The Volga Germans: In Russia and the Americas, from 1763 to the Present

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Koch, Fred C. The Volga Germans: In Russia and the Americas, from 1763 to the Present. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977.

The author of this general history of the Germans who settled along the Volga River in Russia says he is "...a journalist who makes no pretension to being a historian" but he also tried to be as accurate as possible. In 14 chapters, he begins with Catherine II's colonizing program and ends with the reinstatement of the Germans in the 1950s and a few notes about the present to the date of publication. In the introduction, the author, who says he used mostly English sources, bills this book, designed by area of interest as well as chronology, as "the first comprehensive history" of the Volga Germans. For readers unfamiliar with the story, this is a good basic history. It is readable and there is lots of interesting detail. He found excellent, authoritative sources and made good use of them. At this point he says, all major histories are in German and Russian, out of print or have major problems of "biases, scope, and purpose." The author believes that, because of how scattered the people have become, historians of the future will have to work not only in German but also in Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese.

After a brief nod to the story of their migration to the new world, Koch picks up the history of the Volga Germans in Germany. " mid-eighteenth century, at least five generations had been suffering miseries resulting from political turmoil in the numerous 'Germanies.'" Toward the end of the eighteenth century, Koch says, there were 1,786 sovereign states, kingdoms, and principalities. The impoverished German farmers and workers had many good reasons to get out of there.

When Catherine II was crowned empress of Russia in 1762, one of the first things she did was set in motion the laws that would eventually populate with German farmers the area later known as the Ukraine.

Koch goes on to cover ground that is basically familiar to readers of other histories of the Germans from Russia. He includes almost the whole text of Catherine II's Manifesto--more than most histories include. His telling of the story of settlement and development is shaped somewhat differently from other histories, perhaps both because of his sources and what he saw as important. In a breathtaking quote, he tells of the harshness of the first work expected of the colonists. "The authorities...crowded them to break the sod as quickly as possible and to get in a planting of hardy rye before September." First, however, the settlers had to find the right wood in the scattered groves of trees from which to fashion the beams and handles of the Russian plows they were expected to construct with the few basic parts the Tutel-Kanzlei had given them. The result would be a sokha, a primitive implement more like an iron-blade cultivator than an efficient Western moldboard plow. It could not be drawn through the tough, armorlike, eons-old sod with the draft stock that each settler was given in Saratov--Kalmuck horses and possibly an ox. Consequently, neighbors had to combine their horses and break their ground in turn, field by field. Some of them plowed enough to plant a sack or two of the rye seed they had been issued in Saratov--against each individual account. But the soil made rough, raw chunks and it harrowed into stringy clods after the seed had been hand scattered. When the withering droughts of the next spring and summer beat on it, the fields failed even to return the seed. The settlers who arrived too late to sow in the fall of the first year were not, therefore, at much disadvantage. (Note: The Tutel-Kanzlei was the agency assigned to oversee the early colonists. Sokha, the word for plow, has been Anglicized to sulky.)

He includes intriguing details. Early Moravian settlers from Herrnhut, Saxony formed a model colony called Sarepta. When they failed to convert the non- Christian Kalmucks to their pietistic beliefs, which had been their stated purpose in coming to South Russia, they turned their attention to fellow Germans, mainly Protestants. When they withdrew, "...they left behind an awakened desire for a personal and individual religion that developed into the widespread institution of prayer meetings ancillary to church fealty." These Moravians were especially successful in industry as well as agriculture, and many officials visited them. They created a gingham cloth called sarpinka and made and sold a popular mustard condiment. The colony did not endure.

Koch tells a great deal about village life. He recounts the Volga Germans "...customs, codes, manners, and superstitions" such as their way of weather forecasting, belief in witchcraft, sayings and distinctive vocabulary, and recreational games. He describes how the villages were organized for police and fire protection, water supply, farm work and harvest, marriage and family, and holidays such as Christmas. He explores the growing of sunflowers, potatoes, tobacco, fruit, sugar beets, and cabbage, the nature of "women's work," and the failed efforts to grow the mulberry trees that would, if successful, have led to silk production. Other enterprises were sausage making and handicrafts, mills and tanneries, looms and forges, and the making of special shoes, out of short wool shearings, that withstood the cold. All this despite the initial decree by the Tutel-Kanzlei's office that agriculture should be the colonists' sole occupation. Koch answers many questions about the design of farm buildings, the process of daughter colony formation, frontier marauders of several kinds, the religious pattern (including the rise of the Brotherhood movement), the schools and how they were organized, and newspapers and other publications. We also learn about relationships with Russian Government officials, and what became of some colonists' attempts to return to Germany.

It wasn't long before the initially reluctant pioneers learned that they would have to deal with frequent crop failures (there was no safety net in those days) and the question of where the "...'nice increase' of vigorous youth..." would live. Even as patches allocated to each family got smaller and smaller, the mir system made it hard to move. There was a complex system of periodic land redistribution, and more family males meant more land.

Koch moves on to the Slavophile movement with its ominous slogan, "Russia for the Russians," and the subsequent Russification drive. This, added to the land hunger led to emigration to the Americas, including Canada, Central America and Mexico, South America, and settlement in Asiatic Russia. Shortly before his death in 1924, Lenin authorized the formation of the Volga German Autonomous Republic--quite late in their history, and amidst a great storm.

One chapter is devoted to the kind of life the emigrants found once they moved to the Americas. He tells many of the reasons German-Russians moved into the denominations they did in America, a topic of much interest to many who might choose to read this book.

Finally, the author deals with the tragic twentieth Century: the expulsion of the Volhynians in 1915, the coming of the communists and, in their wake, dislocation and disease, famine in the early 1920s (in which some 166,000 persons, including 60,000 children died in the Volga enclave alone), and again in the early 1930s. The communists destroyed the productive capacity of the entire region, which had supplied much of the nation's grain, without regard for the needs of even the near future. He tells of the mass deportations of the 1940s, the men assigned to massive projects such as the Moscow Canal, and the "thick silence" that surrounded the lives of the evacuees. In 1955, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer persuaded Nikita Khrushchev to open negotiations that eventually (sort of) normalized the status of the ethnic Germans.

The book has a useful appendix called "A Roster of the German Colonies on the Lower Volga." (1764-1767), then a bibliographical survey that will be useful for those who wish to read more. Chapter notes, a map showing the area of Volga German settlement, and an index are very helpful.

Koch's handling of this mass of material is amazing. He has produced a book that is readable, tells readers how things came out when they want to know it, and doesn't get sidetracked with so much detail that the reader bogs down.

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