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A Peaceful Evening in Street No. 4

Kneip, Ansbert. "A Peaceful Evening in Street No. 4." Der Spiegel, n.d.


The holiday hog hangs head down from the scaffolding and stinks of burned flesh. In the backyard of the Dietz's, the men are singeing the bristles from the carcass with a soldering iron, after which they will wash off the greasy soot.

Tomorrow the sow will do the village honor, as it is a festival day. The community is one-hundred years old; one will celebrate with German pork goulash and much, much vodka. For dessert, the women will serve rivel cake, a specialty, that is known in Germany as "Streuselkuchen."

Germany is about 4,000 kilometers from the festival square of the German village, Alexandrowka on the Siberian steppe, and the entire long distance has been traversed by the man who will now eat of the Streuselkuchen: Horst Waffenschmidt, Bonn's emigration commissioner is festival guest in Alexndrowka.

The village of Alexandrowka belongs to a jurisdiction, named Rayon, governed by Germans. It is comparable to a district. And this settlement of Germans is the favorite project of Bonn's emigration policy. This Siberian idyl should be "a beacon for a better future" for German-Russians seeking a place to stay, as Waffenschmidt said during his visit of two weeks ago.

Bonn is benefiting their settlement with amounts in the millions; everything is funded that could persuade the farmers to stay in Russia. So that they will have an alternative to leaving for Germany, Waffenschmidt has arranged the finances for a container village and a government center for the Russian-Germans of the district near Omsk; even the accordion for the folk-dance ensemble is paid for by Bonn.

For several years, German has again been taught in the school; the German government is donating suitable books. In the House of Culture, a theater group is appearing that for the time being has been allowed to Germanize its Socialist name to: Lay Art Collective, Golden Harvest.

The golden harvest of German culture was brought to the East by the forefathers of the Siberian-Germans more than 200 years ago.

There, Germans, mostly from Swabia, settled on the Volga. Towards the end of the last century some of these colonists, as the Volga Germans called themselves, moved still farther east.

Today, almost 135,000 people of German descent live in the greater metropolitan area of the Siberian district capital, Omsk. However, hardly anywhere else has the mixture of rural romanticism and cultural inbreeding maintained itself as much as it has in Alexandrowka.

With their headscarves and their white aprons the women look like extras in a provincial film. The village painter, Alexander Wormsbecher, paints works of German domestic culture: charming river landscapes in which red-cheeked youths steal the apples from the trees.

At its founding, the villagers numbered 296 souls; now they are 1,400. The inhabitants are named Becker, Miller or Lichtenwald, and if there were more streets in the village, they would also have German names. In this case, however, they are simply numbered from 1 to 4.

"My home is here," says Lida Knaus, 63, who is enjoying the peaceful sunny evening in front of her house on Street 4. This woman has borne nine children and has "brought them all to adulthood." However, that did not entitle her to the honorary title: "Mother Heroine." One receives this only from eleven children.

Two of her children have moved to foreign parts, namely to Nowosibirsk. There, so they report, life is easier; one "doesn't constantly have to work." Lida Knaus would be happiest to stay in Alexandrowka until the end of her life, even though her gouty hands hurt when she plucks chickens and her back hurts when she milks.

However, on September 2, she and her daughter will fly to Frankfurt, where her other children already expect her. Then, the family will again almost be together; however, the two sons from Novosibirsk perhaps will follow later.

Even the visit of the German, Waffenschmidt, was not able to change her mind: "What should I do when the children are gone? After all, I cannot die here alone," she says, giving reasons for her move to the West. She had several 5,000 rubles for her burial; with the inflation in Russia she could not even pay for the Streuselkuchen.

The new hard times are hitting Russians and those of German descent equally, although for the German there is always the trek to the West. The more relatives one has in Germany, the easier it is to emigrate. It is like an infectious disease. An inscription on the House of Culture admonishes: "Let us maintain our national culture." However, it is doubtful whether ten years from now many Germans will still be living here.

