A July 1979 Letter from the “Action Committee of Soviet Germans” in Kazakhstan
“A July 1979 Letter from the ‘Action Committee of Soviet Germans’ in Kazakhstan.” 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 sources: “Zapiska S. Tsviguna v TsK KPSS o rasprostranenii sredi sovetskikh nemtsev avtonomitskikh materialov” and “Spravka ‘Initsiativnaia gruppa sovetskikh nemtsev,’” in Vladimir A. Aumann and Valentina G. Chebotareva, eds., Istoriia rossiiskikh nemtsev v dokumentakh (1763-1992 gg.) (Moscow: MIGUP, 1993), pp. 198-199.
In the late 1970s, the Soviet regime tried to address a number of political and ideological challenges at home and abroad in connection with its sizeable ethnic German minority. At this time, it encountered the ethnic group’s emerging national protest and emigration movement as well as West Germany’s mounting diplomatic pressures and the international community’s growing demands to protect human and minority rights, including the right for Soviet citizens to travel and emigrate out of the country. During this period, the Soviet Union remained committed to the long-term integration and assimilation of its almost two million Germans still in exile, some of its most prized Soviet citizen-workers, with nearly half living in the Kazakh SSR. The Kremlin sought to quell domestic and foreign criticisms about the legal status of ethnic Germans by formulating a new, but rather modest, political solution for the group in 1979.
Since 1967, KGB chief Yuri Andropov had been determined to crush Soviet dissidents of all stripes—religious, political and national. He and his Kremlin allies desired now to find ways of defusing dissident calls for the right of ethnic Germans to immigrate to West Germany and at the same time satisfy at least to some extent dissident demands for the restoration of German national autonomy lost under Stalin. Andropov, after three years of secretive deliberation, orchestrated a plan to establish an ethnic German autonomous oblast (region) near Tselinograd (present-day Astana) in north-central Kazakhstan. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed off on Andropov’s proposal around May 1979, soon followed by the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Kazakh SSR. Though affected by such policies “from above,” ordinary Kazakhs and ethnic Germans alike had no say in formal discussions over autonomy issues concerning them. When the plan became known to key segments of the Kazakh population less than a month later, intense public demonstrations erupted in Tselinograd.1
In July 1979, the self-described “Action Committee of Soviet Germans” (Initsiativnaia gruppa sovetskikh nemtsev) presented to the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet a scathing letter about the previous month’s Kazakh protests against the proposed German autonomous oblast. The group formed one of the dissident cells in the ethnic German nationalist and emigration movement during this period. Its various members, however, remain anonymous, though longtime ethnic activist Adolf Bersch might have ranked among them in view of his intimate familiarity with events at the time in Kazakhstan.2
In a secret KGB memorandum from July 1979, Semen Tsvigun, the first deputy chairman of the USSR KGB and a close associate of Brezhnev, reported on the receipt of the Action Committee’s letter for the purpose of official discussion. With the letter as an attachment, he wrote:
Information has entered the offices of the state security organs, noting the fact that among the Soviet citizenry of German nationality, there are determined activists supporting the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic [ASSR] of Germans in the Volga Region. The so-called “Action Committee of Soviet Germans” prepared the following “Reference/Information” and “Appeal to the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet,” which they try to disseminate to places settled by the German population, with the goal of drawing attention to the question over autonomy and the mass collection of citizen signatures under these documents. The prescribed measures taken by the security agencies against the authors of the specified documents are the prevention and localization [isolation] of negative developments, which can arise on this basis.
Much of the information contained in the dissident letter matched the later official Soviet account of the Kazakh protests that had taken place in mid-June 1979. Other details, such as the assertion that four ethnic Germans were wounded and killed during the protests, have remained unsubstantiated so far. Since the Stalinist regime had deported a significant number of Volga Germans to Kazakhstan in the early 1940s, the document clearly expressed “pro-Volga” autonomy sentiments (i.e., the demand for the re-establishment of the Volga German ASSR that had existed between 1924 and 1941) as well as an emotional attachment to the traditional Heimat/rodina (homeland) so often articulated by many ethnic German activists in the post-Stalinist era:
According to the available facts, on June 6, 1979, in the Politburo, the Central Committee of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] accepted the resolution concerning the creation of autonomy for the Soviet Germans, with the aim of stopping the Germans’ migration to (departure for) the FRG [West Germany]. But it is not explained where it will be established. For the time being, this question is open.
The most likely place for future autonomy appears to be Kazakhstan, since the Party-administrative organs of the Kazakh SSR already examined all the necessary fundamental questions. . . . Territorial autonomy will include up to one or two rayons [districts] from the Petropavlov, Tselinograd, Karaganda, and Pavlodar Oblasts, its boundary being in such a way as to receive a new oblast with the center in Ermentau.
In late June, the ukaz [decree] of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Kazakh SSR concerning the creation of autonomy was already expected [the Kazakh SSR’s affirmative response to the Politburo’s decision in Moscow]; however, an event took place which influenced the acceptance of this decision. There, on June 17-19 and 22, mass speeches [protests] occurred in Tselinograd, demonstrations on the part of the local inhabitants—Kazakhs, on the whole, who spoke harshly and negatively toward the creation of [German] autonomy on Kazakh soil. According to reliable information, on June 22 German blood was actually shed (wounding and killing four persons). These Kazakhs, in a harshly nationalist and chauvinist manner, expressed their own indignation at the Germans, saying that, in the difficult war period, we together shared bread crumbs, and, at present, these damned Germans want to take us and our land! And you really forgot about the twenty million lost in the Second World War? Etc., etc.
