Wanderings: The Germans From Russia Today

Soviet Communism Lives on

Wood, Carter. "Wanderings: The Germans From Russia Today." Grand Forks Herald, 6 July 1994.

TIRASPOL, Trans-Dniester Republic - Soviet-style communism still dominates the ancestral home of thousands of Dakotans who claim German from Russia heritage.

Private property is forbidden, military curfews clear darkened streets, Soviet rubles remain the currency and statues of Lenin abound in the Trans-Dniester Republic.

A thin and heavily industrialized strip of land on the eastern bank of the Dniester River, the ethnic Ukraine and Russian enclave broke away from a newly independent Moldova in 1990. Trans-Dniester’s government, headed by the Communist President Igor Smirnov, feared that Moldova would reunite with Romania.

A bloody civil war followed, and now the 9,000 troops of the former Soviet 14th Army wield effective power.

"This is worse than the Afghanistan War," said a Russian-speaking Moldovan officer and volunteer with the army-backed "peace-making forces." "Here you have to kill your own people."

"And my brothers, my own people, they would kill me if they could," he told a group of foreign visitors at a military checkpoint, where drunken soldiers searched for weapons.

Members of the same group attracted the attention of a KGB officer earlier in the day, who stopped to examine identification after seeing them photograph a village.

The conflict stems from Stalin-era geopolitics that saw nationalities become the tools of centralized power. It follows directly from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that divided up Eastern Europe.

Trans-Dniester originally belonged to the Ukraine, but Stalin attached it to Bessarabia in 1940 after the Soviet Union seized the province from Romania. The combination became the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, now Moldova.

The region's Germans fled west in 1944 when Hitler's armies retreated before advancing Soviet troops. Forcefully repatriated to the Soviet Union after the war, thousands wound up in Siberian labor camps or closed villages in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.

But in the previous century, what is now Trans-Dniester saw a blooming German culture. Settlers from southwestern Germany founded the Glueckstal colonies in 1808-1809, creating four predominantly Lutheran villages: Glueckstal, Bergdorf, Neudorf and Kassel. The hilly country became fruitful farmland.

In 1948, a diocese was founded in the nearby city of Tiraspol to serve the Catholics in the Black Sea region. Tiraspol is today Trans-Dniester's capital, a city of more than 100,000 that was heavily damaged in World War II.

Like other ethnic German areas, the Glueckstal colonies produced many settlers who eventually migrated to the American plains, especially McIntosh County in North Dakota and McPherson County in South Dakota.

Their journeys started in the 1970s, as the czarist government ended the privileges the Germans had enjoyed: Freedom from the military draft, schooling in their own language and a great deal of political autonomy.

Today, the culture has all but disappeared from the Trans-Dniester. Bergdorf’s former Luther church became a community hall, where movies are shown and dances held. A bust of Lenin stands out front. The watchman, drunk by noon, happily shows the remnants of a Leipzig-made organ that once accompanied the singing of German hymns.

Houses display distinct German style architecture, but few Germans returned to the Glueckstal villages after a decade or more in exile. One who did is 75-year-old Elizabeta Eckman Minderlin, who tells her story in the same Swabian dialect still spoken in places such as Strasburg, N.D. or Eureka, S.D.

She blames Germany for her sufferings, the hungry years of compulsory work during World War II, when the native Germans called them "Russian pigs," and the post war exile to icy Siberia. Upon arriving in her village, German troops shot the local Jewish woman, "a poor woman who never did anything to anybody," she recalled.

"The war ruined everything," Minderlin said. "Everything was crazy, in a mess."

In Tiraspol, a small group of ethnic Germans has formed a group to study the language and culture. They have few books or other supplies, and complain that the German government gives them no support, unlike similar efforts in Ukraine or Russia. Although many have already emigrated to Germany, the prospect holds little attraction to some, who say they just want a little help.

"I don't want to go anywhere," an elderly lady said at a recent gathering. "I want to stay in my own land."

A bust of Soviet state founder Lenin stands before a former Lutheran Church in the village of Bergdorf in the Trans-Dniester Republic, a Communist break-away republic of Moldova. The church is now a community center.

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Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

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