“Ah, Kolobok, Kolobok, I’ll eat you now.”
Stigmatization of Russian speaking minorities
Language is something alive, it adapts to various circumstances, it’s like food. Although we live in one country, it doesn’t mean that we eat the so-called traditional dish every day. I am based in Germany, but don’t eat potato dumplings (Klöße)every day. In fact, my first encounter with this traditional dish is somewhat problematic. I belong to the so-called Russian-German minority in Germany. We mainly ate home-made, Russian food cooked by my grandmother. The first time I ate a potato dumpling was at afternoon care in elementary school. While eating, I started to choke because I didn’t have enough gravy and the dumpling got stuck in my throat. Afterwards, I avoided this dish until my grandma started cooking bread dumplings, then I dared to try it again.
These days, the food I eat varies. Sometimes I eat Italian, sometimes Indian, but most often it’s something I invent myself – tasty but difficult to classify.
Expression is limited by language. I use words such as ‘Russian’ and ‘German’ – but these expressions fail to illustrate the nuances of a complex and complicated reality. The history of Russian-Germans begins with the so-called ‘Invitation Manifesto’ (1763) of Tsarina Catherine II to the Russian Empire. She was German and hoped for an economic upswing by inviting Germans to settle in the Russian Empire. She lured settlers with incentives, such as, exemption from military service, tax breaks, financial start-up assistance, a guarantee of freedom of language and freedom of religion. These last two aspects led to German settlements that remained almost completely isolated from Russian influence for about 250 years. German culture thrived in settlers’ schools and churches. For two and a half centuries, Russian-Germans continued to practice customs from their German heritage. One of the most pronounced aspects of Russian-German culture was the continued use of the German language. Descents of settlers, like my grandparents, inherited German as their mother tongue. However, this changed abruptly with the Second World War, when the ethnic designation ‘German’ in the Russian passport became fatal. In the 1930s, Russian-Germans were declared ‘internal enemies’ and sentenced to death, imprisoned or deported as alleged spies and enemies of the Soviet Union. During this time, my great grandfather was arrested and shot, and my great grandmother was left alone with her three daughters. Sometime later, they were deported to Kazakhstan. At that time, Kazakhstan was considered a Soviet periphery – a kind of cleansing camp – where so-called ‘potential enemies of the state’ were deported. During the Soviet era, my family had to be careful not to attract attention. One aspect of living under the radar was changing the family’s language. My parents’ generation was the first in the history of Russian-Germans whose mother tongue was Russian. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russian-Germans took the opportunity to ‘return’ to Germany. Again, people found themselves in a confusing situation. Due to the lack of German language skills, the minority were referred to as ‘Russians’ in everyday dealings with the locals. This label is a misnomer and incorrect on many levels. The reality is more contradictory and complex than can be described with rigid national concepts.
People, formerly living in regions under Soviet occupation, had a similar experience. They became strangers in their own country. When the Soviet Union collapsed official national languages changed. The Russian language was regarded as a colonial legacy and attempts were made to ban it from public life. What makes sense from a political point of view leads to paradoxical situations in practice.
During my secondment at Tensta Konsthall I took part in the the project Agents of Change: Mediating Minorities. I was pleased to see that a branch of the City Museum in Tallinn was dealing with this problem. Until 2020 it functioned as a traditional museum mainly focused on Russian culture. With the initiative of the MeM, the approach of the museum changed. Instead of showing culture in a ‘representative’ way, exhibitions became interactive. When visiting the museum, instead of having something explained to them, visitors were asked to share their views. Jelena Tšekulajeva, the educational program curator, explains at the museum: “With the help of t he Center for Applied Anthropology, we worked with a team to develop a new concept of the museum – just before the educational part of the MeM project started. We had the idea that the museum could invite visitors to participate; but we needed to do some research to ensure we were on the right track. At the end of 2020, the museum initiated a new concept based on collaboration, inclusion, and dialogue with the museum audience.” In her presentation, she showed how visitors were invited to express their opinion on a wide variety of topics, such as with smiley face stickers.
Image: Meeli Küttim
During lunch together, I happened to strike up a conversation with Alina Jašina-Schäfer, who researches post-Soviet migrants in Germany, to which my family also belongs. It’s interesting how quickly the tide can turn. While I was looking for material for my dissertation, I met someone who found me interesting as a research subject. She was a co-author of an article that reported on how the war in Ukraine affected the life of these people. Now, I have to say at this point, “our” life, that is, that of the Russian-Germans. The fact is – also mentioned in the article – there is no “our” because it is not a homogeneous but a heterogeneous group and there is no universal statement.
When I wanted to find out more about the history of the German traditional dumpling dish, my Google search coincidentally showed the Russian fairy tale Kolobok, as it was misleadingly translated into German as “potato dumpling (Kartoffelkloß)”. The story of Kolobok, however, could be a nice metaphor in relation to the many misunderstandings about Russian-speaking minorities. The fairy tale is about a poor couple who baked a bun out of meager food supplies. This bun, called Kolobok, came to life and rolled away from the couple, hitting different animals on the way. All the animals said to him: “Ah, Kolobok, Kolobok, I’ll eat you now.” Kolobok sang to them and escaped. The fox tricked him, asking him to sit on his tongue so he could hear him better, and devoured him. I think this is the case for many people who belong to the Russian-speaking minorities. The Soviet Union was the parent who put the Russian language in the cradle of its population and now these Koloboks rolled out into the world – partly intentionally (migration), partly accidentally (collapse of the Soviet Union). Now in every daily situation, one feels like we have to explain the most complicated history of identity – why one speaks the Russian language but is not a representative of Russian culture. One is engulfed by the stigma, often without much resistance to it. I do find this confusion amusing, especially when it comes up with utterly absurd stories. A case happened at a conference in Baku. The participants were introduced with their country of origin. My colleagues accidentally listed Azerbaijan for me. I just thought “I’ll take that as a compliment” and left it at that.
 Kolobok, the Round Bun. Russian Folktale Aug 23, 2021. https://storytellingforeveryone.net/kolobok-the-round-bun/ (accessed 7th of October 2022).
 “Russlanddeutsche” und Katharina die Große, 21.07.2013. https://www.dw.com/de/russlanddeutsche-und-katharina-die-große/a-16960108 (accessed 7th of October).
 Nino Aivazishvili-Gehne, Alina Jašina-Schäfer, Jannis Panagiotidis: KONFLIKTE, ENGAGEMENT UND ÄNGSTE: Der Ukrainekrieg in den Augen postsowjetischer Migrant*innen in Deutschland (17. März 2022) https://zeitgeschichte-online.de/themen/konflikte-engagement-und-aengste?fbclid=IwAR3M9AYPLFee2W8C4MPP5ErqcEaYh7w1V22eHO1n1M1QGVi96j7VeC6sjPk (accessed 07.10.22).
 Der Kartoffelkloß, https://internet-maerchen.de/maerchen/kartoffelkloss.htm (accessed 07.10.22).