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Legacy, but no Home, for Russia's Germans

Rodriguez, Alex. "Legacy, but no Home, for Russia's Germans." Chicago Tribune, 13 July 2008.


SARATOV, Russia — In 1993, Yuri Gaar brought his 74-year-old mother from Kazakhstan back to her homeland here in the meadows and woodland along the Volga River. Together, they strolled past their village's two-story schoolhouse, the ruins of their church, the apple orchard near where their house once stood.

"When we got to our old orchard, my mother knelt down on the ground," Gaar said, his voice cracking. "It's hard to talk about."

Gaar's mother wasn't a Russian returning to the motherland. She was German, and the homeland she was reconnecting with was the Volga German Autonomous Republic, once a bustling enclave of ethnic Germans nestled deep within the expanse of the Soviet Union.

The enclave disintegrated long ago, a consequence of Josef Stalin's wave of deportations that upended the lives of thousands of Volga Germans, as well as Chechens and Ingush from Russia's North Caucasus Mountains, the Kalmyks of the southern steppe and Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians from the Baltic states. Many were taken away in freight cars and resettled in Kazakhstan or Siberia. Many of those who survived eventually returned to their homelands after Stalin's death. They rebuilt their lives and their cultures and reclaimed the swath of Soviet territory they had lived off before the war. Volga Germans weren't as fortunate.

"The Chechens, the Ingush, the Kalmyks have all returned to their homeland and gotten their autonomy back," said Gaar, 55, an executive at a Saratov farm machinery company and deputy director of the Volga German Society. "But Volga Germans were never allowed to do the same. So one way to fight back is to leave the country, and Volga Germans did exactly that."

Russia's German community was the product of Catherine the Great's 18th Century push to invite Germans to farm and settle in land along the lower Volga. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, the republic was established, with its capital in Engels, another Volga River city.

With Adolf Hitler <http://www.chicagotribune.com/topic/unrest-conflicts-war/adolf-hitler-PECLB002403.topic>'s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin dissolved the republic and deported Volga Germans to Central Asia and Siberia.

There are about 12,000 Volga Germans left in the Saratov region, Gaar says. Many send their children to cultural centers to learn German. There are annual Oktoberfest celebrations and an ongoing fundraising effort to build a new Lutheran church in Saratov, but what the push to preserve Volga German heritage needs most of all, Gaar says, is for Germans to return to Russia from abroad. And they won't return, he adds, if they don't have an enclave to return to.

"It's impossible to maintain our language and our culture here," Gaar said, "unless Volga Germans abroad can return to the territory of the German autonomous republic, where they can live amongst their own."

Alex Rodriguez is the Tribune's Russia correspondent.

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