Sunday, August 28, 2005

"In our hearts we felt the sentence of death" Stalin's Ethnic Cleansing of the Russian-Germans

"We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed in our hearts we felt the sentence of death." (Second Corinthians 1:8-10, NIV)

Sixty four years ago today the Soviet government publicly announced its intentions to deport the entire Russian-German population living in the Volga region, over half a million men, women and children. In a couple of months this target population had expanded to include the entire Russian-German population of the USSR. By 1942, over 850,000 Russian-Germans had been forcibly uprooted from their homes west of the Urals to exile under special settlement restrictions in Kazakhstan and Siberia. In total the Stalin regime confined more than 1.2 million Russian-Germans to these remote areas during the course of World War II. Here they formed a captive labor source to develop the agriculture, mining and forestry of these regions. Lack of proper shelter, food, winter clothing and medical care led to high rates of morbidity and mortality from malnutrition, typhus, dysentery, gangrene and tuberculosis. Around a quarter of a million Russian-Germans, a fifth of the population perished from such causes during the 1940s. Only in the mid-1950s did their conditions improve beyond the level of mere survival.

The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet finalized the Soviet decision to deport the Volga Germans on 28 August 1941. It issued Ukaz no. 21-160 "On Resettling the Germans Living in the Region of the Volga." On the basis of this decree. The NKVD systematically rounded up all ethnic Germans living in the Volga German ASSR, Stalingrad Oblast and Saratov Oblast starting on the 3rd of September. They completed the operation on the 20th. The NKVD packed an average of more than 40 Russian-Germans into each cattle car used in the deportations. The insides of these wagons had only a pail or hole to serve as a toilet. Their human cargo soon became engulfed in an overpowering stench of sweat,urine, feces and vomit. On average the trip into exile took two weeks during which many people especially children became ill with gastro-intestinal diseases, mange and measles. Those that died enroute had to be buried without marker or fanfare near the sides of the rail tracks. This modern day Middle Passage marked the start of a nightmare that lasted a decade and a half.

Upon arriving at their destinations in Kazakhstan and Siberia, local authorities assigned the deportees to various collective farms. Their new accomodations frequently lacked doors, windows and any furnishings. Many found themselves living in mud huts and sleeping on the floor. A very large number of exiles received accomodation in already occupied Kazakh or Russian houses and lived under extremely compact conditions. Epidemics spread rapidly in this environment.

Famine like conditions existed for many of the Russian-German deportees. Until integrated into the collective farms in their new locations they could only receive a small amount of grain in return for vouchers issued in exchange for stocks confiscated during the deportation. However, until 11 November 1941, many local authorities refused to honor these vouchers. Thus for the first few months of exile the Russian-Germans only had the food they brought with them or could acquire by bartering their few belongings with the local population. Desperately hungry, the deportees often swapped valuable clothes, rugs and utensils for mere scraps of food. Ethnic Russians in particular engaged in the regular cheating of Russian-German exiles in trade deals. During the first few months of exile, many Russian-Germans had access to almost no food and many perished from hunger.

In January 1942, conditions got even worse for a large number of Russian-Germans. The Stalin regime relocated large number of those deported to Siberia from grain farms in the south to fishing trusts along the shores of the arctic rivers in the north. In total more than 80,000 Russian-Germans came to work in fisheries in the arctic. They had to construct their own housing out of mud on the banks of the rivers. These dark, damp, cold and dirty structures proved incapable of keeping out the elements and greatly facilitated the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis. The Russian-Germans working for the fishing trusts received 600 grams of bread a day and worked long hours in icy cold water without protective clothing. Malnutrition, frostbite, hypothermia and drowning became all too common among these workers.

Also in January 1942, the Stalin regime began the forced mass mobilization of Russian-Germans into labor camps without charge or trial. In January and February 1942, the regime inducted nearly 68,000 Russian-German male deportees aged 17-50 to work in GULag camps devoted to felling timber and industrial construction. Soviet authorities drafted another 25,000 to work on railway construction. Almost 93,000 men found themselves condemned to forced labor in the labor army (trudarmiia) under conditions little different from common criminal convicts. Their only crime was their German heritage. The Soviet govenment conducted another labor draft of Russian-Germans starting in February 1942. This time they subjected all Russian-German men in the USSR aged 17-50 to conscription. This draft mainly inducted labor army men from the large number of Russian-Germans already living in Kazakhstan and Siberia before the deportations. It netted close to 41,000 conscripts for work in labor camps. Finally in October, the Stalin regime extended the labor army draft to men 15-16 and 51-55 and all women 16-45 except those pregnant or with children under 3. This final mass mobilization drafted almost 71,000 men and 53,000 women. In total more than 316,600 Russian-Germans served in the labor army during World War II. Over 182,000 of them served this sentence of forced labor in the same GULag camps and under the same conditions as prisoners. Despite its official liquidation in 1946, many labor army conscripts only left the camps in 1956 and 1957. Horrific living and work conditions in the labor army led to over 100,000 deaths among the Russian-Germans.

Even after the death of Stalin and the abolition of the special settlement restrictions, the Russian-Germans remained second class Soviet citizens on the basis of their biological descent. They could not live in the European areas of the Soviet Union, they had little access to German language publications and they continued to be the target of official and popular ethnic defamation. They also remained largely excluded from higher education and white collar jobs on the basis of their nationality. Attempts in the 1960s by Russian-German activists to solve these problems within a Soviet frame work failed. Hence, since the legalization of emigration from the USSR in 1987, the vast majority of Russian-Germans have left Kazakhstan and Siberia to live in Germany.

In memory of those who died

For further reading see Krasnoyarsk Memorial


J. Otto Pohl said...

You are welcome. It is comments like this that keep me writing.

Geh mit Gott

Jeanne said...

I cried when I read this. I've been trying to track David and Maria Meier from Shcherbakovka Russia who were deported to Siberia or possibly Kazakhstan in 1941. They had four children before the deportation and we haven't been able to track them either. The sadness I feel is overwhelming sometimes, for their sufferings.

Jeanne said...

I cried when I read this. RIP, Great-uncle David Meier and Maria Weitzel Meier, children Gottfried, Amolia, and two others. Volga Germans from Shcherbakovka at time of deportation in 1941.

Lana said...

I was almost born a Russian but my grandparents brought their whole family to the US right before the purge! Only one married daughter remained behind and was sent to Siberia. My grandparents had a few letters from her, but she said she had to give her four children away because she couldn't feed them. Then the letters stopped. My grandfather vowed that he would go over to get them, but of course he couldn't. Lots of tears. I wish I knew if I still had cousins there. If they lived, they may be in Germany now.