Twenty years ago, hundreds of thousands of Russo-German repatriates left the former Soviet Union in search of a more prosperous life in Germany. Ethnically German, the government provided them with accommodation, education, and other basics to start their new lives.
In the German town of Hoevelhof, refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other crisis countries now find themselves in the same situations the repatriates once were in: the lifestyle is simple, the environment is unknown and the German citizens are reserved and judgmental.
Meeting the new arrivals in their former homes, many repatriates are reminded of their own struggles as Germans in Russia, and Russians in Germany. As a result, they lash out against the refugees and government policies, looking for acknowledgment and gains of distinction.
Two houses stood outside Hoevelhof, near Paderborn in West Germany. Surrounded by fields and a forest, they were sat next to a long, straight road, with cars occasionally passing by. There were a few other houses nearby, but no inhabitants in sight.
These two houses – constructed without love, but built solidly – looked identical, standing wall to wall with a two-metre passage in between them. They shared a front and a back yard, with a waist-high metal fence around the perimeter. A patch of grass at the back, at the front mostly concrete.
Each house had two entrance doors and three stories. Gable roofs, red bricks, white window frames. Very simplistic, but not ugly. There were some bikes leaning against the walls, kids playing in front, adults socializing or doing things here and there; the colloquial tongue was far from German.
There were short corridors in those two houses, tiled and painted white, with white doors, leading to small rooms. One room per family; in the case of many children, sometimes two rooms; in the case of single adults, a few per room. Shared kitchens were on the third floor and shared bathrooms on the ground floor.
The days were one and the same: Men smoked cigarettes, drank beer, and fixed cars even if they were not broken. Women cooked, looked after the children, and cooked some more. Once in a while, someone moved out when they were lucky enough to have found a job, and someone else moved in, into the same old routine. Boredom, frustration and self-doubt densely hung in the air, almost tangible.
That was in the nineties, twenty years ago, in Hoevelhof’s Muehlenweg. The conservative town of 15,000 became host to a few hundred Russo-German repatriates: ethnic Germans that came from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Having lived in diaspora in Russia and other Soviet states for roughly 200 years, the repatriates maintained a semi-German national consciousness. A piece of the 1953 legislation granted them the right to “return home” based on just that consciousness. So many of them did. In total around 3.2 million returned; 400,000 came in 1990 alone.
The repatriates came from Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states. Most of them lived in the remote countryside in their own communities, where an ancient form of German was the first language. Russian was taught as a foreign language only in secondary school, and a strong sense of belonging was fostered over generations throughout those German minorities.
Unforgiving of WWII, many Russians considered the German-descended groups as invaders, traitors or otherwise inferior. Official figures describing those groups are scarce, as officials tended to ignore their communities or classified them as “Other” in reports and statistics.
When the Soviet Union was shaking and eventually collapsed, life in communist collective farms in the Siberian plains was not very rewarding: no job opportunities, no social infrastructures, and no prospects for the young generations. So when president Gorbachev opened the borders, and the ancient German legislation paved the way to a promising new start, large parts of the German communities sold everything they had for a one-way ticket westwards.
They came with families and a few utensils for household and day-to-day life. Unable to communicate, overwhelmed by administration, they were lost in overcrowded transit camps, some for days, others for weeks or even months. Eventually, all repatriates were moved into accommodation like those in Hoevelhof Muehlenweg.
Those two houses – unloving, but solid – are still standing. Very rudimentary, and a little sparser than they used to be, they are now inhabited by people from Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, and other crisis-stricken countries.
The new residents of the Muehlenweg came as refugees to the EU, made their way to Germany, and were distributed to the conservative town near Paderborn. Each of Germany’s 16 federal states is obliged to accommodate a certain percentage of the refugees arriving in the republic. A central agency keeps track of new arrivals and sends them to the provinces that need to fulfil their quotas. There, the refugees are placed in municipalities and cities, by numbers rather than by case.
Some of the refugees came with families, but many of those in Muehlenweg seem to be alone. Boredom, frustration and self-doubt inhabit those two houses still, and probably have done throughout the last twenty years.
The conditions are similar, today and twenty years ago. Not only have refugees inherited the housing of the Russo-German repatriates, but the two migrant groups also share the same experience of exclusion and of having to start over.
Comparing and complaining
Most of the repatriates that were first assigned to Hoevelhof settled down in the area permanently, after having lived in Muehlenweg and other emergency accommodation for some time.
