Russian German re-migrants’ and stayees’ belongings: Everyday food practices in Western Siberia

Anna Flack

Led by the central research question of which resources re-migrants and stayees use for the construction of belongings, in 2015 I conducted participant observation and topic-centered interviews at a three months field research in Western Siberia with Russian Germans. 1 According to the Russian Federation’s latest census by 20102, approximately one eighth of Russia’s dispersed German minority lives in the Altai region. Thus, I made my way to Barnaul, the capital of this region. Not, as one might expect, to the German national district (немецкий национальный район) with the village of Halbstadt as administrative center.

Source: Google maps.

As a cultural anthropologist/ European ethnologist3, I conceive belongings not as static as that implies an often essentializing understanding of culture. More precisely and differentiated, culture can be defined as the total of human practices, products and articulations. This includes, inter alia, individual and collective, theoretical and practical, historical and mythical expressions. Culture then means practices, objects and institutions.4 To be able to research cultural continuities and changes it is necessary to focus on concretely observable phenomena. Such phenomena are obvious, often unreflected everyday practices, e.g. concerning language, living, clothing, music, religion and last but not least food. By examining the everyday practices of food and drink, I realized a practice-oriented approach following Judith Butler’s concept of performative construction of belongings.5 Consequently, I understand belongings as a preliminary result of constant construction and negotiation processes.

Boršč – “typically Russian” soup with smetana (sour cream) and pickled cucumbers. Photo by the author.

In three case studies, I illustrate the parallelism and relation between cultural continuities and changes. Moreover, there can be shown the plurality, situativity and entanglement of, even contradictory, belongings. In the following, my findings will be summarized and illustrated by empirical data on three subjects called Marina, Kat’ja and Mrs Müller.6

In everyday life as well as on holidays still dominates a Soviet “conservatism of taste” (“Geschmackskonservatismus”).7 Continuing subsistence farming and eating salat oliv’e8 on holidays are examples that give proof of the persistent effectiveness of Soviet values, norms and action patterns until the present.

Subsistence farming in an allotment garden. Photo by the author.

The accompanying cultural changes can be conceived as, on the one hand, processes of detraditionalization and, on the other hand, processes of (re)traditionalization. In all my case studies a selective influence of a Western, globalized lifestyle can be observed. Examples include the consumption of coffee (instead of tea, the Russian national drink), pizza and sushi. This indicates an orientation along Western lifestyle and a detraditionalization of daily life.

Symbols of a globalized lifestyle. Photos by the author.

The retraditionalization that manifests itself in a return to ethnicity and/or religiosity can also be interpreted as an answer to Soviet and Russian hegemony. At the same time, retraditionalization can be a reaction to global cultural influences. Soviet/ Russian hegemony and the global cultural influences potentially compromise individuality and/or an ethnocultural belonging.

So called “national dishes“ (e.g. Strudel, Riebelkuchen) and Marina’s as well as Kat’ja’s choice of profession as German language teacher can be interpreted as an expression of their “symbolic ethnicity.”9 This means that they can feel a nostalgic ethnic belonging and be proud of their ancestors’ traditions without practicing these traditions (regularly) on their own. Much more important than the cultural everyday practices are ethnic symbols as e.g. consumer goods, especially food and drink.10

Strudel. Photo by the author.

In Kat’ja’s case the (re)traditionalization served the re-migrants’ reintegration into Russia. By adopting the Russian Orthodox faith and practicing fasting and praying, the subject reintegrated into Russian society. In the Russian perception, being Orthodox is equal to being Russian in an ethnocultural sense.11 The Russian Orthodox faith also gains special significance because Kat’ja became Orthodox by baptism just before the Aussiedlung12 to Germany. Thus, the baptism can be interpreted as a rite de passage.13 Baptism guarantees an emotional closeness to (Orthodox) Russia despite the territorial distance. Furthermore, the (re)traditionalization is rather an “invention of tradition”14 than a supposed return to a lost tradition.

Russian Orthodox icons above the dining table. Photo by the author.

Interestingly, Kat’ja’s great-grandmother has had “some kind of German faith, she even always prayed in German.” The subject then remembers that the great-grandmother’s congregation was Baptist. But what is most important here is the difference making and the demarcation of a “Russian” and a “German” faith.15

In Mrs Müller’s case reintegration was achieved the other way round, by a globalized lifestyle indicating detraditionalization. Food products (e.g. instant garden herbs, special fries salt, sweetener) brought to Russia by relatives living in Germany help the subject to compensate perceived limitations in her “new old home.”16 Hence, the subject copes with the undesired re-migration, which was initiated by her husband, and the inconveniences of life in the Russian countryside by consumption.

Self-made fries. Photo by the author.

The transforming of everyday food practices illustrates not only Russian Germans’ heterogeneity, but also the heterogeneity of belonging resources in general. Food and drink serve as a mirror of these different resources which are used for the conscious and unconscious construction of belongings. In interaction with other individuals there exists more than one belonging discourse. Belongings are manifold and fragmented. Therefore, they are constantly negotiated and situationally emphasized. In a postmodern society, apart from ethnicity subjects make use of and combine different resources, experiences, social imaginations, and orientation patterns to create a lifestyle that fits best their needs for belonging, individuality, and peculiarity.17


  1. My Ph.D. thesis has been submitted in March 2019 and therefore is not yet published.
  2. Cf. Institute of Demography of the national research university “Higher School of Economics”, Demoskop Weekly. URL: demoscope.ru/weekly/ssp/census.php (25.2.2016). According to official census data, in 1989 in the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic lived 842.295 Germans. 127.731 of them lived in the Altai region. In 2002 597.212 Germans lived in the Russian Federation. 79.502 lived in the Altai region. Cf. Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat), Census 2010. National composition of the population according to the subjects of the Russian Federation. [Национальный состав населения по субъектам Российской Федерации]. URL: http://www.gks.ru/free_doc/new_site/perepis2010/perepis_itogi1612.htm (12.6.2017). According to the 2010 census, there live 50.701 Germans in the Altai region. In overall Russia, 394.138 people stated a German ethnicity.
  3. In Germany, Europe and North America the disciplines underlied different influences, conditions and developments. Therefore, we do not always mean the same when using similar or identical terms. Cf. e.g. C. B. Brettell, “Theorizing Migration in Anthropology. The Cultural, Social, and Phenomenological Dimensions of Movement,” in C. B. Brettell, J. F. Hollifield, eds., Migration theory. Talking across disciplines. 3d edition (New York: Routledge, 2015), 148–197; C. Markom, “Geschichte der Migrationsforschung. Interdisziplinäre Verflechtungen,” in M. Six-Hohenbalken, J. Tošić, eds., Anthropologie der Migration. Theoretische Grundlagen und interdisziplinäre Aspekte (Vienna: facultas, 2009), 29–49.
  4. Cf. P. M. Hejl, “Kultur,” in A. Nünning, ed., Metzler-Lexikon Literatur- und Kulturtheorie. Ansätze – Personen – Grundbegriffe. 4th edition (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2008), 267; cf. A. Reckwitz, Die Transformation der Kulturtheorien. Zur Entwicklung eines Theorieprogramms (Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2006), 75; G. Hirschfelder, “Europäischer Alltag im Fokus der Kulturanthropologie/Volkskunde,” in S. Conermann, ed., Was ist Kulturwissenschaft? Zehn Antworten aus den „Kleinen Fächern“ (Bielefeld: transcript, 2012), 151; A. Hütig, “Dimensionen des Kulturbegriffs,” in J. Kusber, M. Dreyer, J. Rogge, A. Hütig, eds., Historische Kulturwissenschaften. Positionen, Praktiken und Perspektiven (Bielefeld: transcript, 2010), 116.
