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Encounters in Siberia: A German-Russian on a Visit to his old Home

Begegnungen in Sibirien: Ein Russlanddeustcher auf Heiamturlaub

Hilbk, Merle. "Encounters in Siberia: A German-Russian on a Visit to his old Home." Volk auf dem Weg, November 2004, 23.

Translation from German to American English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


It is a strange feeling to encounter a person with a very strong Bavarian accent in the middle of Siberia, even stranger when that person tells you that he is originally from a village near Novosibirsk and that in a sense is on vacation in his old home country.

Horst is singing. "Byty s toboy ryadom. Nitchevo ne nado," or "To be near you -- there is nothing else I need." The song was a result of the mood of this night during which the birch trees gleam so white as if they had been painted with chalk as foreground for the sky of Novosibirsk. The owner of the dacha, in front of which our German-Russian group has gathered around a barbecue pit fire, had bought a guitar for Horst S., who had just arrived from Germany and who is -- in a sense -- on vacation in his old home country. "But what is home?" says Horst and wraps his arms around the guitar.

Horst is a German from Russia. In 1941, on Stalin's order, his parents were deported to Siberia, along with hundreds of thousands of other German families who once had been lured to the Volga, to Volhynia and to Ukraine by generous promises of land by Tsarina Catherine the Great.

For days the deportees had rolled in cattle boxcars toward the East. Where they left the train there was nothing: no houses, no milk for the children, no warm clothing. They built earthen huts, pleaded with the farmers of the area for seeds, and planted fields. With time, the few huts turned into a village, and at its edge the residents were ordered to build a ceramic factory. During the day they worked in the factory, during the evenings they planted grain and vegetables. That's how life began in the foreign land where Horst was born.

With the children of Russian workers and farmers of the area he spoke Russian, he spent his summers in Pioneer camps and winters fishing, and he thought that nothing distinguished from the others -- until someone on the street yelled after him: "Get lost, you fascist!" He knew then that it was not enough to own a passport with hammer and sickle on the cover or to live like a Russian among Russians. "It became clear to me," he said, "with this name I will forever remain a German who doesn't really belong."

Later he studied engineering science and landed a position in a famous research institute in Novosibirsk, and he made friends in the city. But the feeling of estrangement remained. So when Russia opened its borders for German-Russians, his parents, too, pressed for emigration. Horst thought about it for a long time, he thought about the work that gave him pride, about his friends, but also about the empty stores, his tiny apartment and about his wish that "my children should have it easier!" When he handed his emigration application to his boss for signature, the latter asked: "Do you believe that in Germany things will be better for you?"

Fifteen years ago, Horst Fischer arrived at a Bavarian "transition hostel." During the initial years, he was driven forward by the hope to be able to discover in this free country a home that Siberia had never become. Within a very short time he learned the German language with a Bavarian accent, and he built -- with his own hands -- a house. "For me there was only one thing at the time -- looking forward."

Because he was unable to find a job in engineering, he hired on with a metal firm as man who would accept any work whatsoever. His village neighbors did greet him in a friendly manner, but no one made any attempts tried to get close. "For the Bavarian people, I am the Russian that was never allowed to be in Siberia." On his own he was not able to establish a permanent relationship with his German neighbors, mostly because he felt that he could not keep up with discussions about mowers or consumer goods of the 1980s; because he didn't understand his colleagues' references to events from everyday German culture; and because the old songs and hits that were being played at village festivities could not remind him of anything that had characterized the others' history: not of the first Camel cigarette on the Bagger Lake, not of the first night of love in a VW Beetle, neither of a soft drink bought at a small booth nor of a bottle of eau de cologne in the bathroom of his grandparents. But simply to approach someone and "to force on him what is going on inside me" -- well, he said, that was not something he was made to do. "I am missing more than 30 years of German everyday life if I were to call this country my own."

In the evening, when he comes home from work, he lowers the curtains, takes out his guitar and sings -- very quietly, so that the neighbors can't hear -- the old songs from Russia: Vissotzky, "The Song about a Friend," Okoudchova, songs of his youth, melancholy ones, poetic ones, those which provide him with the memories, that awaken feelings that he cannot share with anyone in Germany except his wife, who, says Horst, is always tired in the evening. But no one in Bavaria is to know of this -- and hat's one reason he does not let anyone take his picture.

And now his full, warm voice is heard in the Novosobirk night, "Byty s toboy ryadom." Horst says, "Nobody sings that way In Germany," and he continues with his song that is soft, spiritual and full of life all at the same time. Perhaps, perhaps there is such a thing as the "Russian soul," anyway.

Merle Hilbk (Spiegel online)

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

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