The Volga-Germans and Their Associations

Die Wolgadeutschen und Ihre Vereine

Lobes, Helmut. "The Volga-Germans and Their Associations." Volk auf dem Weg, August-September 2006, 36-37.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


The Lutheran Church of Zuerich/Volga, pictured in 1989

The following contribution contains the first part of a speech (edited for VadW) by the vice-chairman of the Landsmannschaft der Wolgadeutschen [Landsmannschaft for Volga-Germans], Helmut Lobes, presented at the 19th Cultural Convention of Volga-Germans, which was held in Kassel. Continuation will follow in the next issue.

"Whatever you have inherited from your forefathers, make sure you earn it so that you may possess it." J. W. Goethe

For over ten years I have been participating in the Cultural Conventions for Volga-Germans, and since 2001 as member of the board of the Association. At each meeting of a small number totaling around 150 to 170 participants, I am strongly reminded of the following question: what remains these days of the famous tribe of Volga-Germans?

Is this what remains of what our forefathers and their descendants left behind?

Are the mere 20 association members who have found their way to today's membership meeting everybody that the Volga-Germans have to offer in support of their Association? Or are they among the three million Aussiedler from the former Soviet Union more Volga-Germans scattered across this country?

In search for answers to these and similar questions one encounters more frequently than one should be able to abide a question in return, stated in Russian, of course: "A satchem eto vsyo?" or: "A satchem eto mnye?" Translated to German: "Why all this?" and "What do I need all this for?" This is simply unimaginable! As if we were dealing here with some junk that is offered one at some old flea market!

It is not for nothing that, during the recent past, this kind of callous, Russian-language statement "A satchem eto vsyo?" has come to indicate a kind of giving up of one's mother tongue, an essential part of our ethnic heritage, as something superfluous; and today it indicates a rejection of the great care our forefathers placed in preserving our heritage in the Volga region we were so cruelly robbed of. And what about tomorrow? It may happen in the future that even the very spirit of our Volga-German ancestors will give way to that erstwhile goal and disappear as if useless: not a breath and not a trace of Volga-Germandom in any mind, in any history, on any piece of ground or on any path! Certainly reason enough, after too much forbearance for all too long, that we address this phenomenon seriously, that is, to address those counter-questions.

So, really then: why all this indeed? Why continue to speak of the Volga-region home we were once robbed of? Why, after six centuries [I believe the author means to say "six decades," the time since the banishments from the Volga area -- see a similar number mentioned below. Tr.], should we concern ourselves about the abased Volga-Germans and about those chased away from their homes? Why have a Volga-German association? And so on, to a point of ridiculousness. Why preserve human memories? Why even have memories?

In the face of such a challenge I would like to use this brief report in order to move as many of us as possible toward making an effort to provide the appropriate replies to these "what for?" questions; to make an effort to spread the word to our family circle, to our relatives and acquaintances, and simply to all our countrymen in general who have stayed away from this convention or are perhaps unable to read [German].

For whatever reasons or intentions cause these counter-questions to be asked, one thing must be made clear: as long as our countryman, at least those who might still be willing and able to listen, are not given clear answers to their "sachem" questions, which unfortunately must be taken very seriously, we shall, even with our feelings of commonality, remain just those 150 to 170 who take part in our biannual so-called "cultural conventions," and we shall not make any progress in our actual responsibility, that of turning toward the work of our forefathers and to make it our own, to possess it and to protect it.

Our sacred duty and task ... for six decades now we Volga-Germans have been neglecting these, for whatever reason, and this can clearly not remain without consequences. There would have to come a time when a kind of mental devastation will affect us to such a degree that will cause a simple "A satchem vsyo eto?" to sever and to besmirch even the holy connectedness of generations.

Can this process possibly be stopped or reversed? Above all, that depends on how soon and how intensely we do turn toward our forefathers' heritage and allow a feeling of conscientious responsibility to take hold in us; and, secondly, it depends on our readiness to accept our heritage in full measure, to maintain it and, in its fullness, to carry it into the future from generation to generation. However, in order to demonstrate a readiness to carry something forward and to become conscious again of a responsibility for what one must actually carry forward, one must be very clear about what we are dealing with, what we are actually carrying forward. In other words: what does "the work of our forefathers" really signify? What is that heritage from our forefathers that we must make our own and carry forward? Do most of us possess sufficient knowledge of that?

Goethe said:

"Blessed is he who thinks well of his forefathers, who happily entertains his listener about their deeds, their greatness, and who rejoices in being placed himself at the end of such a beautiful line."

Do we belong to those the poet is praising? To a certain extent, certainly. At least as far as our own families are concerned. We tend to preserve carefully the yellowed photos from grandfather's or great-grandfather's time, we keep up the oral transmission of their greatness and their competence. With great respect we place all of these things into the proper lineage of our own ancestors who are from a very distant past and to whose continuation we, along with our children and grandchildren, place ourselves with joy and satisfaction into connectedness with them.

