Siberian Germans - Orientation
Identification. Approximately 400,000 Germans live in the southern regions of western Siberia today. They consider themselves an ethnic group and trace their origin to the German people of central Europe. The Germans living in Siberia are divided into groups, named after their place of origin, and include the Schwabs (Suabians), Bavarians, Dutch, Austrians, and others. Before their arrival, three significant groups had already formed in Russia, some of whom later also migrated to Siberia. These were the Ukrainian Germans, the "Volynskie," and those from the Volga region. In 1941, at the beginning of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, a large segment of the Volga German population was deported to Siberia. Since then, approximately one-half of all the Germans who live in Siberia have now lost contact with their origins, consider Siberia their motherland, and call themselves Siberian Germans.
The extent of German ethnic and cultural consciousness in Russia was conditioned by the fact that they emigrated at a time when Germany consisted of many states and when the general norms for a literary language were being formulated. Settlers leaving at that time often maintained some traditions that had already disappeared in Germany. In Siberia the Germans settled in separate groups and sustained their distinct local characteristics. Because of the great distances between them and bans on marriages between people of different confessional groups, the settlers were isolated from each other, which fostered the preservation of many elements of their cultures and languages.
Linguistic Affiliation. There are strong linguistic differences among the different groups of Germans. According to the Soviet linguist V. Zhirmunskii (1933), "the native language of the Germans appears to be the local peasant dialect, which they use in everyday speech with the family and countrymen; every colony speaks in its own special dialect, transferred by the settlers from Germany or learned in the new land from a mixture of different dialects." These dialects include Suabian; Saratovskii; Zhitomirskii; Volyner; and the language of the Mennonites, Plattdeutsch.
The Mennonites occupy a special place among the Germans. When the Mennonites left the Netherlands in the sixteenth century and resettled in Prussia, they did not see themselves as sharing a common origin. Among them were people of Flemish, Dutch, Frisian, and Lower Saxon ancestry. Two basic types of speech had been maintained by the Mennonites— molochnenskii and khortintskii. However, they took as a common language a Low German dialect (Plattdeutsch). As a result of their religious isolation, the Mennonites did not mix with the local peoples and thus maintained their traditional customs. At times they joined their different confessional groups into one ethno confessional unit. During and since the resettlement the Mennonites have been officially registered as Germans; most scholars think of the Mennonites as Germans. The Siberian Mennonites themselves trace their ancestry to Germans, although they also emphasize their Dutch origins.
All groups of Germans in Siberia are typically bilingual—they also speak Russian fluently. The specific dialect of the group is used most, Russian second, and the German literary language third. Only a few people know the last. These are mostly younger people who studied German in school.