegation to Ukraine and Germany to examine the conditions affecting Germans from Russia today.

ALEXANDROVKA, Ukraine - The festive opening of the cultural center brought villagers by the hundreds. Ukrainian dancers swirled in their national costume, and musicians played German songs.

The day started with an ecumenical church service. It ended with the town collective sponsoring a feast for honored guests, complete with three roast pigs and a steady supply of Russian vodka.

In between, top officials representing the German government and Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk made speeches.

"This center and all its activities will strengthen the awareness that different peoples can live together in a single land, but together, in common, never divided," declared Frank Willenberg, a deputy minister of the Interior.

Jan Oostergetelo, a German parliamentarian, originated the idea of a center as focal point for reviving German from Russian culture in the Black Sea region. Plans call for housing and businesses to spring up nearby.

The goal is to attract ethnic Germans who are anxious to leave their uncertain lives in Siberia or newly independent Kazakhstan. The German government, still burdened by the cost of reunification, views the strategy as cheaper and less socially disruptive than continued immigration.

"We cannot just fetch them away from the regions where they now live, but must rather help them where they are, or where they want to be," said Oostergetelo, a Social Democrat from Lower Saxony. "And if they want to come here, then we have to do everything possible to create a new home for them, integrated into the existing population."

Numerous German-backed projects throughout the former Soviet Union attempt to reinforce the policy. The Interior Ministry has spent some $170 million on them since 1992. That was the year that Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, eager to curry favor with Germany, invited 400,000 German from Russia settlers into his country. He later dropped the number to 100,000.

Ethnic German settlers in Ukraine still live in converted shipping crates after waiting two years for a home. Photo courtesy Shirley Fischer Arends

Click on the photo to view a larger image

But difficulties abound. Sponsors squandered money. The Ukrainian government failed to keep agreements. Immigrants wound up unemployed, living in converted shipping crates in the midst of muddy fields.

Native Russians and Ukrainians regard their new neighbors with mixed feelings. Directors of the collective farms appreciate the German tradition of hard work. Others remember World War II.

While officials toasted the new center, a local woman lit a candle in the nearby Ukrainian Catholic church. Maria Pavlik Vasiliona began crying as she contemplated the return of Germans to a town once called Alexanderhilf.

"You know the Germans who came here wore crosses, and they were believers," she said. "That didn't stop them from cutting little children into pieces, burning them, and when the mothers cried, shooting the mothers."

"You have to be worried," she continued. "We are not sure what it means."

Immigrants in the former German settlement of Peterstal several miles away have worries of their own. They gave up their Russian of Kazakh citizenship - not to mention their homes - to live in what's known as a container village.

The cluster of cargo containers was intended to be temporary shelter until the Ukrainian government built them permanent new homes. More than two years later, a few unfinished building foundations serve as reminders of unfulfilled promises.

"I'm trained as a bookkeeper, but here I have to milk cows from dawn to dusk just to make a living," one woman says. Some village residents have given up, continuing on to Germany.

Container villages are widely condemned in Germany as an example of foolish, expensive policies. The news magazine "Der Spiegel" last year reported that the Interior Ministry was wasting millions, channeling money to a contractor - the Society for Germans Abroad - that couldn't always account for the funds. The society bought the containers for Peterstal.

"You can't view things solely from the German perspective," said Peter Sporn, the group’s representative in Ukraine. "The Ukrainians promised to build houses two years ago, but who could know that their economy would collapse like it did?"

Certainly, there are bright spots. The collective at Alexandrovka has set aside more than 120 acres for housing for ethnic German resettlers. Businessmen have agreed to establish factories to produce ketchup and wheelbarrows. Willenberg instructed the Society for Germans Abroad to buy a bus that could transport Germans from Russia to the cultural center.

World Vision Germany, contracted to build the center, brought it in well under budget at $300,000. The Christian charity specializes in development projects, and has brought Ukrainian agriculture specialists in the region to Germany for training.

Meanwhile, the Russian government appears to support efforts to establish "Islands of Hope" - semi-autonomous communities - in western Siberia, places such as Novosibirsk, Halbstadt in the Altai, or Asowa near Omks.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Germans still live in these regions, offering a population base from which to build. The goal is actively promoted by Rebirth, the largest ethnic German organization in the former Soviet Union.

German officials characterize such policies as encouraging Germans from Russia to build a new home for themselves. But their compatriots see other policies as more negative, actively discouraging them from coming to Germany.

Tight budgets have led to cutbacks in social services in Germany for new immigrants. Language courses have been trimmed to six months, hardly enough time for native Russian speakers to gain the skills needed to find a job. Reviews of immigration applications have stiffened.

"The fact is, because of the integration situation - Germany doesn't want us! - a lot of people have been frightened off from emigrating." said Peter Hilkes, an associate at the East European Institute in Munich.

Continued, well-publicized incidents of anti-foreigner violence also spark concern.

The German government defends its policies. The federal commissioner for resettlement reminded the national convention of Germans from Russia that the government had set aside 4 billion marks - nearly $2.5 billion - for integrating the new immigrants into society.

The start of an economic upswing promises improvements, in Germany and abroad, Horst Waffenschmidt said in a speech before an audience of thousands.

"We want to help the Germans in the Soviet successor states to find a future with opportunities, for them, for their children and their descendants," the commissioner declared.

"The federal government feels just as responsible for the Germans who want to stay in their current homelands as for those who come here to live with us, as citizens of this country."

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