Stated succinctly: we take care of the cult of ancestry within the framework of our family simply from a sense of our own humanity, and in so doing we see ourselves as an essential connective link between past and future generations of a particular family lineage. Naturally, without asking "why all this?"

But beyond that -- be honest now! Would it not follow that such full care and honoring of forefathers might be appropriate for our common Volga-German ethnic tribe? Yes, it would be appropriate, but our actions do not seem to comply. Is this lack the fault of our current generation? Or are the "deeds and greatness" of our Volga-German forefathers simply not sufficient? Perhaps it is best that we now turn our attention once again to our forefathers, to their deeds and their work since the beginning.

We Volga-Germans are a young ethnic group, and therefore we have the unique opportunity of following with relative ease the line of our generations back to its very beginning. These beginnings lie on the shores of Europe's mightiest stream, which gave us its name, the Volga River. It is there that our German ancestors, following an urgent plea by the Russian State, had taken a branch of the great German tribe and planted it in the hard, dry soil of the virgin Volga steppes. This happened in the summer of 1764.

And because those "old Germans" - as the ancient wisdom demanded - amply mixed their blood with the virgin soil on which the first newcomers settled, the roots planted there would soon sprout mighty shoots of a new ethnic tribe, the tribe of Volga-Germans. After being severely tested, the soil soon acknowledged the new sprouts born within itself as its original planters, and ever since then the Volga steppes between latitudes 49 and 54 north and longitudes 14 and 19 east as the ancestral home country of Volga-Germans.

Who were they, these our original Volga-German forefathers? What were their character traits? What indeed would be counted among their deeds and their greatness?

Unfortunately there are no photos of those folks two-hundred-forty years ago -- there were no such things as photos. Fortunately, though, there exists a rich body of literature in which the Volga-Germandom and the Volga-Germans are described in detail. Among other things, one can read therein that it was indeed "a tough kind of people who were forced to deal with the most hostile circumstances but who were thoroughly capable of adapting to their new environment," and that "it was rather astonishing how the Volga-Germans, despite all adversities, were able to persevere and to increase their population considerably." One must indeed merely be willing to allow oneself to absorb into one's very being the valuable pages of the history of one's own people.

An American periodical once ascribed the following characteristics to the Volga-Germans: courage, bravery, diligence, perseverance, steadfastness, honesty, truthfulness, loyalty, and reliability. These virtues are also what these Volga-Germans were able to demonstrate in solid fashion in Latin America, Europe and Asia during the course of centuries.

Our forefathers were forced to demonstrate the great majority of these virtues especially during the beginnings of settling in the Volga region, simply to be able to survive in their new home. To be sure, one can state with good conscience that without these virtues of those "old Germans" there would be no Volga-German history today.

They also passed on these character traits to their descendants, the first children of the steppes. The virgin steppes were not satisfied that these children would merely work - they toiled! And they toiled much - very much indeed.

On both sides of the Volga stream they developed their culture across 25,000 square kilometers and established more than 200 settlements with around 90,000 productive and active farms. During good harvests the surplus amounted to 37 million pud [1,332 million pounds], 20 million pud of which consisted of wheat and rye. It was thus that the German Volga region would become an inexhaustible granary for Russia. The hard wheat the Volga-Germans planted would become a highly valued export item and would influence the wheat markets in London and Amsterdam. Over a hundred years, eight grain trading firms kept up excellent relationships with such trading cities as Novgorod, Moscow and Petersburg. I can't keep myself from recalling the names of these firms: they were the enterprises Fiesendorf, Feidel, Sefery, Gerhardt, Rauschenbach, Lippert, Mueller, and Busik.

Thanks to the overwhelming grain surpluses produced in the Volga region there existed a powerful grain milling industry with 13 steam-driven mills, 200 smaller motor-driven mills, 112 water-powered mills, and 600 windmills. The best kinds of flour found their way to St. Petersburg and Moscow, to Finland and the Baltic states. A great number of barges, loaded high with flour sacks, annually wended their way downstream from Saratov and Zarizin to the Volga Delta and would eventually land in central Asia, Baku, and Persia to pay witness to the diligence and work of the Volga-Germans. Never resting, our forefathers would acquire in faraway regions various raw materials which they converted into desirable wares.

Tobacco farming and tobacco factories have existed in Russia as long as there were Volga-Germans there. During 1880 alone, German tobacco farmers delivered 500,000 pud of raw tobacco to their 13 tobacco factories. Of course, German tobacco went hand in hand with German pipes. These were made in various designs in many different German colonies and were exported by the hundreds of thousands to the depths of Russia. Proudly, the Sarepta history writer reported that snuff produced in his home village was "pleasing even the Tsarina Katharina's nose." The Tsar's court also enjoyed mustard delivered from Sarepta. The mustard growing industry and largest mustard factory in all of Russia also brought world renown to the Volga region far beyond the borders of the Tsarist Empire.

(To be continued)

The next articles in this series are listed below:

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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