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Volga Germans Seek Lost Homeland

Ethnic Germans on the Volga are pushing for greater autonomy, but local leaders say redressing past abuses now could be explosive

NOW that's she's 80 years old, Elanor Schmidt admits keeping track of events isn't as easy as it used to be.

But there is one date, she says, that remains seared in her memory: Aug. 28, 1941. That's the day her life, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of other ethnic Germans living along the Volga River, changed forever.

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In June 1941 Nazi troops invaded Russia and, by August, had penetrated far into Soviet territory. The lightning advance prompted a panicked and paranoid Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin to order the round-up of ethnic Germans, whom he perceived as potential Nazi collaborators.

At the time, the largest ethnic German community in the Soviet Union lived in and around this Volga city, a region then known as the Volga German Autonomous Republic. It made no difference to Stalin if they could trace their Russian roots back hundreds of years. The ethnic Germans, including Ms. Schmidt, were packed off to Siberian and Central Asian concentration camps and their Volga republic was abolished.

After the war, most Volga Germans remained in their Siberian and Central Asian exile, seemingly destined to suffer eternally for Nazi Germany's aggression. Ethnic German rehabilitation and the restoration of the Volga republic were taboo topics in the postwar Soviet Union.

That is not the case anymore. The end of the cold war and communism's collapse have created geopolitical conditions in Europe that have made the Volga Germans' fate an international issue. And Russia's handling of the situation will be an indicator of the maturity of its young democracy.

So far, reversing the abuses of Stalinism has proved difficult. Top Russian government officials avoid the issue, and local leaders warn hasty action could incite social upheaval. ``To discuss this question now would be explosive,'' says Yuri Byelikh, governor of the Saratov Region.

For its part, the newly united Germany is struggling to cope with a massive influx of refugees from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Anxious to ease rising tension at home and stem the refugee wave from Russia, Bonn is exerting diplomatic pressure and extending limited financial aid to get Moscow to revive Volga German culture.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin, like former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev before him, has given Germany assurances on reestablishing the Volga German homeland. But with Moscow battered by economic and political turmoil, compounded by a nationalities crisis threatening to break up Russia, Mr. Yeltsin is backtracking. Under the existing political reality, officials say privately, reestablishing a Volga German republic is not possible.

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Sentiment in Saratov, a quaint Russian provincial center, appears to confirm official appraisals. For a population still in shock over Russia's wrenching economic changes, talk of a German homeland evokes a combination of fear, anxiety, and antipathy from many residents.

``They have their own state,'' says Alexander Komrov, a 50-year-old driver. ``This is our homeland. If they don't want to live here then they can leave.''

The current mood is somewhat ironic considering that back in the 1770s, Empress Catherine the Great went to great lengths to encourage Germans to settle along the lower Volga.

In the mid-18th century Saratov had just been conquered by Russia, and Catherine, a German herself, felt importing Germans could stabilize the region. To lure them, the monarch offered a wide-ranging incentive plan, including tax exemptions and interest-free loans. About 30,000 Germans accepted Catherine's offer, most of them farmers who rapidly transformed the region into productive agricultural land.

By the early 20th century, there were an estimated 2 million Volga Germans. And shortly after the communists seized power in 1917, they created the Volga German Autonomous Republic - one of many nominal ethnic homelands that would be established in the Soviet Union. The republic's capital was the city now known as Engels, near Saratov.

As Schmidt remembers from her youth, Germans were fully integrated into Russian, then Soviet society. Nevertheless, German traditions remained strong at home. ``Before the war we spoke only German at home, but I've forgotten nearly all of it,'' she says in accentless Russian.

During the upheaval of 1941, she was deported to the Siberian city of Tomsk, where she spent the war toiling in a labor battalion, living in Gulag-like conditions.

``I sent letters to the Soviet leadership - to [Defense Minister Kliment] Voroshilov - saying, `If I am guilty of something, then shoot me, but I can't go on living like this,' '' Schmidt says.

Schmidt endured, but along with all ethnic Germans, she continued to suffer long after the war. Restrictions on their movements lasted well into the 1950s. Schmidt eventually moved back to the Volga Basin, although not to Saratov. In 1957, she married an ethnic Russian from Samara, entitling her to resettle in that Volga city about 200 miles northeast of Saratov.

The vast majority of Germans have not been so fortunate. Many still call Siberia and Central Asia home. And decades of repression have meant most have lost all contact with the Volga German culture - particularly the German language. ``What we have lived through - I wouldn't wish this to happen to any other people,'' Schmidt says.

In the new political atmosphere, some Volga Germans are returning to their homeland to try to revive past traditions, with or without Russian government help. Schmidt, for example, is affiliated with a 200-strong Lutheran Church parish comprising mostly ethnic Germans. The parish is now working to restore the church building, located in downtown Samara.

But most Germans here do not entertain thoughts of a cultural revival. Instead they think only of a starting a new life in the Bundesrepublik.

Under its postwar Basic Law, Germany is obliged to welcome any immigrant who can prove German heritage. In the former Soviet Union, there were an estimated 1.9 million ethnic Germans in 1989, and many of them are taking advantage of the immigration provision. Since 1989 between 12,000 and 15,000 ethnic Germans have been emigrating from the former Soviet Union every month, German officials say. Last year, 191,000 ethnic Germans left.

The influx is straining Germany's already burdened social protection system. The German government is sufficiently concerned that it is spending several million dollars on programs designed to keep Volga Germans at home.

Most aid is going to the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan, which has the highest concentration of Germans in the former Soviet Union. Significant funding is also being funneled to a tiny ethnic German semi-autonomous area in Siberia's Omsk Province. Bonn is willing to greatly expand the aid program, but it first must see a drop in immigrant numbers, officials say.

Saratov also is receiving its fair share of German aid, says Saratov Governor Byelikh, helping build housing and food processing facilities. But Mr. Byelikh says the resolution of the Volga German question does not rest on foreign assistance. The key, he stresses, lies in a new Russian Constitution, currently the subject of a fierce political struggle between President Yeltsin and his opponents in parliament.

`RAISING tolerance can be achieved with economic aid,'' he says. ``As for the problem of the German republic ... this has to be grounded in a clear legal framework.''

Although he regards prospects for the restoration of a pre-1941-style Volga homeland as dim, Byelikh will not discount a Volga German cultural revival. ``Conditions can be created that will allow people to live like a German and not have statehood,'' he says.

But will there be enough ethnic Germans left in Russia by the time the politicians solve their problems and the people get over their prejudices?

The answer is not clear. Leaders of the ethnic German community in Russia are bitterly divided over what to do, with some urging emigration and others calling on people to stay and revive traditions. One fringe ethnic German group, meanwhile, stirred up controversy by calling for an armed uprising - using the Palestine Liberation Organization as an example - to force the return of Volga German lands.

There will always be some who won't want to leave, some scholars say. Olga Temirbulatova, another member of the Lutheran parish in Samara, is one such Volga German. She says she could never adapt to life in Germany.

``Of course I thought about leaving, but after visiting Germany I realized that my motherland is here,'' says Ms. Temirbulatova, who can speak German. ``It's another world there - with a different mentality. I fear that I would never feel comfortable there.''

And back in Saratov, not all ethnic Russians are against the Volga German republic idea. ``They would help improve everyone's life by bringing in aid. And they might even teach us a new work ethic,'' says Saratov resident Viktor Shmakov. ``Catherine was no fool when she settled the Germans here, you know.''

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