The German Russians: Those Who Came to Sutton

A review by Edna Boardman

Griess, James R. The German Russians: Those Who Came to Sutton. Henderson, Nebraska: Service Press, 2008.

James R. Griess has assembled a book with some qualities that recommend it and other features that swamp it for many potential readers--a hybrid, if you will. My first question, on picking it up was Where is Sutton? Nebraska, of course, but that will not come to mind immediately for everyone. The book is titled and physically designed like a family or community history published to mark an anniversary, but is also a history of the national and religious roots of the Germans from Russia.

I will briefly describe its direction(s). Early in the book, I found myself immersed in the history of the Christian Church that then emphasized the religious life of the Germans (Volga and Black Sea) who settled on the steppes of New Russia in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The author provides a rundown of the history of Europe during the periods during which the Germans were motivated to move to Russia and tucks in bio sketches of the czars who reigned during their time there. Readers will find a good general history of the ethnic group. Griess goes on to describe their lives in both Russia and the United States in the manner of a cultural history. He tells the story of the Griess family, in both their Russian and American homes, without genealogical charts, which was fine by me, an ordinary reader. As part of the family story in the United States, he includes a section on the development of the railroads in Nebraska. He ends with an account of the abuses visited on the Germans during the communist period and the migration of ethnic Germans living in Russia back into modern-day Germany.

At first, the rather undisciplined focus was off-putting, but after awhile I felt that, if the right person found this book, say, a German Russian of either Volga or Black Sea heritage, they would encounter a gold mine of information. The book will answer a host of Frequently Asked Questions. Why did the Germans go to Russia in the first place, then emigrate to the Americas a century or so later? What is the full text of the Manifesto that drew them to Russia? What is the difference between the Volga and Black Sea Germans? (Both kinds settled in Sutton.) What was the nature of their religious life? What kind of cultural and  economic life did they have in Russia? What were their lives like once they settled in Nebraska? Why did they do well wherever they went? (The cover photos show unmistakable prosperity) How many were there at various points?

Griess has a degree in history, which means he knows research procedures, and I feel, because of my reading of Russian and German Russian history, that he has done a responsible job of getting his facts straight in whatever setting he is writing at the moment. He has included dozens of pictures and maps and, because of the smooth paper and the quality printing, they are all clear, if small. The design including the title, of the book, which initially says to the reader that this is a family and local community history, will limit the likelihood that someone interested in the overall history of the Germans from Russia will pick it up. It may deserve a wider readership than it will likely get without promotion of the content. Give it as a gift to someone who may not have gotten around to the histories of Joseph S. Height, and who would enjoy more than a superficial overview of the story of the Germans from Russia. If they also want to know about the settlement of this ethnic group in Nebraska and about the railroads, that is okay too.

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