“Rusaks”: the Loss and Attainment of Germany

by Gulmira Amangalieva

Nina Gaus with her friends in Soviet Union, 1949. Courtesy of Nina Gaus, a photo from her family album

Over the past 30 years more than two million ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union countries have moved to Germany. They hoped to "live like Germans among Germans" - but not everyone succeeded. Wider concerns about migration prevented the smooth integration of Russian speaking Germans into European society.

The two moves

"They don't wear dresses here, find yourself some trousers!" retired Nina Gaus recalls how she took instructions from her sister-in-law, who had moved to Germany earlier. She remembers how she went to the market and could barely find a pair of pants her size but when she did, she "emigrated" into them, leaving her dresses at home. Eventually, it turned out that the rules were not so strict. "This sounds ridiculous now, but at that time it was all so crushingly confusing. The unknown was scary," says 83-year-old Nina Gaus, smiling.

When many of her relatives began to leave for Germany, Gaus decided to go too. The difficult economic situation in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union reinforced this decision.

On a frosty day in March of 1999, Nina Gaus and twelve relatives flew from Novosibirsk to Frankfurt. "We arrived and saw everything in bloom! It was still minus 20 degrees in Siberia - and everything was so different in Germany, so beautiful ... For us, the Siberians, it was like a fairy tale!"

Gaus recalls the bunk beds at the temporary residence camp: "not mansions, but liveable". She also remembers the attentive Fräulein who helped them with paperwork and how she bought a carpet for their first social housing apartment.

Adapting to life in her new home was easy. She was 63 years old at the time and both she and her husband were given state pensions. Initially, Nina had to help her three adult children and their families with their everyday problems as, unlike them, she could speak German.

When asked whether it is correct to write the surname Gaus with one letter "s" at the end, Nina shrugs it off: "The second "s" was dropped off the documents during the deportation."
This was another move, long before the one to Germany, and Gaus had no choice in the matter.

A family picture of Nina, 1957 Courtesy of Nina Gaus, a photo from her family album

Nina Gaus grew up in what is now the village of Krasnaya Polyana in the Russian region of Saratov. Her ancestors came to this place at the invitation of the empress, Catherine II, in the second half of the 18th century.

"I remember how I went boating along the river Volga. Then one day my parents packed up a small chest of things, grabbed a five-year-old me, a three-year-old brother and a baby brother and we left the village. We boarded an overcrowded freight train, with the floor covered in straw. The journey was long – more than a month. At stops people jumped out to look for food. We had a green enamel kettle with us - its was used non-stop," recalls Gaus, telling a family story similar to many other forced resettlers.

Volga river, Russia

In August 1941 around 433,000 Volga Germans, together with ethnic Germans from other regions, were forcibly resettled in Siberia and Central Asia, on the grounds that they might be potential Nazi collaborators. A total of 900,000 people were moved and many thousands died in transfer.

"My baby brother Victor died during the trip. My aunt traveled with us, and her little son also died. And when they had no babies anymore, women were signed into the labour army which was the forced labour service set up in the Soviet Union during the Second World War for those deemed to come from "hostile" nations. My father, mother and aunt were drafted into the labour army a couple of months after we arrived in the Siberian village of Mikhailovo. My brother and I were supposed to be taken to an orphanage, but my grandmother insisted: no, if we die, we die together. When the war ended, my mother was given leave for several days, but she was only finally allowed to return to us in 1948," says Nina.

In the first few decades after the war ethnic Germans were not allowed to leave the settlements to which they were attached. Finally, in 1972 they were allowed to move to other areas, but returning to the Volga region was expressly forbidden, as was the idea of reviving the autonomous republic in which they had once lived. Ethnic Germans faced discrimination when it came to university admissions and appointments to leadership positions. In the late 80s, when German Chancellor Helmut Kohl introduced a program for the repatriation of ethnic Germans, many saw this as their only option.

Like Nina Gaus, many more people from the former Soviet bloc saw the German Spring for the first time that year - but not every immigrant experienced the same degree of warmth.

East vs West

Buildings in the Berliner district of Marzahn

The Marzahn district of Berlin, where Nina Gaus lives, has the look and feel of a former Soviet town due to its panel-built housing, only it seems to be more attractive. There are flowers and umbrellas on the balconies, the entrances smell of washing detergent and the mailboxes bear the names of the residents: Neumann, Kiselev, Hussein.

Workers from the German Democratic Republic used to live here in the 80s. Those who could afford it, moved out, their empty flats being taken by new settlers from Siberia or Kazakhstan who were sneered at by their neighbours.

"We arrived in Russia at the wrong time - Germany was just undergoing reunification and it had its own questions that needed to be resolved," notes Alexander Reiser, the founder of Vision, a resettlement assistance organisation. The Russian-speaking Germans, who flocked from the whole post-Soviet region in the 90s, turned out to be a great crash test for the country.


