A Look at the History of the
Germans from Russia


In the beginning
Originally, Germany was made up of many small principalities, the holdings of major officials, or the nobility, all of whom warred with each other. The peasants owed their allegiance to the individual landholders. They farmed the land but did not own it; they tended the herds and flocks but did not own them. They usually were completely dependent on the landowner for their very existence.

Russian promises- Catherine's invitation
Because of their precarious existence and sparked, perhaps, by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) between the Catholics and the German Protestants, groups of Germans, mainly from the Palatinate, had left in 1709 for the Carolinas in North America. In 1714, a group of the Dunkers went to Pennsylvania and in 1751 a large group went to Massachusetts; it was only after the Manifesto of Catherine the Great, in 1763, that the wave of immigration from Germany to Russia began in earnest. Catharine promised free land, freedom of religion, exemption from military service and from taxes to all German farmers who would settle in the Ukraine. She promised they would be able to retain their own language and customs and would be given help in getting established. Perhaps the most luring of those promises was the prospect of owning their own land; the German farmers were willing to endure almost any hardship in order to attain that goal.

At first the German Emperor refused a mass emigration out of fear that Germany would be depopulated; however many families continued to leave secretly, stealing away in the night. Then it was realized that the majority of the emigrants were the impoverished peasants and those who were gravely in debt with little prospect of paying their debts. Emigration began to be looked upon as the solution to a problem of famine caused by several years of crop failures due to bad weather and consequent shortage of land sufficient to produce food for the existing population. From then on, they left openly and were encouraged to do so. 

Settlement patterns in Russia
In 1803, Alexander I, grandson of Catherine, Czar of Russia 1801-1825, divided the huge territory of South Russia into three provinces, called "the governments of Cherson, Nikolaiev and Taurida" and appointed the Duc Armand de Richelieu as Governor.  Before the end of the year, the influx began:

They came from the Rhineland, the Palatinate, and Wuerttemberg to settle in the Volga area of Russia. In 1765 and 1766 more Germans immigrated to Russia near Petersburg and in 1780 still more settled near the Dnieper River. In 1808 through 1810, more emigrants, from Alsace, Palatinate, and Wuerttemberg, settled in the Beresan District. In 1814 through 1834, colonies coming from Germany, Prussia, Poland, and Bavaria were established in Bessarabia near Odessa.

The difficult journey east
Catherine of Russia preferred the young married couples because she needed settlers who could work hard and would open up the lands in the Ukraine.  Because there were very few couples in the 35 yrs and up category, the children of the immigrants were accordingly very young, consequently the mortality rate among babies and small children during the trip was exceedingly high. They traveled from their homes in Germany to their destinations in Russia, a journey of several hundred miles, on foot with their belongings piled in wagons drawn by oxen or in crude boats on the rivers, crossing Austria, Hungary, Poland and Romania before reaching their destinations in the Ukraine. The transportation was often poorly organized and inadequate. It is almost impossible for people living today in the US and Canada to imagine the suffering they must have endured.

Excerpts from journals and the letters of two of those emigrants give a vivid picture of the conditions of either method of travel: Johann Georg from Rosenfeld, district of Sulz….

"We had a good journey from Ulm to Vienna, except for the Hohn’s children got the measles, but they recuperated during our 8-day stay in Vienna …. from there we traveled on another ship as far as Pest, where the 430 passengers from two ships were loaded together into one….the journey continued until we reached…. Peterwardein and Neusatz where Hohn’s brother and several other families decided to let themselves be recruited by a nobleman for settlement in a colony in Slavonia .. because of the intense heat….more and more sickness occurred. In Ismail (the first Russian town, where 1,328 of these travelers are buried)  ...had to remain in quarantine under the open sky for seven weeks… violent outbreaks of typhus and other fevers, dysentery, large ulcers on head and neck...many died …."

