In the 1830’s, German immigrants began arriving in Russia, chased out of their homeland by crushing taxes and military conscription. The emperor’s wars were taking it’s toll on the people, and they’d had enough. Queen Catherine of Russia had new lands to settle and the feudal system was coming to an end. They wanted the enterprising Germans to cultivate the rich, black land of Bessarabia and the Black Sea, to promote the Russian economy. The Russians promised land, seed, tools and the freedom for the Germans to create communities of their own – communities where the German language, culture and values thrived.
In Heimat, Shirley Wegner Nitschke creates a work of fiction around the true history of these Russia Germans. It is actually the first book I’ve read about this group of people, and it is of particular interest to me because my grandmother’s family were German from Russia immigrants.
While the promise of this new land in Russia held much hope for them, the Germans quickly realized that promises were broken over and over again. It took years for them to receive the seed and tools promised, and once they created successful farms and villages, the Russians demanded more and more from them. Their tight knit German communities eventually were required to speak Russian, and the boys they sought to protect from conscription, were drafted into the Russian army. They had no rights – the Russians ruled by “might makes right.”
By 1870, their freedoms were so eroded that Germans started leaving Russia by the tens of thousands, but it wasn’t easy to leave. They literally had to sneak out, evading capture or worse – being shot. Nitschke doesn’t leave it at that, either. She describes what eventually happened to the Germans to stayed in Russia – the arrests, the gulags and the starvation. The early 20th century was a dangerous time to be in Russia, particularly if you were a successful immigrant.
Nitschke’s work made me realize the dangers my ancestors risked, and how their courage enabled me to live a life of privilege as an American today. If they had stayed in Germany or Russia, I would likely not even exist.
Nitschke is not a professional writer and her style lacks maturity. But I did enjoy the book very much and hope to read more about German Russian immigrants in the future.
3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2006