New Research Network: Ambivalences of the Soviet: Diaspora Nationalities between Collective Experiences of Discrimination and Individual Normalization, 1953-2023

Kerstin Bischl Discussion

New Research Network: Ambivalences of the Soviet: Diaspora Nationalities between Collective Experiences of Discrimination and Individual Normalization, 1953-2023

(funded by the Ministry of Science and Culture of Lower Saxony, Germany, with funds from the Volkswagen Foundation)  





Prof. Dr. Anke Hilbrenner (Speaker)

Chair for Eastern Europen History, Georg-August-University Goettingen, Germany


PD Dr. Hans-Christian Petersen, apl. Prof. Dr. Matthias Weber

Federal Institute for Culture and History of the Germans in Eastern Europe (BKGE), Germany


apl. Prof. Dr. Jannis Panagiotidis

Research Center for the History of Transformations (RECET), University of Vienna, Austria


Prof. Dr. Joachim Tauber, apl. Prof. Dr. Victor Dönninghaus, Dr. Dmytro Myeshkov

The Nordost-Institut at the University of Hamburg (IKGN), Lueneburg, Germany




Start: August, 1st 2020




About the Research Network


Diaspora nationalities such as the Russian Germans and Soviet Jews were constituted as collectives through the common experience of repression and discrimination. At the same time, however, individuals of these groups experienced a normalization of their existence and, in many cases, remarkable social advancement in the years following Stalin's death. They were or became a part of the culturally and nationally diverse Soviet society.


For the period of three years and with five projects, we examine individual everyday practices, migration processes, memory of the late Soviet period, and the reconstitution of community after migration. Focusing on Soviet normalization in late socialism, three goals are pursued: Firstly, to comprehend the diverse histories of diaspora nationalities on the Soviet peripheries as central components of Soviet history. This will bring into focus the biographies of those Soviet citizens who have been largely neglected in previous research. Secondly, the project contributes to the current debate on the peripheries and rural areas in the late Soviet Union. Research in recent years has focused almost exclusively on urban contexts. The network asks about the transferability of concepts such as "Soviet consumption" to the Soviet village. Thus, it follows on from research on the Late Soviet Village - which mostly focused on the European regions of the Soviet Union - but expands it to the peripheries of the Soviet empire. And thirdly, the project points beyond the Soviet period to our immediate present using case studies of emigrants in Lower Saxony, community processes after emigration as well as memories of Soviet everyday life. The research network aims for a new perspective on the history of the post-Stalinist Soviet Union, everyday life on its periphery, and the afterlife of "Homo Sovieticus" in post-Soviet times.



List of Projects


A) Among Equals?  Russian Germans’ Everyday Life in Kazakhstan and the Altai Republic, 1955-2000 (Dr. Alina Jashina-Schaefer, Supervisors: PD Dr. Hans-Christian Petersen, apl. Prof. Dr. Matthias Weber, BKGE)


In order to gain deeper insights into the multiple affiliation processes of diaspora nationalities, this subproject seeks to investigate the complex individual everyday practices of German diaspora in the Soviet Union in the second half of the 20th century. Following the Stalinist repressions and deportations, the period from 1955 onwards marks the so-called reconstruction and normalization during which many Russian Germans, despite continuing discrimination, for example in the field of education, were given new opportunities for social integration and social advancement. Through an ethnographic examination of individual memories of the late Soviet period, the diverse family histories, social networks, and cultural practices, this research aims to understand better the meanings of the Sovietization and normalization processes in the individual everyday lives of Russian Germans. How did they overcome the stigma of the wartime? What did it mean for the Russian Germans, - especially in the peripheral areas, to be "Soviet citizens"? In contrast, how did their "Germanness" express itself? What were the differences between rural and urban dwellers? Secondly, the project examines the eroding communities and individual life experiences during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the mass emigration of Russian Germans to Germany: What influences did these changes have on the remaining diaspora groups and their everyday practices?

The project focuses on the Siberian Altai region and the Karaganda region (Kazakhstan), two areas that had significant Russian German populations and were ethnically heterogeneous at the same time. The project aims to open up new perspectives on life in the rural areas in late socialism (late Soviet village) as well as to focus on multiethnic cultural exchanges and encounters.



B) The Rural-Urban Migration of Russian-Germans and other National Minorities between 1953 and 1982 (Helena Henze, Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Joachim Tauber, IKGN)


The history of the Soviet Union is also a history of internal migrations. Its starting point is the decree “On administrative banishment” of August 10, 1922, its first, tragic culmination the repression and the mass deportations of ethnic minorities in the 1930s and 1940s. Those who lived, surviving political “re-education”, forced resettlement and the dire conditions of the work camps, came to be the protagonists of a second wave of internal migration following the death of Stalin. Returning from their banishment into their homelands, or being thence expelled, many joined the steady flux of young people and skilled workers leaving the rural areas for the industrialized, urban centers – a third wave of people on the move pertaining to the modernization of the Soviet Union.

