ROT FRONT, Kyrgyzstan – The land of his ancestors lies more than 2,000 miles away. But Abraham Falk, an ethnic German, is determined not to follow in the footsteps of relatives and friends who have made the trek back to Germany from this desolate hamlet in Central Asia.
“I would also feel at home in Germany,” admits Mr. Falk, mayor of Rot Front and one of Kyrgyzstan’s top entrepreneurs. “But I grew up here, and it’s my home. Only if everybody else left would I not want to stay here alone.”
Like the remaining Germans of Central Asia, Falk and his family are members of an ethnic minority that has dwindled by almost three-quarters in the past decade. Since 1988, more than 1.5 million ethnic Germans have turned their backs on their homes in the former Soviet Union to look for a better life in Germany. In newly independent Kyrgyzstan, fewer than 20,000 Germans remain from an original population of 100,000.
At the behest of Catherine the Great, a German princess who later became Russia’s most famous czarina, the first German settlers moved into the rapidly expanding Russian Empire in the 18th century. For generations they lived in Ukraine and on the Volga River until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.
Fearing a fifth column, Stalin deported hundreds of thousands of Germans, along with other ethnic minorities, to Siberia and Central Asia. There the Germans often established tightly knit communities such as Rot Front, which means “Red Front” in German.
When the Iron Curtain fell, many took the first opportunity to escape the poverty of the post-Soviet world. Germany, which extends automatic citizenship to ethnic Germans wherever they are born, was the logical destination.
Falk, whose family roots in Russia go back 250 years, was an exception. In 1994, the woodcarver founded a cooperative farm on the remains of a Communist-era agricultural complex. Falk says that because of infrastructure investments his enterprise has not yet turned a profit, but his personal success is visible in his spacious home and two cars – both of German make.
For most of the 830 other villagers, living conditions are modest at best.
Once exclusively a German village, Rot Front is now only one-third German. Still, the muddy hamlet is considered the most densely populated German settlement in Kyrgyzstan. Falk says the German government is buying up empty houses here for ethnic Germans elsewhere in the country who are unable to emigrate.
Bonn is keen to stem the influx of ethnic Germans, many of whom have had difficulties integrating into German society and finding work. “Many imagined Germany differently,” says Falk. “They thought that everything would just fall into their laps.”
Most of those who wanted to emigrate have done so long ago. “We’ve already received our immigration papers, but why should we leave?” asks Zina Ida Leipi. The retired child psychologist is deacon of the Lutheran church in the nearby village of Luxemburg. Despite 70 years of state-sponsored atheism, most ethnic Germans are deeply religious. Faith has been key to the minority’s success in preserving German language and culture.
Living on a combined monthly pension of $48 with her husband, Leipi shows no signs of discontent. “I don’t say that I live badly. I have my husband and sons. I live with God. When a person has bread, water, and peace, then he is happy.”
Still, she says her youngest son would like to study in Germany. Especially for the younger generation, the temptation to seek new opportunities elsewhere is great.
Mayor Falk recently bought a house in Rot Front for his daughter Liliya Knaub and her husband, Alexander. Although they built a new barn and are renovating the house, the two often discuss where they eventually want to raise their son, Viktor.
“Alexander wants to go, but I don’t want to leave the place where I grew up,” says Mrs. Knaub. Her husband, an ethnic German from neighboring Kazakhstan, does not share her emotional attachment. “Something pulls me to Germany,” he says. “All my relatives live there now.”