On the picturesque banks of the Ob river in southern Siberia, about an hour west of the city of Tomsk, lies the cozy village of Kozhevnikovo, a community of nearly 1000 ethnic Germans, descendants of 18th century immigrants. They keep the traditions alive from their German heritage, and to this day, many of them continue speaking German.
Angela Merkel — the president of Germany — has visited the area herself, taking photo ops with some of the locals. Some of the families in this village have also visited Germany, but they are content to continue living in Russia.
Surrounded by a gorgeous birch forest, this quiet little village is a haven for German settlers. During the day they farm the land in peace, and at night they find rest in their pretty wooden homes. They enjoy a moderate northern climate, comparable to the climate experienced in parts of Michigan. While they are laid back enough to let cows occasionally roam through the town streets, they are not unfamiliar with modern conveniences.
The village has a little German brewery, a jewelry store, and a number of other little shops. And the beautiful Church of St. George serves as a spiritual center for local Christians.
The story began in the late 1700s, when Russian Empress Catherine II — of German descent herself — invited over 30,000 settlers to relocate from Germany to Russia. These ethnic Germans settled lands in the southwest Volga region, creating over 100 villages. They came to be known as the Volga Germans. By the end of the 1800s, there were 1.8 million ethnic Germans living in Russia, most of them farmers.
Everything changed in 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Stalin declared all Germans to be enemies of the State, and he proceeded to deport hundreds of thousands of Volga Germans to Sibera and other distant regions. They were given little to eat or drink, and weather conditions were brutal. It is estimated that 40% of Volga Germans died as a result of deportation.
After Stalin’s death, the persecution of Volga Germans ceased. They were allowed to relocate to milder climates, such as the village of Kozhevnikovo in southern Siberia. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, numerous Volga Germans left the Soviet Union and returned to Germany.
Still, a number of Germans remained in Russia. They love their heritage, and they still speak German. At the same time, they love Russia, and they have no desire to leave. Edward Weber, a local villager in Kozhevnikovo, has already visited Germany, and he says,
“That’s the homeland of my ancestors. My homeland is Russia.”
He and his wife have kept their farming heritage alive. To supplement their income, they tend a vegetable garden, and they also keep pigs and poultry.
As for those who had moved back to Germany, some of them found out that Germany was no longer the pleasant place they had expected. Though they understand the historic German language and culture, they do not feel welcome in Germany itself. Thus, a number of them returned to Russia. According to Weber,
“Some families have come back to the villages around here. They were tired of being treated like second-class citizens.”
Thankfully, they are not second-class citizens in Russia. Many of the villagers still speak a 200-year-old dialect of German, and in the local schools, young people continue studying German today. The villagers are keen on keeping their traditions alive. They even have German-language summer camps where their teenagers read German books, act in German plays, learn German geography, and perform German folk music.
Nina Hochweiss, a local German resident, calls this part of Russia a “paradise” on earth. She says, “You know, here the summer is fantastic.”
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