The Years of Great Silence

Review: The Years of the Great Silence: The Deportation, Special Settlement, and Mobilization into the Labor Army of Ethnic Germans in the USSR, 1941-1955, J. Otto Pohl, 2022.

In order to avoid the undesirable occurrence and to prevent serious bloodshed the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet deemed it necessary to resettle all the German population, living in the region of the Volga, to other regions . . .

Thus 177 years as an ethnic group invited into the Russian Empire as a valuable minority with privileges like free land, interest free loans, limited tax exemptions, local autonomy, and exemption from the draft came to a spectacular end on August 24 28, 1941 in the wake of Nazi Germany invading the USSR.

The Volga Germans were only the largest settlement of Germans in the Russian Empire. Other areas of settlement included the Black Sea (including a group of Mennonites), North Caucuses, Bessarabia, the Transcaucasus, and Volhynia. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the settlers. Privileges, like local autonomy, would be granted, repealed, and sometimes granted again. Emigration out of Russia or internal migration to Central Asia occurred after famines. The requirement for military service was reinstated. There were Kazakh attacks on some settlements.

Still, by 1914, the Germans in Russia had grown in number almost 7% of the Empire’s population and were an economically industrious group with a culture supported by schools, libraries, and museums of their own.

The woes of the German Russians started with the forced resettlement of the Volynian Germans into the Volga region. 

But it was the Bolshevik Revolution that was to turn them into a particularly persecuted minority. While the Volga region was declared, in 1919, an ethno-national state, the Germans, with their successful agricultural operations, resisted Bolshevik collectivism. Confiscation of German Russian grain supplies created a severe famine in the Volga in 1919 through 1922 though it was partially mitigated by international aid. When requestioning of food by the government ended, the Volga Germans were able to recover somewhat. By 1928, there was a record grain harvest. Various institutions – the Komosomol, labor unions – were used by the Communist Party to solidify the German Russians as a “titular nationality” with its own language and culture. Even in Kyrgystan, Germans got a larger autonomy. 

Things did not go well for the Mennonites, regarded as a hostile religious group by the government. In 1937, operations against various ethnic groups began with the German Russians feeling the effects most after Polish Russians.

During this time, various ethnic groups – Poles, Greeks, and Germans – tried to escape persecution by hiding their identity. In response, Stalin made their ethnicity a racial category under Soviet law. Regardless of assimilation and acculturation, this disfavored racial classification could be inherited from just one parent. Identity documents were issued noting this racial status.

The story of the German Russians starting with that deportation order – justified by still unproven charges of treason and sabotage – takes up 200 pages of Pohl’s 277 page book.

The deportation was typically communist in being backed up by all sorts of detailed instructions. Vouchers were to be granted to the deportees for their private property which they could redeem upon arrival to their new residences. They were given instructions on how much food to bring, the amount of baggage they could take. In mixed marriages, the non-German spouse didn’t have to accompany their family.

Ultimately, like the Armenian genocide when the Turkish authorities also made elaborate paper preparations for their deportees, it resulted in a genocide. Disease and hunger killed many in transit. Deportees were dropped off in areas with hostile climates – usually Kazakhstan or Siberia. Their clothes were unsuitable. There was scant housing and sharing what housing was available with the locals understandably created hostility. The promised vouchers usually never showed up. There was little available food, and many lacked the skills to find work with which to buy some. Those with no experience in agriculture were particularly hard hit, but even deported farmers were now without their equipment and horses.

All in all, about 800,000 German Russians were forced into internal exile within five months.

Some deportees were sent to Siberia to provide much needed protein for the USSR in a large fishing operation. They often worked in wet, cold conditions and sometimes had to sleep in mud huts.

Things worsened when many German Russian men – and, eventually, women – were inducted into the labor army. There they operated under the discipline of the NKVD. On paper, they were rather like soldiers. They could even be Party members and have Party meetings. In reality, their condition was dire. Unlike mere prisoners who got daily rations, the people in labor armies had to earn their rations. And scant rations they were, often below starvation level, and those too ill to work didn’t get paid, and, without money, they had no way to buy food. The men worked in logging, mining, and construction of factories. Conscripted women usually worked in oil production.

There were three great waves of induction into the labor army. The first was for men age 17 to 50 in February January1942. Another followed in April February1942. In October 1942, the draft was expanded to include men ages 15 and 16 years old and men 51 to 55. Women age 16 to 45 were also drafted and only exempt if pregnant or if they had children younger than three. In this time, German Russians who served in the military, regardless of rank or service record, were inducted as well as men pulled out of urban factories.

In all, according to NKVD records, about 11.9% of German Russians, would die prematurely in the labor army. However, that number is probably an understatement given the shoddiness of the records. Desertion figures probably hide some deaths. Discharge figures hide many more since it was common practice to get rid of the sick and weakened so they could die outside the camp or on the way back to their “special settlements”. Infectious disease and malnutrition were the big killers.

Life during the war in those special settlements was grim. Once women were conscripted, they became inhabited by the old and crippled. Orphan children became a problem which the authorities tried to institutionally address or by placing these children with other ethnic groups. More than one woman decided it would be better to take her children with her to a labor camp then to leave them “home”.

There is more than one NKVD document calmly noting how many of the resettled German Russians were two or three days away from dying from starvation. But the NKVD was much more intent on looking for traitors, spies, and saboteurs among the German Russians then improving their condition.

