Why can you buy German bread in Kazakhstan?

A story of mass move­ments through­out Cent­ral Asia, by Nikolai Klassen.

Not only is Rus­sia a riddle, wrapped in a mys­tery, inside an enigma: frag­ments of the puzzle are also rep­lic­ated and recapit­u­lated through­out Cent­ral Asia, with the five ‘stans’ all bear­ing idio­syn­crasies that point to a past as rich and unpre­dict­able as the present. Let me address one such mys­tery: why, like myself, are there so many Ger­man-Kaza­khs? Nowadays, Ger­mans rep­res­ent a size­able minor­ity in each Cent­ral Asi­an coun­try, for example, there are still 179,476 eth­nic Ger­mans dwell­ing in Kaza­kh­stan. How­ever, eth­nic Ger­mans only began to form a size­able chunk of Kazakhstan’s demo­graphy shortly after 1941. So, why did so many Ger­mans go to Cent­ral Asia? And what does my grand­moth­er have to do with this story?

Ger­man set­tle­ments through­out the globe, notice the con­cetra­tion around north­ern Kaza­kh­stan.

Like my grandmother’s fam­ily, many Ger­man speak­ing set­tlers moved east in search of oppor­tun­it­ies off the back of Russia’s devel­op­ment­al efforts. Under Ivan II (1462−1505) some experts, such as doc­tors, archi­tects, and mil­it­ary officers migrated to Rus­sia. At the time of Peter the Great (1682−1725), Ger­mans increas­ingly began set­tling along the Volga River in sig­ni­fic­ant num­bers. Anoth­er fig­ure driv­ing Ger­man Migra­tion in Rus­sia was Kath­rine the Great. In 1762, she invited Ger­man farm­ers and craftspeople to Rus­sia to help mod­ern­ize her coun­try, giv­ing them land, reli­gious free­dom, excep­tion from mil­it­ary ser­vice and tax exemp­tions. Escap­ing high taxes and polit­ic­al ten­sions in the Holy Roman Empire and later Prus­sia, most came to lay the found­a­tions for new set­tle­ments. Some 30,000 arrived in the first wave between 1764 and 1767 and they had a pro­found impact on improv­ing Russia’s agri­cul­tur­al out­put. More star­ted com­ing after 1789 and they kept com­ing until 1863. Most of them were Cath­ol­ics or Men­non­ites seek­ing reli­gious free­dom, a new place to settle and polit­ic­al sta­bil­ity. As they swept down to Russia’s east­ern and south­ern bor­ders, the first Ger­man set­tlers arrived in mod­ern-day Kaza­kh­stan by the end of the 18th cen­tury. In due course, Ger­mans foun­ded their first per­man­ent set­tle­ment in 1785, called Friedens­feld. Dur­ing the peri­od of the Sto­li­an reforms in 1905 — 1911, Ger­mans had already formed towns such as Alex­an­der­tal, Altenau, Königs­gof, and Pug­ger­hof. The migra­tion did not stop there though: Ger­man set­tlers even tried to reach as far as Azerbaijan in the 1930s. The reas­on: increas­ing hos­til­ity and dis­trust dir­ec­ted against the set­tlers due to the polit­ic­al cli­mate in Ger­many at that time. This time, Men­non­ites have been sus­pec­ted not because of their reli­gion but because of their nation­al­ity.

His­tory is rarely kind, and World War II is known for its force­ful relo­ca­tions with­in the Soviet Uni­on. Most of the Ger­mans were off­spring of Volga Ger­mans, who lived in the Volga Ger­man Autonom­ous Soviet Social­ist Repub­lic loc­ated in Rus­sia, or the Black Sea Ger­mans, who lived in Ukraine and Crimea. This demo­graph­ic spread reached an abrupt end­ing dur­ing the early 1940s; with forced relo­ca­tion to Kaza­kh­stan being ini­ti­ated in July 1941, after Hitler declared war on the Soviet Uni­on. Moreover, Stal­in ini­ti­ated a state of emer­gency: Ger­mans were declared spies a pri­ori, a decision which res­ul­ted in all work­ing-age men (15−85) being con­fined to Soviet Labour camps – the so-called gulags. Accord­ing the Soviet Gov­ern­ment, a decree to relo­cate the Ger­mans was imposed because:

Among the Ger­man inhab­it­ants, who live in the Volga Region, are thou­sands and ten thou­sand of saboteurs and spies who are await­ing a sig­nal from Ger­many to execute explo­sions in oth­er regions, but also against their own people.“


In the course of the deport­a­tion, my grand­uncle and my great-grand­fath­er were sent to two dif­fer­ent gulags nearby Archangel­sk to work in a forestry sta­tion in pitch-black win­ters and all-day sum­mers. For­tu­nately, they were work­ing as doc­tors and were import­ant for the camps’ over­seers. They were able to sur­vive the extreme tem­per­at­ures and harsh labour con­di­tions, and were lucky not to have been sent to an even-more pun­it­ive camp, where their med­ic­al skills may not have been called upon.

Pho­tos from Crimea, taken before my family’s re-loc­a­tion.

