Yelena Keller has watched her community dwindle over the past twenty years. Not long ago, ethnic Germans made up the majority in Rot-Front, her little village of wide, clean streets and kempt Russian cottages an hour from Kyrgyzstan's capital. Now they are a minority.
Keller and her neighbors descend from a group of Mennonite believers who arrived in Kyrgyzstan in the late 19th century looking for a place to freely practice their faith. They scattered across the Chui Valley, founding places such as Kant and Lyuksemburg. By the 1980s, Rot-Front "was absolutely German; there was only one Kyrgyz family," says Keller. Down the street, Andrei, fixing his Audi sedan, agrees. He says the village was once nearly 100 percent German Mennonite. Now, they estimate, only 120 out of several thousand remain. With glasnost and independence, most were lured away to Germany by dreams of a better life.
Birgitt Wunder, a German teacher at the Mamashova School, where Keller's children study, speaks about local history in a room equipped by the Volkswagen Foundation. Sponsored by her school back in Erfurt, Germany, she recounts that in the mid-18th century, the Russian tsarina, Catherine the Great, invited Germans to settle in vast, unpopulated stretches of an expanding Russian empire. That opened the way for some Germans to eventually make it down to Kyrgyzstan.
Other Germans arrived in Kyrgyzstan via a more forced route. As the Soviet Union fought Nazi Germany in World War II, many ethnic Germans were deported to Central Asia as a precaution against collaboration with the invading army. "We were fascists to them, we Germans," says Belendir Reingoldovna, 86, tearfully recalling her ordeal. She was deported from the Russian Far East to Siberia. For five years, she worked as a logger in a forced labor camp.
In the 1950s, after the death of Joseph Stalin, Reingoldovna was finally allowed internal travel papers and in 1962 she came to Tokmok, not far from Rot-Front and already a center of German culture in northern Kyrgyzstan.
The German Embassy in Bishkek estimates up to 120,000 ethnic Germans lived in Kyrgyzstan only 20 years ago. There are now less than 10,000, says Ambassador Holger Green. "I would guess that most of them feel somewhere between two societies ... knowing they have some Russian civilization in them, they have some German civilization in them, and they live in a newly-independent country with a third identity," says Green, clearly fascinated by the history of Germans in Central Asia.
When the Soviet Union started slowly opening up back in the late 1980s, Germany offered citizenship to anyone who could prove German ancestry. Many jumped at the opportunity. The pace increased after Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991. Now, Keller observes, "all my relatives are in Germany. My brother moved there about 10 years ago. Here, it is just my children, husband, and mother. On my husband's side, he has only has a sister left here." Just about everyone has a relative in Germany, it seems. Children at school describe the gifts their grandparents send. Uncles, aunts and siblings live there; visits are common.
But those remaining are less likely to move now, anecdotal evidence suggests. Green sees a slow decline in the number of Germans leaving Kyrgyzstan. The German Embassy processed papers for 196 to emigrate in 2007 and 111 in 2008, a sharp fall from the pace during the 1990s, he noted. Facing complaints that "Soviet-Germans" don't assimilate or speak German, Berlin has also made tests more difficult.
"We noticed it was not always easy for us to integrate a large number of people migrating from the former Soviet Union to Germany. Many of the ethnic Germans were not German speakers, or spoke little German. "You had families who basically would communicate in Russian at home; the children would have difficulties integrating into the schools," Green says.
"We introduced the obligation to acquire a minimum knowledge of German in their countries of origin," he adds.
A minority in her own village, Keller is nonetheless proud of her German heritage and language.
"In my family, when we are around the house, we always speak in German. Maybe when the kids go out to play, because there are also Russian and Kyrgyz kids, they speak Russian," she says. But at the local school, teachers suggest some students have only a feeble grasp of the language, and several students admit they are more confident in Russian.
Stephan Munchoss from Saxon-Anhalt, another teacher in Rot-Front, describes the language spoken by his Mennonite students: "They speak a special dialect from the northern part of Germany, near the Netherlands, called Plat-Deutsche. If they talk to each other, I can't understand."
He says the true number of ethnic-Germans in Kyrgyzstan is higher than one would expect, many being well assimilated. "There are one or two German families in every village. Maybe 3,000 live in Bishkek and some don't even know they're German. It is written "German" in their passport, but they don't have German traditions and many do not know the language."
For many, Kyrgyzstan is home, regardless of ethnicity. Besides, for the elderly, change is not easy.
As a child, Eduard Eitsen, 73, was deported from his home near the western Russian city of Voronezh to a labor camp in the Arctic Circle. After the war, he eventually ended up in Kyrgyzstan. It is home, he says. "People live a rich life in Germany, but we are used to a different lifestyle here. If you need something, you can go to your neighbor and he will share with you. They have a different mentality in Germany. I was offered to move and live in Germany. I thought about it a lot. But my wife is Russian and I have children. I couldn't leave them."
Though Reingoldovna's situation is similar, she has no doubts about her identity. "I love that I am German. My bible is in German, I read in German and sing in German. I will die German," she says.
David Trilling is the Central Asia Coordinator for EurasiaNet.