Disobedience, Protest and Resistance
by German-Russians in the Soviet State (Part 5)
Verweigerung, Protest und Widerstand der Russlanddeutschen
im Sowietstaat (Teil 5)
Krieger, Dr. Viktor. "Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by German-Russians in the Soviet State (Part 5)." Volk auf dem Weg, July 2007, 18-20.
Translation from the original German-langauge text
to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
Forms of resistance in Forced Labor Camps
Continued from Volk auf dem Weg, numbers 2 - 5, 2007 (and
apparently concluded in this number)
The situation in which the German ethnic people found themselves
after gross accusations of treason, deportations, confiscation of
properties, and having been scattered across the gigantic territory
of Siberia and Kazakhstan made it simply impossible to find a hearing
for their problems, particularly since in the face of the war with
Germany and the massive horror propaganda against them they could
not expect any support from the other Soviet peoples. The majority
of German-Russians believed there had been a huge and fatal mistake
and did not remotely think of any act of resistance to the State's
As far as we know, the dissolution of the Volga-German Republic
did not evoke the slightest objection on the part of party or state
authorities at the central government or from government agencies
in the Union and even at the level of the Autonomous [Volga-German]
Republic. The preceding years of terror had intimidated the national
elites and the population to the utmost degree.
Still, for the first time in the history of the Soviet state, the
Stalinist leadership dared the forceful dissolution of an established
national territory that was supposedly protected by the Constitution
-- this constituted a qualitative jump in the continuing practices
of Bolshevist terror. As would be seen later, this process would
serve as a model to the German-Russians for later cleansings inside
and outside of the country.
Putting people into work camps also did not evoke any effective
protests Known cases of resistive behavior were primarily expressions
of individual survival strategies such as escape attempts, self-mutilation,
reporting sick, etc.
Collective protest actions within the isolated and closed-off zones
and in masses of population suffused with informers would hardly
have any chance of success. Only individual and spontaneous rebellion
might occur, but the guards and other security forces could usually
quell them immediately.
Escape or Desertion
One visible form of individual resistance throughout all the years
of forced labor camps was clearly the attempts to escape. Forced laborers
sought this method as a means of protesting and in answer to the insufferable
conditions work and living conditions in the places of their forced
imprisonment. An additional kind of motivation that must not be underestimated
was a real, oppressive worry about the situation of relatives left
A July 19, 1842 announcement
by Alexander Komarovski, the Administrative Chief of the Work
Camp Bakalstroy (as of August, 1942 it was called Tshelyabmetallurgstroy)
concerning Germans shot for alleged sabotage and escape attempts
or those sentenced to this penal camp. This announcement contains
the first 15 names of those shot and 25 names of those sentenced
to the camp.
For example, during the initial months of their internment, 513
trud-armyists, or 1.8% of their total number, left on their own
power the gigantic building site of Tshelyabmetallurgstroi of the
Work administrators began to take a series of measures to effect
a significant reduction in the number of escapes. For one thing,
all personal papers, military passes and documents of any kind were
confiscated from all incoming Germans, then there were the regular
searches of the barracks for forbidde items such as compasses, knives
or cutting tools, pocket and straight razors,. watches, cards, even
clean clothes -- this was to minimize the temptation for trying
to break out. Militarized guards were given orders to be on heightened
alert with regard to this camp contingent that had been designated
as an enemy of the state.
Deserters who were caught would be sentenced to severe punishment,
including being shot. Such draconian punishment served primarily
as a deterrent and as a means toward obedience. Regular announcements
were posted in the camp zones that listed the names of Germans who
had been sentenced, plus information regarding the severity of their
Local residents, already embittered by massive Germano-phobic propaganda
and the loss of loved ones in fighting units, were strictly warned
of making contact with those mobilized in the work camps, and they
were encouraged to report any escapees and to assist in their apprehension.
In the surrounding villages and railroad depots this resulted, within
a very short time, in the creation of 39 assistance groups comprising
526 members, all of whom participated in various search actions.
Members would receive a reward for each detained German, plus the
opportunity to stock up by being allowed to shop in the stores of
the work camp.
The number of deserters in other industry branches were significantly
higher than in the system of the People's Commissariat of the Interior:
during 1943, 1839 trud-armyists (1.6% of the total) fled from the
work brigades of the NKVD, while there were 4474 (7.9%) who fled
from the People's Commissariat for Coal Production, and 1987 (24.8%)
escaped from the People's Commissariat for Munitions.
The secret police explained the higher escape numbers from the
industrial operations, in part, to be a result of the depressing
conditions at the work place and in living conditions. Many operations
administrators also had neither the means nor the opportunity to
place the Germans into just a few concentrated work places and thereby
to be able to guarantee the total contingent being properly guarded
at their places of work or places of residence.
The important reason for womens' escapes was the fact that often
they had to leave children at home, and without supervision they
would often get into chaotic situations and would run around and
engage in begging.
Punishment for women, and for youth up to 16 years of age, was
not as hard as for men and for youth eligible for military service.
In these cases, deserters were usually subject to a penalty of "only"
five years to eight years in penal work camps.
