Germans - Orientation

Identification. The estimated 2,038,341 Germans who lived in Russia as of January 1989 constituted the single largest ethnic minority group without a settlement area of its own. Compared to the more than 100 other non-Russian nationalities living in the Soviet Union, the Germans are the fifteenth-largest ethnolinguistic group.

Location. Just before and during the Nazi offensive on Russia that began on 22 June 1941 and lasted until 1944, the entire Soviet German population was deported from their settlements in the European part of Russia to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Soviet Central Asia, which, depending on the case, they were strictly forbidden to leave until 1955 or even 1956. Subsequent internal migrations led to the formation of new and concentrated settlements. According to 1989 figures, 41 percent of all Soviet settlements where Germans were in the majority were in Russia itself; 47 percent in Kazakhstan; 5 percent in Kirgizia; and 2 percent in Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, and the Ukraine respectively; the rest lived in the Baltic states and in Transcaucasia, Moldavia, and Byelorussia. Very few Germans lived in settlements with an existing German majority. Settlements of this kind came into being in the Altai, Omsk, and Orenburg regions and in northern Kazakhstan at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, Germans have remained in the minority.

Demography. The January 1989 census showed the male-female ratio within the German population of the Soviet Union to be 51 percent to 49 percent. The estimate of 2,038,341 Germans of Soviet citizenship was based on statements made by the respondents. Statistics show that some of these Germans had previously indicated a different nationality because of discrimination against Germans. No details are available on the way the census was carried out.

Linguistic Affiliation. Germans living in the former Soviet Union speak several dialects and foreign languages depending on their generation. At the time of emigration, settlers tended to group together according to place of origin and religious denomination. Thus, the respective dialects were the main form of communication in the German settlements in the European part of Russia until they were destroyed between 1941 and 1944. Countless German settlements were founded in the Orenburg District, northern Kazakhstan, western Siberia, and Kirgizia at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, however, and were left largely undisturbed during World War II. In these areas German dialects are still the most usual medium of communication for the older to middle generations. In the Mennonite villages of the Orenburg, Omsk, and Altai regions, there is a particularly high instance of children who only speak in German dialect. The most common dialects still to be found are Lower and Middle West German (West Prussian/Rhine-Frankonian, Palantine, Upper Hessian), East German (Silesian), and Upper German (Alemannian, Swabian, Alsatian, and North Frankonian). During the twentieth century internal migrations led to a growth in mixed dialects.

Until as late as 1941, High German was still spoken in German settlement schools (i.e., in the Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic of the Volga Germans). As a result, some in the older generations still demonstrate a fairly comprehensive knowledge of literary German. After 1941, however, German schools ceased to exist and have not been reopened. In the average Russian school, German is inadequately taught owing to the dispersion of settlements, political discrimination, and insufficient opportunity to preserve the spoken language. The process of assimilation or, to be more precise, Russification, has been rapid. In 1926, 95 percent of Germans living in the Soviet Union declared German to be their mother tongue; this had dropped to 75 percent by 1959, to 66.8 percent by 1970, and to 57.7 percent by 1979, and to an all-time low of 48.7 percent in 1989. In many families this process of linguistic decay means that the older generation speaks dialect and High German; the middle generation a Russian dialect and, in some cases, High German; and the children can speak only Russian. There is a marked difference between the languages spoken by the urban and rural populations. The assimilation of German urban populations is far more advanced in Russian-speaking areas than it is among rural populations in the republics of Central Asia. In major towns and cities, 44.88 percent of the men interviewed said their mother tongue was German, compared to 51.82 percent of the women. In rural areas, the comparable figures are 62.03 percent and 68.55 percent for men and women respectively.

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