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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 December, 2004, 18:34 GMT
Ghetto woes afflict Russian-Germans
By Ray Furlong
BBC News, Berlin

A new immigration law set to come into force next month may mean the end of a dream for hundreds of thousands of people in the former Soviet Union who had high hopes of a new life in Germany.
Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great encouraged many Germans to settle in Russia

The so-called "Russian-Germans" are descendents of immigrants invited to Russia by Catherine the Great in the 18th Century.

Oppressed during the Soviet era, they were allowed to leave for Germany by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, and more than two million have done so.

But Germany wants to stop the influx, concerned that the new arrivals are living in self-created ghettoes.

In the Berlin district of Marzahn, for instance, there are 13,000 Russian-Germans.

Russian newspapers are on sale at the newsagent, there is a shop with Russian food products, and at Saturday morning football the only language in the air is Russian.

"This is a youth outreach programme for marginalised groups," says Wolfgang Zeiser, a community worker who organises the football.

"The kids here have typical immigration problems, arrival in a new country where everything is strange: the language, the laws, everything."


The football is organised to keep the young Russian-Germans off the streets.

Marzahn is an enormous high-rise estate dating from communist times - blighted by mass unemployment, drugs and crime.

"It's terrible here. It's full of drug addicts because there's nothing to do," says 18-year-old Wilhelm Halster, in the street-slang he has acquired since coming here from Kazakhstan four years ago.

"There's no chance of getting a job and there's nothing going on. So you just hang around and then go to a dealer to buy something. That's all we do."

There is a whole generation of kids like Wilhelm: uprooted from their homes as teenagers, alienated in Germany.


The issue was recently brought to national attention by a dramatic court case involving a 21-year-old Russian-German accused of being a gang leader, whose drug-trade turf wars allegedly left a trail of cold-blooded murder across the country.

These young people have very poor chances to get jobs or apprenticeships... They are often aggressive or violent
Cornelie Sonntag-Wohlgast
Head of German parliament committee on immigration

Stories like this put pressure on politicians to act.

The new immigration law coming into force next month puts strict language requirements on Russian-Germans and their family members wishing to come to Germany.

"I think we are forced to do these steps, for we have problems with these young, not integrated ethnic Germans," says Cornelie Sonntag-Wohlgast, head of the German parliamentary committee responsible for immigration.

"Most of those people who come now are young people who come with their parents and grandparents, and they are nearly unable to speak German."

"These young people have very poor chances to get jobs or apprenticeships. So they don't know what to do. They are often aggressive or violent... and that's not good for integration at all."

Thousands moved to Russia in 18th Century
Granted their own autonomous republic on the Volga River
USSR banned German language during World War II and Stalin deported ethnic Germans east
Two million ethnic Germans have settled in Germany since late 1980s

But the Russian-Germans themselves feel they are being victimised by media stereotypes.

They do not have a strong lobby to point out that there are also success stories in the community.

At the Thueringer Oberschule in Marzahn, one in four of the pupils comes from the former Soviet Union.

By what is called a "systematic orientation" towards their special needs, it has achieved success: 44% of them leave with good enough results to go on to grammar school.

Alexander Reiser, formerly a journalist in Vladivostok, now a social worker in Marzahn, says the new law will have disastrous consequences.

"Imagine the case of a 60-year-old ethnic German. He speaks German, but his Russian wife doesn't - it's unrealistic that she will learn," he says.

"The same goes for the kids who have grown up in a Russian-speaking environment."

"I also think of thousands of cases where parents will be unable to join their children who have already moved to Germany. Families will be divided."

Language barrier

Language is perhaps the biggest problem for the community.

Russian press graphic
Many of the immigrants still prefer to read Russian papers
Speaking German was banned in Russia during World War I, and the community was further oppressed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Around the corner from Alexander Reiser's office a small class of middle-aged Russian-German women grapple with verb conjugations, helped by Mariana Fox, a retired Russian teacher who lives nearby.

"I want to help them speak their mother language," Ms Fox says. "They are our brothers and sisters.

"They are German, they're not Russian. They can't speak the language because it was forbidden."

The ladies here all have stories to tell of how difficult coming to Germany has been.

Eliana Waitzin, 50, says she knew nothing about Germany when she came here two years ago.

Her family had problems with papers, and also finding a flat.

Another woman says her daughter-in-law, a qualified architect, is working as a cleaner.

But her son has a good job as a sales manager - and her grandchildren are doing well at school.

"They speak German perfectly. They speak a little bit of Russian, but only to me," she says.

Some Russian-Germans feel let down by Germany, a land they came to hoping for a better life.

But many Germans blame them for failing to adapt. After 200 years in Russia, this has been anything but a fairytale homecoming.

Germans argue over integration
30 Nov 04 |  Europe

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