Monday, March 31, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Germans, Invoking Crimean Precedent, Want Their Republic Back

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 31 – Russia’s Anschluss of Crimea and Moscow’s various declarations about the right of nations – or at least some of them – to self-determination continue to echo through the Russian Federation, most recently among the Russian Germans who viewing the Crimean events want rehabilitation and the possible restoration of their republic.

            On Friday, the International Union of German Culture and the German Youth Organization met in Moscow to discuss the implications of Moscow’s policies in Crimea for themselves.  Heinrich Marten, president of the Federation of the National Cultural Autonomies of the Russian Germans, made this link clear.

            He said that Vladimir Putin’s decision to talk about the rehabilitation of the Crimean Tatars “means that the state has again returned to the problem of rehabilitation” more generally, including among the Russian Germans whose “wounds have not yet healed.”   For them too, “rehabilitation is not a closed issue” (

            Over the last two weeks, Russian Germans have been working on a package of documents concerning this issue and have formed a working group consisting of the leaders of the national cultural autonomies, experts in state administration, historians, political scientists and sociologists.

            This group has had “more than 15 meetings and discussions” with senior officials in the Presidential Administration, the Council of the Federation, the regional development ministry, and the foreign ministry. And as a result, there is now a draft program “on the rehabilitation of Russian Germans.”

            The document itself has sparked discussion and dispute within the Russian German community with some complaining that it does not insist on the restoration of a German Republic in the Middle Volga but others saying that it is right to focus on German national districts in Omsk, and the Altay, and still a third group calling for “extra-territorial’ autonomy.

            The Volga German Autonomous Republic existed between 1924 and 1941, when Stalin, following Hitler’s invasion of the USSR disbanded it and exiled the 350,000 ethnic Germans there to Kazakhstan and Siberia. The Russian Germans were rehabilitated in Khrushchev’s time, but their republic was never restored. Many left to go to Germany.

            Any German demand for the restoration of the republic poses some serious problems for Moscow in addition to those associated with restoring a people and its institutions to land now occupied by someone else.  On the one hand, given the continuing centrality of World War II in Russian political thinking, it is difficult to imagine how this could be done without offending many Russian nationalists.

            And on the other, given Putin’s interest in dividing Europe and especially Germany from the United States, it is almost equally difficult to imagine that the Kremlin leader would see as a step that would win him additional support in Berlin something he would want to reject in any public way.

                That suggests that the most likely outcome of this new upsurge in Russian German activism  in the wake of Crimea will be greater Moscow support for that community but no move to allow them to restore their republic.  But the genie is out of the bottle , yet another unintended and for Moscow unwelcome consequence of what it has done in Ukraine.

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