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Germany's wild east

The year 1816 was a bad one in the German duchy of Wurtemburg. Famine and instability had followed in the wake of the Napoleonic war. Meanwhile, Russia hoped to spread the legendary German work ethic amongst the peasants in its newly conquered colonies, notably in the Caucasus which was considered Tsar Alexander's 'hot Siberia' for political exiles. The Russian government positively encouraged emigration with a gift of 148,85 roubles and one horse to each arriving German family. The Caucasus were made to sound like a 'promised land' to pious immigrants by stressing the proximity of Biblical Mt Ararat. However for poor peasant families, the journey was painfully difficult. Their stories are the Caucasian equivalents of US wild-west pioneer epics.

Out of the first 'column' of 1400 families that left Wurtemburg almost half died en route. Many others got only as far as Ukraine or Bessarabia (today's Moldova). The 488 families that did finally make it were settled initially in Elisavetspol (Ganja). Two later columns of settlers were given an idyllically set but untended pasture area which they named Helenendorf (now Xanlar). They planted crops and vineyards but, in 1826, before development had got far, the town was burnt down by the Persians. Nonetheless, the resilient population rebuilt what rapidly grew to be the nucleus of Azerbaijan's 'Concordia' wine business. Many of Xanlar's attractive timber-eaved homes still retain the cool original wine cellars. Helenendorf also developed a reputation for producing the finest horse carts in the Caucasus and by the 1880s it had become one of the most prosperous villages in the land. The first Ericsson telephone in Azerbaijan is said to have been hung on the wall of one Herr Forer in Helenendorf. There's no record of what he did with it until there was someone else to call.

The town's fortunes collapsed in 1941 when the still predominantly German population was deported en masse to Central Asia. This bore similarities to the wartime internment of ethnic Germans and Japanese in the UK and USA, except that after the war they were not allowed to return.