Who are the Germans from Russia?

Before a unified Germany existed, many Germans were demoralized by years of religious strife, political chaos, and economic hardship. In 1763, they received an enticing offer from the Russian Czarina Catherine the Great, a former German princess. She promised colonists autonomy and free farmland in Russia should they choose to emigrate. Catherine believed these highly skilled farmers and tradesmen would promote progress leading to a more modern Russia. Many accepted her offer and colonized the Volga region first, to be known as the Volga Germans. In 1803, Alexander I issued another invitation for Germans to colonize southern Ukraine (the Black Sea Germans). Additionally, more emigrated from Württemberg and Prussia around 1812 and became the Bessarabian Germans.

Following defeat in the Crimean War, Russia realized that their outdated system of government had to be changed into something resembling a modern state. This first led to freeing the serfs in 1861 and later to the "great reforms" in 1864 that reorganized and democratized local government and reformed the court system. The privileges previously enjoyed by the German colonists had allowed them to run their own affairs, but Russian officials now regarded them as inconsistent with the reforms. In addition, they appeared unfair to the freed Russian serfs who now competed with the colonists as equal subjects. Thus, in 1871, their privileges were revoked in the hope that Germans would now participate directly in Russian public affairs. In 1874, Russia instituted universal military service, which included German colonists. A few years later, Russification efforts under Alexander III made inroads into the colonists' schools and discouraged using the German language.

Treasuring their own identity and culture and seeking better opportunities elsewhere, many German-Russians decided to leave. Beginning in the 1870s, those immigrating to North America settled throughout the Great Plains from Saskatchewan to Texas. Many other German-Russians immigrated to South America, especially to Argentina and Brazil. Wherever they settled world-wide, the German-Russians preserved their distinct identity, rich culture, and heritage across borders and generations.

For a more detailed history, see below for an excerpt taken from the book, Researching the Germans from Russia, compiled by Michael M. Miller, published by the Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University, Fargo, 1987, pages xvii-xix.

Expanded History of Germans from Russia

The story of the Germans from Russia had its beginning in 1763 while Catherine II, a former German princess of the principality of Anhalt-Zerbst, was Empress of Russia. The Czarina found herself in possession of large tracts of virgin land along the lower course of the Volga River in Russia. Catherine was determined to turn this region into productive, agricultural land as well as to populate the area as a protective barrier against the nomadic Asiatic tribes who inhabited the region.

Then on July 22, 1763, Catherine issued a manifesto inviting foreigners to settle in Russia, in the vast uncultivated lands of her domain. As an inducement to encourage emigration to Russia, the manifesto offered the following rights and privileges to incoming foreign settlers:

  1. Free transportation to Russia.
  2. The right to settle in segregated colonies.
  3. Free land and the necessary tax-free loans to establish themselves.
  4. Religious freedom and the right to build their own churches. (Implied in this was the right to establish their own schools).
  5. Local self-government.
  6. Exemption from military or civil service.
  7. The right to leave Russia at any time.
  8. Therefore mentioned rights and privileges were guaranteed not only to incoming settlers but also to their descendants forever.

These rights and privileges offered a chance for a better life and many thousands of people emigrated to Russia from the Germanic states and principalities of Central Europe. The reasons that so many Germanic people took up this Russian offer were many. The Seven Years' War had just ended in 1763. Whole regions in Germany lay devastated and poverty was widespread. Many Germans emigrated at this time to other lands, including the New World, in order to make a new start in life.

The first German-speaking colonists who responded to Catherine's manifesto were directed to lands along the Volga River in the years 1764 to 1767. Later, as Russia acquired the Ukrainian lands north of the Black Sea from Turkey, colonists were invited to settle in those areas. Similarly, when the Crimean Peninsula and Bessarabia were added to the Russian Empire at Turkey's expense, colonists settled there. These later emigrations occurred 40 to 50 years after the great Volga emigration. The Black Sea Germans responded to an invitation that was issued in 1803 by Alexander I, the grandson of Catherine. Since so many responded to the Czar's invitation, the Russian Crown feared that unsuitable immigrants might enter Russia. Accordingly, in 1804, a restrictive decree was issued that embodied the generous terms of Catherine II but required that all future immigrants must possess cash or goods worth at least 300 guilders, be skilled in farming or handicrafts, and be people with families. No single fortune hunters were desired.

The colonists of 1804-1818 had either a long and difficult overland journey or had to travel by river barge down the Danube. (Those in 1804 to 1812 could not use the Danube River because of the 1806-1812 Russo-Turkish War.) Those who traveled to Russia in 1817 went by boat down the Danube and, due to inexperience, many thousands died of disease and exposure.

Approximately 300 mother colonies were founded throughout Russia during the settlement years and as the population grew, more acreage had to be acquired for the landless. Thus, numerous daughter colonies were founded. Eventually there were more than 3,000 ethnic settlements in Russia.

Their schools and churches provided instruction in their native language, German. Life was generally good for the colonists and they maintained the distinct customs, dress, musical tastes, and dialects of their ancestral homelands. Many adjustments to Russian ways, however, were inevitable.

In 1871, Czar Alexander II revoked the preferential rights and privileges given to the colonist settlers by the manifestos of Catherine II and Alexander I. The colonists, as a result, were reduced to the level of the Russian peasants and under the same laws and obligations to which they were subject. In 1874, the colonists' sons were drafted into the Czar's army for the first time.

The natural result was that the colonists were dismayed and angry, feeling that the Russian Crown was guilty of a breach of contract. As there was nothing they could do, their thoughts turned toward leaving Russia. But where could they go? To return to Germany did not enter their minds, for when their ancestors had left Germany years before, they had no intention ever to return to their native country.

During the summer of 1872, Ludwig Bette, a former colonist, who had led a party of 83 friends from the Black Sea to the United States in 1849, decided to visit relatives and friends in the Black Sea colonies. Noting the unrest and dissatisfaction among the colonists for having lost their privileged status, he extolled the virtue of the United States, urging emigration there. Shortly after his return to the United States, an emigration movement to the United States, Canada, and South America was set in motion which continued more or less unabatedly until the outbreak of World War I halted further emigration.

Alexander III came to the throne of Russia in 1881 after his father, Alexander II, had been assassinated. Russification became the official policy and greatly affected the former colonists. Classes later had to be taught in the Russian language and business was required to be transacted in Russian. Also, it became increasingly difficult for the German-speaking colonists in Russia to purchase the land necessary for their expanding numbers. All of the rights of self-government in their villages were lost by the colonists under the changed conditions.

Hesitating to make the long journey over the ocean, many colonists decided to stay in Russia in spite of the Russification policy. In actual number, perhaps more of the German colonists remained in Russia than emigrated to the countries of North America and South America.

Because of the requirements of the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862, the German-Russians who took up homesteads in the United States were required to live on their 160-acre farms. They could not live in villages or colonies as they had in Russia. Many Volga Germans settled in cities in the Middle West of the United States, while the Black Sea Germans acquired land and homesteaded in Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas. Others settled in western Canada by purchase and homesteading. The Volga Germans became closely associated with the sugar beet industry in Colorado and western Nebraska, while most Black Sea Germans became wheat growers in the Dakotas and in Canada; some later became orchard and grape growers in California. Today descendants of those early Germans from Russia are now living in Colorado, California, Kansas, Nebraska, Michigan, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington, as well as Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan in western Canada. Some also emigrated from Russia to South America.

A large number of German-Russians, descendants of those who elected to remain in Russia, still live in the Soviet Union. The census of 1959 counted over 1,600,000 Germans living in the Soviet Union and that number grew to 2,300,000 by 1983.

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 caused great difficulty for the ethnic Germans in Russia. Although they fought and died in Russian military campaigns, they, as a class, were accused of being spies and saboteurs. The German language was forbidden in their schools and churches, and German-language newspapers were prohibited. Innumerable German-Russians were deported to Siberia for "crimes against the state."

With the Russian Revolution of 1917, a period of lawlessness prevailed throughout Russia for several years. Robber bands raided the German villages, ruthlessly murdering many of the Germans. Germans living on estates were driven from their homes with only an hour's notice. Russian regiments revolted, killing their officers, and the Russian soldiers added to the period of lawlessness. The Russian Revolution brought much misery to the German-Russians with many displaced to Siberia and Middle Asia.

Those in Bessarabia were spared the hardships and chaos of the Russian Revolution. When the revolt of the army's soldiers took place, Bessarabia appealed to Romania to restore law and order. This was done and later Bessarabia voted to be annexed by Romania.

Russia never acknowledged the legality of this annexation and in 1940 (since Stalin and Hitler were allied) Hitler agreed that Stalin could have the return of Bessarabia providing he would agree to the resettlement of all ethnic Germans to Germany. This was agreed upon and the Germans packed their suitcases, abandoning all else, and returned to Germany. As there was no place for most of them in Germany, those who were unskilled were settled in the Warthegau, an area along the Warthe River in western Poland.

