The recent screening of the TV series Catherine the Great has left me a little bit disappointed. Helen Mirren is, of course, a fantastic actress, but there would have been so much more to say about the Russian Empress. A while ago, I wrote a blog about Catherine the Great in German. Due to the newly sparked interest in her story, I’ve re-written the blog in English, to celebrate the re-launch of my website. I believe that Catherine may indeed have been great, but she also made a great mistake, and here is why:
The Austrian Empress Maria Theresa called her Cette femme! (presumably because of her frequently changing lovers); Voltaire referred to her as the ‘philosopher on the throne’. To this day, Catherine the Great is highly respected for the sheer number of reforms she introduced, but what she considered to be an excellent idea of settlement policy resulted in enormous problems for the families concerned – an example for the kind of consequences that arise from a lack of integration measures.
In 1762, Catherine (née Sophie Auguste Friederike von Anhalt-Zerbst) usurped the throne of the Russian Tsar. With her remarkable intelligence and a penchant for philosophy and the Enlightenment, she re-established the rapprochement with Europe, once initiated by the Tsar Peter the Great. Catherine’s agenda addressed freedom of religion, educational, judicial and administrative reforms and also the abolishment of the Russian serfdom. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?
Not all of her plans could be successfully implemented, as she relied on the support of the nobility and the army, but even her compromises marked a significant improvement for the Russian population. She also had an idea for how to advance the economy and – what was in her eyes – Russia’s underdeveloped culture. By means of a manifesto, she invited foreigners, in particular those from Germany (her country of origin), to come to Russia and settle in the vast, barely developed rural areas. She offered a range of incentives: 30 hectares of land, financial aid, freedom of religion and 30 years’ tax exemption. She even granted the right of self-administration which also meant that new migrants were allowed to speak their native language in schools.
Initially, it worked. For many Germans who had lost almost everything in the Seven Years’ War, the invitation was an offer of salvation – especially in North Bavaria, Baden and Hesse. In the first four years, approximately 30,000 Germans immigrated to Russia, full of hope for a new life.
But about 5,000 people died during the first wave of immigration. Those who survived the journey, the climate and nomadic raids, soon learned that all those benefits came with a huge disadvantage. If you don’t see a point in speaking the language of the country you live in, you’ll never get a chance of being accepted by the locals. Add some privileges that locals could barely dream of and you can easily imagine how envy and hatred against ‘the foreigners’ grew, even though the immigrants loyally supported the regime, and even when the privileges were significantly curtailed after the Crimean War. And yet, the number of Russian-Germans rose further: by 1874, it was over one million.
Xenophobia reached a predictable climax in the two World Wars, with Russian-Germans being charged with espionage and collaboration. After the invasion of Russia by the Nazi army, an estimated 900,000 German settlers were deported to West Siberia and North Kazakhstan and compelled to forced labour or put into special settlements. It wasn’t until 1955 that German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer managed the first diplomatic negotiations with the USSR. Finally, with Michael Gorbachev and the opening of the borders in 1989, Russian-Germans were allowed to return to their original homeland: Germany.
By 2011, more than three million had arrived, according to the German Federal Office for Statistics. Does it feel like coming home? Are they more accepted here than in Russia back then? According to, one in five Russian-Germans are said to be ‘poorly integrated’ – largely due to a lack of language skills – and working in ‘jobs that do not reflect their qualifications’. And they continue to face discrimination. Assumptions that Russian-Germans are ‘controlled by Russia’ or ‘in cahoots with Neo Nazis’ are striking a chord with the allegations their ancestors had to face when accused of being German spies.
What would Catherine the Great have made of the fate of generations of Russian-Germans, as the liberal, cosmopolitan and philosopher that she has gone down in history to be?