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Ethnic Germans from Russia Struggle To Find Place in Forefather’s Homeland - 2003-10-23


People are gathering in front of St. Alexi Russian memorial church for Sunday service. This golden-domed church was built in memory of more than 20,000 Russian soldiers who were killed battling Napoleon's forces in 1813. The church is located in the eastern German town of Leipzig. Although tough economic times plague much of the former communist East Germany, this university town enjoys a burst of growth. It even plans an ambitious bid for the 2012 Olympic Games.

For the past decade, many Russians have made their home here and elsewhere in Germany. A lot have German ancestry. Their story begins with an appeal made over 200 years ago. In the 18th century, Catherine the Great of Russia invited settlers with technical skills to help her country keep up with the pace of modern development. For the next two centuries, settlers began arriving from her native Germany. Today, the German government has invited these original settlers and their dependents to return.

Marie-Louise Beck, German commissioner for Integration and Minority Rights, said the conservative government under Helmut Kohl decided to give people of German origin in Russia the chance to come to Germany. “Within Russia, there was a lot of discrimination against those people of German origin,” she said. “So the idea was that we give them a chance to come back here and have the chance of living under a democratic situation.” Commissioner Beck says few Germans realize that so many Russian-Germans have made their way here. They came in large numbers beginning in the 1990's. Last year, over 100,000 arrived, adding to more than two million now living in Germany.

Seventeen-year-old Maria Kasner is one of them. She and her family are from a small town in southern Kazakhstan. They arrived in Germany five years ago, more than 70 years after her grandfather left Germany to settle in the Volga region of the Soviet Union.

When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, ethnic Germans were declared enemies of the state and forced to move to remote regions of Siberia and Kazakhstan. Maria's grandfather was sent to work in a labor camp under extremely difficult conditions. She said his life was never the same. “It was hard for him to live in Kazakhstan,” she said. “He lived in a small village where he was the only German there. The first time he wanted to meet my grandmother's parents, they all sat on the table and suddenly one of my grandmother's brothers put a container with cream on my grandfather's head. He sat there and couldn't do anything. He was shocked by this situation. And the brother said called him a fascist and said he has to go away and not marry my grandmother.”

Maria says her grandfather and grandmother eventually did leave the village to begin a new life high in the mountains. Under a citizen law based on a blood principle, Maria's German grandfather qualifies her for German citizenship and assistance from the government. Maria, her mother, sister and brother now live in a public housing apartment in Berlin. Each German State accepts a number of German-Russians in proportion to its share of the total German population.

In the town of Grenzach near the Swiss border, five apartment buildings have been set aside for more than 100 German-Russians. Local resident Susanna Schlingensief says assimilation is difficult for German-Russians. “The integration is not very good,” she said. “The small children, the eight and nine-year-olds, like to learn German, but not the older ones.” She said many teenagers don't seem interested in learning either the language or the German way of life. “These younger boys and girls didn't want to come to Germany,” she said. “This was the problem. The older people say: we go to Germany, it's a wonderful country. We have these great grandparents who lived in Germany and we would like to go back. But these younger people, I don't think they ever wanted to come to Germany.” Mrs. Schlingensief adds that crime has become a problem among some of the German-Russian teenagers.

Minority Rights Commissioner Marie-Louise Beck says that given economic hard times, other German-Russians are also turning to crime. More than 20 percent of them are jobless - about double the national rate. Still, many German-Russian professionals are now working, especially as doctors. In Berlin, Maria's sister Olga attends the university and plans to practice law.

However, the government is now cutting back the number of German-Russians arriving in the country because of the rising costs of supporting their integration. They now have to pay for their own transportation and face tougher German language proficiency tests.

Germany also has large immigrant communities from the former Yugoslavia and Poland. Professor Klaus Larres, a specialist on European affairs at London University, says the expectations of many of immigrants may be too high because of the misconception that Germany is a country of plenty. "That has changed in the recent past,” he said. “Or course, compared to many other countries, the standard of living in Germany is still a lot higher. However, economic conditions have become tougher. And perhaps many foreigners don't realize that economic life is quite competitive and a lot tougher than perhaps first anticipated.”

Professor Larres says immigrants arriving in Germany today don't have the same opportunities as those who came earlier. However, new immigration laws make integration easier for immigrants who genuinely want to enter German society. And the German-Russians continue to be welcomed and supported by the government, though in smaller numbers.

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