The Volga-Germans and Their Association

Lobes, Helmat. "The Volga-Germans and Their Association." Volk auf dem Weg, October 2006, 32-33.

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

Continuation from a previous Volk auf dem Weg article listed below:


The spirit of enterprise and diligence of our forefathers is also demonstrated by the so-called Sarpin Cloth, a colorful and light textile which became popular in all of Russia and, by the way, had its origins in Sarepta. Nearly 20,000 weaving stations once formed the core of the Volga-German textile industry, engendering dozens of dyer concerns, wool spinning places, hosiery and
starch factories, as well as numerous other places of employment. Also not to be forgotten is the simplified grain purification machine (which was simply called the "Cleaning Machine"), which was manufactured in several colonies on the Bergseite [mountainous side] and resulted in solid demand, to the tune of tens of thousands of the machines, in all of Russia.

The center of this industrial variety would eventually be Balzer, with its 16,000 residents the second-largest colony of the German Volga region.

On the left bank of the Volga, the so-called Wiesenseite [meadow side] the largest colony of all, Katharinenstadt, also developed into the richest and most beautiful colony, as well as the cultural, commercial and industrial center of the Volga-Germans. Three magnificent churches, one boys and one girls gymnasium each, a central [public] school, a number of private schools, a music school, a library, the "Fischer" Bank, as well as many places of care (hospitals, infirmaries, orphanages, poorhouses, apprenticeship houses) were built and maintained by the colonists, who shaped the cultural life of the city and wielded strong influence on neighboring colonies. The Katharinenstadt residents, even at that time, were able to boast of a print shop with its own
German newspaper.

On one's approach to the city, giant grain stores, mighty steam-driven saw and flour mills, even a tobacco processing factory, pointed to a lively commercial and industrial life of the city. A foundry, plus a machine factory of the Brothers Schaefer, which had been built and was equipped according to the latest technical standards of Germany, formed the industrial core of Katharinenstadt. Agricultural machines of the highest quality were being delivered by the "Schaefer Factory" to the entire Volga region and beyond. It was no accident that, later on, the first Soviet tractor (dubbed "Karlik," due to its dimensions) would be built there, a tractor that can be seen in the city museum even to this day.

In giant workshops, the popular German wagons, which were also in demand from the military, were manufactured. Also to be mentioned are the numerous felt shops, tile burning factories, smithies and leather tanning shops, which in reality seemed more like factory sites, and of course all the shops for any kind of craft.

Certainly not to be underestimated are the hats -- those elegant Kathariendstadt hats -- that, by the hundreds of thousands, were "exported" from there to the two capitals of the Empire.

It was thus that our forefathers, thanks to their particular Volga-German traits, during 150 years developed with great steadfastness the best folk economy along the entire Volga basin.

Although in the various markets this plethora of goods of the highest quality paid unmistakable witness to their producers, and here and in other areas, including neighboring regions, the Volga-Germans, their characteristics and economic achievements were highly esteemed, Russian governments -- with almost enviable consistency -- avoided all efforts to make the successes of the Volga-German farmers, not to speak of those of Volga-Germans in general, known to the broader public. Only when celebrations for their 150th anniversary were being planned, for which our forefathers were preparing with great dedication, were the economic and cultural achievements of the Volga-Germans to be demonstrated to the broad public of the country, in words and via diverse exhibits, for the first time ever.

However, World War I then broke out, followed by the Revolution, the civil wars, and finally the horrific famine in the Volga region.

Thus it happened that the complete colonist history of the lower Volga region, beginning with the motives of the Russian government for attracting colonists to the area, all the way to their legal status and settlement in the Empire, their personal sacrifices and immeasurable pioneering achievements for their new home country, would still be hidden away, silenced, or mercilessly
distorted ...

No, our ancestors were not intruders or interlopers. Neither were they favorites of the Tsarina just because she was of German descent, as has been hammered away at again and again by generations of Russians. They did not wish to take anything from anybody or to constrict anyone, and they never did. They were recruited as families from German states, they were transported to Russia and, as new subjects of the Tsars, they were taken to the desolate,
unpeopled, unsafe and extremely dangerous steppes around the Volga. There they, the so-called colonists, were to settle into previously uninhabited land designated for them, to make it arable and to develop it economically and culturally. In other words, these people were brought into the country for the purpose of fulfilling very specific objectives.

The bad part of all of this is that, at all times, not only the mighty pioneering achievements of our forefathers, but even their originally imposed objectives, have shamelessly been kept from the Russian public.

Accordingly, any conclusive judgments that might be made from those pioneering achievements, which would be of utmost importance for us Volga-Germans, have been kept entirely quiet.

