By Ilya Malyakin
Stalin liquidated the Volga German Autonomous Republic [VGAR], which existed in the 1920s and 1930s in parts of what are now Volgograd and Saratov Oblasts, when the USSR entered World War II. The Volga Germans went onto the list of repressed peoples, along with the Kalmyks, the Chechens, and the Crimean Tatars. After the condemnation of the so-called “cult of personality,” many of these peoples were rehabilitated and offered the chance to return to their historical homelands.
The Volga Germans were not so lucky. Although they could, theoretically, return to the Volga region, they did not get their republic back. Its territory remained part of Volgograd and Saratov, and its towns and villages, now renamed, were either abandoned or settled by new people, who, for the most part, arrived there during the process of wartime evacuation.
Some of the Germans hurried back to their homeland, but most had already succeeded in making themselves new homes in their places of exile and were afraid to give up what they had for the unclear prospects of pulling up roots again to move to a region where people clearly were not going to welcome them with open arms.
The situation remained “frozen” like this for years.
But with the beginning of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, the “German problem” acquired new topicality. With the restoration of historical justice to individual people, reluctance to “dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s” with respect to larger repressed communities, such as the Volga Germans, would look like a logical contradiction. Gorbachev recognized this, and declared his intention to restore the VGAR.
Here, it is worth stopping to reflect on some of the specific features of the “German question” in Russia. The problem of the Russian Germans arose as a consequence of a practice almost unknown in the civilized world. Only under totalitarianism, with its centralized administrative-command system, could an entire people be declared “undesirable” and deported in the wink of an eye, and the administrative unit it once occupied, disbanded. But Lenin’s creation of the VGAR was also a totalitarian phenomenon. And in declaring the need to restore historical justice to the Volga Germans, Gorbachev, in practice, was following the same canons as his two predecessors. After over forty years of nonexistence, the VGAR could only be reinstated by another arbitrary act — which, incidentally, looked quite logical and natural from the totalitarian point of view: having a monopoly on political power, the state made a mistake, and now only it, by using this monopoly, could correct it.
It seemed quite logical to the Volga Germans themselves, who saw what had happened to their people as an injustice, but one that could not be overcome and had to be taken for granted. Their attitude was based on a very simple conception of how the problem could be redressed: the party and the state leadership must correct their own mistake by issuing legislation to restore the republic, and after that, offer practical assistance in implementing it. They ascribed a magical character, as it were, to the Soviet state and party apparatus, expecting miracles from it, not wanting to face up to the real state of affairs. And in posing the question in terms of the willful restoration of the VGAR, the Soviet leaders, who themselves seemed confident of their “magical” powers, made the same mistake. For them, the whole problem could be reduced to the need to issue the appropriate legislation and to draw up a complex of measures to implement it.
But by that time, Gorbachev had already done quite a bit to destroy Soviet power’s “magical” aura. Therefore, unlike Lenin and Stalin, he was no longer a “magician,” who could decide the fate of peoples with one stroke of a pen. His intentions ran up against the resistance of the environment, and, from that moment, there was a struggle between “administrative magic” and reality.
The supporters of the Volga German autonomy were encouraged by one important circumstance: the West German government, which, at that time, was contemplating unification with the GDR, shared their interests. When the limitations on emigration from the USSR began to be lifted, official Bonn reasoned, quite logically, that it would be much better off helping their Volga German countrymen resolve their problems in Russia than resettling them in Germany itself.
But the autonomy had its enemies as well, above all, the party leadership of the districts which would have to become part of it, and they played on the sentiments of the nationalist part of the population.
Now, it is already too late to argue about the degree to which “party agitators” or disinformation were to blame in inciting anti-German sentiments among residents of Saratov Oblast. In any event, the movement against the restoration of the VGAR was truly popular and massive. Residents of the districts which would have become part of the VGAR honestly thought that they would be kicked out of their homes, which would revert to their previous owners when the Germans came back, that they would cease to be “masters on their own land,” losing part of their civil rights.
In almost every district, mass movements against the autonomy were formed, which often used openly chauvinistic slogans and tended to equate the Volga Germans with the Nazis. Many participants in the anti-autonomy movement did not conceal their intention to stop the “unwanted newcomers” by force, if need be.
The resistance proved to be too strong. When it had to face the danger of yet another “hot spot” appearing in the country, the Soviet leadership was forced to halt the process of restoring the autonomy, although it never officially renounced its intention to do so.
The “German problem” was left dangling in the air. On one hand, no serious steps had been taken to restore the republic. On the other, some steps connected with this process, and among them resettlement programs, were implemented in a piecemeal fashion. Money began to come in from Germany, and housing construction began in Saratov and Volgograd Oblasts; returning Germans were being put in “container villages,” [where they live in shipping containers, roughly the size of a travel trailer] not known for their reliable construction.
