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The Germans in Russia

Hundley, Elaine Helbling. "The Germans in Russia." German-American Journal 54, no. 4: (2005), 13.


Ask anyone what comes to mind when asked to describe the Irish and the answer will be shamrocks, St. Patrick, green beer, and leprechauns. For the Polish it will be polkas, for German it will be hard workers, stubbornness, cleanliness, punctuality, reliability, and kuchen. What about the Germans from Russia? The Germans from where? Who are they? Where are they?

I am a first generation German from Russia and was born in North Dakota but have lived in Illinois for the past 37 years. My mother was born of a German family in South Russia in 1903 and my father’s family was also German from Russia. How did they get there and why? How did they get to America and why?

The Germans from Russia are descendents of Germans who settled in Russia in the years about 1763 to 1862. Their story begins with Tsarina Catherine II (Catherine the Great) who was empress of Russia, but a German princess by birth. In July 1763 she issued a manifesto to attract people from Western Europe to settle in Russia. The manifesto promised new settlers freedom of religion, freedom from taxes for a 5-30 year period, freedom from military service, and free land to farmers. By the end of 1767, German settlers from central Germany had established more than 100 colonies along the Volga River, near Saratov, Russia.

A second settlement in the Black Sea region began in 1803 when Czar Alexander I, a grandson of Catherine II, issued a similar decree enticing foreigners to settle in South Russia. In addition, he promised interest-free loans for purchase of equipment, self-administration of the community and schools, and free land equivalent to 80 to 216 acres. These colonies extended into the Crimea and into the Caucasus. The Black Sea Germans came primarily from southern Germany in the Rhineland Palatinate, Baden, and the Alsace, plus a large number of Mennonite Germans came from the Danzig area in Prussia. In 1812, Germans colonized the Bessarabia area. Two other areas in Russia where large numbers of Germans settled were Volhynia and the Baltic provinces.

Catherine II’s purpose in investing the Germans was to settle the untilled land, act as a model for Russian peasants, and to act as a buffer between Russia and the Asiatic nomadic tribes which harassed the Volga region. In Russia (the area is now present day Ukraine), the Germans lived in colonies, isolated from their Russian neighbors, and kept their German language, their religion (mostly Lutheran, Catholic, and Mennonite), foods, and culture.

Leaving their homeland, the Germans traveled by river flatboats, wagon trains and by foot. Those traveling to the Beresan area traveled over 1700 miles in 4 months time arriving in the fall of 1809. The initial villages in this area were Landau, Speier, and Sulz. These villages exist today but have Russian names. My Helbling ancestors were among the first settlers of Speier. The first year in Russia, the immigrants built dugouts with sod. The winter was bitter and the dugouts cold and damp. Many of the settlers became sick and by spring, many had died, including entire families. The next spring homes were built of clay bricks. To this day, many of the original buildings are still in use. Houses, schools, and churches still stand, although in great need of repair. Magnificent churches built by the Germans were taken over by the Soviets during WW II and used to house livestock or turned into meeting places. Interior furnishings and religious pictures were removed. The remnants stand today.

The colonists grew wheat, corn, and potatoes. Instead of the German pronunciation of potato as Kartoffel, the colonists called them Grundbere. That is the word still used by my relatives today. The food of the colonists was bread, noodles of all kinds, meat dishes prepared with sauerkraut and potatoes, Borscht soup and pumpkin Plachinka. They were learned from the Russians and are still staples in the Germans’ from Russia descendents in America today. Another food from the Russians is Easter Bread called Bosca. It is baked in coffee tins so that the tops rise and look like the domes on Russian churches. The dough is colored yellow and flavored with anise. The "old way" to obtain the color is to raise saffron (suffra as we pronounce it), harvest the dried red flower which is made into a yellow tea which becomes the coloring for the Bosca. Yellow food coloring gives the same result but lacks the continuity of carrying on this tradition. The baked bread is then frosted in various colors and sprinkled with little candies. The word bosca probably came from the word “paska,” meaning Easter.

In the 1870s, the promises of the Russian government were gradually withdrawn. The colonist had their right to local self-government taken away along with their right to keep their own German-language schools. The military draft was reinstated. The Germans then looked to the New World to once again immigrate. The land where they lived in South Russia was called the Steppes. The lands to which they would move were called the Prairies, in USA to North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The Germans who remained in Russia faced terrible times during the Russian Revolution and the World Wars. Letters and retrieved achieves attest to the misery they endured. Because they were German, many were killed outright. Their homes and property were taken over by the Russians. Fathers and sons were taken out at night and shot in view of the families. Many were sent to the Siberian area of Russia where life was exceedingly grim. Present day Germany is gradually resettling the descendents of these Germans by establishing homes for them near Odessa, Ukraine, and in Germany itself. Since these descendents have lived many generations in Russia, they no longer know the German language and culture which presents major challenges for Germany.

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