In these settlements, the once highly literate German Russians begin to lose transmission of culture because of the lack of adults, schooling, and use of German.

Even after the war ended, not all the labor army was discharged. And the special settlements were too useful to end.

Already, in January 1944, the government was planning a new system to deal with all the “nationalities” they had deported. New documents started to be issued. Travel restrictions were put in place (sometimes forbidding travel more than 3 km away). A network of surveillance using both German Russian informants and NKVD officials was put in place. All births, deaths, and escapes were recorded. Settlers had to meet with an NKVD officer, always eager to sniff out subversion, every month. Trying to escape was a 20-year sentence. Assisting escape was a five-year sentence.

In 1948, the Soviet Union made this state of permanent exile official, declaring “those resettled to distant regions of the Soviet Union by decrees of people in the high leadership are exiled forever”. Pohl estimates that, between 1941 and 1948, approximately 20% of German Russians died in their deportation, special settlements, and labor camps.

The end of World War Two brought another wrinkle to the story of German Russians: repatriation. As they shamefully agreed to at the Yalta Conference, Allied forces turned over about 208,400 German Russians who had fled the USSR during the war. They were also put in special settlements.

This final form of the special settlement regime lasted from 1949 to about a year after Stalin’s death in 1953. Things started to improve gradually for the German Russians. Some members of the Communist Party were released from special settlement restrictions. In 1955, they were lifted for all German Russians, but they still could not return to their homes, and they would not receive compensation for their confiscated property. They could, however, again have radio broadcasts and publication in their own language.

It wasn’t until 1964 that an official decree – very underpublicized – removed the official stigma of “collective treason” from them. Higher education and government and white-collar jobs remain largely closed.

The German Russians in Kazakhstan and other Central Asia Soviet Republics never really integrated into the local political orders. Finally, in 1972, they received full equality with other Soviet citizens and could live where they chose though, often, residency permits were granted for their favored locations. 

Though letter writing campaigns of more than 30 years were waged by advocates, mass emigration of the German Russians outside the Soviet Union only started in 1987 and accelerated in the 1990s when the USSR was dead. Most of the emigrants were from Kazakhstan and Central Asia with Germany receiving the bulk. Few remained in Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan as Pohl relates in his attempts to interview some.

It is from work done by German scholars, including oral interviews, coupled with Russian archival sources that this story is mainly known as Pohl relates in his opening chapter on the histography of his narrative.

I’ve greatly simplified this story, and Pohl makes it clear that the German Russians weren’t the only group to suffer these things under the Soviet regime, just the most numerous.

While this book quotes some oral histories, this book is mostly a very detailed, quantitative look at its subject. It’s the accounting of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Part of the Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society series, it’s clearly intended for scholars, but it’s accessible for the layman interested in a subject often perceived as an “inconvenient detail” against the background of a war fought by the US, UK, and USSR against an “ethnically and culturally related people”.

My main quibbles, as a layman, is that this book could have used some maps, an index, glossary, and an NKVD/MVD org chart. Still, it’s a worthwhile introduction to a topic very undercovered in English.

6 thoughts on “The Years of Great Silence

  1. Bookstooge May 21, 2022 / 4:11 am

    How does this compare to Gulag Archipelago?

    • marzaat May 21, 2022 / 9:46 am

      I am in no position to say since I’ve only read small sections of Gulag Archipelago. There are few quotes from oral histories, but there is lots of data on populations, deportation destinations, and the numbers and duties of the German Russians in the labor camps. (I forgot to mention the matter of naked German Russian coal miners — naked because their clothes wore out in the camps.)

      There is also some emphasis on, despite proclaiming it had no racial discrimination, the USSR treating those it defined as belonging to certain racial groups very differently.

  2. Skybow🇺🇦🇮🇱🏳️‍🌈 August 8, 2022 / 8:36 am

    As a Jew, this warms my heart.

    Surely Germans deserve no mercy for what they did.

    • marzaat August 8, 2022 / 6:16 pm

      You’re a credit to your religion. And I thought Jews didn’t believe in collective guilt.

    • Lena September 14, 2022 / 11:24 am

      Well, what a statement. First I like to say that these people left Germany in the 1760s and lived in the Russian Empire since then. They left when Catherine the Great, of German origin herself, became the Empress of the Russian Empire. These people, mostly farmers lived in Russia and Ukraine since then. They had no connection to Nazi German at all and were Soviet citizens after living there for over 170 years. In 1941, these women and children and older people were collectively declared spies as a whole group and were deported, executed, starved to death, put in gulags. Within a few years, over 35% of these people were dead. We are talking over 450.000 people. Mostly children who starved to death or got sick and women and old people who were worked to death in gulags. They took away children from those mothers and send them to gulags. These people never had any contact with Nazi Germany and their ancestors left Germany in the 18th century. Did they deserve mercy?! The worst thing is that these people could never speak of what happened to them. They could never mourn their losses openly. Nobody was ever convicted of crimes against them and nobody apologised for what happened to those people. I am a descendant of these people and my grandmother was sent to the gulag twice. Last sentence for 20 years. Why? Because of the hate that people feel. Because of the ignorance of people who don’t know the difference between Nazis and people of German ethnic background from the Russian Empire. Surely, we should know the difference. This book is about that. Learning about who those people were and what was done to them.

      • marzaat September 14, 2022 / 7:54 pm


        Thanks very much for stopping by. I look forward to seeing your graphic novel when it’s completed and enjoyed seeing you on Otto’s show.

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