"In East Germany the native Germans were in a very bad financial situation, because the whole political, economic and social system that they had believed in for so long was crumbling. They were angry. Few people had heard about Russian Germans here. The conversation of the Germans returning to their historical homeland was only relevant in West Germany where they tried to push for the resettlement of Russian Germans. In East Germany this topic had been hushed up for many years or it would mean the GDR authorities having to admit that Communists deported and killed people. East Germans were under the impression that the immigrants were ordinary Russians and no-one told them the real reason behind the those resettlements. They must have been thinking: Russians just want to get rich at the expense of Germany," explains Medina Schaubert, head of Vision.


In West Germany the situation was different and those Russian Germans like Nina Gaus were made more welcome. But for many of them life was not easy. "Local West German residents assumed that the arriving Germans would be like Germans here and this was completely wrong. Russian Germans had undergone repression and the socio-economic conditions in the Soviet Union were way below those of the West" says Schaubert. She suggests that the West Germans did not know what to do with those guests. They could not understand their mindset and "tried to get rid of them quickly, excluding them from established integration projects."

Similarly, Russian Germans and their children traveled to Germany with the hope of living like Germans among Germans, but became strangers there. The newcomers realised that in Russia they were persecuted for their German heritage, but in Germany they were seen as Russians.


The language barrier was one of the biggest problems. "I went to work as a dental assistant straight away," recalls Valentina, a Russian from Pavlodar in Kazakhstan, who is married to an ethnic German. "At the end of the day on the way home I cried. I was tired, but not so much physically but mentally from the fact that I did not understand anything said to me and I felt like an idiot." Eight years later, Valentina quit dentistry and got a less stressful job at the "Majak" Russian goods store.

Nesting dolls in the "Majak" shop Photo: Gulmira Amangalieva

Another obstacle was the recognition of Russian education credentials. The difference in educational standards meant that Russian degrees and diplomas were not as highly valued as those from German establishments. A Russian university degree was deemed to be the equivalent of a secondary vocational certificate while the qualifications of Russian doctors were just enough to gain work as a nurse. "They offered Russian Germans low-paid physical work because there was a need for such labour," points out Schaubert.

Despite this, each Russian immigrant who settled in Germany was issued with a German passport, provided with housing and has received state financial support for the duration of their job search. Social activist, Alexander Reiser, of Vision, says some adapted to the new environment very quickly. They mastered the language, got a job, found a home and opened businesses such as medical offices, pharmacies, car services, funeral homes, kindergartens, Russian language schools and small construction firms.

The door of one of the kindergartens in Marzahn

Photo: Gulmira Amangalieva

However, Reiser suggests that approximately 20 percent of the Russian Germans have not found themselves and their place in their "historical homeland." "I think that some people maybe didn’t even need to move to Germany," declares Reiser categorically, "They were torn out of their social environment, but they could not assimilate into their new one. Many of them speak only Russian and watch only Russian television. Due to the language barrier and a lack of working relationships they are isolated socially. Sometimes when I talk to these people, I get the feeling that we live in different countries. They complain and blame Germany for not giving them this and that. But few people are ready to leave the country because no one will provide them with full board in Russia."

Who is a Rusak

Today, all ethnic Germans who arrive from the former Soviet Union and who speak the Russian language and identify as Russian are considered to be Russian German. Their spouses and and ancestors also have to be ethnic Germans. Defined in Germany as Spätaussiedler (late settlers), they call themselves "Rusaks".

For most Rusaks, Russian is their common language. Today in the Marzahn district of Berlin, where about thirty thousand Russian-speaking Germans live, it is normal to hear Russian being spoken.

Public transport stops in Marzahn Photo: Gulmira Amangalieva

However, the early Rusaks tried to avoid using the Russian language in public places. "I remember that my aunt from Kazakhstan was so afraid to speak Russian that when she was asked how many children she had, she forgot the German word and said: bir ("one" in Kazakh) – just to avoid Russian," Medina Schaubert, head of Vision, gives an example. "Why was it worth constantly being shy about the Russian language? Then we got mad at those who would speak their own language publicly, because we thought they were [rulebreakers], and more daring than us."

Another reason is has been the desire of some in the community to conceal who they really are. This is something, which is imprinted in the historical memory of the deported Volga Germans. They decided to "hide” the Russian language in Germany, as they hid their German heritage during many years of oppression in the Soviet Union.


In Germany, Alexander Reiser notes, "Russian Germans try to be more German than the native Germans themselves. The diaspora members rally, come up with myths and act on them. You can hear from the Russian-speaking Germans that native Germans here lost their true German qualities such as love of order, hard work, honesty - but we kept them. It is a myth. When I lived in a German village in Russia, there were as many lazy people, drunkards, thieves as anywhere else."

Most Russian Germans interviewed for this article said that the family occupies a much more important place for them. "Here they love freedom [in relationships]: for example, they [native Germans] would rather live in a civil partnership than tie themselves up. That is, their individualism is more developed," says 42-year-old therapist Vladislav Freinliсh, who moved to Berlin 16 years ago. From his anecdotal observation, the natives value work above family and calculate their budget more carefully. "We are used to giving flowers to wives more often, but a German will do this two or three times a year. Give flowers just like that? He will first count ten times how much it will cost."

