The Germans from Russia
By Michael M. Miller, Bibliographer, Germans from Russia
Heritage Collection, NDSU Libraries
Descendants of German-speaking peoples residing in the Western Hemisphere
whose ancestors immigrated to the Russian Empire during the years
1764 to 1862 are variously referred to as Germans from Russia, Russian-Germans,
German-Russians, Russo-Germans, and Russia Germans. In Russia, these
Germans retained their language, customs, and other forms of ethnicity.
But they were Russian because they were citizens of that country.
One group of Germans who had resided in Russia for a brief period
of time immigrated to the United States in 1849. The mass migrations
of Germans from Russia to the Western Hemisphere began in 1872 and
continued sporadically until about 1920.
Foreigners were invited by the Russian rulers Catherine II in 1763
and Alexander I in 1804 to settle in Russia. Their purpose was to
populate the land south and east of Moscow with industrious people,
bring western culture and industry to the empire, and develop a
buffer against nomadic tribes making raids for the east. Among those
accepting the invitation were about 27,000 German-speaking immigrants
from the provinces of Hesse, the Palatinate, Saxony, Prussia and
others, who immigrated to Russia between 1763 and 1790. Another
group of about 50,000, mostly from Württemberg, Alsace, Baden,
and the Palatinate settled in Russia between 1804 and 1862.
The invitations to foreigners to settle in Russia were in the form
of manifestoes. A manifesto was a written list of guarantees, similar
to a "Bill of Rights", under which the immigrants were
to reside in Russia. Foreigners of several nationalities responded
to the manifestoes because these guarantees provided relief from
sources of discontent prevailing in their homeland. This discontent
stemmed from economic, religious, political, and personal sources.
It is well to remember that "a contented person will not leave
the country of his/her birth."
Both land and water routes carried the immigrants to the Russian
Empire. Land travel was limited to wagons and carts, drawn by various
animals. Unique among the water conveyances was the Ulmer Schachtel.
These wooden boats made a one-way trip down the Danube River. At
the trip's end, they were dismantled and the wood used for other
purposes. Some immigrants spent a year and more en route.
The major settlement areas in the Russian Empire and the years
of settlement were:
Volga Region 1764-1767; 1860's
Black Sea Region 1787-1793; 1804-1810
The original, or so-called mother colonies, established by Germans
eventually numbered about 300. The German colonists lived in farmyards,
called a Hof or yard, which were located side by side in a village
called a Dorf. The land they farmed was outside the village. Some
of the lands they were granted were held in common. The original
land grants made to the immigrants were, at that time, considered
to be very generous. The amount of land granted varied from colony
to colony. Colonies usually, but not exclusively, were occupied
by people of the same religious faith. In Volhynia the farmers lived
on their own land, not in villages as in other regions in Russia.
The colonies were established on the steppes, natural grasslands.
Like the North American Great Plains, the major problems encountered
by the settlers of the steppes were a source of water, a source
of fuel, and building material. Most of the mother colonies located
near a source of surface water. Dung and other organic materials
were the primary fuels. Building materials consisted, in the main,
of natural sod, stones, and reeds. In Volhynia, some of the lands
settled by Germans were woodlands, including areas with excess water.
Most of the German immigrants to Russia did not have agricultural
skills, but with few exceptions, they were expected to make their
living as farmers. Even the agricultural skills acquired in their
homeland were of little benefit to them in Russia because of differences
in climate and soils. Their German homeland had a humid climate
while the Russian steppes had a semi-arid and sub-humid climate.
There are striking similarities between the Russian steppes and
the North American Great Plains.
With the primitive implements and tools available at the time,
preparing land to grow crops was, at best, difficult. In the Black
Sea Region, a farmer required about 13 years to develop 37 acres
of land for crop production.
Because of the high birth rate, land became a scarce commodity
for the first generation of Germans born in Russia. By the late
1840's, land purchases from the Russian nobility began. The purchases
were financed largely through sheep husbandry. The Merino sheep,
famous for its high quality wool, had been introduced into Russia
in the early 1800's and became available to the German colonists.
The annual wool production paid for the first mortgage on the land
purchase. Also by this time, new implements had been invented and
others had been improved. Wheat production became the primary agricultural
enterprise in most of the new daughter colonies. Daughter colonies
eventually numbered about 3,000.
Discontent with Russia developed when provisions of the manifestoes
were set aside. Military conscription of sons of the German colonists
began in 1874 with the institution of the Military Reform Act by
Alexander II. The rise of pan-Slavism, "Russia for Russians"
became evident by 1881 and became a source of discomfort. The use
of the Russian language in the schools became mandatory by 1892.
Jurisdictional changes which brought increased Russian control into
ordinary, daily affairs were instituted in 1889.
In general, Germans electing to emigrate from Russia did not experience
any resistance from the Russian government. With few exceptions,
the emigrants took trains to port cities like Bremen and Hamburg,
Germany and Libau, Latvia to board ships for the Western Hemisphere.
Among the ports of debarkation in North America were New York, Philadelphia,
Baltimore, New Orleans, Halifax, and Montreal. To fill quotas, some
ships carrying emigrants were diverted to South America. Other emigrants
selected South America for settlement.
The 1872 immigration to the United States which was the beginning
of the mass migration of Germans from Russia to the Western Hemisphere,
was from the colonies of Worms, Johannestal, Rohrbach, and Waterloo
of the Beresan District. The 258 immigrants spent the winter of
1872-1873 in the vicinity of Sandusky, Ohio. In the spring of 1873
most of these took the train to Yankton, Dakota Territory, the end
of the rail line.
They founded the "Odessa Settlement" near the present
site of Lesterville, South Dakota. Here they took up their "claim"
provided through the Homestead Act of 1862. They lived on their
land, placing them a greater distance from their neighbors than
they had been in Russia. The sociology changed. The women especially
experienced great loneliness and homesickness.
A significant proportion of the Germans from Russia settled on the
North American Great Plains. The conditions - climate, soil - were
similar to those they had experienced in Russia. Agriculturally,
they were much better prepared for the conditions they encountered
here than who immigrated from Germany to Russia. On the North American
Great Plains they, as in Russia, became premier growers of wheat.