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Germans in Kyrgyzstan

If you happen to be in the Kant area (20 kilometres east of Bishkek) don't be too surprised to come across dusty villages with German names like Luxemburg, Rot- front or Thalmann. Near Talas, there is even a village called Johannesdorf. They are testimony to the fact that Kyrgyzstan was once home to a substantial German community. According to the 1989 census, there were 56,300 Germans (about 2 per cent of the population) in the republic, although the real numbers are believed to be substantially higher. They are known, or rather, remembered, for being competent, hard-working technicians, farmers and craftsmen.

Now how did German settlers end up here, a stone's throw from China? Some are descendants of Nazi prisoners of war who never made it home but this is only part of the story. The German presence in the Russian empire goes back to the late 18th century, when Catherine the Great (of German origin herself), invited farmers from Saxony and Prussia to help populate and develop the newly acquired territories in southern Russia, the Volga basin and the Crimea. Isolated from Germany, the so-called RuSland-Deutsche developed a separate culture, centred around their Protestant faith and their dialect of Saxon German, heavily laced with Russian loanwords.

In the late 19th century, when Russia conquered Central Asia, Germans from the Crimea and Ukraine were offered free land in present-day northern Kyrgyzstan. Much later, after 1941, the numbers of Germans swelled considerably when Stalin, convinced they would actively sympathize with the Nazis, had the entire ethnic German community from the western USSR deported. Many died along the way and the survivors were resettled in Siberia, Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan. Earmarked as 'traitors', Soviet Germans were long denied access lo universities and Communist Party careers.

After 1991, the breakdown of the USSR and Germany's 'open door' policy for East European and CIS citizens of German origin offered the opportunity of a better life in the Heimat. Today, 75 per cent of the Germans have gone. The only village that has a substantial German community left is Bergtal, better known by its Soviet name Rotfront.

Bruno De Cordier