From Privileged to Dispossessed: The Volga Germans, 1860-1917

Book review by Marion Mertz

Long, James W. From Privileged to Dispossessed: The Volga Germans, 1860-1917. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

"People do not make history , but are shaped by it. .." is a truism well borne out by this story of the Volga Germans and their remarkable adaptation to the vicissitudes life dealt them, particularly during the rapid changes in history from 1860 to 1917. They were tossed and turned by forces beyond their control: the power wielded over them by the Tsars; the politics, which made them pawns in the national scene; and the economics, which held sway over their lives.

These immigrants were identified by the bodies of water to which they gravitated in Russia, the Black Sea, and the Volga River. As Russian culture took shape around them, the Volga Germans, lured from their German homeland to Russia by manifestos of Catherine II and Alexander I, settled into their new country, but steadfastly clung to the traditions, language, and religious beliefs of their ancestral homeland. They were islands of German ethnicity in the vast Russian culture.

As decades passed, the few returning to Germany were only a fraction of the forty million emigrants who, during the second half of the nineteenth century, quit the Old World of Russia and took up a new life in the Western World.

This study, by James W. Long, is an offshoot of the Germans in Colorado Study Project, undertaken in 1975. Professor Long traces the lives of the Volga Germans by addressing the many aspects of their settlement in the Russian colonies, including their adaptation to new agricultural techniques, the growth of cottage industries, and the shifting ownership of parcels of land. The establishment of the zemstov institutions, which managed local affairs, served to foster new ideas, and by the 1890s had brought the settlers into contact with the outside world.

"The future does not look propitious for the continued survival of the Volga German ethnicity," comments the author. Today the Soviet Union is more successful than were the Tzarist regimes in assimilating the Volga Germans. It deems them essential to development of the regions in which they reside. The Volga German dialect has faded significantly and the families have been dispersed all over the Soviet Union, creating a demise of the Volga German communities. Schools no longer offer instruction in the German dialects, and only family reunification is recognized as grounds for emigration.

The author offers a scholarly and detailed picture of the Volga Germans in a compact, well-documented manner. The book handles a great deal of information in rather small print on 337 non-reflective pages. Its 5 1/2 inch by 9 inch size is easily handled. The author offers an extensive bibliography for further reading, comprehensive notes for additional information, and a detailed index.

The content is brought to life with maps and photographs of such varied subjects as flour mills, churches, shops, street markets, farming with camels, weaving, spinning, and the all-important craft of pipe-making.

James W. Long is a Professor of History at Colorado State University. He is the author of The German-Russians: a Bibliography (1978). Dr. Long majored in Russian History, receiving his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in 1968.

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