The Germans from Russia: Children of the Steppe, Children of the Prairies

One-hour video documentary produced by Prairie Public Television, and North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, ND, copyright 1999

Barbara A. Springer. "The Germans from Russia: Children of the Steppe, Children of the Prairies." German Life, December, 2000/January, 2001, 45.

This award-winning documentary traces the lives of the German people who left their homeland looking for both land and peace in Russia in the 1760s and of their descendants who sought these same ideals in America a century later. It is a story of hardship and deprivation, of strength and survival, set against the backdrop of a harsh landscape needing to be tamed. The documentary delves into the paradox of a people who believed in both strong roots and mobility. Their story begins with Catherine the Great's manifesto of 1763 promising newcomers land, autonomy and freedom from military service. Eventually some 30,000 Germans made the long trip to Russia and settled along the Volga where they built long houses efficiently designed to protect them against the elements. Settled in single-denomination villages, their lives revolved around the large churches they built to worship their God.

In time, Russia curtailed their special privileges, especially exemption from military service. To keep their sons from the 25-year draft and lured by the promise of land in North America, thousands retraced their ancestor's steps. Traveling on those metal "villages on wheels," they took boats from Germany to the New World. Many settled in the Plains area of the United States and Canada where they once again had to tame a formidable landscape. This time, however, they were not able to reestablish their traditional villages since provisions of the Homestead Act forced them to live on the Homestead itself. This lead to physical isolation, loneliness and hardship as disease ravaged the new settlements. However, those who remained in Russia ultimately faced enforced starvation, war, revolution and exile.

Visually a beautiful work, with much of it filmed in Russia, this documentary touches not only on history and religion but also art and popular culture. It combines personal reminiscences, most of them relevant, with scholarly insights. What this reviewer found missing was information on the war years among the Germans living in the United States and Canada. While the film mentions the problems faced by the German people in Russia, little is said of what, if any, hostility their North American cousins encountered.

The offspring of these pioneers will find the film useful for an understanding of themselves and their ancestors as the film directs them to websites and organizations interested in genealogy and the preservation of the history of this fascinating and often misunderstood group of people.

This documentary could be used in history, language and ethnic studies courses from the middle school level and up. A teacher's guide is available at: Or visit the website at: To order call 1-800-359-6900.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller