(The following history is taken from the book, Researching
the Germans from Russia, compiled by Michael M. Miller, published
by the Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University,
Fargo, 1987, pages xvii-xix.)
The story of the Germans from Russia had its beginning
in 1763 while Catherine II, a former German princess of the principality
of Anhalt-Zerbst, was Empress of Russia. The Czarina found herself
in possession of large tracts of virgin land along the lower course
of the Volga River in Russia. Catherine was determined to turn this
region into productive, agricultural land as well as to populate
the area as a protective barrier against the nomadic Asiatic tribes
who inhabited the region.
Then on July 22, 1763, Catherine issued a manifesto
inviting foreigners to settle in Russia, in the vast uncultivated
lands of her domain. As an inducement to encourage emigration to
Russia, the manifesto offered the following rights and privileges
to incoming foreign settlers:
- Free transportation to Russia.
- The right to settle in segregated colonies.
- Free land and the necessary tax-free loans to establish themselves.
- Religious freedom and the right to build their own churches.
(Implied in this was the right to establish their own schools).
- Local self-government.
- Exemption from military or civil service.
- The right to leave Russia at any time.
- Therefore mentioned rights and privileges were guaranteed
not only to incoming settlers but also to their descendants
These rights and privileges offered a chance for
a better life and many thousands of people emigrated to Russia from
the Germanic states and principalities of Central Europe. The reasons
that so many Germanic people took up this Russian offer were many.
The Seven Years' War had just ended in 1763. Whole regions in Germany
lay devastated and poverty was widespread. Many Germans emigrated
at this time to other lands, including the New World, in order to
make a new start in life.
The first German-speaking colonists who responded
to Catherine's manifesto were directed to lands along the Volga
River in the years 1764 to 1767. Later, as Russia acquired the Ukrainian
lands north of the Black Sea from Turkey, colonists were invited
to settle in those areas. Similarly, when the Crimean Peninsula
and Bessarabia were added to the Russian Empire at Turkey's expense,
colonists settled there. These later emigrations occurred 40 to
50 years after the great Volga emigration. The Black Sea Germans
responded to an invitation that was issued in 1803 by Alexander
I, the grandson of Catherine. Since so many responded to the Czar's
invitation, the Russian Crown feared that unsuitable immigrants
might enter Russia. Accordingly, in 1804, a restrictive decree was
issued that embodied the generous terms of Catherine II but required
that all future immigrants must possess cash or goods worth at least
300 guilders, be skilled in farming or handicrafts, and be people
with families. No single fortune hunters were desired.
The colonists of 1804-1818 had either a long and
difficult overland journey or had to travel by river barge down
the Danube. (Those in 1804 to 1812 could not use the Danube River
because of the 1806-1812 Russo-Turkish War.) Those who traveled
to Russia in 1817 went by boat down the Danube and, due to inexperience,
many thousands died of disease and exposure.
Approximately 300 mother colonies were founded throughout
Russia during the settlement years and as the population grew, more
acreage had to be acquired for the landless. Thus, numerous daughter
colonies were founded. Eventually there were more than 3,000 ethnic
settlements in Russia.
Their schools and churches provided instruction in
their native language, German. Life was generally good for the colonists
and they maintained the distinct customs, dress, musical tastes,
and dialects of their ancestral homelands. Many adjustments to Russian
ways, however, were inevitable.
In 1871, Czar Alexander II revoked the preferential
rights and privileges given to the colonist settlers by the manifestoes
of Catherine II and Alexander I. The colonists, as a result, were
reduced to the level of the Russian peasants and under the same
laws and obligations to which they were subject. In 1874, the colonists'
sons were drafted into the Czar's army for the first time.
The natural result was that the colonists were dismayed
and angry, feeling that the Russian Crown was guilty of a breach
of contract. As there was nothing they could do, their thoughts
turned toward leaving Russia. But where could they go? To return
to Germany did not enter their minds, for when their ancestors had
left Germany years before, they had no intention ever to return
to their native country.