The brothers in blood [the Kazakhs] are behind the course of events! Inasmuch as the creation of autonomy is already decided upon in principle in their Party, then its creation is naturally a question of time.
The Germans, however, are not indifferent to where autonomy will be established. The only proper and historical basis will be the restoration of the former Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of the Volga Germans, and, precisely for this reason, all activists should now step forward, particularly the Germans, who are already living in the Volga Region. They live on the land, which was stained with the blood of their elders. In the struggle for the establishment of Soviet power in one’s own land, their predecessors mastered this land [along the Volga]. It [the Volga Region] reveals itself to be the native soil, the homeland. Only its own kind [its own people] can always contemplate it. In it, its own people need to be reborn and to build up their joyous future.
Autonomy for the Germans is only in the Volga Region! Lenin gave it to us! The Volga Region is our homeland, our cradle! We, the Soviet Germans, are an integral constituent part of the Soviet people. Our rights must not be restricted! Our autonomy in the Volga Region was unjustly liquidated. The truth must prevail!
After investigating the incident, the Kremlin was compelled to back down in the face of strong Kazakh resistance, therefore withdrawing the German autonomous oblast proposal in February 1980. Kazakh opposition at all levels to the plan pointed to the increasingly complicated and troubling nature of Soviet nationality affairs overall in Brezhnev’s final years. In both the former USSR and the West, little information was made available to the public concerning the disquieting Tselinograd episode until after 1988, when the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (“restructuring”) went into effect.
It is interesting to note that Andropov’s political protégé during the late 1970s and early 1980s was the young Gorbachev. Following Brezhnev’s passing in 1982, Andropov became Soviet leader, but his untimely death in 1984 precluded his efforts to reinvigorate the Soviet Communist system. After 1985, Gorbachev eventually picked up where his mentor left off. Under Gorbachev the Communist reformer, the question of German autonomy in the Soviet Union also came to a head between 1989 and 1991.3
In retrospect, it might be more appropriate for observers to contemplate what might have happened had the Kremlin restored some kind of territorial status and political and cultural autonomy for its ethnic Germans a decade before the frenetic activity of the Gorbachev period. Indeed, the legacy of the aborted oblast plan in Kazakhstan was the ethnic Germans’ continued lack of a national-territorial “container” when the USSR disintegrated in 1990 and 1991. The Andropov proposal represented the Soviet regime’s first serious consideration of German autonomy since the ethnic group lost its various national districts between 1935 and 1938 and the Volga German ASSR in September 1941. Though arguably not as ideal a political solution as the restored ASSR along the Volga, the new oblast in Kazakhstan would have at least established an embryonic national center for all Germans in the USSR, from which they might have found themselves in a better political position during the dramatic Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras. Assuming that political guarantees to respect German autonomy in Kazakhstan would have remained in place, the oblast also could have helped soften the impact of the dramatic mass migration of Germans from the Central Asian regions of the former USSR to united Germany after 1990.
1. In the late 1970s, Yuri Andropov and his Kremlin associates envisioned a modest territorial unit set aside for ethnic Germans within the Kazakh SSR’s political framework. The proposed autonomous oblast near Tselinograd (Astana) would have encompassed about 46,000 square kilometers or almost 18,000 square miles. In fact, it would have compared in geographical extent with the former Volga German ASSR (1924-1941), i.e., a region nearly the same size as Denmark or approximately half the size of Portugal. The new oblast would have also contained a sparse population of over 202,000, of whom only around 30,000 were Germans, a miniscule fraction of almost one million from this ethnic group in Kazakhstan. Perhaps Andropov decided to take a more cautious political approach to the German autonomy question at this time, but the selection of north-central Kazakhstan was not coincidental. About three decades after Stalin’s deportation of peoples, the Kremlin believed that it was now more expedient and feasible to keep the German ethnic group in Central Asia. The Central Committee Commission of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was responsible for creating the oblast, issued an August 1978 report underscoring the oblast’s combined political, ideological, and economic purposes: “The creation of the new oblast would also permit the execution of a fuller utilization of economic resources in the development of the economy of northern Kazakhstan, especially rural agriculture.” See Eric J. Schmaltz, “Reform, ‘Rebirth,’ and Regret: The Early Autonomy Movement of Ethnic Germans in the USSR, 1955-1989,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (2002), pp. 244-271. For the broader context of Andropov’s policies toward national minority dissidents at this time, consult Hanya Shiro, “Nationalities Policies in the Brezhnev Era: The Case of Deported Nations,” in Uyama Tomohiko, ed., Empire, Islam, and Politics in Central Eurasia (Slavic Eurasian Studies, No. 14) (Sapporo, Japan: Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University, 2007), pp. 221-246.
2. Adolf Bersch, Zwischen Leiden und Hoffen: Das Schicksal eines Wolgadeutschen (Erinnerungen) (Augsburg: Negele-Druck, 1997).
3. Schmaltz, pp. 244-271. Equally interesting, Andropov also at this time was the boss of a young Communist cadre, Viktor K. Gusev, who later handled the controversial autonomy question for ethnic Germans in the Volga Region under Gorbachev between late 1989 and mid-1991. See Viktor K. Gusev, “Nemetskii vopros: Pyat’desyat let i dva poslednikh goda,” interview by V. Ardaev and Vladimir Arsen’ev, Izvestiia, no. 103 (Apr. 30, 1991): p. 3.