The Island of Germany

What Germans found and lost in the steppes of Altai
Переключение языка
In the West of the Altai region there is about a dozen villages that stand out among others. They are clean, well-organized, and cozy. Most of the previous century only Germans used to live there.

In the course of one hundred years, people in the Altai offshoot of Germany have managed to preserve their language, cuisine, and traditions even better than in their historical homeland. Surprisingly, they have also preserved a lot of the Soviet heritage. For example, collective farms are thriving and throbbing there.

Read in our multimedia project how the Germans have been coping with challenges and earning respect, and why not all of them have immigrated back to their ancestral land.

Lost in time

Few villages in the Altai region can boast of being a destination for organized tours. Not because of being a prominent person's birthplace or being otherwise famous, but just because the village itself is unusual. Podsosnovo is exactly that kind of place.
In Podsosnovo all streets are straight with the houses strictly aligned along them. Most of the homesteads look as if they are participating in The Best Household of the Year competition. The roads are made of asphalt or gravel with neatly trimmed lawns on both sides that is why even in autumn there is almost no mud here. The village itself is compact and neat. It is a complete opposite to the familiar look of dilapidated Russian villages. By contrast, Podsosnovo looks esthetically pleasing even on the map.
Uniform green fencing marks the perimeter of the village and plates with street names in two languages shine in the beginning of every street. All public buildings including the club, community center, library and gym have preserved their original condition since the Soviet times. The shop of a famous Altai retail chain is located in a well-maintained convenience store building. Lenin and Karl Marx look at the village from the recently renovated façade of the local administration hall. Marx's name is written in German, by the way.
One can still hear people speaking German here, although Germans are in the minority these days as compared to pre-Perestroyka time, when they made 95-99% of population in Podsosnovo and 15 neighboring villages.
When a bus full of tourists from Yarovoye resort with a special tour to Pososnovo stops in the last street by the Krieger family house, the driver announces the stop: "Fairy Tale".
Vladimir and Liubov Krieger have already retired, but Vladimir keeps on working in the collective farm. His position is similar to that of an inspector. Reporting only to the chairman, he makes sure that work is properly organized in every field. Active and full of energy, the Kriegers are willing to share their life story with us.
"In 2008 our homestead was awarded the 3rd prize in the Altai region. We have been offered to participate in the competition again, but now we have to apply ourselves, unlike the pervious years, when the authorities picked the participants independently. We will not apply, though. Why fish for complements? We do it for ourselves and not to show off. It does not feel right if we nominate ourselves," tells Liubov Krieger.
Vladimir is pure German and Liudmila is a child of a mixed marriage.
Her father is Russian and her mother is German
"My mother told me: get married to a German, they are hard-working. Love is not the main thing. It will end, when the there is no money. The most important thing is respect towards each other. I can't stay idle for more than an hour myself," shares her memories Liubov.

Once Liubov went to visit their children in Germany for a month. During the holidays they spent all the time together, but when her children went back to work, Liubov began to feel depressed. She took some yarn with her on the trip. During the holidays she knitted a lot of clothing for the kids, filled the home fridge with meat dumplings, did everything she could around the house and was almost ready to walk back home, not to stay idle in the foreign land.

According to her words, her husband Vladimir also prefers to keep busy. Due to health issues Liubov is not able to take care of the garden. The head of the family does all the household work.
"Everything there [in the garden] is in perfect order. Not a single extra grass blade. Our neighbors tell him to take some rest at least on Sundays! He comes home, sits down and all his body starts aching. But he can't sit still, he has to stand up and do something again, even if it is shoveling snow back and forth," says Liubov Krieger.
There has always been a cult of cleanness and order in German villages, admit the Kriegers. They say that people would save money on bread,
but keep their houses in order.
Outdoor structures in the Kriegers' household
"We lived poorly, but always kept the house clean. The most important thing for me was not to be considered a "ruzemachka" or a slatternly woman", recalls Liubov Krieger with laughter. "When we had a considerable household, nobody could say that we had several cows and 30-40 pigs, because we basically followed them with a shovel immediately cleaning everything".

The Kriegers point out that the Germans in Altai have always treated money in a special way in comparison to the Russians.
"My grandfather worked as an accountant in the collective farm and many considered him a stingy man. Even at home he would record everything: the amount of milk the cow gave, the number of eggs laid by hens, what we used up from the reserve, and so on. When later we found those records in the attic, we were amazed. However, it was clear that it was not greediness, but prudence. Grandfather said: all the money earned with hard work, will always be respected. And if a person wastes it, he has no respect towards his labor", recollects Vladimir Krieger.

