German Russian for Always?

Thoughts About a Special Migrant Group: Why do they become so angry when in Germany they are occasionally called Russians? It can’t be all that bad, argues Andreas Keller, and calls on Germans from Russia to adopt a more relaxed attitude. There are many reasons for self-assurance. Here are some of them.   

Keller, Andreas, on the Web Site (Berlin), August, 2011.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO. 

Author’s Biographical Information

Olena Belinska, part of the young generation of German Russians in Germany

Andreas Keller, born in 1963 in Volosovo in the Leningrad region, studied history in St. Petersburg and in Freiburg in the Breisgau (Germany). In 2000 he received a doctorate in Eastern European History. He spent some time as a docent on Russian History in the Eastern European Institute of the Free University of Berlin.

Since 1996 he has written extensively, in Russian and in German, and he has been active on behalf of the sister city project Stuttgart-Samara. He has been living in St. Petersburg since 2010.  


The Article in Translation

St. Petersburg, August, 2011 – The question whether and how the German Russians can become, or already are an ethnic group [Volksgruppe] cannot be answered unequivocally. International justice defines an ethnic group simply as a national minority. However, as Germans, the German Russians cannot be a “national minority” among Germans.

To be sure, German Russians have their own traditional clothes, dialects and cultural characteristics. But so do the Bavarians, the Württembergers, or the Fries. Thus, just as the Germans in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia comprise the Sudeten-Germans, the Black Sea, Volhynia, Volga, Carpathian, Siberian, Caucasus Germans, and others make up the collective term of German Russians. Today they are represented in the Federal Republic by roughly 2.5 million citizens.

Moreover, the concept of an Ethnic Group has a great deal to do with German history. The criminal Ethnic Group policies of the National Socialists misused the concept and characterized it such that it cannot  really be applied in today’s situation. Among other things, that would mean the separation or exclusion of other population groups and the formation of ethnically homogeneous states. For that reason, I would like to refrain from applying the term “Volksgruppe” to the German Russians. Instead I prefer to use the term “socio-cultural community.”

Self-Identity [or Self-Awareness]

The German Russians, in fact, possess a pronounced self-awareness [Bewusstsein] of their own distinctive qualities [Eigenart]. Here [in Russia–the author is writing in St. Petersburg] they were not only persecuted, but until the 1870s they enjoyed local administrative autonomy and certain privileges, and up to 1917 they comprised an elite group that played a significant role in science, in culture, in the state and in the economy. The most prominent exemplar is Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, who between 1762 until her death in 1796 ruled the Russian Empire as the Tsarina Catherine II.

The fact that Germans from Russia feel irritated when in Germany they are not identified as Germans has nothing to do with nationalism, but with their self-confidence. For them it was quite natural that in Russia they were seen as Germans. And they were indeed deported solely because they were Germans.

The fact that in Germany they are often stigmatized as Russians isn’t all that bad because we are dealing here with a strange attribution that is not always tied to negativism. Much more important is how the Germans from Russia see themselves. It is well known that people who live abroad, outside of their cultural community, often develop an intense relationship with their country of origin. As part of their self-awareness, many Germans are thus more German than the Germans themselves [sic]. 


Integration can succeed only when both sides make an effort to open up toward the other. The fact is that, although German society has always been proclaimed as an open society, that kind of a society took real form only since the 1990s. A proclaimed and a lived society are two different things.

A further difficulty consists in that the concept of integration has become somewhat hackneyed. I think it is necessary to imbue the concept with new content and form. Results from research speak for themselves: according to a 2008 study by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, the resettling immigrants show positive values with regard to integration.

They manage relatively well in the job market, and make a real effort toward their integration. This good news was proclaimed with trumpets and drums, but with the undertone of “here everything is the best.” What was overlooked is that the data in this study merely indicated average values.

Migrants of a Special Ilk

For these reasons it does not constitute slander when a journalist reports on the German Russians having become criminal. He is actually attempting to understand and put light on a phenomenon that is in great need of explanation. This is not ethnic rabble-rousing, but a sober assessment of the situation, without which certain problems cannot be dealt with.

A different topic concerns pride in being a German. But wait, does it help me to understand the other better or to attain mutual respect if I am proud of my nationality? I would rather talk about joy; the joy of living in a country in which words such as democracy, human rights, civic freedoms and obligations are not merely hollow terms, but part of civil society’s firm foundations.

The pair of concepts, migrants and resettlers [Aussiedler], does not coincide in the minds of the  latter group. Although the Aussiedler [as the term is used in modern Germany – Tr.] are the only migrants [immigrants] who are German, there is nothing wrong in calling them immigrants [Zuwanderer] when we’re concerned with cooperation and exchange of experiences with others who also have problems with integration.

It is also important to mention that a great multiplicity of German Russian associations has sprung up within only a few years. They provide advisory functions, they increasingly make active efforts to assist in integration, and they play ever growing roles on a communal, regional and national level. 

Different Among Equals

All of this attests to the fact that German Russians are in the process of extending an important position in German society so that they might represent their own interests appropriately. Defamation and “instrumentalization” of the German Russians by the mass media and populist politicians have their roots in the group’s temporary mental immaturity, but these same German Russians are increasingly capable of clearly expressing their own mind.

Within only a few years we have seen how they have formed a great socio-cultural community 2.5 million people strong in Germany. These people consider themselves to be fully equal citizens in their society—citizens who profit from that society’s openness and democracy. They do view themselves and their identity as different from the indigenous population, and they differentiate themselves by their history, their origin and their language from the rest of the population.

These are the factors that determine the self-identity of German Russians, and they will assure that the German Russians will remain a special population group for a long time.

How long, and in which form the group will continue cannot be predicted. Every person decides individually with what to identify and how to help form a collective memory. Every person sooner or later asks himself where he comes from and where he is going. The German Russians are a very dynamic population group that is seeking intently for its place in German society.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article

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