Against the backdrop of the decades under the Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, the project examines the response of ethnic minority groups to the rural-urban relocation process. Its particular interest lies with the Russian-Germans and the complex interplay of bereavement, normalization and absorption within the social and cultural framework of a newly emerging Soviet society. It looks at several factors that affected the social advancement of individual members including the role of social support networks, self-concept and ethnic identity and readiness to emigrate to the FRG. In doing so, its thesis contributes to a new understanding of the Russian-Germans within Soviet history.



C) Alienations in Soviet Jewish History 1953-1991 (Dr. Ulrike Huhn,  Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Anke Hilbrenner, Georg-August-University Goettingen)


Jewish Studies as an interdisciplinary field of research ceased to exist in the Soviet Union after a brief heyday in the 1920s. Although it was possible again to conduct research in Jewish Studies under the conditions of the "Thaw" from the mid-1950s onwards, it remained strictly limited to ancient and medieval history and to linguistic issues. Recent history, in particular the situation of Jews in the late Tsarist Empire and the Soviet Union, remained taboo at Soviet research institutions. Beyond the academies and universities, representatives of the independent Jewish cultural and emigration movement began in the 1970s to engage with issues of recent Jewish history and ethnography in small unofficial circles.

The project examines the self-perception, everyday academic life, working conditions, networks, possibilities for action, and the academic topics of the (few) scholars at the state research institutions, museums, and libraries who were able to work on Jewish topics on a selective basis after 1953. Thus, the project is concerned with the ever-changing research margins of (mostly Jewish) scholars. It is also about the interaction with the subsequent generation of activists, who in the 1970s and 1980s were more self-confident in their desire to broaden the spectrum of topics for Jewish research in the Soviet Union. Within the tension between "individual normalization" and "collective experience of repression" the hypothesis of the joint project can be tested. What was the relationship between academic recognition and privileges on the one hand and Jewish research as a mobilization project and the insight into the limits of participation on the other?

The second focus is on the interaction between the academic centers in Moscow and Leningrad and the Soviet "periphery", i.e., both the research institutions in other Soviet republics and the sites of research in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the areas of the former "settlement area" and the Crimea.



D) Everyday Life and Memory. Russian-German and Jewish "Soviet baggage" after the Emigration (Daniel Gebel, Supervisors: PD Dr. Hans-Christian Petersen, apl. Prof. Dr. Matthias Weber, BKGE)


How do Russian-Germans and Jewish contingent refugees in Germany remember their Soviet everyday life, and what significance does this period have for their current self-image? These questions are the focus of the subproject "Everyday Life and Memory". With the help of biographical interviews and corresponding archival studies, the everyday history of the late Soviet Union and the "Soviet baggage" associated with it will be examined.

On the one hand, the project focuses on the district of Cloppenburg as a focal point of Russian-German life in the Federal Republic. On the other hand, it concentrates on the Jewish communities in Oldenburg and possibly also Bremen, whose members come to a large extent from the former Soviet Union. Both groups are to be examined from a comparative perspective to determine to what extent factors such as country of origin, religious affiliation, family relations or ethnic background influence the "Soviet baggage" and how this manifests itself in the everyday life of people today. Two questions guide our findings: On the one hand, an approach to the late Soviet history of events (What is remembered?), and on the other hand, the question of the forms and changes in meaning of what has been handed down (How is it remembered?). This approach is based on the knowledge of the social nature of human experience and memory, according to which we are always dealing with an interaction between individual and collective levels of memory, with context-dependent narrative structures and with a tension between communicative memory and cultural memory striving for coherence.



E) "Beyond the Russian “Ghetto”: Old and New Forms of Communalization among Post-Soviet Migrants in the City of Osnabrück" (Dr. Nino Aivazishvili-Gehne, Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Jannis Panagiotidis, RECET)


The project focuses on people from the former USSR in the city of Osnabrueck, Germany. This group is diverse and includes people from all former Soviet republics who are now experiencing life in a different political, socio-economic and cultural system.

In social sciences, migrants from the former USSR are frequently referred to as “Russian Germans”; “repatriates”; “Displaced” or “Jews from the former Soviet Union”, while outside academia, they are often generalized as “Russians” which has a pejorative inclination. Similarly to other migrants, they are often associated with criminal behavior and religious radicalization.  

The project examines the societal perceptions of migrants from the former USSR in Germany and its consequences as well as their own agendas and proactive practices. How did they change their lives and their environment? What were the reasons to emigrate and how do they pursue their goal to find (or create) a “good life” in Germany.

The project uses several qualitative research methods from the field of social anthropology, especially participant observation, biographical interviews expert interviews. The results will be complemented by an analysis of the media discourse and political instruments relating to the focus group.