New East Digital Archive

No place like home: meet the people caught between Germany and Russia

11 March 2016

In her work, photographer Ira Thiessen explores the complex issue of national identity and belonging. Inspiration comes from her personal experience: in 1990, when Thiessen was seven years old, her family moved from Kyrgyzstan to Germany, the historical motherland of her ancestors. This complicated migration story started 250 years ago when about 30,000 Germans relocated to the southern Volga region of Russia to farm the land at the invitation of Catherine the Great. In 1941 Stalin deported their descendants to Siberia and Central Asia, fearing they would collaborate with the invading Nazis. After the collapse of the USSR, the Volga Germans began returning to Germany under its law of return. By 2005 over 2.3 million had relocated. “It was a home that the majority only knew from stories. Upon arrival, they had to quickly realise that their identity was no longer purely German. Given their background and long history in the Empire as well as the Soviet Union, a specific independent culture emerged upon their return to Germany — neither totally Russian, nor totally German,” Thiessen explains. “For my project Privet Germania I staged surreal portraits by using an analogue camera and combining elements from painting, theatre and atelier photography”. Thiessen shoots her subjects in the intimacy of their own apartments, against the backdrop of theatrical curtains, an allegory of the immigrant’s alienation.