From Ismail, they continued their journey in farm wagons and after 3 days, arrived in Akkerman where they stayed for 5 days before continuing on a boat on the Dniester River, during which time, they endured a rain and snow storm. The immigrants who survived received winter quarters in the German villages in the vicinity of Odessa until July 25th. Friedrich Schwarz….June 26: they set out from Kupferzell and arrived in Ulm on June 29th. On July 2nd, they embarked for Vienna and reached the Hungarian border on July 26th. August 17th saw them landing across from the fortress of Chursowa to show their passports. Half of the passengers were sick and people were dying daily. Through September they were still quarantined on their ships on the Danube. On November 1st, they were loaded on a ship, which transported them across the Dniester River and, after 3 days quarantine, given wagon transportation to Josephstal. From here they moved to Grossliebental and later to Odessa.

The difficult adjustments of early settlers
Nor did arriving at their destinations do much to alleviate their suffering, as they were often forced to build rude huts of earth, wood and twigs, and live on the ubiquitous cabbage soup and millet gruel of the Russian peasant, in order to survive the first year.The Germans had left a land where families and neighbors lived close by; this new land was treeless, very flat, very windy--and very different. At first, the soil was hard, almost impossible to plow and they had very few tools. In order to plant corn, they cut a gash in the soil with an ax and dropped the seed in the hole. Their new neighbors were very different; they were Russians, people who spoke a language the Germans couldn’t understand, whose customs and religion were strange--and who probably didn’t care much for their new German neighbors. In some areas, there were bands of marauding Cossacks to contend with. There were no trees, consequently no firewood. That first winter, settlers burned straw, grass, dried dung, and reeds in an attempt to keep from freezing to death. In many cases, they did not succeed and the cold, the marginal shelter, and the diseases such as smallpox epidemics and pneumonia killed many more of them. It took almost a generation before they established solid homes, buildings and productive farms.

German families from Württemberg, Baden, Bavaria and other areas had been relocating into Poland, beginning in 1796 but in 1806, the Napoleonic Wars engulfed them and they once more moved on. More than 1,500 families made the move in 1814-1815. Among them were 133 families who migrated from the Polish villages of Orshovin and Schitonitz to Bessarabia under the leadership of Matheis Müller and Peter Becker. Ninety families were settled in Krasna in 1815 and the others in 1816.

The industriousness of German farmers
In time, the German families re-created the homes they had left behind by building the same kind of homestead they were used to. (See right) The family living quarters were connected to the buildings used for animals, poultry, and grain storage. They established small villages made up of their own families and friends with churches and schools where only German was spoken and they retained their own customs. There was a community meadow for the cattle and every morning the cows were herded out to graze, watched over by a herdsman, and every evening they were returned to their own byres.

They established and lived in ethnic communities and, as they had always done, they plowed the land, planted trees and flowers, vegetables and crops and, gradually, over several generations and through very hard work, developed the area to yield rich harvests. Finally, they began to prosper. The German immigrants to Russia had a saying, that describes the bitterness of their early struggle.


"For the first generation-death; 
for the second generation-want; 
only for the third generation-bread,"

As available land for new families became scarce around the villages, "daughter" villages were established. Emmental was a daughter colony of Krasna. By 1897, there were 1,970,489 Germans in Russia; of these, 242,209 were Roman Catholic. Increasingly, sons of German colonists were entering the priesthood. Among them were: Valentin Hartmann of Landau, who was ordained in 1882; Peter Müller of Krasna, ordained in 1882 and Johannes Fix of Franzfeld, ordained in 1887.

Although life was hard, the Russian government, at first, kept the original promises of the 1763 manifesto. There were schools for their children where only German was taught, there were Catholic churches with Roman Catholic priests, and their villages were governed by their own elected German mayors. In due time, the villages had tradesmen such as: bakers, shoemakers, butchers, bricklayers, millers, saddle-makers, weavers, carpenters, plus teachers, doctors, and musicians. They planted wheat, oats, rye, barley, potatoes, corn, millet, peas, lentils, beans, hemp, and flax, they ground and pressed grain for oil and flour; they raised horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry. They planted trees and made gardens. Catharine’s vision was bearing fruit.