  5. Cf. J. Butler, Das Unbehagen der Geschlechter (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991); J. Butler, Körper von Gewicht. Die diskursiven Grenzen des Geschlechts (Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 1995); H. Bublitz, Judith Butler zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius, 2013).
  6. With the exception of Barnaul, places and persons are anonymised due to data security and research ethics. Cf. H. von Unger, “Forschungsethik in der qualitativen Forschung. Grundsätze, Debatten und offene Fragen,” in H. von Unger, P. Narimani, R. M’Bayo, eds., Forschungsethik in der qualitativen Forschung. Reflexivität, Perspektiven, Positionen (Wiesbaden: Springer 2014), 15–39.
  7. Cf. U. Tolksdorf,“Strukturalistische Nahrungsforschung. Versuch eines generellen Ansatzes,” in Ethnologia Europaea 9 (1976), 64–85; cf. U. Tolksdorf, “Das Eigene und das Fremde. Küchen und Kulturen im Kontakt,” in A. Wierlacher, G. Neumann, H. J. Teuteberg, eds., Kulturthema Essen. Ansichten und Problemfelder (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1993), 187–192.
  8. Russian Salad. Cf. I. Makoveeva, “Olive (Olivier),” in Tat’jana Ė. Smorodinskaja, ed., Encyclopedia of contemporary Russian culture (London: Routledge, 2007), 436.
  9. H. J. Gans, Symbolic ethnicity. The future of ethnic groups and cultures in America, in Ethnic and Racial Studies 2, 1 (1979), 1–20.
  10. Cf. ibid., 8–10.
  11. Cf. K. Rousselet, A. Agadjanian,“Pourquoi et comment étudier les pratiques religieuses?,” in Revue d’études comparatives Est-Ouest 36 (2005), 6; A. Agadjanian, Turns of Faith, Search for Meaning. Orthodox Christianity and Post-Soviet Experience (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2014), 18–20, 59; I. Hartwich, “Die Rolle der Religion in Russland. Von Atheisten zu gläubigen Christen”, in Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (bpb)), 3.2.2011. URL: http://www.bpb.de/internationales/europa/russland/47992/religion (4.9.2017).
  12. Aussiedlung means a migration regime introduced by the Federal Republic of Germany after World War II that allowed people of German descent living in the (former) Soviet Union, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia to migrate to Germany and to be recognised as German citizens. The basis is a personal confession to the German Volkszugehörigkeit. This implies a confession to the German descent, language, upbringing and culture. Cf. Federal Displaced Persons Act (Bundesvertriebenengesetz (BVFG)).
  13. Cf. A. van Gennep, Les rites de passage (Paris: Picard, 1981).
  14. E. Hobsbawm, T. Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  15. The significance of the Lutheran faith for a subject of the generation of experience is further regarded in A. Flack, “Methodische Überlegungen über Generationenunterschiede in einer nahrungsethnologischen Feldforschung in Russland. Erkenntnisgewinn durch Scheitern,” in S. Scholl-Schneider, M. Kropp, eds., Migration und Generation. Volkskundlich-ethnologische Perspektiven auf das östliche Europa (Münster: Waxmann, 2018), 193–222.
  16. Cf. A. Flack, “Hühnernudelsuppe, Pel’meni und Pommes frites. Ernährung, Identitäten und Lebensstile von remigrierten SpätaussiedlerInnen,” in Migration. Jahrbuch des Bundesinstituts für Kultur und Geschichte der Deutschen im östlichen Europa 24 (2016), 279–308.
  17. Cf. A. Appadurai, “Globale ethnische Räume,” in U. Beck, ed., Perspektiven der Weltgesellschaft (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998), 21; A. Appadurai, Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); O. Brednikova, “„Eigentlich bin ich Russe, aber manchmal trotzdem auch Deutscher“. Die deutsche Gemeinde in St. Petersburg,” in I. Oswald, V. Voronkov, eds., Post-sowjetische Ethnizitäten. Ethnische Gemeinden in St. Petersburg und Berlin/Potsdam (Berlin: Berliner Debatte Wissenschaftsverlag, 1997), 78–79; G. Hirschfelder, P. Pollmer, “Ernährung und Esskultur. Kulturwissenschaftliche Perspektiven,” in Aktuelle Ernährungsmedizin 43 (2018), 46.