The retiree Nina Gaus notes stronger ties between generations of Rusaks compared to native Germans. "I have been brought up in such a way that if my children need help, I do for them whatever I can. Yet that is not so common here. Once a person turns 18 they are already independent." Gaus believes that native Germans are less sociable than Russian Germans. She recalls her young neighbour, who greets her when they meet at the entryway, but will pass her by in the street as if they are strangers. And certainly it would not be appropriate to knock on the neighbour’s door to ask for some salt, as it in Soviet times. "But maybe we compare it to how it use to be in Russia 20-30 years ago, and not to how it is there now", says Gaus.

Marzahn (not) for everyone

Russian supermarket "Mix Markt" in Marzahn Photo: Gulmira Amangalieva

The heart of the Russian-speaking Marzahn is the Mix Markt supermarket. It stocks Russian beer, chocolate candy by a famous Soviet heritage brand "Mishka Kosolapy", Kazakh noodles for making of a national besparmak dish, all with a nostalgic taste and at a price attractive for European capital residents.

At the beginning of 2016 this supermarket was the scene of dramatic events that outraged Germany, featuring a girl named Lisa.


A 13-year-old Russian-German was reported missing for over a day after she failed to appear at school in the Marzahn district. She reappeared 30 hours later with injuries on her face, announcing that she had been raped by some "Arabic looking people". Later she admitted that it was not true.

Nevertheless, the main Russian TV channel (Channel 1) released a report about an alleged rape of a Russian girl in Germany, igniting protests from Russian communities in Berlin and other German cities.

Russian stores in Marzahn Photo: Gulmira Amangalieva


Opposite the Russian supermarket, there is a shopping centre with a Russian travel agency, a jewellery store, an atelier and a consumer goods store. From the speakers come an obscure Russian pop song from the early 2000s: "Difficult love - you are of my blood type, difficult love – you are with me, I am with you." An advertisement offers a subscription to 150 Russian channels. This small "Russian world" is framed by a Turkish kebab shop and a Vietnamese cafe. And a ten-minute walk from here there is a new grey Heim (residence) for refugees. Marzahn is becoming more and more multicultural, and not everyone likes it.

One of the centers for
temporary accommodation of refugees in Marzahn 
Photo: Gulmira Amangalieva

"Previously, you could walk around Berlin at night, and no one would lay a finger on you. Now just try to go outside... I take Pfefferspray (pepper spray) with me – but I think it will not help," complains an employee of a Russian atelier, a woman of about fifty years old, who did not want to give her name.

"If I have to leave, it will certainly be for Russia. I don't exclude this possibility, although we have been citizens of Germany since the 90s," says Valentina, the seller at the Russian store Majak. "To be honest, I didn't want to come here, my husband's parents and sister just moved here and we followed them. This year I was in Kazakhstan and some of the people who had lived here decided to move back to Kazakh villages - because of the number of refugees here. This does not surprise me. The refugees are impudent. Thefts and any sort of crime are common here now."

Bundestag Photo: Gulmira Amangalieva


Valentina believes that the authorities give much more attention to the new immigrants than they did to settlers from the post-Soviet countries. "The refugees get benefits and all the blessings of the world. However, in the 90s we just spent six months in the language centre and immediately went to work, and we have been working to this day. It's difficult to place a child in a kindergarten, they only take them from employed people - and these refugees, please, are accepted ahead of all although they do not work. And these homosexual relationships are generally crazy! This is normal for the Germans - but not normal for us. Germany will never become my homeland," concludes Valentina.

"The Irony of Fate"

In German literature, the settlers from the states created on the ruins of the USSR are called Volk auf dem Weg (People on the way). The fate trajectories of these people have never been simple. Nevertheless, time washes away differences in mentality.

For many young people being a Russian German has almost lost its relevance.

When Nina Gaus’ granddaughter Natalia moved to Germany in 1999 she was 14 years old. "When I first entered school I struggled because I did not know the language. Only maths classes were easy - because the numbers are the same everywhere. My classmates didn't like me that much: we lived in the eastern part of Berlin, and they didn't really like people from Russia." It took Natalia two months to pick up some conversational language and make new friends. Then the discomfort of not being able to feel like a full-fledged person ceased. "Learning the language and getting comfortable in a new place was easier for me than for my parents - they themselves say it's harder with age," says Natalia. As we are talking in Russian, she apologises for forgetting some Russian words.

Restaurant "Russia" in the Berlin district of Charlottenburg
Photo: Gulmira Amangalieva

Natalia received her bachelor's and master's degree in process engineering and now works in a Porsche paint shop in Stuttgart. She says she does not feel any different to being a native German. Her six-year-old son knows very few Russian words. "What remains of our Russian heritage - we make Russian dishes on special occasions. We always celebrate the New Year's Eve by making the Russian salad and pickled herring "under a coat" alongside watching the old Soviet film The Irony of Fate that Russians typically watch on this occasion. The Germans' way of celebrating the New Year is completely different," points out Natalia.

About the author:

Gulmira Amangalieva is a journalist from Saratov, Russia. She worked for the regional newspaper Gazeta Nedeli v Saratove and news agency Free News-Volga, covering inequality, government negligence and bureaucracy, migration and historical legacy. She is currently a fellow at Reuters Institute of the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford.