Russian German Baptists in the Bolivian countryside: Reflections on youth migration to and local incorporation in Bolivia

Anna Flack

Like every evening at 5 p.m., the teenagers Martha and Hilda had to milk the cows. I joined them to make the time pass by faster. Martha told me about her wishes: braces to straighten her teeth and a visit to Germany. Due to their family’s financial situation, she did not expect to see her wishes come true. Work here was hard. The girls were milking cows already for five years, although they did not want to. Whereas the girls and their mother would like to return to Germany immediately, the father strictly wanted to stay in Bolivia, Martha said.

Livestock farming: chickens and cows. Photo by the author.

Starting with this description of the situation recorded in my field diary, I would like to present and reflect on my exploratory two-week field trip to the Santa Cruz department of Bolivia at the end of July 2019. As I am just at the beginning of my postdoctoral project, I had no narrow observation focus when I went to my field research.

I want to briefly outline the general idea of my project: Taking the migrations of my relatives, who moved to Bolivia in 2011 after having lived more than twenty years in Germany, as a starting point, I would like to explore and reconstruct exemplarily the life paths, migration motives and belongings of globally migrating Russian Germans.1 The transnational dimension of Russian German’s past and present provides much potential.2 At least in the German-speaking scholarship, there has not been devoted much attention to Russian German’s onward migrations to further countries yet. Apart from Russian Germans’ migrations between Russia and Germany actually there can be observed at present the quantitatively rather insignificant phenomenon of further migrations to the Americas. These further migrations primarily concern Russian German Mennonites and Baptists. They are attracted by Russian German congregations and colonies from Canada to Argentina that have been in existence – depending on their location – for some decades to over one hundred years. Starting from 1874, these Mennonites had left the Russian Empire when their privileges had been removed, among others concerning religious freedom and exemption from military service. Others left after the Russian revolution in 1917, and during the Second World War when they were resettled by Nazi Germany and later moved overseas as part of Mennonite refugee resettlement schemes.3

What I do not want to research are the very conservative and isolated Old Colony Mennonites who migrated from the Russian Empire to the Americas one hundred years ago.4 My research focuses instead on a village in Bolivia and its Russian German Baptist population, mainly having moved here from Germany within the last two decades, after having left the (former) Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s.

As the introductory description of the situation shows, it can be interesting to read my empirical data – which is based on participant observation and biographical interviews – through the lens of family and youth migration and integration. That is what I intend to do in this contribution.

A village in the Bolivian countryside. Photo by the author.

I will present the different perspectives, experiences, meanings and wishes of my relatives’ six children as I perceived them during my field research.5 By doing this, I will outline some major topics emerging from the gathered empirical data. Therefore, this work-in-progress paper primarily constitutes an ethnography. Following Nina Glick Schiller, I focus on the local perspective to analyze “multiple pathways of local and transnational incorporation.”6 Applying this theoretical framework, it is also possible to avoid methodological nationalism. Ideally, this ethnographic paper will contribute to evolve and sharpen a research question for my planned postdoctoral project.

Due to data protection and research ethics the children’s names are anonymized. At the time of my field research, the four first born children are in their late twenties. The two last born daughters are teenagers.

Heinrich and Georg

Heinrich and Georg were already adults when the father decided to migrate to Bolivia. From the beginning, neither of them wanted to leave Germany. Georg finished school in Germany and tried his luck to find an apprenticeship. The company where he passed an internship wanted him to work without payment until the beginning of the apprenticeship. Georg rejected that offer and joined his family in Bolivia. Heinrich, too, repeatedly tried to establish himself professionally in Germany. In the following years, he moved between Bolivia and Germany several times, accumulating debts.

Other Russian German Baptists in the neighborhood, who had left Germany for Bolivia, told me that their adult children either stayed in Germany when their parents and younger siblings migrated, or they returned to Germany, especially for education and work purposes. Having grown up and having attended school in Germany, it was difficult to leave the former life and friends and to imagine a future perspective in the overall foreign Bolivian countryside.

The only asphalted road in the village. Photo by the author.
A residential district in the village. Photo by the author.

Heinrich’s and Georg’s experiences show that the family constitutes a kind of “safety net.” If the children fail their professional efforts in Germany, they can return to their family, even if they live on another continent.

When I visited the family at the end of July, Heinrich was already planning to return to Germany. He wanted to seek an apprenticeship. To earn money for the flight ticket, Heinrich worked for some other emigrants, also Russian German Baptists like them.

Heinrich’s case shows, on the one hand, that migration challenges the family relationship. The eldest son has to decide whether to continue living with his parents and siblings – as he did all of his life – or to return to familiar Germany, where he would have to start his own life from scratch. In the past, the parents had to decide whether to acquire debt to enable their son (repeatedly) to join the family in Bolivia, thus exacerbating the family’s financial situation. On the other hand, Heinrich’s case indicates the importance of a “Russian German Baptist neighborhood” in the Bolivian village for economic reasons. This neighborhood is also very important for the rest of the family, as will be further detailed later. To earn money for his return ticket to Germany, Heinrich works for people who talk in his mother tongue German and live in his neighborhood. In fact, the “Russian German Baptist neighborhood” had been one of the major reasons why the family had moved to this particular place and not to another with better infrastructure or more fertile soil for agriculture, for example. Heinrich’s father has known some of the neighbors since his childhood in the Soviet Union. Thus, the “Russian German Baptist neighborhood” guarantees local incorporation – in a social as well as in an economic sense. We can call it an ethno-religious network.

Shipping containers in front of a recently migrated Russian German Baptists’ house. Photo by the author.

Georg, at present, plans his future in Bolivia. He has married a local Mennonite woman. His wife originates from a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. She is a descendant of Mennonites who left the Russian Empire about one hundred years ago. She has never lived in Germany. Thus, Georg is integrating in Bolivia by founding his own family. Furthermore, by the support of his brother-in-law, Georg started his own business and is now able to earn his and his wife’s living. Georg’s example illustrates the influence of local and regional relationships on the decision to stay. What is important to mention here is the fact that his social network consists of other Russian Germans, or rather Mennonites. Although Georg does not practice a religion, the ethno-religious group seems to be the most important reference point for private contacts. Further contacts to other locals or indigenous Bolivians exist, but primarily due to Georg’s business.


Third-born Rudi presents a largely different case in comparison to his elder brothers concerning his attitude towards the emigration. He had been curious about living in Bolivia. Besides his thirst for adventure, another push factor for his consent to the migration seems to be the fact that he too, like his brothers, failed to establish himself professionally in Germany.

During my field research Rudi presented himself as a passionate livestock farmer. He told me the cows’ names and showed me the fences he had built. Rudi had been the first to migrate to Bolivia. He had wanted to prepare everything for his family when they would follow some months later.

Cattle. Photo by the author.

Moreover, Rudi expressed his lack of understanding concerning his brothers’ disinterest in learning how to fix motorcycles or how to drive and operate a tractor and other machines. He had learned everything by trial and error, as he proudly explained to me. It was obvious that Rudi did not waste a single thought on returning to Germany, even though the family suffered severe economic setbacks. Rudi is convinced that he could realize a big business here.

However, apart from the economic setbacks, there are some other issues Rudi complained about. Since the neighbor’s sons moved to Germany to complete an apprenticeship, Rudi had no more friends. He was not interested in personal contacts to other locals or indigenous Bolivians. Furthermore, Rudi complained that even the “Russian German Baptist neighborhood” was not reliable at all. For example, he would never again lend a machine to one of his neighbors, because they did not take care of it. He also complained that people cannot trust each other.

Fences. Photo by the author.

For Rudi livestock farming in Bolivia meant a life plan, despite the many and severe financial setbacks. He is locally incorporated insofar as he can do the work he likes as he likes. Concerning Rudi’s social incorporation, another picture emerges. The “Russian German Baptist neighborhood” that was so fundamental for the emigration decision, for the mutual support of the emigrants and for coping with the daily life in the Bolivian countryside, does not fulfill Rudi’s requirements for reliable friendships. The temporary return migration of his peers for educational and professional reasons results in a reduction of local friendships and thus a lack of local social incorporation. Nevertheless, apparently, Rudi’s social requirements seem to be secondary, whereas work is more important for him to feel comfortable in Bolivia.


Judith, the eldest daughter, was not with us when I visited her family in Bolivia. Some weeks before my visit, she had followed the example of the neighbor’s children and had moved to Germany to find an apprenticeship. As I already mentioned, many of the Russian German Baptist young adults in their neighborhood choose this option to develop a future perspective – not necessarily in Germany, but rather in Bolivia. I was told the story of a young man who finished an apprenticeship as surgical assistant in Germany and now runs his own doctor’s surgery in Bolivia. Officially the surgery belongs to a native Bolivian doctor.

Judith’s example indicates the significance for more or less recently emigrated Russian German Baptists to maintain transnational ties to the country of origin. Germany obviously is still very important for the emigrants to (try to) establish an existence in Bolivia. As the Bolivian labor market seemingly does not offer the opportunity for professional training, but requires to work self-employed, and, in some cases, due to the lack of Spanish language skills, the maintenance or establishment of social networks in Germany is perceived as a valuable resource. In this context, a religious social network can be very crucial. By joining a Baptist youth club back in Germany, Judith can network and thus maybe enhance her chance to get a professional training faster. At least the Baptist youth club helps her to find accommodation until she will be able to stand on her own feet, to cope with her homesickness and to reintegrate in Germany.

Tractor imported from Germany. Photo by the author.

Indeed, I would even go so far to say that if there were no transnational networks and the possibility for the emigrants to return temporarily to Germany and complete a professional training, earn some money (as I heard from other families) or buy machines (as my relatives did), many of the Russian German livelihoods in Bolivia would not be capable to persist or at least to maintain a living standard more or less comparable to that they got used to in Germany. These Russian German Baptist emigrants probably would have to adapt to the survival strategies of Mennonites without German citizenship or of other local inhabitants. In short, one has to be able to afford the emigration from industrialized Germany to rural Bolivia.

Martha and Hilda

Martha and Hilda are teenagers and the two youngest children. When the family migrated to Bolivia, Martha had only started to attend school. Due to their young age at the migration, both of them have relatively little memories of life in Germany. They are the only family members who attend a Bolivian school. Thus, they speak Spanish on a high level. That is why they often have to help their parents with communication. Moreover, the girls are responsible for milking the cows, feeding the calves, selling milk, doing the everyday grocery shopping together with their mother and cleaning up the house. To sum up, the family structure is rather conservative and patriarchal. Everyday tasks are separated along gender. While the mother and daughters are engaged with cooking, cleaning and milking, the men work outside the house with cattle and metal. Decisions are taken by the father, but the sons have the right to give instructions to the girls, too.

Classroom in the Bolivian countryside. Photo by the author.

In general, Martha and Hilda did what they were told. However, I could perceive some kind of resistance. For example, they regularly delayed the milking of the cows that had to be done twice a day, always at the same time. After a short period of adaptation to my attendance, they regularly complained – even in the presence of their father – that they did not want to milk the cows anymore and that they wanted to visit Germany. Furthermore, the girls complained that they were never allowed to meet with classmates because they are indigenous Bolivians which means collas and cambas. Martha and Hilda complained having to wear skirts instead of trousers due to religious reasons and having to attend services and bible groups with their parents.

Grocery store in the Bolivian countryside. Photo by the author.

These and other examples show Martha’s and Hilda’s more or less latent resistance against the patriarchal family structure. They openly expressed their dissatisfaction with their obligations in conjunction with the livestock farming, their longing for more independence and their wish to go to Germany, at least temporarily. Concerning local incorporation, it can be said that Martha and Hilda – unlike their brothers – would like to deepen their friendships with their indigenous classmates, but are not permitted to meet them outside the school. Their contact with Bolivians is reduced to school and to the economic sphere, when Martha and Hilda sell milk or buy groceries. Moreover, as they have to stay at home and help in the household, Martha and Hilda in general seldom have the possibility to keep friendships, even with their “Russian German Baptist” neighbors. Due to the conservative family model and gender roles the teenager girls’ local incorporation is made more difficult.

Preliminary “final” remarks

These have been the six perspectives of one family’s children that, in my opinion, provide much and diverse information on youth migration to and integration in Bolivia and the potential for further research. In conclusion, concerning local incorporation it can be said that friendships and economic relations are primarily concentrated on the Russian German Baptist neighborhood. Secondly, the family maintains relationships in different areas of life with local Mennonites living in and around homogenous colonies. Personal contact to indigenous Bolivians, collas and cambas, thirdly, is generally in most cases not considered desirable and therefore reduced to an indispensable, mostly economic level.

Concerning transnational incorporation it can be summarized that the maintenance or the establishment of transnational relationships can be an important resource with regard to educational, professional and economic aspirations. The use of the relatively new communication technology of smartphones and especially of WhatsApp plays a crucial role for the maintenance of transnational relationships. Although Baptists in Germany generally refuse for example to watch television, the use of smartphones with all of its possibilities is accepted. Each family member has his and her own smartphone. Among other things, they maintain (or revive) contact with relatives and friends in Germany and other migrated relatives in North America.

What is also interesting here is the fact that the transnational lifestyle of seemingly most of the Russian German Baptists in the neighborhood seems to be an obstacle for local incorporation. Stable, long-lasting relationships cannot emerge due to the constant migration flows.

  1. Concerning the family biographical approach cf. C. Wirth, Memories of Belonging. Descendants of Italian Migrants to the United States, 1884-Present (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2015).
  2. Cf. V. Dönninghaus, J. Panagiotidis, H.-C. Petersen, “Jenseits der ,Volksgruppe‘. Neue Perspektiven auf die Russlanddeutschen zwischen Russland, Deutschland und Amerika,” in ibid., eds., Jenseits der ,Volksgruppe‘. Neue Perspektiven auf die Russlanddeutschen zwischen Russland, Deutschland und Amerika (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2018), 7–27.
  3. Cf. e.g. C. J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History. 3d. ed. (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1993); B. W. Goossen, Chosen Nation. Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017).
  4. Cf. e.g. R. Loewen, Horse-and-Buggy Genius: Listening to Mennonites Contest the Modern World (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016); L. Cañás Bottos, Old Colony Mennonites in Argentina and Bolivia: Nation making, religious conflict and imagination of the future (Leiden: Brill, 2008).
  5. The following descriptions are based on Anna Flack’s Field Diary, written from 22nd July until 4th August 2019, in Bolivia.
  6. N. Glick Schiller, Beyond Methodological Ethnicity. Local and Transnational Pathways of Immigrant Incorporation (Malmö: Willy Brandt Series of Working Papers in International Migration and Ethnic Relations, 2, 2008), 2; N. Glick Schiller, A. Çağlar, “Towards a Comparative Theory of Locality in Migration Studies. Migrant Incorporation and City Scale,” in, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 35, 2 (2009), 177–202.

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