The Germans from Russia and New Resources

Michael M. Miller, Germans from Russia Bibliographer
North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, North Dakota

Seattle, Washington
June 1990

Historical Background

Let me extend a special thank you to the Federation of Genealogical Societies for the opportunity to share with you my experiences with the growing interest in the study of the Germans from Russia in America.

Before I review resources and archives of the Germans from Russia, it is important to share with you important highlights in the heritage of this unique ethnic group in America.

Beginning in the 1760's and continuing for more than a century, German farmers and artisans migrated to Russia in numbers totaling more than 100,000. Catherine the Great issued a manifesto in 1763 that made alluring promises to all foreigners regardless of nationality and religion who would settle the uninhabited regions of Russia.

The earliest migrants went mainly to the Volga regions. Then, for many years, the main movement was to the Black Sea region, the Crimea, Bessarabia and the South Caucasus. Finally, in the 1860's, there came a major movement into Volhynia.

For the first generation on the Russian steppes carving out the new farms and villages was a harsh, often bitter experience. But hard work was a fact of life for them, and they were persevering, industrious people much beyond the ordinary. Within a short time they had established thriving, agriculture-based colonies. The Russian steppe with its rich black soil was now home.

What makes the history of these people unique is that in each new settlement they totally retained their German culture and way of life.

Ultimately, the insistence of retaining their strong ethnic identity within a larger, unsympathetic nation left the Russian Germans vulnerable to new troubles. Promises made in the original Russian manifestoes were withdrawn; harassment and persecution from native Russians became widespread.

Again immigration was the response. The immediate cause for immigration was the cancellation of their exemption from military service. From the 1870's into the early 20th century thousands of Germans in Russia left for a new promised land. For most this meant starting over again on the plains of the Americas where, like their forebears, they began the hard task of being pioneers in a strange new country. Agriculture was again the way of life for the majority.

The Volga Germans settled primarily in Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska. The Black Sea and Bessarabian Germans settled in the Dakotas and the western Canadian prairie provinces. My grandparents emigrated in the 1890's from the villages of Krasna, Bessarabia (now Moldova) and Strassburg near the Black Sea, Ukraine.

Because of large families, no definite number can be given, but it has been estimated that there are about five million German-Russians in North America. I grew up in Strasburg, North Dakota, speaking more German than English. South-central North Dakota is the most heavily populated German-Russian region in the United States. Based on the 1990 census, other than the English language, 25% of the language spoken in North Dakota's three south-central counties was the German language. Strasburg is the birthplace of the late bandleader Lawrence Welk who was born in a sodhouse and spoke little English until he was twenty-one. His parents immigrated from Catholic Black Sea colonies in the Ukraine.

Not all of the German-Russians emigrated to America. Some two million stayed in the former Soviet Union. For them their history has been difficult and often tragic. During World War II they were deported from their homelands, and their autonomous republic as well as German schools and cultural institutions dismantled.

Today they live in the Siberian region of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Resettlement programs within the former Soviet Union are taking place in Siberia and the Ukraine but close to 200,000 ethnic Germans per year since 1991 have emigrated from the CIS back to Germany. In 1995, an average of 15,000 Germans are immigrating to Germany especially from Kazakshstan.

With new freedom and access to information in the former Soviet Union, historians, scholars, archivists, students, and librarians are gaining access to new sources and records.

Notable books covering the history of the Germans from Russia include: From Catherine to Khrushchev: The Story of Russia's Germans by Adam Giesinger; The German-Russians: Two Centuries of Pioneering by Karl Stumpp; Homesteaders on the Steppe, and Paradise on the Steppe by Joseph S. Height; The Tragedy of the Soviet Germans by John Philipps; Plains Folk: North Dakota's Ethnic History, and Russian-German Settlements in the United States by Richard Sallet, translated by LaVern Rippley and Armand Bauer.

Resources on the Germans from Russia

A well­known writer of the archives and manuscript repositories in the former USSR is Dr. Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, a research associate at the Ukrainian Research Institute and a fellow of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University.

Important directories by Patricia Kennedy Grimsted include: Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the USSR, Moscow, and Leningrad (9); Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the USSR, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Belorussia and A Handbook for Archival Research in the USSR.

Much credit needs to be given to the Family History Center at Salt Lake City for their continuing efforts to microfilm civil, church, and land records that are becoming available via local Family History Centers. Access to the records of Bessarabian German villages on microfilm already exists which were filmed from the State Archives in Leipzig, Germany. Today most of Bessarabia is the Republic of Moldova. Some of the former Black Sea and Bessarabian German villages are in southern Ukraine near Odessa.

We know there are extensive archives at the Odessa State Archives which are available primarily by contacting professional genealogical research services. Some records also exist for the Black Sea German villages.