But here, the factor which distinguished the Volga Germans from the other repressed peoples of the USSR came to play — they had somewhere else to go. German families which had been resettled to the east and experienced a longing to change their place of residence were faced with a choice: should they go to the dilapidated and inhospitable Volga region, which was not very different from other parts of Russia, or — to wealthy Germany?
At first, quite a few Germans decided to resettle in the Volga region. But after arriving there and experiencing all the charms of life in “container villages” among a hostile ethnic Russian population firsthand, many of them changed their minds. The number of Germans resettling to the former VGAR at first began to drop significantly, and then dried up, and as a result, the percentage of ethnic Germans in the population has remained quite low.
The situation was further aggravated by disunity within the Volga German movement itself. The movement can conditionally be divided into three groups, who, for a long time, had competed among themselves. The first group — the “radicals” — considered the most important task to be to fight for the restoration of the VGAR. The second group — the “conservatives” — had no hope of acquiring autonomy anytime soon, and proposed concentrating on implementing the “tactic of small steps”: the creation of compact ethnic German settlements in the Volga region (and not only in the Volga region), the revival of the German language and culture, etc. The third group — the “realists” — saw no chance for any role for Germans in Russia, and spoke of the need to work for their gradual emigration to Germany.
Today, it is already possible to say that the “conservatives” have won a formal victory. The “realists” disappeared from the scene too quickly, heeding their own call to emigrate, and the original popularity of the “radicals'” ideas, like the “Kremlin magic” of Gorbachev’s team, was shattered by the animosity of the local population, the lack of money and Yeltsin’s team’s reluctance to keep his predecessor’s promises…
As a result, today, the idea of restoring the VGAR may be considered dead and buried, and the ethnic German movement itself, which has lost its bearings, is undergoing a crisis.
The Volga German Society, which was formed from a number of small, diverse groups and is more or less representative of Russia’s Germans today, has placed its bets on the creation of an ethnic and cultural autonomy. Its second congress, which was held in Saratov on April 4-5, 1997, showed quite vividly that not all Russian Germans intend to leave the country, and that those who remain here do not wish to lead a pitiful existence, hoping for government handouts.
But they have significantly more problems than achievements. The chairman of the society’s council, Yuri Gaar, in his report, said that the leadership of Volgograd and Saratov Oblasts remain cold to the “German problem,” that the official structures created to resolve it hardly work at all, that previously-reached agreements are either not being adhered to at all, or only partially.
Gaar noted that the German movement has become less active. Over the two years before the congress, the main German organizations involved in political activity — the “Wiedergeburt” [Rebirth] society and the International Union of Russian Germans — had not only not taken any significant measures, they had not even held meetings to determine future strategy (in violation of their charters).
After the congress, the situation seemed to improve a little. After concentrating on the idea of ethnic and cultural autonomy, Russia’s Germans succeeded in achieving a certain amount of success. Twenty-eight federation subjects started working on such structures, and Saratov Oblast was one of the first to complete it successfully. On December 19-20, 1997, the founding congress on creating a federal autonomy was held.
All this, however, did not add to the movement’s strength so much as it erected a barrier between itself and the idea of reviving the VGAR. As regards the latter, it suffices to say that after the aforementioned congress, the so-called “German House” in Saratov, which was the center of the ethnic German movement in the region, was closed.
In search of new bearings, the leadership of the Russian German Ethnic and Cultural Autonomy [RGECA] are now engaged in what is tantamount to an admission of defeat. The RGECA’s president, Vladimir Bauer, said at a press conference in Moscow on February 19, that the possibility of German autonomy as a Federation subject on a so-called “ex-territorial basis” (without the right to their own territory) is being considered. Izvestia published a report on this on February 20. If the Germans receive autonomy, even in this “virtual” form, they could be entitled to representation in the Russian parliament.
Bauer also reported that the federal aid program, targeted for the socio-economic and cultural revival of Russian Germans, signed by Boris Yeltsin, will go into effect this year. 100 million redenominated rubles from the Russian budget have been set aside for this goal. At the same time, as the head of the German government’s department on national minorities reports, the German government will invest 75 million marks in developing the German autonomy.
The “German problem” continues to be exploited for political purposes. Last summer, there was an unofficial, but widely publicized, visit of a delegation led by Saratov governor Dmitri Ayatskov to villages in the border areas of Volgograd Oblast, in order to persuade them to become part of a “German Autonomous District” which would be part of Saratov Oblast, whose creation was ostensibly a foregone conclusion. Local representatives of the ethnic German movement knew nothing, either of the governor’s trip or of the mysterious autonomous district. According to many observers, the delegation’s trip was motivated not so much by the desire to help those who wished to restore the autonomy, as to annex a potentially rich oil field to the oblast.
Meanwhile, most Russian Germans, who have not been drawn into the political battle over restoring the German autonomy, will continue to solve their problems independently, including by emigration. And the political proceedings over their future in Russia have little influence on their decisions.
Ilya Malyakin is chief editor and political expert at the Volga Information Bureau, an independent news agency in Saratov.
Translated by Mark Eckert