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Reform, "rebirth," and regret: The early autonomy movement of ethnic Germans in the USSR, 1955--1989

Eric Jon Schmaltz, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


The dissertation traces the development of the national movement of the USSR's two million Germans. The movement advocated the restoration of autonomy lost during Stalin's 1940s mass deportations to Central Asia. ^ Between 1955 and 1987, the Soviet government pursued a dual policy of long-term assimilation and token, but temporary, cultural concessions for the Germans. While placating some autonomy demands, it wished to retain this extensive and valuable labor pool in the eastern regions and integrate it into the dominant Russian culture and Soviet economy. After 1988, reform-minded Kremlin officials began to hope that a more positive approach towards this minority would elicit Germany's financial and diplomatic support. ^ Two generations of German activists, born amid the tribulations of two world wars and Stalinism, led a surge in ethnic self-consciousness. Torn between their fading ethnic heritage and emerging modern Russo-Soviet identity, they guided the movement through two distinct phases in an effort to prevent the further loss of language and culture. Activists initially engaged in underground political dissent, but they soon took advantage of Gorbachev's reforms to create legal, mass-based organizations. ^ This study concludes at a crossroads in the movement, when dissident activism gave way to open and public discourse on the autonomy question. The dissertation is designed to set the foundation for a study of the movement after Gorbachev. There is much evidence that the Kremlin's abrupt policy shift towards accommodating the German nationality failed because it arrived too late, and because the former Soviet regime's chronic administrative corruption and entrenched previous policies of anti-German discrimination and assimilation undermined last-minute reform efforts. The movement's sudden organizational success also encountered serious new obstacles because of sharp internal differences of opinion over proposed “rehabilitation” policies. The Kremlin's failed policy compelled most Germans to emigrate to Germany, damaging the prospects of rebuilding a unique ethnic culture in the East. The former USSR thus lost nearly two million prized citizen-workers, resulting in major demographic and economic consequences for the independent states. ^

Subject Area

History, European|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies

Recommended Citation

Schmaltz, Eric Jon, "Reform, "rebirth," and regret: The early autonomy movement of ethnic Germans in the USSR, 1955--1989" (2002). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3064570.