Mennonite organizations in Canada have uncovered valuable records in the Odessa archives and progress is being made to microfilm these documents. The Mennonite microfilming project at the Odessa State Archives uncovered knowledge of genealogical records relating to the former Beresan, Glückstal, Kutschurgan, and Liebental villages. Excellent Mennonite archives exist in Winnipeg, Manitoba and at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

A well­known Mennonite researcher, Dr. George Epp, former President of Menno Simons College at the University of Winnipeg stated in a recent letter, "Soviet libraries were always strictly controlled, and Soviet Archives were simply the domains of the KGB. Even today archives are not open to the public. Few western scholars have had the opportunity to visit Soviet archives."

Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Harvey Dyck, 78 reels of microfilm containing the Mennonite Molotschna colonies are available at the Mennonite Heritage Centre in Winnipeg.

The Russian Government Historical Archives in St. Petersburg contain nearly all records of the Russian nobility and heraldry of the 19th century up to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The archives also contain family history records of other ethnic groups including Cossack, Ukrainian, German, Baltic, Finn, and Jewish.

It is the St. Petersburg Records which has literally been a gold mine especially for persons with ancestors from the former German Lutheran villages of South Russia. The microfilm contains the church books of the Evangelical Lutheran Consistory of St. Petersburg from 1833 to 1885. The St. Petersburg Consistory encompassed a huge geographic area stretching from the city of St. Petersburg to the Black Sea.

The valuable finding aid to the St. Petersburg microfilm is the book, The Lutheran of Russia, Volume I, compiled by Thomas K. Edlund. It is available for purchase from the Germanic Genealogy Society in St. Paul, Minnesota. The microfilm has been difficult to use because it is arranged by year instead of parish. Thomas Edlund, librarian at the Family History Center in Salt Lake City, and his staff of volunteers, spent over a year preparing this finding aid.

In the June, 1994, issue of Village Coordinators Newsline of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, I quote: "If you were to gather a large number of Black Sea researchers in one room right now and ask them what the number one activity was that was taking up their time, now or in the near future, you would hear responses mostly that says St. Petersburg films. Many believe that what we have seen start to flow from old Russian archives, does not even represent the tip of the iceberg. The LDS has many efforts underway, and all German-Russian groups have a very good chance of seeing significant volumes of their people's data over the next few years." Based on the electronic mail messages found on the Germans from Russia Listserve relating to the St. Petersburg Records and other German-Russian genealogical activity, the community of German-Russian family researchers is growing dramatically. The unfolding of Germans from Russia resources on World Wide Web and Home Page is enhancing our research abilities globally.

The indexing of the St. Petersburg microfilm has been a significant contribution to our German-Russian research. Many compliments to all those who were and are so actively involved in providing easier access to one of the most valuable genealogical resources in the 1990s for German-Russians - the St. Petersburg Records.

A scholarly society of Germans has been formed in St. Petersburg. We hope to continue our efforts to keep in touch with German rebirth societies called Wiedergebrut both in Russia and in the Ukraine.

Patricia Eames at the National Archives has taken a leadership role in the development of the Russian American Genealogical Archival Service (RAGAS) funded with a grant from the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX). It is important to distinguish this new service from the several profit making ventures that have developed. In a recent letter Ms. Eames states, "These ventures are a healthy sign that access to family history data is possible and will be a benefit to both sides. The service RAGAS offers a reasonable rate which should enable these ventures to have a much broader access to many archives in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus."

The Russian-American Genealogical Archival Service was established as part of a cooperative agreement between the U.S. National Archives and the Russian State Historical Archives, under the auspices of the Council for Learned Societies. The venture is not only designed to provide access to Soviet archives, but also to provide training and research support to archivists all over Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine responding to reference requests for genealogical information.

Patricia Eames goes on to state, "As most genealogists have learned, there must be professional standards and ethical guidelines when providing a service of this type. Many persons are anxious to get into the game and skim the fat dollars off unsuspecting American clients without really understanding the nature of genealogical research. In addition, since genealogical research as we Americans know it has never been practiced in the Russian republics before, it will help if Americans understand the realities faced by researchers seeking access to archives in the republics of the former Soviet Union."

In a letter of August 1, 1995, Patricia Eames states, "Vladimir Soshnikow, director of RAGAS/Moscow has achieved his goal of becoming completely self-sufficient and independent of the National Archives Volunteer Association. He plans to continue the RAGAS project as an informational archival service based upon his database and to fulfill requests if the information available confirms a productive approach. We look forward to promoting the development of international genealogical research and information exchanges between American and Russian genealogical communities and archives and hope we can continue to work together towards this goal."

In general, records for Germans from Russia seem to have been preserved and should provide a wealth of information. Through the efforts of professional record searchers in Russia, historians in universities, and the microfilm teams from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, responsible services will be created to fill the tremendous need of persons seeking knowledge of their ancestors in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Our greatest need is to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. RAGAS representing the archival world, the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection representing the history and biography profession, and the Family History Library representing libraries, together, are helping to establish a remarkable and professional means for recording the cultural history of Russia based upon documentary evidence at the village and town level.

In the summer, 1992 edition of Prologue published by the National Archives, there is an article on the Russian-American Genealogical Archival Service. This new venture offers exciting opportunities for other cooperative activities with Russian archives and libraries.

