Volga Germans

Germans From Russia

Thousands of German nationals emigrated to Russia between 1763 and 1767 during the rule of Catherine the Great. There they pursued the opportunity of freedom, local self government and better economic conditions as promised in her Manifesto. They were settled in villages on the Russian Steppe along the Volga river and thus came to be known as Volga Germans. One of the largest settlements along the Volga River was the Village of Balzer.

 The causes of this emigration can be traced back more than 200 years. The Reformation (1521) had divided the German people and resulted in prolonged and bloody warfare that was largely carried out on German soil. The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) was the culmination of this devastating period which left the population in a state of great poverty. Many conflicts continued in the early 1700's, especially in Southwestern Germany.

The most disastrous war of the 18th century was the Seven Years War (1756-1763), which served to be the final trigger of the Volga German Migration. This war occurred at the same time as the French and Indian War in the United States. French troops again decimated Southwestern Germany and left the population ravaged. Despite the war induced poverty, the princes continued to extract heavily from their peasants. Enforced  labor service and required military duty were also major factors. Particularly in Hesse, where subjects were frequently hired out as mercenary soldiers. Hessian troops were again hired out just a few years after the Volga migration, this time to England to fight against the colonists during the American Revolution.

It should be noted that the prerequisite for a massive movement of this size is also dependent on the opportunities afforded in the destination country. Russia offered nearly unrestricted opportunities to the emigrants as a result of readily available land for purchase, exemption from military service, freedom from most taxation, self administration, religious freedom and loans to aid their initial settlements .

The migration to the Volga Region started as a trickle in 1763-1765 in response to Catherine The Great's invitation. As their subjects began to exit in a flood by 1767, the German princes acted decisively to put a stop to the emigration. This sudden cessation left thousands of hopeful German emigrants stranded, with some not even able to return to their home villages. Many believe there would have been several thousand more Germans in the original Volga colonies had it not been for the rulers decisive move to prohibit the out migration. As it was, it is estimated that 25,000 to 30,000 Germans were able to emigrate to Russia.

The emigrants were of all ages, but were predominantly comprised of young families. Many couples were married just prior to leaving for Russia. They came from many different areas or states in Germany. One state with particularly large representation was Hesse-Darmstadt. The count of Isenburg was more tolerant of the recruiters than many other rulers and consequently many of his subjects emigrated. Budingen Castle, where he resided, was the place where several hundred young couples were married before departing. The Budingen marriage records often list the home villages and the parents of the emigrants.

 The trip for the émigrés was a long and arduous one. First they had to travel overland to the port city of Lubeck on the northeastern coast of Germany. There they would gather until sufficient numbers could be grouped together for the long trip by sailing ship to the Russian port city of St. Petersburg. Then the route was another long stretch overland to the southeast, through the Russian interior, to the city of Saratov. From this point they were dispersed out to their villages of destination. This was the primary route for early émigrés, however some Germans made the complete trip by land.

 The Volga colonies became quite prosperous after suffering through the difficulties of the first few years. From the original 104 settlements, a thriving community of 192 towns and villages eventually developed on both sides of the Volga river in the Russian provinces of Saratov and Samara. Settlements located on the west side of the river were referred to as being on the Bergseite or hilly side. Settlements located on the east side of the river were referred to as being on the Wiesenseite or meadow side.

By the late 1800's, the population of German colonists had multiplied to many hundred thousand people. When the "Russianizing" process began in 1874 the colonists began to explore emigration possibilities. Emigration started in earnest in 1875 as young men objecting to the compulsory military duty began to depart. Emigration accelerated in the following years with many Volga Germans settling in Nebraska, the Dakotas and other parts of the United States and also in Winnipeg, Canada. But Lincoln, Nebraska ended up being the most prominent destination by far, with hundreds of Volga German families documented living there by the early 1900's.

Emigration to the United States, and other countries, was effectively ended by the Russian Revolution in 1917. In the ensuing years the Volga Germans endured increasing privations and suffered persecution from the Russian government and citizens. This period reached a climax during World War II when many Volga Germans were rounded up and forcibly transported from their villages to Siberia and other desolate locations following Hitler's invasion of Russian territory.

Germans From Russia Societies

American Historical Society of Germans From Russia
Germans From Russia Historical Society
Federation of East European Family History Societies

Copyright © 1995-2004 Herb Femling
Updated May 23, 2004
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