Margie Miller, proud to be a Russian-German-American
Germans from Russia in the Great Plains: Bismarck, North Dakota

By Bernd Riegert, Deutsche Welle Radio, Washington, D.C., May, 2001

When talking about German-Americans, one immediately thinks of people whose ancestors left Germany and came to America decades or even centuries ago. Although this may very well account for most of them, in North Dakota one encounters a different group of German-speaking immigrants: They are Germans from Russia. In 1763, the Russian tsar Catherine the Great urged Germans to come to Russia and settle on the banks of the river Volga and on the Black Sea. She promised them free land and religious freedom. Yet, conditions changed in the course of the following decades: life for the Germans in Russia became more difficult. In the mid 19th century thousands of Russian Germans from the Volga and from the Black Sea decided to leave the region and head to America.

By the end of the 19th century, approximately 70,000 German-speaking settlers from the Volga river region and from German villages in what is now the Ukraine had moved to North Dakota. Today, half of North Dakota's population has Russian-German roots.

German is still spoken in some villages there. Margie Miller, a 72-year-old Russian-German, recalls the German songs of her childhood.

Even the North Dakota state capital cannot deny its German heritage: the city of Bismarck was named after Otto von Bismarck, prime minister of Prussia and founder and first chancellor (1871-90) of what used to be the German Empire. In the late 19th century the chancellor was so popular among the German immigrants that the Northern Pacific Railway company decided to name the city after him once the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1883.

The Northern Pacific Railway attempted to attract German immigrants to come and live in the prairie area. Instead, large numbers of Russian-Germans were drawn by the prospect of cheap and nearly limitless land. Between 1870 and 1915 a lot of families moved to America to escape oppression in Russia. The Russian tsar had deprived them of their privileges, and had even attempted to conscript them to military service. For the deeply-religious Russian-German pacifists, this was unbearable. Not only were they running out of land for their rapidly-growing families, they were now no longer free to practice their beliefs. Many Russian-Germans, desperate for a new start in life, headed for America, where they were again promised land, farms and religious freedom.

These immigrants were not told that their new land in America was forcefully taken from the Native Americans . North Dakota, also referred to as the Sioux State after the original inhabitants, is largely populated by Native Americans. When the railroads were built and gold was discovered in the Black Hills, thousands of white settlers were attracted to the area. The Native Americans were forced to give up their land to make room for the new settlers. One of the most vivid examples of the determination with which the Native Americans fought to hold on to their land is the battles Chief Sitting Bull and his tribe waged at Little Bighorn. The cavalry was heavily defeated, but the white settlers continued to drive out the Native Americans.

The Russian-Germans, however, knew nothing of this conflict when they decided to emigrate to America. When they arrived in North Dakota, the area evoked memories of the land they had left behind in Russia: the prairie was flat and almost devoid of trees - similar to the Russian steppe.

Margie Miller explains: "They settled in land that was like where they came from. Most of them were farmers. They checked out the soil and whatever the soil was - it was like in the old country".

Margie Miller and her family live on a farm north of Bismarck. The land her ancestors were given was farmland with rich soil, though working it was hard labor. The first settlers lived in primitive homes of stone, earthen mud and grass. Glen Krugerberg, a Russian-German who lives in Pick City, a village near Bismarck, remembers many moving stories from the early days. Today Glen and other Russian-Germans meet in the German Club every other week to keep up their German. Prior to the Second World War, they spoke only German. When Germany was declared an enemy in war, the immigrants were forced to stop speaking in their native tongue. As in many other American communities with a large German immigrant population, German was virtually banned from public usage. Whoever was caught speaking German, was faced with strong penalties. Margie Miller: They even got so far that if you spoke German, if they heard you speaking German - like in a gas station - they wouldn't fill gas for you. They thought you were a Nazi or something.

In the course of the years, many Russian-Germans have almost forgotten their native tongue. Today, the younger ones often cannot speak a word of German. So when Glen Krugerberg and his friends meet at the German club, it is often only the elderly who can still remember the words of the traditional folk songs.

One of them is "Du, du liegst mir im Herzen, du, du liegst mir IM Sinn",a sentimental song about the difficulties of distant and unanswered love.

The members of the club keep up a strict rule that may sound strange to outsiders: If anyone is caught speaking English at the meetings, he or she has to pay a cent into a special 'penalty cash box'. Unfortunately, the box is getting fuller and fuller.

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