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Germany Pays to Keep Ethnic Germans in Russia

Erlanger, Steven. "Germany Pays to Keep Ethnic Germans in Russia." Special to The New York Times International, 9 May 1993.


Bezymyannoye, Russia--Katherina A. Zarya is one of several thousand ethnic Germans who have returned from Central Asian exile to the land their forebears settled more than 200 years ago near the Volga River in central Russia.

Though fluent in Russian, Mrs. Zarya can still speak Schwäbisch, a southern German dialect learned from her parents and preserved in her heart like ancestral linen. And she intends to remake her life here, where her parents were born.

Under an agreement signed last July with Russia, the German Government is financing a magnet settlement here to discourage ethnic Germans from leaving the former Soviet Union. But many thousands of ethnic Germans, including most of Mrs. Zarya's relatives, prefer to exercise their legal right to emigrate to Germany.

Recruited By Catherine

The Volga Germans first came to Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great, herself a German, who recruited them to teach Russians advanced methods of farming and other work in the late l8th century. But when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin disbanded the autonomous Volga German Republic and deported its citizens as potential fifth columnists, scattering them over Siberia and Central Asia.

A thin woman with mousy hair and many gold teeth, Mrs. Zarya is 38 but appears 15 years older.

"My parents left with small bags," she said. "All their lives they dreamed of coming back. Grandmother was 90 when she died in Kazakhstan, dreaming of this place, and my parents died there, too, dreaming."

Her parents spoke nothing but German, and she grew up in a little southern Kazakh village named Gagarin, where local children chased her down the street shouting, "Fascist! Fascist!" Even as an adult, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, she was spat upon and called names by Kazakh children.

"The Kazakhs more and more considered themselves the masters there," she said. So with her husband, a Ukrainian, she moved to this military owned collective farm, Military Sovkhoz No. 23, 30 miles southeast of Saratov, past the town of Engels and the tiny village of Bezymyannoye, or Nameless, and then down a cratered country road.

The German Government is trying to draw ethnic Germans here by building houses, a bakery and sausage factory, a school and clinic, and offering a course in rural construction. The idea is to counter the allure of emigration to Germany, a nation overwhelmed by asylum seekers and the costs of reunification.

But of the 700 or so ethnic Germans who dominate this farm of 1,000 people, 80 percent have already filled out their applications to emigrate, if only as a safety hatch in a region that resents the special benefits ethnic Germans are getting.

A Treeless Plain Deep in Mud

The reality here is an almost treeless plain that becomes boot-swallowing mud in the spring and fall and bakes under 100-degree temperatures in the summer. The sovkhoz of 47,000 acres is called Burny, or Stormy, appropriately for the ethnic Germans, whose lives have been as storm-tossed as any in the former Soviet Union.

Asked if the place matched her parents' descriptions, Mrs. Zarya laughed, a bit bitterly. "It wasn't such a `bardak' when my parents lived here," she said, using slang for a complete mess. "When we came we were surprised there were no trees. And they said, `why plant trees? We'd rather have a bottle of vodka.'"

Germans work better than Russians, she said, echoing a common theme even among Russians themselves. It is the reason Germans were invited to Russia in the first place. Mostly Mennonites and Roman Catholics, they lived in largely self-contained communities; in 1924, the Bolsheviks established the autonomous Volga German Republic over some ll,000 square miles.

The agreement signed in July 1992 by President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia and the Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, aims to recreate the republic with German aid. But there has been considerable resistance here, where the homes and lands of the deported Germans were taken over by Russians when Stalin dissolved the republic in the 1940's. Now, on the old territory of the Volga Republic, there are only about 30,000 Germans and 3 million Russians.

"The tension comes partly from memories of the war, partly exaggerated fear and partly the anti-Western turn in opinion," said Sergei Y. Grishin, editor of Saratovskiye Vesti, a local newspaper. "There are lot of old slogans, like, `Better a dry crust of Russian bread than a juicy piece of German meat.'" Among conservative politicians, he said, "there is strong opposition to autonomy, and people's fears are easy to manipulate."

Nikolai S. Makarevich, chairman of the provincial council, said that more than 80 percent of the people in the region opposed autonomy. "It puts the Russian-Germans in a delicate position," he said. "But the law is too rough an instrument to solve these ethnic questions. A lot has changed in the last 50 years, and there was also the war, and we can't ignore it. It's better just to learn to live together."

Up to 5 Million Eligible to Emigrate

Officially, there are two million people designated "German" on their passports throughout the former Soviet Union, nearly half of them in Kazakhstan. But given intermarriage and previous discrimination, when it was better to be Russian than German, as many as 5 million may qualify to emigrate, says Heinrich Groth, director of Wiedergeburt, or Rebirth, which represents the ethnic Germans.

The German Constitution recognizes nationality by blood and birth, and in Germany like Israel, there is a "law of return." Under the War-Related Compensation Act, 225,000 Germans from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union may come to Germany each year, Horst Waffenschmidt, State Secretary of the German Interior Ministry, said in a telephone interview.

In 1992, nearly 196,000 emigrated to Germany from the former Soviet Union; about 147,000 came in both 1990 and 1991.

But 557,000 had applied to emigrate in 1991 and 402,000 more in 1992, and Mr. Waffenschmidt said that about 650,000 applications were pending. About 100,000 Germans have received permission to immigrate but have not yet done so, he said, "and some never will."