After the overthrow of the Tsarist regime, the Soviets had adopted a kinder policy towards non-Russian ethnic groups and, in 1918, they established the Volga German Worker’s Commune which allowed many German language schools, training colleges, radio broadcasts and theater. This came to an abrupt end in about 1934 when all German language schools (55,623 students) were forcibly merged with Russian schools and the German language eliminated in the schools.

Communists covet German land and oppress settlers
It was their very success that caused the German farmers such serious problems. The Russian government became jealous of their prosperity and began taking away many of the things they had previously promised. In 1866, it was decreed the German schools would have to use Russian, instead of German, as the language of instruction. In 1874, the Russian government decreed that young Germans would be eligible for conscription into the Russian Army. For many, this was a death sentence because Russia was constantly at war with various of the surrounding countries.

In about 1871, prejudice began in earnest against the German settlements. Russia rescinded the colonist’s rights to self-government and by 1874 the Germans were subject to military conscription. Russian began to be taught in the schools and most of the rights guaranteed by the original Manifesto were rescinded. As a result of this, the German leaders began to explore emigration possibilities. A delegation was sent to the United States, Brazil and Canada to look at areas for settlement and in the years 1874-1879, about 200 German Catholic families settled in Kansas, others went to Brazil in 1877 and, after 1896 to Canada. (Source: From Catherine to Khrushchev)

In 1893, the Germans received another blow! The Russians replaced the German names of the colonies with Russian names! (The village of Krasna became Krasnoje and Emmental is now "Pervomaisc.") More Germans, motivated once again by religious persecution and several years of crop failure, began to leave Russia. They had heard about the opportunities in Canada, the United States and South America from German newspapers that had been sent to them by relatives in those areas and in Germany, and gradually they left their homes and relatives to relocate, this time to North and South America.

By August 1914, the Russian politicians and press began to openly preach hatred for all things German. From that time to the outbreak of WWI, ethnic Germans in Russia were subjected to harassment, injustice, restrictions, financial hardships and, in many cases, violence, when the Bolsheviks began looting, requisitioning, and confiscating property in the German villages (Mary Maas Miiller tells how she watched as Russian soldiers broke into their house, took their food and other belongings and knocked her father to the floor. She still remembers this vividly, even though she was only three or four years old at the time.)

Stalin's collectivization causes widespread starvation
By 1917, there were fewer Germans remaining in Russia as many more of the German families left Russia if they were able. Some of those who refused or were unable to leave eventually paid a most terrible price, with conditions for the German colonists becoming ever more difficult as the Bolsheviks took control. Stalin and his policy of collectivization made their situation increasingly grim. The attempt to finance industrialization by raising quotas on agricultural products produced a dreadful famine, including the Lower Volga River area that culminated in 1932-1933, in the deaths by starvation of between six and seven million people. Even indispensable seed grain was forcibly taken from the farmers. Any man, woman, or child caught taking even a handful of grain from a collective farm could be, and often was, executed or deported. Those able to work were sent to Siberia to work camps in the forests. People who did not look as though they were starving were suspected of hoarding grain.

