Decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet “Concerning the Removal of Restrictions in the Legal Status of Germans and Their Family Members Situated in the Special Settlement” (December 13, 1955)
“Decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet ‘Concerning the Removal of Restrictions in the Legal Status of Germans and Their Family Members Situated in the Special Settlement’ (December 13, 1955).” Translated and Edited by Eric J. Schmaltz, Istoriia rossiiskikh nemtsev v dokumentakh, (Moscow: MIGUP, 1993).
Translated and edited by Eric J. Schmaltz, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, Co-Executive Director of the NWOSU-Masonic Institute for Citizenship Studies, Department of Social Sciences, Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Alva.
The original Russian source: “Ukaz Prezidiuma Verkhovnogo Soveta SSSR: O snyatii ogranichenii v pravovom polozhenii s nemtsev i chlenov ikh semey,nakhodyashchikhsya na spetsposelenii (Dec. 13, 1955),” in Vladimir A. Aumann and Valentina G. Chebotareva, eds., Istoriia rossiiskikh nemtsev v dokumentakh (1763-1992 gg.) (Moscow: MIGUP, 1993), p. 177.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the post-Stalinist Soviet regime began taking initial steps in restoring the ethnic Germans’ status as full-fledged Soviet citizens, even if not yet fully addressing the issue of national-cultural rights. At this time, certain “de-Stalinization” policies under the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev resulted from the leadership’s reaction to Stalin’s “excesses” and “cult of personality.” Khrushchev’s actions in this regard stemmed partly from what appears to be a nagging sense of guilt about his own Stalinist past and complicity.
Foreign policy and international power politics also influenced the development of the status and fate of the USSR’s ethnic Germans. Particularly after 1955, Soviet nationality policies towards this minority group, for better or worse, became associated with the ebb and flow of evolving diplomatic relations with West Germany. In turn, West Germany’s diplomatic engagement with the Soviet Bloc resulted partly from the country’s sense of guilt over the Nazi past, especially its racial-imperial expansionism in the East. Writing into its Basic Law (Grundgesetz) of 1949 the guarantee of citizenship to all Germans affected by the terrible legacy of World War II, West Germany desired to improve the legal status of ethnic compatriots who still lived outside its borders. In later years, the Bonn government even went so far as to purchase their release from East European Communist regimes. This effort to secure emigration rights was based upon the goal of uniting German families separated during the war, particularly those Germans (primarily Ukrainian or Black Sea) who had fled with the Nazis, but who in 1945 and 1946 were forcibly repatriated as Soviet citizens back to the USSR. The issue of returning surviving German POWs from the Soviet Union also appeared on the West German agenda.
With the Cold War lurking in the background, initial stages of reconciliation between the Soviet and West German sides began in the final months of 1955. On September 17, 1955, a general amnesty decree already was applied to all Soviet citizens placed under confinement for wartime “collaboration” with the Nazi enemy. This decree proved not as far-reaching, however, as the separate amnesty decrees given to the various deported peoples in 1955 and 1956. Beginning as early as the summer of 1954 and through 1956, the Soviet regime gradually released almost all of the approximately 2.75 million “special settlers.”
On December 13, 1955, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet released the first landmark postwar “rehabilitation” decree concerning the ethnic Germans:
Considering that there is no longer any need for the existing restrictions in the legal status of specially settled Germans and their family members [dependents], who were moved to various district lands;
The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR resolves:
1. To remove from the [government’s] record the special settlement [spetsposelenie] and to release from the administrative supervision of the agency of the MVD [Ministry of Internal Affairs] the Germans and their dependents, who were moved to the special settlement at the time of the Great Patriotic War [World War II], and also those Germans, who are citizens of the USSR, who, after the reparation from Germany [i.e., the forced postwar deportation back to the USSR of those who fled with the Nazis], were turned over to the special settlement.
2. To establish that the removal of restrictions from the Germans throughout the special resettlement not include the return of one’s property [belongings lost or stolen previously in wartime], which was confiscated in conjunction with the eviction, and that they [the Germans] do not have the right to return to the place from where they were removed.