Offi­cially, people were nev­er depor­ted: they were brought to safe towns, away from the front­lines. The areas to “spread” the Ger­mans across the coun­tries were areas, such as the Altai region (650,000 re-loc­ated), the Qaraghandy region (500,000), Kyrgyz­stan and Tajikistan (both home for 70,000 Ger­mans). The regions where Ger­mans were spread gen­er­ally had a low pop­u­la­tion dens­ity and a demand for work­ers in agri­cul­ture and min­ing. The labour short­age arose from the huge demand for troops to send to the Soviet front­line, leav­ing many Cent­ral Asi­an towns stripped of their male pop­u­la­tions. As Ger­man set­tlers were sus­pec­ted to be spies and saboteurs, the author­it­ies saw fit to keep an eye on them and extract their pro­duct­ive energy through keep­ing them in tightly-con­trolled labour camps. In addi­tion to forced labour, Ger­mans in the Soviet Uni­on were sub­ject to forced assim­il­a­tion, such as through the pro­hib­i­tion of pub­lic use of the Ger­man lan­guage and edu­ca­tion in Ger­man, the abol­i­tion of Ger­man eth­nic hol­i­days and a pro­hib­i­tion on their observ­ance in pub­lic. Not only were Ger­mans stripped of their lan­guage and cul­ture, they were often openly dis­crim­in­ated against and pub­licly mocked. At around this part in our story, my Grand­moth­er, then a young girl, was mak­ing her way across the frozen mid­winter Steppe in a cattle wag­on. In 1941, she, her moth­er, and oth­er 38 people put into the wag­on were for­cibly relo­cated to Ser­enda (Зеренда, nowadays in Kaza­kh­stan).

My Great-grand­par­ents at their house in Найман with their dog друг, who once sur­vived being shot on the mis­ap­pre­hen­sion that he was a wolf.

Sup­pres­sion of eth­nic Ger­mans in the Soviet Uni­on did not end with the Second World War. Though some Ger­mans were able to live unof­fi­cially in Ger­man com­munit­ies in tows they’ve been sent to, their cul­ture had to remain hid­den: still, they were able to secretly hold holy ser­vices, speak Ger­man, and cel­eb­rate Ger­man hol­i­days. In 1949 most Ger­mans were finally released from the labour army, although no pub­lic apo­logy or excuse was giv­en for the 4-year delay. In August 1964 the Soviet Gov­ern­ment finally began rehab­il­it­at­ing the Ger­mans to their pre-war set­tle­ments. Accord­ing to the newly appoin­ted pres­id­ent Bresh­nev, the accus­a­tions against were not jus­ti­fied, and a ter­rible mis­take had been made. How­ever, most chose to stay on in Cent­ral Asia, and only a few returned to the Volga area. Oth­ers trav­elled around and went where they could find employ­ment. Oth­ers still tried to claim their pre-war homes, even though they lost the right to do so. After 1964, the Ger­man pop­u­la­tion became dis­persed and mobile — find­ing new homes and shap­ing new iden­tit­ies. The num­ber of Ger­mans involved in agri­cul­ture declined while those occu­pied as aca­dem­ics and teach­ers rose, as those liv­ing in the coun­try moved to the cit­ies. In that pro­cess Ger­mans finally man­aged to blend into their milieu, los­ing their cul­tur­al unique­ness as their lan­guage, arts, cus­toms were becom­ing more and more Rus­si­fied. Many Ger­mans moved in among non-Ger­mans and star­ted fam­il­ies with people of oth­er eth­nic des­cents. The trend towards urb­an­iz­a­tion also caused a drop in the birth-rate and the size of Ger­man fam­il­ies, which had been erstwhile char­ac­ter­ized by high birth rates. By 1991 less than half of the Ger­man Rus­si­ans claimed Ger­man as their first lan­guage, and instead regarded Rus­si­an as their moth­er tongue.

The hor­rors of deport­a­tion and the tragedy of Sta­lin­ist cul­tur­al sub­jug­a­tion became far bet­ter known through his­tor­ic­al stud­ies dur­ing the 1980s and 1990s, after the Soviet Uni­on fell apart. Most of the remain­ing eth­nic Ger­mans emig­rated to Europe and bey­ond, with a major­ity opt­ing for Ger­many. In 1990, after my Grand­fath­er returned from a vis­it to Canada, he and my grand­moth­er decided to move to Ger­many, where they felt they would be treated as equals. From there they invited oth­er parts of my fam­ily and finally also my fath­er and my moth­er, who was preg­nant with me while mov­ing.

Ger­mans in Rus­si­an Folk­lor­ist out­fits; Taken in Karaganda, 1953.

In 1990, there were around 2.9 mil­lion eth­nic Ger­mans in the Soviet Uni­on, of which only 41% resided in mod­ern-day Rus­sia. The rest were spread through­out Cent­ral Asia and the Caucuses, with 47% being based in Kaza­kh­stan, 5% in Kyrgyz­stan, and 2% in Uzbek­istan and Tajikistan. As these pop­u­la­tions either blen­ded into their cul­tur­al wood­work, or made their way to Ger­many, these pop­u­la­tions have fallen to about 1/3rd of their ori­gin­al size. Yet their foot­print lingers on in count­less aspects; so, should you ever find your­self North of Astana and notice rock-hard dark breads curi­ously sim­il­ar to Ger­man pum­per­nick­el, please spare a thought for my Grand­moth­er who, like so many oth­er Soviet-born Ger­mans, has left a last­ing mark on Cent­ral Asia’s demo­graphy.

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