Foreign Relief for the Needy and Establishment of the ASSR of Volga Germans

Paulsen, Nina, ed. "Foreign Relief for the Needy and Establishment of the ASSR of Volga Germans." Volk auf dem Weg, August/September 2018, pp. 42-43.

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


Note: Although this installment is a continuation of a previous article, the translation of this second part is independent enough of that and a subsequent continuation to serve as stand-alone material – Tr.

Agricultural cooperation between Volga Germans in the 1930s. Photo credit: the archives of the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland.

Several factors transformed the Volga region into an epicenter of the catastrophic famine years 1921-22: massive damage from the Civil War, unfavorable weather leading to failed harvests in 1920 and 1921, and the continuing weakening of the German settlements stemming from the cruel policy of heavy quotas of deliveries to the administration of the “Workers Commune of Germans in the Volga Region.” Additional factors were the epidemics of typhus, cholera and chickenpox that broke out among the already weakened population and claimed many deaths.

Several factors transformed the Volga region into an epicenter of the catastrophic famine years 1921-22: massive damage from the Civil War, unfavorable weather leading to failed harvests in 1920 and 1921, and the continuing weakening of the German settlements stemming from the cruel policy of heavy quotas of deliveries to the administration of the “Workers Commune of Germans in the Volga Region.” Additional factors were the epidemics of typhus, cholera and chickenpox that broke out among the already weakened population and claimed many deaths.

Relief for the Volga Germans from Abroad

In an attempt to ease the great need, the Soviet government allowed foreign relief organizations to enter and act. Urgent public appeals to the world by prominent Russian personalities (among them the author Maxim Gorki and foreign minister Georg Chicherin) pleading for immediate help and support proved to be very effective. Numerous international organizations reacted to the calls for help.

It is entirely possible that the famine would have claimed many more victims had relatives and friends in the US and in Germany not helped out with donations and relief activities.

In their dire need, many Volga Germans had sought help from family members who toward the end of the 18th Century had emigrated from the Russian Empire to North America. In 1921, these Americans, roused by “famine letters” from friends and relatives, established the “Volga Relief Society” in Portland, Oregon and the “Central States Volga Relief Society” in Omaha, Nebraska. A year later, the two groups joined to form the “American Volga Relief Society,” and together they collected monetary donations for their compatriots in Russia. Some of the “famine letters” were published by US and Canadian Russian German immigrants in German-language weeklies such as the Welt-Post (issued between 1916 and 1970 and read by German Russian immigrants).

In their dire need, many Volga Germans had sought help from family members who toward the end of the 18th Century had emigrated from the Russian Empire to North America. In 1921, these Americans, roused by “famine letters” from friends and relatives, established the “Volga Relief Society” in Portland, Oregon and the “Central States Volga Relief Society” in Omaha, Nebraska. A year later, the two groups joined to form the “American Volga Relief Society,” and together they collected monetary donations for their compatriots in Russia. Some of the “famine letters” were published by US and Canadian Russian German immigrants in German-language weeklies such as the Welt-Post (issued between 1916 and 1970 and read by German Russian immigrants).

In August, 1921, the ARA concluded a contract with the Soviet government to provide relief. In the Volga area, they established food distribution centers, medical support stations, homes for orphans, etc., and provided food and medicine; all in all, these actions involved donations of around 20 million dollars. In the “Workers Commune” alone, by year’s end [the ARA] had fed around 80,000 children, a total that increased to 158,000 by April 1, 1922. During the simmer months, the ARA and the “Children’s Aid Project” were feeding 181,00 adults.

Concurrently, pleas for help reached Germany as well. High-ranking Soviet representatives turned to the German government asking primarily for medical assistance. As a result, by early 1922 a medical relief expedition of the German Red Cross was able to act in fighting the danger of epidemics in the Volga region, especially cholera, typhus, and malaria. The action-oriented society “Brethren in Need – Collecting in the Reich for Hungry Germans” became active in many German locales.

German Russians and Volga Germans who had emigrated to Germany tried to establish close contacts with compatriots and relatives in the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities allowed the “Association of Volga Germans” of Berlin, members of which were, among others, Pastor Johannes Schleuning and the former entrepreneur Friedrich Schmidt, to create a contact office in Saratov for coordinating relief projects of emigrant organizations in North America and Germany.

Supported by the Red Cross, by early 1922 the Association managed to send seven relief transports with clothing, food, and medicine to Saratov. An eighth transport was on the road for a whole year, arriving in December, 1924. Moneys for relief goods had all been collected via donations by Volga German emigrants abroad.