The chronic shortage of workers eventually brought about a somewhat
more lenient treatment of offenders. Of the 495 escapees from factories
and other work places but caught by August 1 of 1943, only 38 Germans
were designated as "notorious deserters" and tried in
court; all others were allowed to continue to work. Not the least
reason for this decreasing severity was the express desire of administrative
managers, who clearly needed those workers who would otherwise have
ended up in a penal camp.
Collective Revolt and Insubordination
According to archival documents and memories of contemporary witnesses,
collective expression of dissatisfaction occurred relatively rarely.
This was largely due to the purposeful isolation and scattering
of the penal laborers, whose will for assertiveness was dampened
further by the presence of informers and by the deterrent effect
of prosecution in court. If it did come to any such expressions
of dissatisfaction, it was usually a case of spontaneous action,
of specific groups reacting to an especially egregious violation
of their modest rights.
Considered a typical case might be an event in the canteen of the
coal association "Tshelyabugol" in the city of Tshelyabinsk
during early 1943. The penal worker Jakob Schuhmacher tired to obtain
additional food using falsified ration cards. Caught by coworkers
in the act of cheating, he called for support and received a spontaneous
expression of solidarity from around 100
Germans who were also present. In addition to sharp criticism of
the canteen management, at whom this long-repressed dissatisfaction
about unsatisfactory portions had actually been directed, the secret
police supposedly observed "anti-Soviet calls against the existing
order and against measures by the Soviet government and its leader."
Three active participants in this action - called volynka in NKVD
jargon - were arrested and accused of violations of & 58, section
10 (encouraging others toward bringing down the Soviet power) and
& 59, sect. 2 (mass unrest).
Any real attempt at mass protest was brutally beaten down by security
forces. When penal worker Johann Gossen in the Bogoslov camp, which
had been established for the construction of an aluminum processing
factory - BAZ-Story - in the Sverdlovsk region, called on others
to join in a collective work walkout for better provisions and clothing,
it cost him his life. Because someone denounced him, Gossen landed
in the investigative prison on October 28, 1941.
Two months later the Sverdlovsk regional court, in a special session
and without hearing him or providing a defense for him, sentenced
him to death by shooting for "counter-revolutionary agitation
Politically motivated protest
In addition to individual or specific group resistance and rebellion,
occasionally an ideologically based protest action would occur.
This primarily arose in the isolated nationalist German party organization
in various work camps, demanding changes in positions of a political
nature and rights for penal workers as well as improvements in the
miserable working and living conditions in specific locales.
The highly ambivalent attitude exhibited by German Communists "behind
barbed wire" also did not remain without objection. Driven
by the bitter disappointment that Stalinist party cadre and sympathizers
of the Bolshevist regime among German-Russians had been forced to
suffer following the all-inclusive accusations of treason, the deportations,
and the being put into penal camps completely indiscriminately,
some of these Comrades who had not yet given up on their self-importance
demanded the "maintenance of Leninist-Stalinist policies on
nationalities." Shortly after mass camp internment in January
of 1942, the Political Department of the Bogoslav issued the following
report regarding such occurrences of displeasure:
"There are some Trud-armyist Communists who have complained
about the erroneous measures by the Soviet Union with regard to
their mobilization into BAZ-Stroy. The Secretary of the party bureau
of the 3rd construction troop, Valento, in a latter he sent to Comrade
Stalin and to the Polit-department of the construction depot, wrote
that he, instead of having been allowed to be sent to the front,
found himself in a concentration camp with barbed wire fences and
guard posts, and that the Trud-armyists were in no way distinguishable
from other inmates. In conversation he further expressed dissatisfaction
with the food for those mobilized, yet not satisfying their work
norm. He added that one cannot really accomplish anything given
only a thin, watery soup."
All too often this kind of criticism was equated with anti-Soviet
agitation and propaganda and served as occasion for the secret police
to take immediate action. We have fairly good information about
an authentic case of resolute courage. Ivan (Johann) Becker, born
to poor conditions on the land, rose to employment in the operational
area of the Cantonal Department of the NKVD and later to department
director in the Executive Committee of the Canton of
Krasnyi Kut in the Volga-German Republic This fast-rising Bolshevik
official always felt the deportation and subsequent internment in
the work camp Ivdel to have been a baseless collective punishment.
After his arrest in May of 1945 he remained stubborn and steadfastly
denied accusations of activities inimical to the State, but was
still sentenced to ten years in a penal camp.
During his investigative prison stay Becker composed a remarkable
document of Communist orientation, but in which he stated that the
edict by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR regarding
forced deportation of Germans was "not correct," and he
equated the internment of Germans into work camps with the "destruction
of the Germans", because they were treated like prison inmates
and that therefore a "horrible series of deaths ensued."
Also, he was unable to make anything of the frequently cited slogan
"Kill the German if you want to live," and in his opinion
the government made an important mistake in denying the opportunity
to serve at the war's front to "established Communists, to
Komsomol members, and to the best loyal people without party affiliation,"
and especially by recalling "proven fighting Germans"
from the ranks of the Red Army.
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation
of this article.