Collections in Germany

German institutions are taking an active role to uncover resources in the former Soviet Union. The Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen located in Stuttgart offers access to extensive archives to all Germans who have emigrated to other countries. The Institut is actively uncovering materials in the former Soviet Union. For the German ethnic scholar the Insitut has some of the finest collections in the world.

The Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland and the Landsmannschaft der Bessarabiendeutschen, both located in Stuttgart, offer comprehensive library and photographic collections on the Germans from Russia. The East European Institute in Munich also offers a good German-Russian collection.

Collections in the United States

It is important to note the significant German-Russian collections in the United States since materials are being added from Germany and the former Soviet Union. Both the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia at Lincoln, Nebraska and the Germans from Russia Heritage Society at Bismarck, North Dakota have growing library collections.

The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at North Dakota State University is one of the major resources in North America and the world concentrating on the Black Sea and Bessarabian Germans. Valuable contacts are being made with professors, archivists, and scholars in the former Soviet Union.

Besides the book collection, German newspapers published in the former Soviet Union are being received at NDSU. These include: Neues Leben published in Moscow, Deutsche Allgemeine from Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, Zeitung für Dich, Altai, Siberia, Russia; St. Petersburgische Zeitung from St. Petersburg, Russia; and Deutsche Kanal from Kiev, Ukraine. These newspapers have uncovered research activities and valuable contacts for use in locating archives and manuscripts unknown to American librarians and scholars.

In 1987 the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies published the annotated bibliography Researching the Germans from Russia, which is the most comprehensive research tool covering the literature.

Letters from Russia

On a personal note one of the most valuable sources of locating archives in the former Soviet Union has been our continuing correspondence with German families. In an April 1991 edition of the German newspaper Neues Leben, an article I had written appeared about the German-Russian experience in America. Within a short time letters began arriving from ethnic Germans in Russia seeking their Dakota and American relatives.

People like Paul Krüger near Omsk, Siberia who has since immigrated to Germany, and Matthäus Gunthner in Russia have shared our letters with their colleagues and professors at their universities. For fifty years there was no contact and now because of family reunification we have gained wonderful friends in Russia as well as opened doors to unknown resources in remote places such as eastern and western Siberia.

On the horizon are some interesting developments that may help to uncover additional German resources in Russia and the other states. Major German resettlement programs are taking place in regions of Siberia and on a limited basis in the Ukraine. German language, ethnic, and history departments are becoming part of universities where resettlements are taking place. Germany has provided major financial assistance with the relocation programs as well as enhancing German studies at universities near large German populations such as Omsk and Novosibirsk, Siberia.

The Future

Political and economic conditions in Russia, the Ukraine, and the other states offer many uncertainties in providing greater access to the valuable archives and library collections in the former Soviet Union. The United States and Germany need to take a leading role in sharing new technologies to aid in the development of efficient finding aids. Extensive microfilming projects of historical documents urgently need to be accessed and pursued.

America's college and university libraries need to pursue cooperative programs with similar institutions in the former Soviet Union in the form of the successful "sister city" programs well known throughout the world.

The National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Family History Center, and academic societies are pursuing important projects. North American ethnic societies including Ukrainian, German-Russian, Jewish, and Armenian can play a valuable role by identifying collections and archives. (26)

The Society of German American Studies submitted a report at the Clinton Presidential Transition Roundtable Meeting in Little Rock, Arkansas, dealing with the establishment of basic human rights for the German minority group in Russia, and also for German minority groups in Poland and eastern Europe.

Formerly closed government archives in Russia are now opening to foreign researchers. The Russian Government Historical Archives in St. Petersburg contain nearly all records of the Russian Empire from the 18th century up to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Included in the archives are records of family histories of Germans who emigrated to Russia, as well as German commercial activities.

In June of 1994 I visited Odessa, Ukraine and the former Black Sea and Bessarabian German villages. I reviewed archival collections and meet with colleagues and fellow Germans from Russia. I walked the streets in my ancestral villages of Strassburg, Black Sea, of my Baumgartner grandparents and Krasna, Bessarabia now Moldova, the ancestral village of my Müller grandparents. Both families immigrated to south-central North Dakota in the late 19th century.

One of the highlights of my visit to Odessa, Ukraine, was the seminar with correspondence at Odessa State University. I shall never forget the university students desire to learn more about the Germans who had once lived in the same villages where these students live today.

I look forward to returning to Odessa and to the former German villages in June, 1996, as tour director for the historic tours sponsored by the North Dakota State University Libraries, Journey to the Homeland: Germany and Ukraine.

In my closing remarks, I would like to reference you to an article that appeared in Prologue published by the National Archives that states, "We Americans have learned to expect the record to be there for the asking. We take for granted the liberal access we have to our archives, court houses, and other repositories.

We may establish links to the past without fear of reprisal; the names of places and boundaries of states are unchanging; we may expect archives to be safe repositories. This is the gift of living in a democratic society that ensures individual rights under a government that is accountable to its people through open access archives."

My thanks for the opportunity to visit with you today. For a German-Russian from the plains of Dakota, it has been a pleasure to share these comments with you.

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