Foreign policy considerations had led first and foremost to the “amnesty’s” passage, as it deliberately followed Chancellor Adenauer’s Moscow visit earlier in September 1955. The Adenauer visit, of course, had more to do with establishing diplomatic and economic ties between the countries than with having the Soviets granting cultural or political concessions to ethnic Germans. But for the West, the resumption of diplomatic relations assumed that at least a legal change and an improvement in the ethnic Germans’ official status now had to take place.
The December 1955 decree repealed the limitations placed on the ethnic Germans’ legal status, ruling that they no longer had to remain under special supervision. In short, it permitted them to leave the “special settlement” to which they had been deported during the 1940s. They could not claim material compensation for their losses or return to their traditional villages and homelands, however. Though responding to Adenauer’s pressure, the Soviets gave the appearance, in the opinion of some ethnic German activists in the USSR, of being not too much in a hurry, as the decree was released after a three-month delay following the resumption of diplomatic relations.
Kremlin authorities deliberately also restricted dissemination of this important decree in the Soviet Union, printing it only in the limited circulation of the Bulletin of Current Legislation (Byulletin’ tekushchego zakonodatel’stva, Nr. 5, December 1955, pp. 3-4).1 This Soviet practice of curtailing publicity about significant decrees directly addressing the Stalinist past was standard procedure until the late 1980s. In 1991, Human Rights Watch concluded about the USSR’s mass deportations and repression of numerous national minorities that “[p]ost-Stalinist Soviet governments have admitted, but with minimal publicity, that these actions were illegal and morally wrong.”2
The Soviet regime’s unwillingness to publish the “amnesty” decree for public consumption was simply the first in a long series of relatively silent official acknowledgments of a criminal past. As early as the late 1950s and early 1960s, government silence became a point of contention and concern for emerging ethnic German activists, who wanted to have the truth about the treatment of their nationality group widely known. They viewed the truth about the past as essential to the encouragement of social harmony among the nationalities, later arguing that, for the sake of justice, a well-informed Soviet citizenry was better able to avoid misunderstandings and confrontations over such issues as ethnic German “rehabilitation” and the need to restore national rights. In the eyes of some critics, many of the post-Stalinist USSR’s admissions about past crimes seemed to be intended more for the West German government than for the victims and survivors themselves.
In view of recent diplomatic negotiations, the Bonn government was probably informed of the “amnesty” decree’s release before the ethnic Germans themselves—those whom the policy most personally affected. Most ethnic Germans in the USSR only learned about its release in subsequent weeks and even months, another sore point for future ethnic activists, who, though often grateful for West German diplomatic intervention on their people’s behalf, came to sense that they had little say over their own fate.
The decree in fact soon generated much impatience and unrest among the other deported Soviet peoples, including the Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Chechens, and Ingush. In the spring and summer of 1956, shortly after Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” condemning Stalin, all the remaining deported nations were freed from their places of confinement as well. At this time, the Soviets opened the gates of the Gulag, releasing Kalmyks, Greeks, Armenians, and Bulgarians. On July 16, 1956, the Chechens, Ingush, and Karachai came off the special settlement rolls. Without receiving any apology or “rehabilitation” from the regime, many of them, like the ethnic Germans, were forced to sign a document waiving all rights to receive former property or return to their native villages and homelands.3
1. Alfred Eisfeld, Die Russlanddeutschen, Studienbuchreihe der Stiftung Ostdeutscher Kulturrat: Vol. 2, rev. ed. (Munich: F. A. Herbig Verlagsbuchhandlung, GmbH, 1999 ), p. 135.
2. Minority Rights Group, ed.,“Punished Peoples” of the Soviet Union: The Continuing Legacy of Stalin’s Deportations: A Helsinki Watch Report, Sept. 1991 (United States: Human Rights Watch, Sept. 1991), p. 7. See also Ann Sheehy, The Crimean Tatars, Volga Germans, and Meskhetians: Soviet Treatment of Some National Minorities, Report No. 6, rev. ed. (London: Minority Rights Group, 1973).
3. Fred C. Koch, The Volga Germans: In Russia and the Americas, from 1763 to the Present (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977), p. 289; Michaela Pohl, “Migrants after Stalin: Settlers and Exiles in Kazakhstan, 1954-1960,” paper given at the 1999 American Historical Association (AHA) Conference, Jan.-Feb. 1999.