The assumption would be that those repatriates, in the current climate of intolerant anti-migration sentiment across Europe, would be the ones with empathy for the new refugees in Hoevelhof and other German communities. After all, were not those repatriates in a very similar situations two decades ago?
Yet, instead of empathy, very critical voices and some kind of jealousy seem to be the prevailing sentiment on the part of many repatriated Germans towards the new immigrants in Hoevelhof: “Look at them! They are all criminals, all lazy, all dirty”, say some repatriates. “Not like us!”
While nationalist and populist voices argue in a very similar way, the atmosphere in debates around that topic with repatriates feels charged and tense. They find some kind of legitimacy in those accusations that they apparently retrieve from their own experience.
“When we lived in those places, we had to adapt every single aspect of our lives to German standards” explained Oxana Scheiermann, a banking assistant that moved to Hoevelhof in 1992, when she was seven. She, her parents and brother lived in the Muehlenweg facilities for about a year. “Even small things, like separating the garbage: we had never heard of anything like that back in Russia; but here [in Germany], we had to do it from the first day. And when we dumped the plastic in the paper bin, we were in trouble! And now? They [officials] have put a huge container in the back yard, so the refugees can dump it all in there!”
The separation of garbage sounds like a petty thing, but those memories upset Oxana. In bewilderment, she compared her family’s livelihood with what she had heard or seen of the refugees’ living conditions nowadays, stunned about what seemed to her unfair, regal and unnecessary.
The repatriate community offers a pool full of such stories, drawing a picture of unequal treatment from officials towards the two different migrant groups. Housing in cellars without daylight, mice in the overpopulated family rooms and welfare payments that have never been made are some of the reports from the repatriate generation; whereas today, refugees can make claims for a cleaner, can protest for more privacy, and can get legal support to help make their cases.
“Protest and make additional claims – in our wildest dreams we would not have thought of that! We were thankful for the bit that we got!”, recalled Elisabeth, a 52-year-old mother from Siberia. “If you didn’t like it, you were free to go back where you came from!”, her husband Johann added. The couple and their two daughters moved from Russia in 1990, and lived in the basement of a primary school outside Hoevelhof for about a year. If something was broken, they fixed it; if something was missing, they replaced it; if something was uncomfortable, they got used to it. “Because we did not know any better, anyway”, explained Elisabeth. Johann, throwing his hands up in the air, became angry on that comment. “Those people don’t know any better from where ever they come from! They claim to be coming from war!”, he argued with a loud voice. “Then they should be happy to be alive – like we were!”
Bad and worse
Bernd Mesovic, deputy manager of the German advocacy group Pro Asyl, said in an interview that it is in fact common to find this type of competition among different migrant groups. “Time after time, groups of immigrants that have managed to establish themselves [in the host society] tend to stigmatize the newcomers, or believe the newcomers are more privileged than they were when they just arrived.” People come up with such “dubious comparisons”, according to Mesovic, at the end of long and difficult processes of integration, looking for some kind of “gains of distinction” (German: Distinktionsgewinn).
That term was coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his 1979 work “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste”. It describes the attempt by the hegemonic social class to create aesthetic and behavioural differences, in order to set itself apart from the lower regarded social groups. The seemingly superior class then reproduces along those new distinctions, seeking to strengthen its own prevailing position in society. On the same note, Mesovic recalled an experience he made as a German teacher for immigrants, Russo-German repatriates as well as refugees from Afghanistan. He witnessed “- to put it mildly – surprise” among the repatriates, having come to Germany to “finally be among Germans, just to find themselves among foreigners”.
“In the Soviet Union, the Russo-Germans suffered from being maligned as ‘The Germans’. Now in Germany, they are striving not to be perceived as ‘The Russians’ – as foreign yet again,” explained Dr Heinrich Siemens, chairman of Plautdietsche Freunde, a collective that aims to preserve Russo-German repatriate culture and language.
Siemens described the thoughts within the repatriate community towards refugees as no different than in the rest of Germany: diversified, featuring both unconditional welcoming as well as nationalist rejection. In the Plautdietsche Freunde community, Siemens does not recognize a particular need to show more solidarity with the refugees, nor a particular discontent with any apparently preferable government measures the refugees are subject to now.
Rather, the opposite is true: “Russo-German immigrants luckily never experienced many of the restrictions that refugees suffer from,” claimed Siemens. The repatriates’ citizenship and immediate work permit, for example, helped them to settle in Germany and to feel at home, said Siemens. “The Russo-German repatriates were a privileged group of immigrants, that managed to integrate in Germany much faster than most of the other groups,” he concluded.