That suits Bonn nicely. It is already trying to cope with absorbing East Germany and with increased political resentment over immigration, including well-publicized attacks on Turks and Vietnamese. Most of the former Soviet Germans need sustained, expensive help to resettle and find jobs while many East Germans themselves have none.

Germany's policy is clear, if optimistic. The interior Ministry is providing increasing sums to try to better the lives of ethnic Germans where they already live, to try to dissuade them from coming to Germany, where they are not really wanted.

In the last three years, Germany has spent about $240 million in predominantly German areas of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe on housing, cultural centers, factories, bakeries and the like. For 1993 alone, about $155 million has been set aside, subject to parliamentary approval.

Most Want to go to Germany

But the vast majority of the ethnic Germans now scattered on the territory of the former Soviet Union--up to 90 percent, according to Mr. Groth--want to emigrate. A German diplomat in Kazakhstan whose job is to try to keep them from leaving said: "They don't have to create a better future here. They want to pack."

Last year, about 150,000 of Kazakhstan's Germans left, though some, like Mrs. Zarya, came here or to other "magnet" areas where Germany is concentrating aid, like Omsk and altai, in Siberia, and southern Ukraine, where Germans also lived before the war.

"They're leaving fast," said Seytkazy B. Matayev, a spokesman for Kazakhstan's President, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev. "We're very sorry to lose them; they taught many Kazakhs how to work."

Mr. Groth says magnet communities will fail. "I don't see these projects nearly as positively as the German Government would claim," he said. "They can't really change the situation, with their orderly construction of some schools, factories and housing. This can only weaken for a brief moment people's desire to go to Germany."

Even in Altai, he said, where there are some 18,000 Germans now, 3,200 left last year for Germany. "What kind of future can it have?" he asked.

Erna Miller, 79, her face deeply furrowed around a sunken mouth, sat in her daughter's living room in Burny reading from a German Bible brought from Kazakhstan two years ago. She came with her ailing husband, who wanted to be buried near his birthplace; he died six months ago.

They were deported to Kazakhstan in 1941 and lived with another family in a barn with geese and pigs. Evicted, they moved to the mountains, where her 7-year-old son starved to death. "It could be a whole book," she says now. "But I'm forgetting it all."

When they returned here, they hoped for the re-establishment of the Volga Republic; now, she hopes to go to Germany. "I'm going to die soon," she said, "and I'd rather it be on German soil."

Exacting Customers For New Homes

At Burny, on the relentless plain, local workmen under contract to a German company, Inkoplan, are building houses for the new residents from Central Asia. with pitched roofs, stucco walls and a garage, the two-family houses are an intentional contrast to the decrepit Soviet apartment blocks built 10 years ago when the collective farm was founded.

Russian workmen say the Germans are exacting customers, rejecting poor materials. "Before, we'd just use it," a carpenter said. "But with bent lumber, you can't build straight."

A half-dozen houses are finished; there is money for 58 more. A new bakery is turning out 1,000 loaves a day for about 4 cents a loaf; a new sausage factory uses sovkhoz meat. There are plans for a new school, cultural center and health clinic.

As important, Heinz-Jörg Wobst, a Russian-speaking engineer and former East German Army officer from Saxony, has been here since October with a team of 12 to organize a two-year course in rural construction. The program began on March 1 with 23 students, 13 of them ethnic German. Twenty-five more will start in September, including five young women.

If No Magnet, `They'll All Leave'

Though the classes are approved by the military, Mr. Wobst operates independently. The whole settlement is so controversial that the sovkhoz director has been ordered by the military not to speak to the press. "We have to build a magnet for Germans," Mr. Wobst said. "Otherwise they'll all leave."

Why won't they take their new skills and go to Germany? "Some will think that way," Mr. Wobst said. "But he students are enthusiastic, and if they feel they're building something that will last, it's not futile, and it benefits everyone."

Graduates will get Russian diplomas with a German seal, and not the German diplomas that might enable them to get construction work in Germany.

When he proposed the project to the Interior Ministry, Mr. Wobst and his team were without work in a unified Germany. He tells the ethnic Germans that life is not perfect there. "They hang on every word," he said. "I say East Germans are second-class citizens and Russian Germans would be third-class. They listen, but don't believe it."

Mrs. Zarya now works for the Germans as their cook and housekeeper. As she makes a stew in the kitchen, a German song is playing on a cassette: "You're going to come home, I know you will. I know it in my heart." Her sister and niece are waiting to leave for Germany; another sister and her brother have applied to go.

She sighs. "My niece dreams of it, but my daughter wants to stay, and my husband," she said. "someone has to live and work here, too. Nothing comes without work."
Asked if his project will succeed in keeping Germans down on the farm, Mr. Wobst turned out of the wind and said, "It has to."

Photos
The German Government is trying to draw ethnic Germans to the village of Bezymyannoye, Russia, by building houses, a bakery and sausage factory, a school and clinic. The idea is to counter the allure of emigration to Germany. Vladimir P. Ogarinkov worked on the new houses.

When Erna Miller returned to Russia from exile, she hoped for the re-establisment of the Volga Republic. Now she hopes to go to Germany.

"My parents left with small bags," said Katerina Zarya, who returned to Russia from exile in Asia. "All their lives they dreamed of coming back. Grandmother was 90 when she died in Kazakhstan, dreaming of this place, and my parents died there, too, dreaming"

Some ethnic Germans are returning to the former Volga Republic.

Reprinted with permission of the Special to the New York Times International.

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