In August, 1921, a collaborative action between the Executive Committee of the Communist International and the Soviet government created a Foreign Committee in Berlin for the purpose of organizing workers’ assistance to the hungry in the Soviet Union. Emanating from it later was the International Workers Assistance organization directed by Clara Zetkin.

By 1922, the German Reich Committee for Workers’ Relief in the Soviet Union collected 33 million marks’ worth of goods and seven million marks in cash. Concurrently, the General German Federation of Trade Unions sent more than 8 million marks to the International Federation of Unions for the hungry in Soviet Russia. Until the spring of 1922, the “Proletarian Relief Campaign,” initiated by the Second. International, joined in the assistance actions. The first steamship with donations from German working people left from Stettin on October 15, 1921. An additional sixteen followed. Also considerable was the assistance and support that the Artists’ Relief Committee organized in October, 1921 under the guidance of the well-known director Erwin Piscator.

Founding of the ASSR of Volga Germans

The so-called New Economic Policy begun in 1921 introduced market-economy elements and set down stable norms for goods the farmers had to deliver to the state. In contrast with earlier policies, the farmers were now free to do as they wished with any surpluses above the new norms. By permitting inclusion of other-ethnic settlements and the centrally located district of Pokrovsk into the autonomous region, the local functionaries were hoping to improve the economic situation in the Volga region.

In addition to intra-political and economic calculations, in the case of the Volga Germans there were also outside political factors to consider. Most important in the considerations was how the ethno-national autonomy would serve as a model.

Consequently, foreign political considerations played an important role when the Central Committee of the Communist Party agreed in December, 1923, to upgrade the status of the autonomous region to that of an autonomous republic. The autonomy of the Volga Germans necessarily had to play a political, that is, it was intended to demonstrate to the German and Austrian Social Democrats the way toward socialist transformation.

In January, 1924 the Eleventh Regional Congress of Counsels of Volga Germans officially decided to turn the autonomous region into the Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic (ASSR) of Volga Germans. A decree by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee confirmed the decision.

The decision by the Eleventh Regional Congress reads, in part, as follows:

“The Congress hereby draws the attention of the Militant Proletariat of Germany to our small autonomous unit, and thereby strongly underscores again the difference between the so-called democratic freedom in Germany, which is suppressed by its own as well as by European capital, and the [real] freedom of nationalities that are united in the Federation of Social Soviet Republics.”

Doubtless, the upgrading from an autonomous region to an Autonomous Republic, and the assumption of a constitution on January 31, 1926 were important elements in the Soviet nationalities policy as related to the German minority in the country. Within German locales, German was once again the official language, likewise, along with Russian and Ukrainian, in the Autonomous Republic. German names of places that had been replaced in 1914 were reinstated.

The official renaming of Pokrovsk to Engels followed in 1931. It was the home of German cultural institutions of the Volga republic, among them were secondary schools, vocational schools, German newspapers and state publishing houses, the German State Theater, the Symphony Orchestra of the State Philharmonic of Volga Germans (since 1918), and the German Song and Dance Ensemble (presumably founded after 1935).

Between 1933 and 1935 alone, the State Publishing House produced around 555 titles. Even though a part of these titles consisted of translations of Russian-language propaganda material, a German literature was created, the lack of which after 1941 would be noticed with great pain.

Between 1933 and 1935 alone, the State Publishing House produced around 555 titles. Even though a part of these titles consisted of translations of Russian-language propaganda material, a German literature was created, the lack of which after 1941 would be noticed with great pain.

Successes chalked up in the Republic’s agriculture were considerable, Volga German farmers producing several times as much as the normal country-wide production. Significant plantings included summer wheat, sunflowers, makhorka (tobacco), mustard, melons, and pumpkins. Even in the production of diesel engines (Marxstadt), in the dairy industry, tobacco products, meats, and manufacturing of sarpinka [a gingham-like cloth], the Volga region was in a leading position. For example. The meat processing combine in Engels was among the largest in the entire Soviet Union.

Undoubtedly, the very existence of their Autonomous Republic strengthened the self-confidence of the Volga Germans. Nevertheless, that was not enough to protect the populace from interference by the state, for the autonomy was restricted to the kind of autonomy regarding local self-administration operating under a severely totalitarian regime.


Translator’s concluding note: As is well known, the very same ASSR of Volga Germans and its residents eventually became the first major target of retaliation against the ethnic minority following the Reich Germans’ attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Within the Soviet Empire, simply because they were of German ethnicity, they were branded the symbol of the attacking enemy, and by mid-September of 1941 all Volga Germans had been deported to the East. – A.H.

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


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