Catherine the Great Welcomed Germans

Boardman, Edna. "Catherine the Great Welcomed Germans." Rapid City Journal, 17 August 2003, sec. C4.

Catherine the Great, in 1763, invited war- weary families from western Europe to settle in Russia.
The Germans from Russia are a group of people, mostly farmers, who moved in the 1700s and 1800s from Germany to areas in eastern Europe near the Volga River, the Ukraine and Crimea.

Their numbers grew from 23,000 in 1768 to more than 1 million in the early 1900s. Beginning as early as 1849, about 300,000 immigrated to the United States and Canada, with similar numbers going to Central and South America. Today, about 6 million people in North America trace their ancestry to Germans who were born in Russia.

Since the fall of the communist system, thousands more have reclaimed their German identity and live in Germany.

On July 22, 1763, Catherine the Great of Russia published a manifesto inviting stressed, war-weary families from western Europe and the area that is now Germany to come to Russia. Catherine II, a princess from the German province of Anhalt- Zerbst, had become Russian as a consequence of her marriage to Czar Peter. After Peter's death, as czarina, she was faced with the problem of feeding Russia's burgeoning cities. She believed Russia's steppes, vast areas of vacant land similar to the prairies of North America, could do this if farmed properly;

Catherine remembered how excellent the farmers had been back in her home country and believed they could improve both the farming practices and cultural level of the Russian peasantry.

The first arrivals settled along the Volga River and became known as Volga Germans.

In 1804, Catherine's grandson Alexander I again set up recruiting offices in Germany, this time, aiming to populate the Crimean Peninsula and the area north of the Black Sea. Emigration from Germany to Russia continued for as long as a century, some recorded as late as 1862. The group descended from the families invited by Czar Alexander I identifies itself as Black Sea Germans.

After initial difficulties common to pioneering, their villages, often called colonies, flourished and grew from 300 to 10 times that many. They created a satisfying life for themselves and produced the much-needed food.

At Czarina Catherine's insistence, each village was of the same religion. A little more than a quarter were Catholic, and most of the rest were Lutheran, though some were Mennonite, Evangelical, Baptist and a few others. They always sought to keep their identity, which, with time, was no longer entirely German but never truly Russian, either. Their distinctive culture- food, customs, language, musical style, attitudes- became remarkably similar throughout the villages.

After awhile, major changes took place in how the Russian government saw these German enclaves. Some feared they were not entirely loyal to Russia. There was jealousy among the Russian neighbors over the Germans' prosperity. During the reign of Czar Alexander II, in 1874, freedom from military service was ended. The colonists felt deeply betrayed by the suspension of this promise because it had been embedded in both manifestoes and in a separate agreement with the Mennonites. Then, Czar Alexander III, who reigned 1881- 1894, instituted a general Russification policy, which threatened the cultural identity of the German villagers.

In 1862, the United States instituted the Homestead Act, and word reached to far-away Russia. It provided an alternative to the increasingly marginal existence in the colonies caused by the new laws and by a shortage of farmland. The act promised 160 acres of free land to current citizens and newcomers who would live on the land for five years and improve it. Similar calls from Canada and the countries of South America induced many colonists to move westward.

Those who immigrated to North America came first in a trickle. The very first became wine growers at Kelly's Island in Lake Erie near Sandusky, Ohio, in 1849. California also attracted wine growers because grapes had been their favored crop in the far south of Russia. Around Fresno, Calif., they produced raisins. Some worked in the sugar beets in Colorado. The largest groups who followed, settled primarily in the wheat growing areas of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska and Washington state. Some moved to Argentina, Paraguay and Mexico.

Many of those who remained in Russia suffered intensely during the communist era. Collectivization of farms and enforced atheism undermined their way of life. Trains pulling boxcars full of Germans and other out- of- favor ethnic groups from the Ukraine snaked to icy Siberia, where they found themselves in primitive circumstances. Exact numbers are elusive, but scholars estimate that, during communist times in Russia, about 1 million ethnic Germans died of outright execution, starvation and harsh conditions related to deportation and life in the labor camps.

Some Germans from the Ukraine survived, and, as conditions improved, their numbers grew once more. In 1970, there were about 1,846,000 ethnic Germans living in the Soviet Union. Today, large numbers emigrate to Germany. Others live throughout Asia in Siberia and the Asiatic republics, such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the countries to which they had been deported.

As in Russia, in the Americas, there was not enough farmland for all the children in the typically large German Russian families. So they moved on, taking their strong work ethic into other kinds of agricultural work, manufacturing, business, and eventually, the professions and government.

Reprinted with permission of the Rapid City Journal.

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