Today 200 families remain; one-fifth of the village has already left. The first two left in 1990; a year later 13 families followed them; 27 left in 1992. Since then, entire nearby villages have literally been dissolved.

Up to now, the Bonn policy of procuring a permanent homeland for the Germans from Russia has failed in many places. The revival of the Volga Republic, planned after the end of the Soviet Union, is being considered as unrealistic in Bonn as is the idea of settling 400,000 Germans in the Ukraine. There, President Leonid Krawtschuk is resisting with delaying tactics.

During the past year, the number of emigrants from the former Soviet Union has again risen: As recently as 1991 there were 147,000, in the year 1992 a good 195,000. The majority of the at least two million remaining German-Russians, want to leave.

That Waffenschmidt nonetheless characterizes the little village as an "Island of Hope" during his visit, which can be attributed to the 25,000 letters that the chief administrative officer of the Rayon district, Bruno Heinrichowitsch Reiter, has collected. They are all inquiries from those willing to move from Russia's neighboring republic, Kazakhstan. There the Germans, as also other Europeans, are being routinely driven out.

In place of the approximately 10,000 people, who have left the district during the past year, 13,000 new settlers have already moved in. Yet the numbers sound better than they are. Only seventy percent of the newcomers are Germans. Among the applicants are above all such Germans as are married to Russians or who would in any case not meet the German conditions for admission.

The new arrivals meet with the established resident Siberian-Germans in pious song in the German-financed church in Omsk. The small congregation opens the Volga-hymnbook to number 537, "Praise to the Lord."

The half-finished church still lacks a roof. While about 200 believers of German descent sing the three first verses, in the background the workers prepare for their break. Superintendent Nikolaus Schneider, chief Protestant shepherd for almost all of Siberia, leads the service from a concrete platform, that will later be the base for the altar room.

In spite of all of the hardships, Schneider is thankful. Immediately after the praise to the Highest has died away, he praises the small gentleman who even here spreads enthusiasm for construction: "Without you, Mr. Waffenschmidt, without the help from Germany, this wonderful house of prayer would not be possible."

Still, supported with a even four million marks, the Lutheran church awakens envy. The red brick building stands out all too plainly from the ugly slab-built settlement in the surrounding area. The neighbors do not live as well as God does; Catholics and Orthodox believers pray less comfortably than their Protestant brothers.

The Bonn-inspired spirit of creation reigns still more ostentatiously in Asowo, the capital of German Rayon. Here with 4.7 million marks of German funds, Administrator Reiter is having a residential and governmental development built, that stands out in this impoverished area like a palace complex.

The German donators of the money find it hard to explain the magnificent buildings. Among the indigenous population, so reports Heinrich Brack, the inhabitants of Asowo, it is considered a given that "here only the rich from Asowo will move in." At any rate, it is hard to imagine that the inhabitants will allow the refugees from Khazakhstan to get ahead of them when it is time to move into the houses.

The German Ministry of the Interior responsible for the Russian-Germans shies away from the subject: yes, the houses are extraordinarily beautiful, but that lies with the architect, he "simply indulged himself."

Close by, there is a building site for the German refugees from Khazakhstan. Here they should later be able to stock up on material in order to build their own houses. "He who builds himself a house" says Waffenschmidt, "will stay forever."

Heinrich Brack isn't interested in that: "Things will never again go well here," he believes. "What kind of work should these many people do, from what should they live?" Landrat Reiter can only offer the 25,000 Germans from Khazakhstan 1,500 jobs in agriculture. He has no positions at all for industrial workers or for university graduates.

Already there is not enough water for the people in the district, not enough gas for the winter, and too few housing units. In the container village, that should really take in immigrants, inhabitants from Asowo have moved in also. The Germans comprise somewhat more than half of the population of the temporary residence. At least two years will pass before they have a house of their own.

But even here, they do not all want to stay. Because it is often simpler to organize ones emigration from Russia, some Khazakhstan-Germans come to Asowo only for this reason.

They can accustom themselves to a container. Exactly the same things are already found in German shelters.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
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