On August 29, 1964, the Soviet government issued a decree on the rehabilitation of ethnic Germans, deported from their permanent settlement in the Volga region in August of 1941.
The German colonists began to emigrate to Russia in the mid-18 century. Their relocation was regulated by a series of decrees and agreements, the most important being those issued by Empress Catherine the Great in 1763 and by Emperor Alexander I in 1804. The Germans settled mostly in Transcaucasia, in the Volga region. The journey to Russia itself was an ordeal, and many settlers died along the way of malnutrition and exhaustion; moreover, the locals were very hostile to the newcomers and tried to make their lives a burden. This ill treatment nevertheless didn’t stop the German communities from thriving and prospering: each of them had schools and hospitals, and the settlers were very diligent and well-organized.
Although the Russian authorities favored the German settlements because they significantly contributed to the Russian economy, when Otto von Bismarck united Germany in 1871, the Russian attitude towards the colonists changed, as the united, strengthened Germany and its people were now considered a threat. Gradually, the Russian state slowly wiped out the difference between the Russian peasantry and the ethnic Germans, conducting a forced policy of “Russification”.
The first vexations put upon the Germans started in 1929, following the process of collectivization, when all private land proprietors were deprived of their land. Most of the well-off Germans fell under that category. On August 28, 1941, right after WWII began, a decree was signed about the relocation of Germans from the Volga region. Such action was accounted for by the claims that Nazi spies and saboteurs had been reported among the “Soviet Germans”. The decree also provided that, should any acts of subversion occur, the entire population of the Volga Germans would be punished.
Such accusations, however, had no grounds and were a veil for Stalin’s repression’s policy, since the majority of ethnic Germans faithfully fought against the Nazis and made generous sacrifices for the front. One of the most famous Soviets of German heritage, pilot Nikolay Gastello, made history with his heroic ram of a Nazi plane, giving his life for the Soviet Union.
All of the deported men and women were sent to Siberia and placed into so-called labor armies, which were the mirror image of the GULAG camps. Assigned to work at tree cutting, mining or construction in harsh winter temperatures, they had to survive despite receiving scarce meals and practically no medical treatment. Children were taken away from their parents and placed into orphanages; some parents never having a chance to see their children again.
Positive changes in the life of the German settlers only occurred in 1955, when they were finally allowed to leave their exile and move around the country, as well as connect with their relatives in Russia and abroad through correspondence. However, they were still banned from coming back to their home villages in the Volga region. Full exoneration was legislated on August 29, 1964, by the rehabilitation decree, which read that, “Life proved that all the accusations had no grounds and were a result of chaos. In reality, the majority of the German population, along with the Soviet people, contributed to the victory over the Nazis…”
Only in 1972 were the Germans finally allowed to choose a place of permanent residence to their liking. Although, several other rehabilitation decrees were issued, it still remains a very controversial and problematic national issue. Ethnic Germans are still not recognized as a separate ethnic group; they have no specialized schools or other infrastructure to maintain their cultural uniqueness; this led to assimilation, a fact which forced over 2.5 million Germans back to Germany, and caused serious damage to the Russian economy, demography, and international policy.