Migration scatters families
The decision to leave Bessarabia scattered many of the German families. The children of Johannes and Marianne Arnold Maas of Emmental, Bender, Bessarabia, were an example of this: Rochus, Polycarpus, and Franz Xavier Maas elected to stay in Russia, Margaretha and her husband, Daniel Kopp, stayed in Russia, as did Agatha and her husband, Kaspar Kuss. It is to be assumed that    Veronika Maas also stayed in Emmental. However, Elias Maas and his family emigrated to Saskatchewan, Canada, while Ottilie and her husband, Paulius Bauer, emigrated to Brazil; those who stayed were "re-settled" in Germany in 1941.  Again, the German families had lost everything. (Source: EWZ files)

The emigration, begun by the 1870s, saw many European emigrants traveling first by Feeder ships to England or another European emigration port, such as Liverpool, Glasgow, Hamburg, Rotterdam or Havre, where they transferred to transatlantic steam ships to North or South America. Many of the Germans from Russia, who settled in Saskatchewan, entered North America via Halifax, Nova Scotia and Ellis Island, New York. After the Canadian Pacific Railroad was finished in 1885, there were excellent rail connections to the mid-west sections of Canada and the United States While many of the German families coming to North American came through Halifax, Nova Scotia, and New York, they came to many other ports as well, such as Baltimore, Quebec City,  Portland, Maine, Philadelphia, and St John, NB and even to Galveston, Texas..

Immigrant families from the Kutschurgan villages found new land to farm in Emmons, Logan and Pierce counties of ND and in Saskatchewan. More families from the Glueckstal villages settled in McIntosh and Logan counties of ND as well as McPherson and Campbell counties of SD, while many families from the Beresan villages settled in the Dickinson, Mandan and Richardton areas of ND and near Regina, SK.

Those left behind
The Homeland Book of the Bessarabian Germans, by Albert Kern, documents the names of the young German men who were killed in World War II for each German Village. The most chilling village statistic is the statement of "Losses among the civilian population" designated as: "Exiled" (Siberia?) or "Died while fleeing."

Johannes Maas b. 1857, died in Emmental, Russia, some-time before February of 1934. His wife, Marianna Arnold Maas died in Emmental sometime after the 12th of February 1934. They are no doubt buried in this cemetery at Emmental, although there are few markers to identify the graves. The Russians had used most of the headstones for building foundations or as material for walls, etc.  (This picture above, from the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection of North Dakota State University Libraries, was taken by American and Canadian descendents of the Emmental families, who made a tour to Russia to visit the village in 1998.) 

Maas family members who died in Emmental and are probably buried here are: Joseph Maas, infant s/o Elias & Deophilia Mueller, d bef. 1914; Clara Maas, infant d/o Elias & Deophilia Mueller, d 1920; Peter Maas, s/o Karl & Mariana Mueller Maas-spouse of Irena Gedak, d 30 Jun 1928; Faustina Gross, spouse of Rochus Maas, d 25 Oct 1932; Faustina Hittel, spouse of Magnus Maas, d bet. 1930-1932. No doubt there were many members of other Emmental families left behind in the German village cemeteries.................................   das Amen.

The information in this brief history of the Catholic Germans from Russia was gathered from descendants of those families, from other researchers, from the Koblenz and Fiess Extraction files; the EWZ files; from the PAF files of the Mormon Church; and from the following books and documents: The Emigration from Germany to Russia in the Years 1763 to 1862, by Karl Stumpp; Paradise on the Steppe, by Joseph S. Height; From Catherine to Khrushchev, by Adam Giesinger; The German Colonies of South Russia 1804 to 1904, by Rev. Conrad Keller; Homeland Book of the Bessarabian Germans, by Albert Kern; Landau Roman Catholic Church Deaths, 1860-1872, by American Historical Society of Germans from Russia Heritage Society; the Landau Beresan District, Odessa 1858 Census, by GRHS & AHSGR; The Landau Roman Catholic Church` Register of Baptism 1860-1866, by AHSGR & GRHS; No Going Back to Moldova, by Anna Robertson; Bessarabian Knight, by Immanuel Weiss & George F. Weiland; In the Beginning Was Fear, by N.M. Seedo; PIER 21, The Gateway that Changed Canada, by Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic & J.P. LeBlanc; The German Colonies on the Lower Volga, by Gottleib Beratz.

(Boat illustration from Paradise on the Steppe, Joseph S. Height)


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