Germans from Russia Symposium
North Dakota State University
Fargo, North Dakota
James Kusler, Secretary of State
Bismarck, North Dakota
Thank you, Mike, for the warm introduction.
It's unusual for Germans from Russia to be involved in politics.
I grew up believing Norwegians and Swedes could do a better job.
The fact that the Office of Secretary of State has stayed in the
hands of a German from Russia for two successive administrations
is an anomaly in itself.
Today I'll talk about a recent journey some North Dakotans made to the Soviet Union. It was a mission with business purposes on behalf of North Dakota. One of the stops was Volgograd on the Volga River, which was at one time the home of a large Germanic community. Much to my surprise, it turned into somewhat of a personal journey. My ancestors came from the Black Sea region and my understanding of Germans from Russia was purely an academic understanding from college history courses. At Volgograd I began to gain a personal understanding of what it meant to be a German from Russia. Today I'll share with you some of my experiences from Volgograd.
Three important points need to be made. First, we need to understand that for the Russians the suffering from World War II isn't over. Second, we need to understand the significance of sister city relationships. Third, we need to understand the importance of having a convertible currency.
Let's consider the first point: Russian suffering from World War II. Enough time has passed since the end of World War II for Americans to look at the war in a historical context. Yet, throughout Eastern Europe and especially Volgograd, World War II is an issue. In Eastern Europe, within minutes, just about any conversation would include references or discussions of World War II.
Try to look at it from the Russian perspective. The Soviet Union lost about twenty million people during the war. In 1939 Volgograd, previously named Stalingrad, was a city of approximately 450,000 people. On January 1, 1946, of those 450,000 people, 30,000 survived. Approximately 1.5 million to 2 million Russian and German people died in the battle for Stalingrad. In the city square of Stalingrad there were 34,000 dead. Everyone in Volgograd by experience and history, be they Russian or Germans living in Russia, is a veteran of the Battle for Stalingrad. The entire city was destroyed during the battle. One shelled building, owned at the time by a German miller, survives as a memorial to the Battle for Stalingrad. When we read about glasnost and perestroika and attempt to discern what it means for Germans from Russia, we must do it in the context of their historical experience. Our perspectives are different. Reunification of Germany is an issue. Their own fears and history with German immigrants who settled in the Volga region are issues. The knowledge, which we gleaned while we were there, can be put to good use.
My second point emphasizes understanding the importance of sister city relationships. From the Russian perspective, sister city relationships are viewed as an avenue for international communication and trade. The Russian view may differ from our view. I believe most of us view sister city relationships as a people-to-people program emphasizing cultural issues. Some of us may view it as a super pen-pal program between cities. Their viewpoint is considerably different. The sister city program has official standing with the government. Therefore, it becomes a vehicle for the participants to use the program as they see appropriate within the boundaries their government permits. As a result, the Russians see the program as more than a people-to-people exchange. It's a vehicle for exchanging expertise, economic development ideas, and developing economic investment and trade ties.
Talk of trade brings me to my third point: understanding the hard currency issue. One theme ran throughout our conversations with government and business leaders: We need hard currency now! The big question was, "Why are American companies holding back?" "Europeans are willing to invest, but Americans are reluctant, they said. The main reason is because the Russian ruble is not convertible to any other currency. Russian rubles have no value beyond the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the press for hard currency continues.
At this point I brought out a map of the United States and drew an oval stretching from southern Canada down to northern Mexico and back to Canada, encircling portions of several Great Plains states. I pointed out that a significant percentage of the people living within the oval were Germans from Russia with ancestral roots in the Volga region and the Ukraine. I pointed out they could attract hard currency by making church records, death certificates, birth certificates, baptismal records, and cemetery plots available to researchers and archivists researching Germans from Russia. In my opinion this process could begin to attract tourists and hard currency to the Soviet Union.
Those comments brought us back to the first point: World War II. The very first comment, I emphasize the very first, is as follows: A Russian, speaking in clear English, said, "If we allow these Germans from Russia to come back to the Volgograd region in search of their genealogical roots, in light of our recent experiences in Lithuania, will we be sowing the seeds of political insurrection here in the Volgograd region?" I responded, "We're more interested in coming back to find our ancestors, laying a wreath, saying a prayer and going home, than starting a revolution. Nevertheless, I felt doubt and suspicion remained.
In the end, the mayor of Volgograd provided a proposal. He suggested assembling a delegation of people whose ancestors were from the Volga region. He asked [that] we forward the names to him in advance and he would attempt to make a connection between the names of the proposed delegation members and any records he could access. The mayor saw this as a possible demonstration project, which could lead to tourism and trade. Ironically, our search for our roots may be wrapped in their search for hard currency.
The idea of the possibility of using official help to get at certain records may underscore the desperation throughout the Soviet Union for some kind of change. Not all may agree on what that change should be; however, the word "desperation" is not an overstatement of their discontent and hunger for contact with the West. Please keep in mind I do not stand before you as an expert on Soviet affairs or internal matters. I'm simply attempting to relate to you my experiences, as I understood them.
To successfully research our historical past as Germans from Russia I believe we must be keenly aware of the residual impact of World War II; understand the significance of establishing sister city relationships and further understand the door of opportunity; it opens for them and for us; and view tourism and their need for hard currency as a persuasive tool for official cooperation in searching for our past. I'd be happy to respond to any questions.