Punishing the Needy Russian NGO Law Hurts Nazi Victims
Many Russians who survived World War II, Nazi concentration camps, forced labor and postwar persecution depend on aid from foreign NGOs. Vladimir Putin's new law labelling such groups as "foreign agents" could strip them of needed help.
The light shines through the window of a small office in downtown Volgograd and onto the forearm of Galina Sashina. There, tattooed in blue ink, is the number 62084. "The Germans put it there when I was deported to Auschwitz in September 1943," she says. At the time, she was eight. Now 77, Sashina is head of an association of survivors of German concentration camps in Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad.
The elderly woman speaks about the suffering the Germans inflicted on her and her family, though does so without hate. She talks about her father, who fought as a partisan against the German army until they shot and killed him. She recounts how they hid in the woods and how her mother admonished them that the Germans' airplanes carried a special device in their steel bellies that could pick up even the faintest human voices in the forests. She speaks of being captured at gunpoint and crammed into cattle cars, of how her mother and brother died in Auschwitz.
Sashina still cannot forget one night in the concentration camp. She lived in a barrack with her grandmother. Galina slept in the top of the bunk bed, her grandmother in the bottom. "Your grandma is already dead," whispered someone sleeping nearby. "Just touch her." Galina nudged her grandmother's leg and was startled when she felt how cold it was. "Grandma, are you still alive," she whispered. "Yes," the old woman quietly replied. But it wasn't long before Galina's grandma really was dead. And with her vanished all hope and support.
Nevertheless, Sashina survived. From her years in captivity, she can still remember a few scraps of German. "Eyes right and march!" the camp thugs would bellow.
Expansion of 'Foreign Agents' Law
Today, Sashina's interactions with Germans are much more positive. Some 700 Volgograd residents who either survived concentration camps or were shipped to Germany during the war to serve as forced laborers, continue to benefit from an aid program set up as part of Volgograd's partnership with the German city of Cologne.
The project aims to foster reconciliation between Russians and Germans, who fought against each other in two world wars. It pays for six social workers, a consulting physician and a full-time assistant. "Suddenly we're all supposedly foreign agents," says Irina, one of the social workers. "And that's just because the Germans donate money for us."
Last summer, the State Duma, the lower house of Russian parliament, passed a law forcing nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are politically active and receive funding from abroad to register themselves as "foreign agents." The term "agent" was consciously chosen for the way it can mean not only authorized proxy, but also spy. Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the law to criminalize opposition elements outside of parliament and to depict America and the West as enemies of Russia.
Putin and his political apparatus originally pushed through the NGO law to undermine those of his government's opponents who received funding from abroad. But now, the law is seeing extensive use even against non-political organizations, such as against the "Angler and Hunter Club" in Yaroslavl, a major city some 250 kilometers (160 miles) northeast of Moscow. This expansion has also come to threaten the broad network of German-Russian partnerships that have sprung up since the end of the Cold War, such as the Cologne-Volgograd project.
Dependent on German Help
Few in Volgograd are as dependent on this assistance as 87-year-old Alexandra Kainova. During the war, she was deported from Stalingrad to a forced labor camp in Töchin, 40 kilometers south of Berlin. In the evenings, while her crew returned back to the camp from the munitions and textile factories they worked in, she and her best friend, Tonia, would often sneak away in search of food. "The guards had pistols," she says. "But hunger was stronger than fear." They would beg farmers for potatoes. And then they would sneak back into the camp though a hole they had dug under the barbed-wire fence.
But one day, the guards caught Tonia, and Kainova's friend was forced into a detention cell. "It was cold there and full of water. She died a miserable death," Kainova says. "I don't understand how the Germans could be so cruel."
Today, Kainova lives in a small apartment in Volgograd. Her living room holds a dresser with plastic flowers, a cabinet, a bed, a refrigerator dating back to the 1970s and a TV, which she bought with the modest compensation she received from the German government in the 1990s.
Irina, the social worker, brings by some medications for Kainova. Some are for Kainova's eyes, because she is almost blind in one eye. Others are to combat calcification of her arteries, her constant joint pains and to help her weak heart. Part of the money for the medication comes from Germany. Her pension, the equivalent of 300 ($400) a month, isn't enough to pay for the expensive pills. German donations have also paid for her support stockings and an orthopedic mattress.
Kainova quotes a poem by Erich Weinert, a German Communist writer: "365 mornings, the same worries; 365 days, the same troubles; 365 nights from which one doesn't want to awake." Kainova learned the poem during her German class in grade school. "Troubles and worries," she says. "That's pretty much what my entire life has looked like."
Shadows of Suspicion
Kainova's mother died when she was just a year old. Her father succumbed to a lung infection during the war's first winter. For weeks, the family survived almost entirely on turnips.
In May 1945, the Red Army liberated Kainova from her labor camp. But her suffering didn't end once she returned home. Stalin treated forced laborers who had helped the Germans as collaborators. As a result, Kainova was forced to work felling trees in a village outside Stalingrad for the first years after the war. Kainova has never told even her neighbors about her years in Germany. She has heard of cases in which parents have rejected children who had been forced laborers and one where a man quit talking to his wife after she told him about her years in Germany.
At the end of our conversation, Kainova has one request. "Write that Putin should repeal this law," she says, because it once again casts suspicion on her as a traitor to her homeland. She knows the feeling from the Stalin era.