We are a part of history

What made thousands of Germans settle down in the dry Kulunda steppes so far away from European borders?

Like many other German villages in Altai, Podsosnovo emerged due to the migrants from the Volga region, Trans-Dniester and Ukraine.
Land scarcity and hunger made them take off and move far beyond the Urals to unexplored Siberia in search of better life in the lands promised by the agrarian reform of Peter Stolypin, the Head of the Council of Ministers of the Russian Empire.
By October 1917, there were 104 German settlements in the territory of the present Altai region with total population of more than 20 thousand people.
Svetlana Henrichs
"The migrants established villages around water sources. "If the water is there, we'll be able to provide for the rest", they said to Stolypin. They lived in mud huts during the first two or three years, but it was extremely hard with our Siberian snowstorms in the vast open areas. There are no woods at all in that region and our ancestors started to build adobe houses. Adobe is a kind of brick made from three components: straw, water and clay," tells Svetlana Henrichs, a school director in Grishkovka village
of the German national region.

Adobe bricks are interlaid with liquid clay, which is a prototype of modern cement. The walls made from such material were quite robust and could keep the warmth inside rather well.

Svetlana Abramovna is very proud of the Museum of German culture located in her school. It has a reconstruction of the Altai Germans adobe house with the interior. The museum exhibits include a German sewing machine, books, clothes of the first settlers, archive photos, utensils, and furniture with their stories as well as many other things.
"When my father would tell me about our family history in relation to the state politics and when he would mention the names of Stalin, Khrushchev, I always realized that we are a part of history", recalls Svetlana. "We are far away in Siberia, but we are a part of something great. After the revolution there was no oppression here. There was even relative freedom. We went through collectivization a little easier than the rest of the country, because we lived in communes working all together and it was normal for us to help each other".
After the beginning of the war Stalin issued an order of August 28, 1941, "On resettlement of Germans living in the Volga region", and the state attitude to Germans immediately changed.

They were massively deported. People were given just one day to pack with an order to take as little as possible with them. Germans were deported from the Volga region into the distant areas of Siberia, Kazakhstan and Middle Asia. In September and October of 1941, a total of 446 480 Soviet Germans were deported. During the years of the war this number increased to 950 thousand people.
In those days nobody asked the question "Why?" People understood that such were the times. Trials and tribulation offered by God and destiny had to be overcome with honor.

Despite continuous relocations and troubles, customs and traditions were preserved. Under any circumstances Germans kept on setting up their houses and creating families. "The Word of God helped a lot, it was a great power!" says Svetlana Henrichs.
After deportation Germans were sent to labor camps. Formally all the mobilized people were considered free citizens, but in reality those labor armies were essentially camps with strict laws, cruel attitude and local abuse of power. NKVD or People's Commissariat on Internal Affairs was in charge of the mobilized population. Mobilized people worked in extraction of mineral resources, timber logging and construction.

Alexander Schneider is one of those who went through the labor army trials. He is 89 years old now and he remembers those years with bitterness and hard feelings.
"I was attracted to the labor army in 1942 at the age of 15. They took me to a coal mine in Anzhero-Sudzhensk in the Kemerovo region. I was forced to work 300 meters under the ground. The conditions were worse than in jail. A working day lasted for 12 hours and we worked even longer during the weekend. Apart from Germans there were Tatar, Kazakh, Kalmyk, Uzbek, and Japanese prisoners of war. The food was extremely poor. We had only nettle and goosefoot to cook a kind of soup with no fats at all. We had to walk in line like prisoners with two guards on each side and one gard behind, all of them with dogs. If you made a step left or right, they would shoot. Without warning. It is scary to even remember those times. I came back only in 1950 on New Year's Eve",
tells his story Alexander Schneider.
Then the attitude of the state towards Germans changed quite fast. However, for a long time they were not allowed to have passports and were obliged to register with local commandants every week. Those who came back from the labor army were watched especially closely. Only in 1956 Altai Germans were completely rehabilitated.