During the summer of 1872, Ludwig Bette, a former
colonist, who had led a party of 83 friends from the Black Sea to
the United States in 1849, decided to visit relatives and friends
in the Black Sea colonies. Noting the unrest and dissatisfaction
among the colonists for having lost their privileged status, he
extolled the virtue of the United States, urging emigration there.
Shortly after his return to the United States, an emigration movement
to the United States, Canada, and South America was set in motion
which continued more or less unabatedly until the outbreak of World
War I halted further emigration.
Alexander III came to the throne of Russia in 1881
after his father, Alexander II, had been assassinated. Russification
became the official policy and greatly affected the former colonists.
Classes later had to be taught in the Russian language and business
was required to be transacted in Russian. Also, it became increasingly
difficult for the German-speaking colonists in Russia to purchase
the land necessary for their expanding numbers. All of the rights
of self-government in their villages were lost by the colonists
under the changed conditions.
Hesitating to make the long journey over the ocean,
many colonists decided to stay in Russia in spite of the Russification
policy. In actual number, perhaps more of the German colonists remained
in Russia than emigrated to the countries of North America and South
Because of the requirements of the U.S. Homestead
Act of 1862, the German-Russians who took up homesteads in the United
States were required to live on their 160-acre farms. They could
not live in villages or colonies as they had in Russia. Many Volga
Germans settled in cities in the Middle West of the United States,
while the Black Sea Germans acquired land and homesteaded in Nebraska,
Kansas, and the Dakotas. Others settled in western Canada by purchase
and homesteading. The Volga Germans became closely associated with
the sugar beet industry in Colorado and western Nebraska, while
most Black Sea Germans became wheat growers in the Dakotas and in
Canada; some later became orchard and grape growers in California.
Today descendants of those early Germans from Russia are now living
in Colorado, California, Kansas, Nebraska, Michigan, Illinois, Montana,
North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington, as well as Alberta, British
Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan in western Canada. Some also
emigrated from Russia to South America.
A large number of German-Russians, descendants of
those who elected to remain in Russia, still live in the Soviet
Union. The census of 1959 counted over 1,600,000 Germans living
in the Soviet Union and that number grew to 2,300,000 by 1983.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 caused great
difficulty for the ethnic Germans in Russia. Although they fought
and died in Russian military campaigns, they, as a class, were accused
of being spies and saboteurs. The German language was forbidden
in their schools and churches, and German-language newspapers were
prohibited. Innumerable German-Russians were deported to Siberia
for "crimes against the state."
With the Russian Revolution of 1917, a period of
lawlessness prevailed throughout Russia for several years. Robber
bands raided the German villages, ruthlessly murdering many of the
Germans. Germans living on estates were driven from their homes
with only an hour's notice. Russian regiments revolted, killing
their officers, and the Russian soldiers added to the period of
lawlessness. The Russian Revolution brought much misery to the German-Russians
with many displaced to Siberia and Middle Asia.
Those in Bessarabia were spared the hardships and
chaos of the Russian Revolution. When the revolt of the army's soldiers
took place, Bessarabia appealed to Romania to restore law and order.
This was done and later Bessarabia voted to be annexed by Romania.
Russia never acknowledged the legality of this annexation
and in 1940 (since Stalin and Hitler were allied) Hitler agreed
that Stalin could have the return of Bessarabia providing he would
agree to the resettlement of all ethnic Germans to Germany. This
was agreed upon and the Germans packed their suitcases, abandoning
all else, and returned to Germany. As there was no place for most
of them in Germany, those who were unskilled were settled in the
Warthegau, an area along the Warthe River in western Poland.
When the war broke out between Germany and the Soviet
Union on June 22, 1941, the already planned displacement of all
Germans was executed without any exception. Thus the presidency
of the Soviet Union released the decree (August 2, 1941) "The Resettlement
of the Germans of the Volga Region."
