Volga Germans – an endangered species in the Former Soviet Union

At the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, ethnic Germans numbered around 2,040,000, making them one of the largest ethnic minorities there. Russia was home to more than 840,000 of them, while in Kazakhstan, there were a total of 960,000 Germans. Germans constituted around 6% of the total population of Kaazakhstan. Most of the Germans lived in the rural areas of the Soviet Union, with a birth rate and natural population growth rate far higher than the majority Slavic population. Twenty years after the breakup of the USSR, there are just 600,000 ethnic Germans remaining in the Former Soviet Union (FSU), with Russia home to 360,000 and Kazakhstan home to 180,000.

During the post-WW2 period, ethnic Germans were heavily persecuted. Their villages were destroyed and most of them were deported to gulags in Central Asia and Siberia. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans perished as a result of over-work and starvation. Only after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, the deportation order was lifted and the Germans allowed to return to their former homes. A few of them obtained German passports and migrated to FRG. But most of them remained in their adopted homeland (Northern Kazakhstan, Chui Oblast in Kyrgyzstan and Omsk-Altay-Novosibirsk region of Asiatic Russia). Some of the Soviet leaders, during the 1970s tried to lessen the  hardships of the German community. They tried to integrate the Germans in to the Soviet multiculturalist society. There were even talks about forming a German Autonomous Republic with capital at Ermentau (current Ereymentau in Kazakhstan). But violent protest by the Muslim Kazakhs against the proposal made the Soviet authorities to rescind their decision. But still, the Germans were relatively tolerated during the 1970s and 1980s.

However, after Kazakhstan got independence, the situation suddenly worsened. A large part of the non-Muslim population (including most of the Germans) emigrated. The Soviet tolerance vanished in thin air. Villages which were previously having a German majority were aggressively targeted by the Kazakh government for resettlement of the Oralman (Muslim immigrants from Uzbekistan, China and Mongolia). Many of their churches and schools were closed down, along with cultural organizations. Those who could speak the German language fluently immediately obtained a German passport and migrated to Germany. But a large part of the rural population among them spoke divergent dialects of German, which were mutually unintelligible for the standard German speaking population. During the early 2000s, the Russian government set up two Autonomous Districts for ethnic Germans. They were Deutsche Nationalkreis Halbstadt in Altay Krai and Deutsche Nationalkreis Asowo in Omsk Oblast. Many of those Germans who couldn’t immigrate to Germany moved into these districts.

In Russia, the situation was no better. The financial meltdown in 1999 forced many of the ethnic Germans to emigrate to Western Europe. Just 600,000 ethnic Germans were reported during the 2002 census and 360,000 were reported during the 2010 census. Inter-marriage is also more common in Russia compared to Kazakhstan. However in Germany, the economy improved quite a lot due to the addition of 3,500,000 hard-working Aussiedler (number includes their non-German relatives as well). The German communities currently residing in Russia and Kazakhstan are only a shadow of their former self.  As the process of emigration and assimilation continuing unchanged, the future seems to be very pessimistic as far as the ethnic Germans are concerned.

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