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Everything's Just a lot Easier in Russian: Many Germans From Russia Already Fail Before Their Language Tests

"Everything's Just a lot Easier in Russian: Many Germans From Russia Already Fail Before Their Language Tests. " Die Welt, 7 October 1997.

Translation from German to English by Carter Wood, Bismarck, North Dakota


MAGDEBURG -- In Kazakstan they insulted Victoria Buss because her of German heritage, calling her a "fascist." But to her classmates in Germany, the 17-year-old with the long, blonde hair is "The Russian." Two years ago the Buss family still lived on the farm in Kazakstan, earning a good income. Here they live in poverty in the town of Genthin, near Magdeburg. Only one thing hasn't changed: They are members of a minority. Victoria shares the self-doubt that plagues many settlers: Are we "adequate Germans," or not?

The administrative court of Koblenz answers the question with a dry legalism: German is, who speaks German. And with that the judge rejects a Kazakstan woman's complaint that she has not been recognized as "late settler" in the spirit of the federal refugee law. Indeed, she's the child of German parents and has always considered herself a German, but the identifying marks of language, upbringing and culture are missing. It is like this: Since she uses Russian as her daily tongue, she does not belong to the greater German culture.

Victoria, too, speaks Russian at home. When she arrived in Genthin, her German vocabulary consisted of two words: "guten tag" and "danke." Since then, she understands almost everything without problem, but she still comes up short when speaking. "Everything's just a lot easier when I talk Russian," she says.

About two million people have relocated from the former Soviet Union to Germany since the end of the 1980s. The number of entrants has been about 400,000 a year; for 1997, the federal deputy for immigration, Horst Waffenschmidt (CDU) estimates fewer than 150,00. Currently in Russia, there's another milllion or so living in German from Russia families. In Kazakstan, it's about 300,000; in the Ukraine, about 100,000; and in the other former Soviet republics, less than 50,000. Whoever wants to resettle must submit to a language test in their "land of origin," a test conducted by officials of the German foreign office. According to Waffenschmidt, 40 percent of those interested fail to even show up for their first appointment, and 30 percent of those who make it fail the test. In the meantime, language courses in 446 places in Russia and Kazakstan are supposed to offer some help.

First stop in the Federal Republic is the central admission center of Hannover. From there, the new arrivals are divided up among homes in the various federal states. Just about three years ago in Genthin, a town in Sachsen-Anhalt, a new home started operation in an old villa along the Elbe-Havel canal. All the rooms are occupied; in the yard a large trailer home has been set up. The walls are thin, you can hear every step. The official language is German, the daily vernacular Russian. "You're cooking a little bit here in your own gravy," says the director, Juregen Heinrich. People are supposed to integrate themselves "natural surroundings" as soon as possible, he means, so they can join German-language society as soon as possible. But many prefer their own, familiar surroundings.

"There are many different starting points with the language," says Henry Liebe, principal of Genthin's community college. "We've always dealt with everything from illiterates to dentists, and we're just as far apart now with the language skills." The immigrants are supposed to taken care of through an 850-hour-long study program. Every time another 20 participants can be found, a new course begins; waiting times can last between a week and several months. With the successful completion of the course, there's a certificate. The language skills are supposed to correspond to the level shown by a junior high student when they have conquered their first foreign language.

The motivation levels of the people differ as widely as their starting points with the language. "I didn't want to leave Kazakstan. It was my parents who decided to come to Germany," says Victoria, speaking for all those who "just came along." "Many children are like saplings, rooted in their homes," says Heinrich, the home's director. "The trouble is, people have forgotten to transplant them here." The parents must first learn to fit in before they can help their children along the way, he says.

Yet upbringing plays a critical role in the process of being officially recognized as German. "The evidence that the German culture has been successfully transmitted is seen when those in question are becoming part of that new culture," the Koblenz administrative judge says in his ruling. Therefore, one can assume that those whose prefer to speak Russian as their day-to-day language do not qualify, he says. "We prefer to see it in the so-called impressionable years, that is, before they reach their majority. Anyone who can prove that he spoke German during that period, there will no problem to qualify. Even if he can hardly speak German anymore."

What is now required was once difficult to achieve. Acknowledging your German ethnicity in the Soviet Union automatically brought down repression. Germans were systematically separated from one another and dispersed across the entire U.S.S.R. Communication was supposed to be prevented as much as possible.

In her childlike way, Victoria Buss has now experienced in Germany what it means to be German. "People are a lot happier here than in Kazakstan," she said. "Everything is more open and free, not so uptight." From fashions to reading about the pop music of the Backstreet Boys -- to her, it's German music -- she eagerly sucks up the new culture. She can no longer imagine going back to Kazakstan. As she sees it, once school is done, she can get started with her life, and if she works hard, then she'll have a job -- even if she's not quite up to speed with the language. An immigrant from the Urals, who now works as a German teacher, summarized his view in a modification to a court order: His prognosis: "These immigrants are always going to speak two languages."

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