Ivan Borgeno is another long term resident of Podsosnovo. He is 88 years old, but he looks as if he is a bit over 60. Ivan Yakovlevich speaks Russian with a heavy accent choosing his words with care. He lives alone in his house, keeps up the household, and drives his old Lada2106 to a local catholic church every Sunday. According to his words, after-war years were particularly hard for Altai Germans as well
as for the country in general.
"It was very hard. I was the only working person in the family. My mother fell ill. Life was like that back then: those who were stealing – could get by, those who were not – could not survive. So many people died of hunger at that time! At least I could take home some wheat", tells Ivan Yakovlevich.
Ivan Peters, the former chief economist of Grishevka collective farm and the village ex-chief, recalls that his parents kept secret that they had been deported from Ukraine for a long time.
"My mother is Siberian German. Her parents relocated to Altai in the beginning of the 20th century. As they said, father's parents "were evacuated" here from Ukraine in 1941. Now we know that it was not evacuation, but expulsion. Father kept quiet about it for a long time, it was dangerous. His parents are buried here, they died of hunger in 1943", recollects Ivan Peters.
Ivan Peters' parents met each other here in Altai. Like all the local Germans at that time, they settled down in a house made from adobe clay. Already ten years later they managed to live decently according to standards of the time, build a big house and provided their children with good education.
As a rule, in German settlements they spoke different dialects of German. Sometimes Germans from neighboring villages would not understand each other's speech. However, they still openly interacted.

Fyodor Ekkert, former head of the German national region, remembers that in the first grade at school he could not speak any Russian. This was the case with all children, because at home and outside they spoke only in German.

Fyodor Evaldovich says that in the 60-s and 70-s life started to change for the better. It did not happen by itself, it was a result of persistence and hard work of the German community.
"The economy here was strong in spite of permanent drought conditions. We have the lowest crop yield in the region. We are lucky if we get a good harvest once in 10 or 20 years. It was extremely hard. We arranged irrigation systems, increased cattle stock. If we had not worked hard, we would not have such villages. The way they look proves that we are not quite a normal people (he chuckles). If I go out and painted my fence green, my neighbor will paint his fence blue tomorrow to make it all brighter and more beautiful", tells Fyodor Ekkert.

Turbulent 90-s

The 1990-s brought about two important events to Altai Germans. First and foremost, they managed to restore the German national region.

Initially it existed from 1927 till 1938. After those years all German villages were a part of the Slavgorod region.

However, it was the second event that became life-changing. Altai Germans started to migrate back to their historical homeland in large numbers. Most of them left between 1992 and 1995, but later on dozens of families still kept leaving for Germany. According to Ekkart's estimates, just about 8-10% of first inhabitants currently live in the region. However, almost half of the current population are "indigenous" Altai Germans, because Germans from Kazakhstan started to come in place of those who had left.
"People arrived here with a different understanding of culture. We had to work closely with regional leaders in order to keep the face of the villages. We would say: "My dear, you have seen what it used to look like! Please, clean around your fence, plant some flowers, even the plainest ones!" Gradually new inhabitants fit in and could not live in a different way any more", tells Fyodor Ekkert.
Not only the look of the villages, but also the economy was preserved. Ekkart points out that their collective farms are one of the few of the kind in the whole region. Fyodor Evaldovich recalls, when the country was totally collapsing in 1990-s, they raised a legitimate question at regional meetings: "Shall we submit the crops and share them?" The people replied "No". Especially the Germans from Kazakhstan were against it, says former regional head. They had been through it and they knew that it could lead only to another collapse.

Then, at those meetings it was decided to keep collective farms, even though it would be very hard in the beginning. Enthusiasm of local heads played a big part in this decision, notes Fyodor Ekkert.
"There were a lot of difficulties with the banks that did not want to give loans to farms. So we had to change official names in order to correspond to the current legislation. However, the content stayed the same and these are still collective farms", remembers Fyodr Ekkert. "Everybody was amazed, when I was telling about it at conferences in Moscow. In 1998 in Germany I discussed it with Gordeyev, the then Minister of Agriculture, during one event. He refused to believe it. Yes, the whole country was moving in a different direction at that time".

Nowhere to go

Why have not you left for Germany? Have the migrants managed to find their place in a new homeland?
Have Altai Germans managed to preserve the mentality and culture during more than a century of their history in Altai?

P.S.: being different

In the houses of Altai Germans everything is in perfect order. All the things are in their places, cups in the cupboards form a straight line, pillows on the beds stand in perfect triangles like in the army. No extra details, as if everything is perfectly calculated. No hint on "Russian splendor" anywhere.
In the streets of the German region everything is very regular, orderly, and clean. Painted fences, neat houses (even the old ones that almost fall apart), clean land plots. There is almost no wild grass. The village streets are broad and this is not a coincidence. When planning the villages, they took into account snowy winters in those fields. It is extremely inconvenient to clean narrow streets from snow, while if they are even and spacious and less snow is brought in by the wind, it is easier to put it in order. "And in general it is just beautiful", point out Altai Germans.
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Text and photo: Nastasya Kovalenko

Photo from archives:,,, P.M.Kuzmina archive,, bsk.nios.

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