When the war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the already planned displacement of all Germans was executed without any exception. Thus the presidency of the Soviet Union released the decree (August 2, 1941) "The Resettlement of the Germans of the Volga Region."

The chairman of the Landsmannschaft der Russlanddeutschen in Germany described these true facts in the journal Volk auf dem Weg, August/September, 1985. He writes: "The forced displacement spread, however, not only to the Volga Germans. The German settlement areas on the Crimean peninsula, the Caucasus, and in the Ukraine were as equally affected as the Germans living in the cities. In connection with the forced resettlement, family and home communities which existed up to then were systematically split. Generally men between the 16th and the 60th birthdays were separated from their families and held in the so-called Trudarmija (a special kind of prison camp) where they were treated as enemies of the state. Women and children received poor residences among Russians, Kazachs, and other nationalities. All Germans were told, with threat of punishment, not to return to their former settlements. They had to give up any claims to their possessions, which were confiscated at their former settlements. They lived separated among other ethnic groups in areas of Siberia and central Asia, cut off from contact with the German culture, robbed of the chance as a group to preserve their own cultural heritage, to educate their children in German schools, and to confess their faith."

When the Red Army advanced toward Berlin in World War II, there began for the displaced Russian-Germans in the Warthe region a hasty flight in the wintry cold and snow. Vehicles and train cars, as well as personnel for organizing proper transportation, were missing. One could not stop at protective shelters, so many died along the way from exposure, exhaustion, and starvation. The rapidly advancing Red Army caught up with thousands, captured them, put them in cattle cars, and took them on a long journey without supplies to the northern regions of Russia or to Siberia.

Fortunately, some 70,000 were able to make their way to Germany where they and their descendants are living today. Most of the German-Russians who lived on the Volga and in areas not coming under Hitler's reach were evacuated to the far away Asiatic portions of the USSR. According to the census of 1979 in the Soviet Union 1,936,000 people claimed to be Germans and thus ranked fourteenth among the more than one-hundred nationalities in the USSR.

The very first settlement of the German-Russians in the Middle West, specifically Dakota Territory, occurred in the spring of 1873. This settlement was a direct result of Ludwig Bette's visit to the colony Johannestal in 1872 when he influenced four groups from the Black Sea area to emigrate to the United States. The four groups, numbering 175 men, women, and children, were united at Sandusky, Ohio, where they spent the winter. In the spring, scouts were sent out in search of land who determined that Dakota Territory was the place for them to settle. They loaded their belongings on a special freight train, possibly one or two passenger cars, and a few box cars, and took off for Yankton, Dakota Territory. They arrived there in one of the worst blizzards on record, and many thought the country was worse than Siberia. This is known as the Easter Sunday Blizzard, occurring in April of 1873. After the weather cleared, they searched for suitable land on which to homestead, finding land where Lesterville, South Dakota, is now located, about eighteen miles northwest of Yankton.

Following the settlement near Lesterville, thousands of Germans from the Black Sea areas of Russia poured into Dakota Territory in the years following. Their homesteads spread westward and northward until most of the arable land was homesteaded in what later became South Dakota in 1889. As more and more immigrant Black Sea Germans continued to arrive in Dakota Territory in search of land, their homesteads spread in 1884 into what is now North Dakota. Eventually, their homesteads were located in all arable parts of North Dakota. As a result, North Dakota numbers twice as many Germans from Russia than does any other state in the United States.

By 1920, it was estimated that 116,539 German-Russians were in the United States. The largest concentration was in North Dakota, where some 70,000 lived in 1920, coming from the Black Sea region and Bessarabia. Other large settlements were in Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska who came primarily from the Volga region. Today, the families of Germans from Russia are spread throughout the United States and Canada concentrating in the Great Plains states, California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington as well as the prairie provinces of Western Canada.

Finally, with the major political changes in the former Soviet Union beginning in 1991, a significant immigration trend began of ethnic Germans receiving permission to immigrate to Germany. Since 1991, an estimated more than two million Germans have immigrated to Germany from the former Soviet Union. Immigration to Germany has become more difficult but continues.

Permission to reprint or to use the information, "A Brief History of the Germans from Russia" from the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection website is not permitted without the written permission of Michael M. Miller, Germans from Russia Bibliographer, NDSU Libraries, Fargo. For contact, email to: michael.miller@ndsu.edu.