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Russia: Ethnic Germans Look for Past Wrongs to Be Righted

Sixty years ago, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported more than 1 million ethnic Germans from the former German Autonomous Republic to Siberia and Kazakhstan. At gatherings yesterday in Moscow's Lubyanka Square and Novodevichy Cemetery, representatives of Russia's ethnic German community called on President Vladimir Putin to apologize for past wrongs and to restore the German Autonomous Republic. RFE/RL correspondent Francesca Mereu reports from Moscow:

Moscow, 29 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Invited to settle in Russia in the 18th century by Catherine the Great -- herself a German by birth -- ethnic German farmers moved into the Volga region, where they prospered.

The Soviet Union created a German Autonomous Republic on the lower Volga River in 1924. It was abolished on 28 August 1941, as the Soviets battled against Nazi Germany in World War II. Stalin ordered all ethnic Germans in the region -- more than 1 million people -- deported to Siberia and the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan as potential traitors.

The official explanation for the mass expulsion in 1941 is that the ethnic Germans represented a potential network of spies and saboteurs who would be waiting to assist invading Nazi forces.

Russia's ethnic German population remained confined to special settlements -- under Ministry of Internal Affairs surveillance and restrictions -- until 1955. Even after releasing them from these settlements, the Soviet government prohibited the ethnic Germans from returning to the areas from which they had been exiled.

Vladimir Bauer is president of the Russian-German Association. He is calling on Russian authorities to make amends to Russia's ethnic German population. He points out how important it is for his people not to be linked to the Nazi stereotype:

"Inside [Russian] people's minds, there is still a stereotype linked to prewar and postwar time: German and German, two words that have the same spelling but with two different meanings [ethnic Germans and Nazi Germans]. This is the reason why we want the government to take measures to fully rehabilitate our people from a legal point of view. This is what we are now fighting for."

Bauer says it is also important for Russian President Vladimir Putin to officially apologize for the treatment of the ethnic German population. He says such an apology would help erase the "Nazi-German" label.

Bauer points out that such a move on Putin's part, rather than appearing conciliatory, could improve his political and international standing. He describes a similar gesture made by former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970:

"Willy Brandt, when he arrived in Warsaw, knelt down and apologized to the innocent Jews who died in the [city's] ghetto. He didn't become less famous after that. On the contrary, he went down in history."

Alexander Blokhin is Russia's minister for federation affairs, nationalities, and migration policy. Blokhin supports cultural autonomy for Russia's ethnic Germans but is less enthusiastic about an official apology. Interfax quotes Blokhin as saying that a 1991 law on the rehabilitation of minorities repressed under Stalin "is in itself a recognition of the mistakes made by the state in relation to repressed peoples."

Konstantin Albrand is the representative for ethnic Germans who live in the southern region of Krasnoyarsk. He says that while many other deported peoples (for example, the Chechens and the Ingushetians) were able to return to their homelands after 1955, Russia's ethnic Germans lost the German Autonomous Republic and are now scattered all across Russia.

Albrand says that, so far, they cannot return to the Volga region:

"All peoples that lived in Russia and in the former Soviet Union were rehabilitated and were given the possibility to go back to their homeland. Our homeland is the Volga region, but up to now we cannot go there."

Soviet times were particularly hard for Russia's ethnic Germans. Not only were they unfairly accused of being Nazi collaborators, they feel that they also were deprived of the right to receive an education.

Albrand says that he was denied the right to study at university and that only after many attempts was he able -- at the age of 33 -- to complete his studies at a technical institute.

Vera Kuznezova lives in the Sverdlovsk region. She says that when she took the entrance examination at the University of Ekaterinburg in the Ural region, she was accompanied by a member of the Peoples Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD):

"When I went to take the [entrance] examination at university, an NKVD worker was sent [by Soviet authorities] to accompany me, so I couldn't run away. I was 16 [years old], and I wasn't allowed to go by myself to take an examination. It was 1950."

Kuznezova says that, in Soviet times, Russia's ethnic Germans were under constant surveillance:

"We were under the surveillance of the [Internal Affairs Ministry]. Every month, we had to register. [It was necessary so authorities knew] that we hadn't gone anywhere or run away or something else."

During Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms in the late 1980s, ethnic Germans began to leave the Soviet Union. From 1989 to 1997, an estimated 2.4 million ethnic Germans returned to Germany. According to Interfax, up to 1.5 million still live in Russia today.

Bauer says it is important now to help Russia's ethnic Germans find their place in Russia, since, he says, it is their country, too. Many of them, he says, don't speak German and are used to living in Russia, so they would find it difficult to emigrate.

Leo Ohngermarch did emigrate to Germany, in 1992, and returned to Moscow for the anniversary. He says he feels neither Russian nor German.

"I'm a Russian German," he says, "and I'd like to live here in Russia, but to live well. In Germany, I don't feel like a German. Maybe my grandchildren will."

Ivan Bell is the representative of ethnic Germans in the Khantimansisky region. He says that the future of Russia's ethnic Germans is in Russia:

"I'd rather be a German in Russia than to be a Russian in Germany. For that reason, our future is linked only to Russia."

In 1997, Russia and Germany set up a joint program to support Russia's ethnic German population. Russia has provided 76 million rubles ($2.6 million) to the program this year, Blokhin says. Germany has provided 35 million marks ($16.3 million), according to Germany's ambassador to Russia, Ernst-Joerg von Studnitz.

Despite some anti-German feeling in the former ethnic German territories, most Russian political parties express sympathy for the demands of the ethnic Germans community.

Earlier this week (27 August), ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky drew applause when, in German, he told delegates at a Moscow meeting of Russia's ethnic Germans: "Russians and Germans have always been together."

(See also today's Analysis From Washington: End to Ethnic Federalism in Russia? by Paul Goble)