Steppes of Russia: My Country, My Home
Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Nitschke, Shirley Wegener. HEIMAT: Steppes of Russia. Jamestown, North Dakota: HEIMAT, 2001.
A novel that covers the sweep of German Russian history is shown
through the lens of the life of a woman, Helga Baden. The account,
in 49 short chapters, begins with Helga’s birth in 1824 at
near Munich in Germany. This is a time when life is becoming ever
uncertain. When Helga is just five, her mother Martha dies giving
to her eighth child. Johannes Baden, the children’s father,
children with relatives while he spends 3 years on a personal quest.
Upon his return, he collects his children. They go to a city called
Ulm, from where an open boat takes them down the Danube River to
quarantine area at the old fort of Ismail. Russian soldiers guide
to the open steppe, where they become part of an agricultural pioneer
village called Alt Posttal.
Nitschke’s thorough researches enable her to create the conditions
life in a German Russian village. Readers, through Helga’s
witness the unfolding of Alt Posttal. Homes, a church, and a courthouse
go up. Farm production burgeons with small grains, fruit, and an
impressive variety of vegetables. The colonists breed the red cow
raise horses fine enough for the Russian army. Technological
advances--harvesting machines, wagons, a better plow--ease the heavy
work of farming. The community gets together through the year for
festivals including May Day, harvest celebrations, weddings, Christmas,
Easter, and confirmation. Children go to school. The foods of the
German Russians on the steppe appear on the table: kucken, sausage,
plachinda, sauerkraut, holopsie,... Medical care is do-it-yourself
a doctor sometimes available. The village receives a visit from
Keller, a writer who records what he sees. Helga’s family
farmers’ bazaar in Odessa. A matchmaker arranges, well, matches,
newspaper becomes available. The book is sprinkled with German sayings
(translated) most persons of this ethnic group will remember. She
the presence of antisemitism.
Helga’s life unfolds along with the development of the village.
cooks (some recipes given) and sews and cares for her sister Gretchen,
who is blind, finding herself displaced when her father remarries.
matchmaker is called on her behalf, and she also marries. A daughter
arrives. Helga is a deeply religious person, often troubled because
has visions of her mother warning her and guiding her when she has
decisions to make. A romantic thread maintains interest throughout
The Russian government disrupts village life when it decides that
German young men must enter the military. Helga is among those who
emigrate to America. She finds herself in Alfred, a small town near
Jamestown, North Dakota, where she endures the hardships of a second
pioneering experience and builds a new life.
A troubling aspect of the book, for this reviewer, was the
relationship depicted between the colonists and the Russians. There
a complex set of interactions in the story line, with Russians probably
entering the scene more frequently than they actually did in the
Russian colonies. Relationships dramatized in the book are very
positive when a Russian woman who sheltered Helga early in the
migration period becomes her surrogate mother. Helga tutors a class
Russian children, and Russians arrive to take part in a building
project and in a community festival. Bad feelings surge forth when
Russians who greet the colonists show distrust and hatred, promises
made to the newcomers are fulfilled slowly or not at all again and
again, and when Russification policies sour what had at least been
coexistence. Historically, a few Germans and Russians married each
other, but the form romance takes in this story seems far from
probable. Nitschke, unfortunately, buys into accounts that depict
Russians as illiterate, lazy, dirty, and unproductive.
Nitschke ends the book with an epilogue and nonfiction essays about
the sufferings the German people endured under communism, the
expropriation and collectivization, and exile to the camps in the
north. She closes with an essay about the character of the Germans
Russia in North Dakota.
Should you read this book? This is a first book for the author.
are anachronistic references; some ways of thinking didn’t
until years after the time in which this book is set. Sometimes
Nitschke loses the child’s voice in her eagerness to impart
information. Yet, if a reader wants a painless overview of Germans
Russia history, the author has certainly done intensive background
reading, and a reader will come away with a generally accurate
knowledge of the history of this ethnic group.