The chairman of the Landsmannschaft der Russlanddeutschen
in Germany described these true facts in the journal Volk auf
dem Weg, August/September, 1985. He writes: "The forced displacement
spread, however, not only to the Volga Germans. The German settlement
areas on the Crimean peninsula, the Caucasus, and in the Ukraine
were as equally affected as the Germans living in the cities. In
connection with the forced resettlement, family and home communities
which existed up to then were systematically split. Generally men
between the 16th and the 60th birthdays were separated from their
families and held in the so-called Trudarmija (a special kind of
prison camp) where they were treated as enemies of the state. Women
and children received poor residences among Russians, Kazachs, and
other nationalities. All Germans were told, with threat of punishment,
not to return to their former settlements. They had to give up any
claims to their possessions, which were confiscated at their former
settlements. They lived separated among other ethnic groups in areas
of Siberia and central Asia, cut off from contact with the German
culture, robbed of the chance as a group to preserve their own cultural
heritage, to educate their children in German schools, and to confess
When the Red Army advanced toward Berlin in World
War II, there began for the displaced Russian-Germans in the Warthe
region a hasty flight in the wintry cold and snow. Vehicles and
train cars, as well as personnel for organizing proper transportation,
were missing. One could not stop at protective shelters, so many
died along the way from exposure, exhaustion, and starvation. The
rapidly advancing Red Army caught up with thousands, captured them,
put them in cattle cars, and took them on a long journey without
supplies to the northern regions of Russia or to Siberia.
Fortunately, some 70,000 were able to make their
way to Germany where they and their descendants are living today.
Most of the German-Russians who lived on the Volga and in areas
not coming under Hitler's reach were evacuated to the far away Asiatic
portions of the USSR. According to the census of 1979 in the Soviet
Union 1,936,000 people claimed to be Germans and thus ranked fourteenth
among the more than one-hundred nationalities in the USSR.
The very first settlement of the German-Russians
in the Middle West, specifically Dakota Territory, occurred in the
spring of 1873. This settlement was a direct result of Ludwig Bette's
visit to the colony Johannestal in 1872 when he influenced four
groups from the Black Sea area to emigrate to the United States.
The four groups, numbering 175 men, women, and children, were united
at Sandusky, Ohio, where they spent the winter. In the spring, scouts
were sent out in search of land who determined that Dakota Territory
was the place for them to settle. They loaded their belongings on
a special freight train, possibly one or two passenger cars, and
a few box cars, and took off for Yankton, Dakota Territory. They
arrived there in one of the worst blizzards on record, and many
thought the country was worse than Siberia. This is known as the
Easter Sunday Blizzard, occurring in April of 1873. After the weather
cleared, they searched for suitable land on which to homestead,
finding land where Lesterville, South Dakota, is now located, about
eighteen miles northwest of Yankton.
Following the settlement near Lesterville, thousands
of Germans from the Black Sea areas of Russia poured into Dakota
Territory in the years following. Their homesteads spread westward
and northward until most of the arable land was homesteaded in what
later became South Dakota in 1889. As more and more immigrant Black
Sea Germans continued to arrive in Dakota Territory in search of
land, their homesteads spread in 1884 into what is now North Dakota.
Eventually, their homesteads were located in all arable parts of
North Dakota. As a result, North Dakota numbers twice as many Germans
from Russia than does any other state in the United States.
By 1920, it was estimated that 116,539 German-Russians
were in the United States. The largest concentration was in North
Dakota, where some 70,000 lived in 1920, coming from the Black Sea
region. Other large settlements were in Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska
who came primarily from the Volga region. Today, the families of
Germans from Russia are spread throughout the United States and
Canada concentrating in the Great Plains states, California, Colorado,
Oregon, and Washington as well as the prairie provinces of Western
Finally, with the major political changes in the
former Soviet Union beginning in 1991, a significant immigration
trend began of ethnic Germans receiving permission to immigrate
to Germany. Since 1991, an estimated more than two million Germans
have immigrated to Germany from the former Soviet Union. Immigration
to Germany has become more difficult but continues.
Permission to reprint or to use the information,
"A Brief History of the Germans from Russia" from the Germans from
Russia Heritage Collection website is not permitted without the
written permission of Michael M. Miller, Germans from Russia Bibliographer,
NDSU Libraries, Fargo. For contact, email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.