Also Bernd Mesovic believed the impression that refugees would be treated in any way more preferably than the repatriates twenty years ago is an illusion. “Mostly, refugees and asylum seekers have been living in much harder conditions than their Russo-German counterparts” he said.
The most striking difference, apart from the legal status, might be the family policy that was applied to the repatriates in the Nineties, when compared to the refugees nowadays. While repatriate families were administered together and could ask to be moved near previously migrated relatives, refugee families might easily end up separated, with individual family members being relocated or even deported.
Between compassion and distinction
“How fortunate were they!” said Amtul Naseer, when she heard of how the repatriates came to Germany. The 44-year-old fled from her native Pakistan four years ago and now lives in another refugee shelter in Hoevelhof. Six months ago, her 19-year-old son came to Germany seeking asylum, and since then, Amtul has been struggling to get him relocated anywhere near her, as he now lives 250 kilometres away near Aachen. “He stays in a container six kilometres from the nearest supermarket. People attack him and he gets no support at all,” Amtul described.
Elisabeth, the mother from Siberia, feels for Amtul and others with a similar fate. “Whatever demands we could or could not make, at least we were with our families,” Elisabeth said, reminiscing about her family’s migration and settling-in period melancholically.
So where does all the anger, about garbage separation policies that have changed, come from? About accommodation that is no longer underground? About protests that concern no-one but the refugees and politicians looking for a new election campaign theme?
Those two unloving, unloved houses outside of Hoevelhof – repatriates have moved from there a long time ago. They have jobs, degrees, families. They live in houses without a metal fence around the yard. So why compare what might have been worse back then, if the situation for them is so much better now?
“Sometimes, I see myself in them [the refugees]. How the other people look at them with disgust, how the people turn away when they cross paths, how the people get in the longer queue just to not stand behind one of ‘those foreigners.’” That was what Elisabeth came up with, reminiscing about her family’s migration and settling-in period. She told this story: “Yesterday, I saw a woman my age walking across the street. Her features were obviously foreign, and she was dressed in a different – if not to say funny – way. Other pedestrians avoided her, talked behind her back, giggled, shook their heads. She looked so insecure; obviously, she noticed, but she just didn’t know any better! What could she do? She had to go to that supermarket, or wherever she went, whether she liked it or not. That was just me, twenty years ago.”
For many repatriates, the lines seem to blur between the past and the present when they see another group of migrants going through all that they had left behind. This time, the repatriates are on the other side: they are integrated, they are part of the ‘in-group’, they are not intruders anymore. It took time, effort, will, and sacrifice to get to this point in the first place. Now the call is to maintain, or even strengthen, that spot in the hegemonic class.
Heinrich Siemens attested a lack of acceptance by the local population that could not be compensated for by favourable policies. “[The repatriates] often have the impression that the majority of German society still rejects them as fellow Germans,” he said. “Compared to refugees, we were privileged, yes. But we were just as unwelcome,” recalled Johann, Elisabeth’s husband. “To the local Germans [opposing Russo-Germans], it never mattered that we had citizenship, work permits and whatnot. We came from Russia – so we were Russians. Foreigners: all one and the same.”
That striving of the Russo-German communities to be acknowledged as ‘Germans among Germans’ continues to this day. Repatriates call their children Niklas, Michael or Stefanie, giving Russian-like names a wide berth; they send the kids to confirmation classes, even though the family might not be religious; and they avoid and prevent Russian language at least in public, if not at home, too – aiming to blend in with the local Germans as much as possible.
Now, what can be done, if there is a new outsider group, and the similarities are so strikingly clear, as is the case with repatriates and refugees?
For foreigners who successfully integrated themselves in the host society, the creation of aesthetic and behavioural differences seems to be the obvious solution, in order to close up with their former pressure group, to process painful memories, and to increase confidence in oneself to keep up the struggle. The points that in fact were different now seem to matter the more – be it petty things like garbage separation. The message is clear: ‘Those are foreigners – but we belong here’.
Empathy, yes, the repatriates seem to feel that for the refugees in Muehlenweg and probably for those in other accommodation across Germany. But empathy seems to be overruled by the desire to gain distinction, to finally be acknowledged as a vital part of the German society.
Rather than going through artificial competition and additional distinction, different migrant groups could inspire each other and share valuable insights for difficult transition phases. Host societies could learn from previous experiences with large-scale immigration, adapt procedures and policies where necessary. If only the labels ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ were not distributed so rigorously – often, more by the population than by official administration.