Therefore, these conclusive statements, even if stated only briefly, will finally now be listed herein:

  1. All objectives and expectations assigned to the colonists and hoped for by the Russian government during recruitment of foreigners between 1763 and 1767, and which were clearly imposed on the colonists during their settlement near the lower Volga, were fulfilled by them, to the letter and in their entirety.
  2. During the course of their arduous settlement period and during the following decades of largely bloody clashes and of the most adverse circumstances of all sorts, when any return to their original home was completely barred for the colonists and they were thus literally condemned to accustom themselves to the raw and dangerous wasteland of the ancient steppes, they, within their closed colonist spaces, developed a new tribe, the tribe of Volga-Germans.
  3. As subjects of the Russian Empire,
    -- who had been designated colonists by the Russian government, were transported to the Lower Volga in order to, as a resident farmers contingent, settle this border region en masse, to make it safe and to develop it economically;
    -- who honorably fulfilled this difficult task imposed on them imposed on them by the State and thereby paid their own, alarmingly high price in blood, suffering and human lives upon the altar of their new Russian home country;
    -- who, as the first resident farming tribe, eventually tamed and successfully farmed those ancient steppes, the Volga-Germans gained for themselves and their descendants a full and incontrovertible right to that piece of soil in the steppes on which for nearly two centuries they had built their home with great dedication and success.
  4. The particular circumstance that successful colonization of the unsafe and dangerous order region of the then Russian Empire on the lower Volga and in parts of the Don basin is in its entirety attributable to those old Germans, that is, to the national, spiritual and cultural traits of the colonists, must guarantee the Volga-Germans not only the right to maintenance of their uniqueness and national values, to preservation and cultivation thereof, but also to the claim of appropriate assistance and support from subsequent Russian governments.

These logical conclusions are based on a hundred to a hundred and fifty years of consistent achievements at the behest of and in the name of the Russian home country, and they were deemed by our forefathers, even in their characteristic modesty, as highly self-evident, and they never doubted that even the government and the public would eventually come to these same conclusions. The greater and more painful the disappointment when, by the second half of the 19th Century, a Greater Russian national chauvinism, raised at the "Highest of all Courts," gained such influence that during the spring of 1917 even Volga-Germans were robbed and, chased off to be condemned to build an existence in Siberia. However, the February Revolution of 1917 did prevent such a barbaric State act and in fact created, even if hesitatingly, for the Volga-Germans certain conditions for making use of newly attained freedoms. The political agenda of the country proclaimed in large lettering the right of self-determination of all peoples of the Russian Empire.

Politically active elements, supported by a people that had been given itself up to death, immediately started political and organizational efforts that led from the initial "Temporary Committee" (founded by German business people, clerics and intellectuals even before the February Revolution) and a "Central Committee of Volga-Germans" (April, 1917) to the "Warenburg Conference" (February, 1918), to the "Commissariat for German Affairs on the Volga" (April, 1918), to the "Region of Volga-Germans" (October, 1918) and, finally, culminated in its finest conclusion, that is, the Autonomous SSR for Volga-Germans (February, 1924).

By that success, which occurred roughly on the 160th anniversary of settlements on the Volga, our fathers publicly affirmed their Volga-German identity and, at the same time, proclaimed the emerging ethnic tribe of Volga-Germans.

From then on, our forefathers lived with the solid conviction not to be seen as Germans in a foreign land, but to be deemed free German citizens of their own autonomous republic.

The Church in Straub/Volga.

The universal, even exemplary importance of this historical event was described by our countryman, retired superintendent Johannes Schleuning (who, God knows, was not admirer of the Soviets) as follows: "The fact of the proclamation (of the Volga Republic) by itself ... will remain of permanent historical value and may perhaps again play a significant role in the solution of the extremely difficult question on minorities." Unfortunately, it has thus far never played this exemplary in a world that showed such great injustice toward our particular minority ...

In an economic sense, during those years of complete confusion and turmoil, our forefathers were brought to full ruin by the Bolshevist regime. Although the German Volga region was given some praise by the Soviet government for having preserved the Russian industrial cities from complete starvation, as G. Loebsack writes in his book, "Einsam kaempft das Wolgaland [The Volgaland in a Lonesome Struggle]," "This sparsely worded rhetoric meant that the Volga-German colonists were to be exploited completely so that Bolshevism could be preserved."

During the years 1920 and 1921, more than 160,000 Volga-Germans, among them 60,000 children, had fallen victim to an induced famine of an extent never experienced before, while hundreds of thousands became refugees.

This catastrophe was echoed when, during the first ever agricultural exposition of the Union of 1923 in Moscow the German autonomous region "was allowed to show only a single exhibit, a genuine Volga-German farmer's home replete with all its equipment and furnishings, including pious Biblical quotes and wedding certificates displayed on its walls." Apparently there was not enough space for displaying an entire farmstead. Still, it was a rather original exhibit. For one thing, it demonstrated how far the Volga-Germans had been thrown backwards from their times of prosperity and bloom into the times of Kirgiz attacks. On the other hand, this lone German farmstead from the steppes of the Volga region indicated, especially via its internal furnishings, those national values which the Volga-Germans, far from their motherland, adhered to steadfastly for generations, and thanks to which they would, again and again, and under the worst of circumstances, be able to hold their own successfully.

(To be continued)

The last article in this series is 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