Forced Migration, Special Settlements, and Ethnic Identities: Soviet Germans and Crimeans after World War II

By Mukhina, Irina | Michigan Academician, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Forced Migration, Special Settlements, and Ethnic Identities: Soviet Germans and Crimeans after World War II


Mukhina, Irina, Michigan Academician


In Vynuzhdennaia migratsiia: sotsial'nye posledstviia mezhnatsional'nyh konfliktov, philosopher Valerii Lukov and sociologist Sadig Nagdaliev propose, analyze, and apply a theory of the social effects of forced migration on national minority groups. This social science theory offers explanations for short-, mid-, and long-term effects of forced migration on displaced peoples. Immediate or short term results and changes include the loss of family members and familiar surroundings; the destruction and often collapse of social status and everyday ways of life; loss of representatives of the native culture through death and separation; deformation and transformation of national spiritual and material values; destruction of social institutions like schools; the collapse of self-government or the elite power base; and finally the complete destruction of the rest of life. (1)

Among midterm effects the authors include the "brain drain" which comes about mostly because of the inability of intellectual elites to pass on their knowledge due to geographical distance and lack of educational institutions; changes in the structure of labor resources, or change in the professional qualifications of migrants as a means of survival; change, dislocation, or disappearance of political, economic, and cultural elites; demographic changes; and finally the inevitable adaptation to a new way of life. (2) Lukov and Nagdaliev argue that from a microsocial perspective, or from the perspective of forced migrants, all the immediate and mid-term hardships result in two long-term effects on the migrants and their mentality. First is a "transformation of mentality," or transformation of ethnic self-consciousness, and the second is the creation and preservation of an "image of the enemy" which had caused their travails. (3)

While this theory is most commonly used to study contemporary demographic and social changes, it can also be used effectively to analyze historic phenomena. Indeed, this theory facilitates the understanding of the experience and aftermath of the forced migration of many deported ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union in 1940s. This is illustrated by the experiences of "Soviet Germans" and peoples "from Crimea," or simply "Crimeans," in deportation and exile. Using Lukov's and Nagdaliev's theory as a framework and relying on extensive research in primary sources, this paper will demonstrate the ways in which the dramatic experience of forced displacement and special settlements altered the ethnic identity of these two groups, an alteration previously noted but still unexplained. (4)

The history of ethnicity and nationality in the Soviet history is a very complex one. Over a hundred different ethnic minorities have lived in the Soviet Union. (5) The ways in which they experienced Soviet national policies and practices often determined how the national self-identity of one or another minority group was altered or destroyed.

"Soviet Germans" and "Crimeans" were two of many ethnic groups whose national identities were transformed by forced deportation during World War II. Prior to their forced displacement, Germans residing in the USSR had never been a homogenous ethnic group. The Volga Region (the Volga River valley basin in southwestern Russia) hosted German nationals from over twenty-five different German provinces. The first German settlements in the region were established in the second half of the eighteenth century--long before the unification of Germany. Therefore, rather than regard themselves as "Germans," these twenty five groups identified themselves by the provinces from which their ancestors came. (6) At that time when Catherine II granted Germans religious freedom and the right of self-government, (7) the small German Volga settlements were clearly divided along the lines of their self-perceived ethnic identities as Schwaben, Thueringer, Hessen, etc. (8) Despite ethnic assertiveness and struggles for the preservation of segregated provincial identities, assimilation to a limited degree occurred over the decades and centuries that German settlements existed on the Volga. …

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