ZOiS Spotlight 30/2018

Subject choice as a political issue: Russian Germans, identity and geopolitics

by Manuel Rommel 12/09/2018
Students at the University of Potsdam. Universität Potsdam / K. Fritze

It is not unusual to find a high percentage of post-Soviet migrants – mainly ethnic Germans from Russia and Jewish quota refugees – on Slavonic studies programmes in Germany. But why do young people with roots in the post-Soviet space choose this field of study? It’s a question which sparks wide-ranging discourses about transnational spaces, hybrid or multiple identities and students’ own migration background or family history.[1]

This was revealed in interviews with six students at the University of Potsdam, which has offered an international Bachelor’s programme in Interdisciplinary Russian Studies (IRS) since 2010. The course covers politics, government and economics, as well as Slavonic literature, culture and languages. One of its unique selling points is a mandatory two-semester stay in Russia or another Russian-speaking country. As this shows, young people who choose this course of study are making a conscious decision to engage intensively with their region of origin. Like other Slavonic studies programmes, Potsdam has a relatively high proportion of students – usually around 50 per cent – with a post-Soviet migration background, with ethnic Germans from Russia making up the largest group. Second-generation migrants have won out in the education stakes in recent years: increasing numbers of ethnic Germans from Russia are leaving school with university entrance qualifications and are choosing to enter higher education. The surveys reveal that students’ choice of subject is bound up with geopolitical events, narratives of identity and their own personal biographies.

Russian Germans – between the fronts?

One topic mentioned frequently in relation to migrants in general and ethnic Germans from Russia in particular is the sense of multiple identities, the feeling of not fully belonging in the country of origin or in the host society. This identity conflict was articulated by Dmitry in the interviews [2]:

“I remember that I had real problems finding a sense of identity and understanding who I really am. Certainly, until I took my school-leaving exams at 18, I really struggled to work out whether I am more German or more Russian.”

This psychosocial situation, typical for young migrants, is a particular challenge if feelings of belonging or even loyalties are bound up with certain courses of action. For example, during his basic training as a soldier in the German Bundeswehr, Eugen felt that he was caught “between the fronts” in the geopolitical configurations created by the war in Ukraine:

“And then there was the Ukraine crisis, which all kicked off around that time, and my mates asked me which side I’d be fighting for. And of course, that got me thinking what I’d do, you know, if the situation really got bad. Of course, none of this was meant seriously, but it did make me think. And I couldn’t choose one side or the other, because in a way, Russia is my homeland, my birth country, and Germany is where I grew up. This is where my friends and family are, so I was very conflicted. I couldn’t choose one side over the other.”

Eugen sees the war in Ukraine as an East-West conflict, with Germany and Russia acting as proxies. Caught between the two, he found himself facing a deeply personal conflict, which he finally resolved by leaving the Bundeswehr. He then signed up for the IRS programme, seeing this as a way of contributing to international understanding and better German-Russian relations in future. Eugen is a vivid example of how multiple identities, individual life plans and geopolitical discourses (or at least perceptions of them) are intermeshed.

Subject choice divides families

The Ukraine conflict is ever-present for Svetlana as well, but in a different way. Born in Ukraine to a Ukrainian father and a Russian German mother from Kazakhstan, Svetlana was accustomed to describing herself as “Russian” throughout her life in Germany. But this all changed when the Ukraine conflict began:

“In the past, I would often tell people I was Russian, but I never say that now, because I am not Russian, am I? Now, I always say that I come from Ukraine. I think it makes a big difference to me now. Well, perhaps not to me personally, but I know that other people now make a big distinction between the two.”

Since the Ukraine crisis, Svetlana has adjusted the way she describes her ethnicity to others, bringing it into line with the prevailing geopolitical discourse, where there is now much more differentiation between “Russian” and “Ukrainian” as national, ethnic and cultural categories. However, the Ukraine conflict has also caused a breach within Svetlana’s own family, which is divided into “Putin supporters” and “Russia-haters”. As a result, some of her relatives disapprove of her signing up to the IRS programme, seeing her decision to study Russia as an expression of support for the country’s foreign policy. Her subject choice, in other words, has become a political issue.

All in all, analysis of the interviews reveals that the relationship between geopolitics, biography and identity is an ambivalent one. On the one hand, there is a risk of buying into geopolitical narratives. For example, one sentence heard in some of the interviews is “Crimea belongs to Russia”, a variant of the slogan “Crimea belongs to us” (“Krim nash” in Russian) that was used to rally political support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. On the other, the IRS programme gives students the tools they need to take a more nuanced view of geopolitical and imperialist narratives – and ultimately also their own migration history. Young people’s life plans are substantially influenced not only by their orientation towards the region of origin and their (transnational) social relations but also by geopolitical discourses. The war in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea are a permanent presence in their lives – not least because of their family or transnational links to their region of origin.

[1] I explored this question in my Master’s thesis (Raum – Identität – Biographie im Kontext der Studienwahl postsowjetischer MigrantInnen) in East European studies at the Freie Universität in Berlin.

[2] All names have been changed.

Manuel Rommel studied Eastern European studies at Freie Universität in Berlin. His Master’s thesis deals with space, identity and biography in post-Soviet migrants’ subject choices.