How the 150-Year Immigration Anniversary was Remembered

The Editors. "How the 150-Year Immigration Anniversary was Remembered." Volk auf dem Weg, May 2013, 12-13.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO.

Considering that the 250th anniversary of immigration [to Russia] by the Volga Germans is near, it might be of no small interest to learn how the 150th anniversary was remembered and celebrated.

In a letter to the nation-wide press organ “The Saratov People’s Newspaper” a group of Volga Germans living and working in the then capital St. Petersburg, but not having lost contact with their homeland, wrote as follows:

“It will soon be 150 years since the German colonies on the Volga came into existence. A long timespan! A time of serious testing and a commendable historic period of development lies behind us. In the civilized world it is the custom to observe such periods in a festive manner, and for that reason it should be appropriate to memorialize this event with all the devotion and attention it deserves, and perhaps to immortalize it with the establishment of a foundation that rises above the ordinary and might serve our descendants as an example to imitate.”

The letter was published in the paper on the significant date of July 25, 1913.

The above text provides us with some remarkable conclusions. For one, the Volga Germans did not wish to observe the date of the invitation manifesto, even though the implication was there. Rather, they wished primarily to remind people of the date the first settlements came into being. The highlight of extensive festivities was to take place on July 29, 1914, because for exactly 150 years before that, on July 29, 1764, the first German settlement was established as the colony Nizhnyaya Dobrinka (Moninger). And in this context we must not forget that before World War I no fewer than 500,000 Germans were living in the Volga region.

These people were filled with pride about the accomplishments of their forefathers, and they were looking to the future with confidence. This is demonstrated by the aforementioned intention to establish a foundation in order to create for subsequent generations a permanent cultural opus with secure financing.

Further into the letter there was mention of founding a higher-level agricultural school and of an institute for training public school teachers. At the time, people were still capable of financing on their own such things as anniversary celebrations as well as realizing plans for foundations, without ever needing assistance from the state.

And last, but not least, the writers of the letters indicate a sense of independent self-confidence, which allowed them to integrate into the “civilized world.”

These and many other voices of those times are presented for all who are interested in the history of the Germans in Russia, via a new series by VadW articles with the theme, How the 150-Year Immigration Anniversary was Remembered.” The intent is to reprint completely or by excerpt contemporary reports for specific months from the “Volkszeitung” (Saratov) and from other press organs such as the “Odessaer Zeitung [Odessa News],” the “Kaukasiche Post (Tbilisi) [Caucasus Post],”or the “St. Petersburger Zeitung,” and to accompany all with commentary as appropriate. A media resonance that was rather strong for the times demonstrated impressively a growing feeling of solidarity among a variety of groups of Russia’s settlers.

There follows an initial sampling of readings, which at times will be accompanied with brief commentary and other remarks (to be marked by brackets or in Italic print).

Article 1: “Wake up, Volga Colonist! Your Jubilee is near!”

The jubilee year of our Volga colonies is approaching: By next year it shall be 150 years since our immigrant forefathers established the first colonies. Do we intend to celebrate that year or not? And if so, how? To be sure, it has been rumored that consultations on this subject have been held in Saratov. No harm. But it wouldn’t hurt, either, if such preparations might also take place in our colony of Katharinenstadt, where the statue of Catherine can be seen in the Catherine Gardens. We should be engaging respected men from the colonies, and clerics and teachers. Above all, we should listen to the voices from the communities themselves to see what they are thinking and what they are longing for. 

To establish a cultural work, one that would act as a life-giving source to strengthen and enliven our upcoming generations, a statement of gratitude to our Emperor’s House of Romanov for the protection granted to us during this century and a half -- that would be a fitting way we might and should crown this jubilee year. So, let’s have the preparations emerge out of hiding! Let larger circles participate in them! Who in Katharinenstadt will take on this matter?       

Article 2: Regarding the Approaching Jubilee of the Volga Germans

On the Volga everyone who is German, in the cities or in the countryside, is getting ready for a celebration of the 150th anniversary of settlement of the Volga colonies.

We are at a turning point in the history of the colonies, and we are about to take up new paths and to undertake fateful actions. Until the 1890s the German colonist, thanks to his special legal status, led an existence that was separate from the lives of Russians, whom he rarely associated with. For that reason his special culture and ethnic uniqueness had rarely been exposed to external influences and, even without his own contribution, had remained fairly pure.

From another viewpoint, this special status has had some damaging consequences -- an inevitable consequence for any ethnic group that is too small to form a closed, independent whole, and which by its own powers alone cannot maintain its culture.
            So if there is no influx from the outside, the culture is bound to wane until it is finally overcome by foreign cultures and necessarily absorbed by them. In this aspect, special status for an ethnic group cannot be helpful, for even if it is not taken away by force, the ethnic group will eventually reach out to assimilate with the higher other culture inseeking to find more favorable conditions.

The Volga Germans have been spared the latter fate, but reality has caught up with them, and its special status has once and for all been done away with. The question remains as to how we might behave, given the facts as they are now.

Should we regret that this is what has happened? Shall we give in to the fear that it might be all over for our Germanness, and that we are irredeemably delivered over to Russification? It would be a grave error to give in to such thoughts. On the contrary, perhaps we are in a better situation than we were earlier.

No longer insisting on special status, we must not give in to a comfortable rut and thus neglect the only thing that in reality provides our national peculiarity with backbone and strength, that is, a sufficiently high level of our own culture, one that might be able to enter into a successful struggle with the surrounding strange ones.

If we, then, can avoid the danger that is a false sense of nationality which is currently about to flood over the entire Russian Empire, and if we succeed in becoming citizens of the Russian Empire equal to others, then we can make peace with our fate, and will shed no more tears for the special status we have lost. Thus we need not lose our ethnic treasures if we only direct all our strength toward the elevation and strengthening of our culture that is in a steep decline.

The agronomist and the public school teacher comprise two figures that come into the foreground of our interests, and their significance for our ethnic culture must be put into the proper light in order to demonstrate to the representatives of our people gathered to celebrate our anniversary the one point to which they must direct their activities, creating something that will be a blessing and strength for their ethnic community.

Title page of the “Saratower Zeitung,” [May 26, 1913 edition]

Excerpted from an editorial lead article in “Volkszeitung” # 41, May 26, 1913.

This series it to be continued.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation and to Dr. Nancy Herzog for editing this article.

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