Multiple Language and Cultural Identities of German Russians in Mazowsze and Suvalkija during World War I

Culture and languages

Guest lecture with Cynthia M. Vakareliyska, arranged by the research area Language in society. All interested are welcome!

2 Dec 2021
15:15 - 17:00
Online via Zoom, email the contact person for link

Cynthia M. Vakareliyska, Professor of Linguistics (Emerita), University of Oregon
Good to know
Seminar language: English
Department of Languages and Literatures


The area of the Imperial Russian Empire known as ‘Russian Poland’ or ‘Congress Poland’, which was established following the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, was home to a sizeable minority of Russian citizens of German descent whose ancestors had migrated there in response to Catherine the Great’s invitation to Western European artisans to settle in underpopulated areas of the Empire in exchange for land, exemption from military service, and freedom of religion. The region included what is now eastern Poland and southwestern Lithuania.  
Like the other minority language groups in Russian Poland, primarily Jews, Lithuanians, and ethnic Russians, the German Russians spoke Polish fluently and attended schools in which the language of instruction was Russian. Most had never been to East Prussia or other German-controlled areas. During the occupation of parts of Russian Poland by the Kaiser’s army in World War I, however, the Imperial government in St. Petersburg conducted the first exile of its own citizens, forcibly relocated the Russian Germans to inner Russia and seized their property, suspecting them of collaboration. Documents in the files of the locally-based Imperial Russian military gendarmes, however, show that they were less concerned about the loyalties of the German Russians, and strove to follow what could now be called due process considerations in their investigations of collaboration charges against individuals.
A major issue for the military police was how to determine “Germanness” for purposes of forced resettlement, since identity documents did not indicate national heritage, and ethnicity was not yet a demographic concept. The criterion for German identity issued by the Imperial government was therefore based on confession, a category that was recorded in identity documents: all those who had been baptized Lutheran and could speak some form of German were deemed to be German.
The German Russians themselves, however, appear to have had a more nuanced perception of their cultural and language identity, as evidenced by informal documents from the early 20th century, which illustrate interesting language choices by individuals in that community, including multiple first names and signatures by the same individual. This presentation makes the case that while their recorded confession cast German state identity onto them, German Russians in the provinces of Mazowsze and Suvalkija in reality self-identified with several cultures and languages, did not feel a special affinity with World War One-era Germany, were attached to Russian Poland as their birthplace.