The Volga Germans

Definition

The Germans who left their homeland to settle in the Volga valley did so at the invitation of the Russian Tsarina Catherine in July 1763. By the end of 1767 German settlers, coming primarily from central Germany, had organized more than one hundred colonies along the Volga River near Saratov. By 1869, the German population in the Volga region would exceed 250,000.

The colonists had left their homes in Hesse, Rhineland, the Palatinate, Saxony, and W├╝rttemberg to avoid religious persecution and high taxes, and wanted to escape from the devastation of the Seven Years' War which had left them in extreme poverty. There was also a dire shortage of land.

Settlement

The colonists were promised freedom of religion, certain tax exemptions, some free land and cash grants, exemption from military service, the right to use their own language, the right to build their own villages, churches, and schools. [1]

Initially, the German immigrants suffered great hardships. In 1767, a law was enacted that forbade them to engage in any craft other than agriculture—a clear violation of the laws put in place in 1764. The climate, Tartar raids, general homesickness, and the Russian government's failure to deliver seeds on time made life very difficult; many emigrated back to Germany, to the Baltic provinces or to America. By the end of 1767 German settlers, coming primarily from central Germany, organized more than one hundred colonies along the Volga River, near Saratov. A century later, in 1869, the German population in the Volga region exceeded 250,000. [2]

 

 
Source: http://www.rollintl.com/roll/volga.htm

The first good harvest occurred in 1775, and from then on the colonists' fortunes rose. Closed German villages were established. The Empress authorized the building of a church in each colony, paid for by the government and repaid by the colonists.

Volga Germans—like all other German emigrants to Russia—were deeply religious. For them, the church was the center of the colonist's intellectual world and sustained their moral standards, language and ethnic character.

Between 1763 and 1768, approximately 8,000 families totalling 27,000 people—mainly of Hessian descent—immigrated into the Volga region. Here, on the hilly side (right bank of the Volga) 45 colonies were founded, and on the meadow side (left bank of the Volga) 59 colonies were founded. The settlements were laid out strictly along religious lines: [3]

 

 

Lutheran

Catholic

Hillside

31

14

Meadow side

35

24

Total

66

38

The system of inheritance (in which the youngest son inherited the farm), the abundance of children, and the privilege of being allowed to buy land were all factors which led to the founding of numerous daughter colonies. At first, these were set up in the neighborhood of the mother colonies in the Volga and Black Sea region, but beginning in the final third of the 19th century daughter colonies were also established in the northern Caucasus, in the Urals, in Siberia, Kazakhstan, and central Asia. The last settlements were founded in the Amur region as late as 1927-28. Altogether, 440 daughter colonies were founded in the Volga area. [4]

As conditions deteriorated for Germans in Russia at the end of the 19th century due to the abrogation of certain privileges previously granted by the Russian government, North America became the new promised land. Canada and the U.S. issued their own invitations to settlers and sent recruiters to Europe. Just as the Russian government had attracted Germans with free land and special rights, the governments of this New World made similar offers less than a century later.

With the First World War, hostilities against the Russian Germans broke out. Under the Bolsheviks, they were persecuted for their religious beliefs. The churches were closed in the period between 1929-1931. Religious services were forbidden, and most of the pastors and church sextons of all denominations were arrested and deported.

A "Worker's Commune of the Region of the Volga Germans" was established in 1918 and was home to half a million Germans (two thirds of the total population of the Volga Republic were German). By 1924, it became the first autonomous ethnic region of the Soviet Union. Even in its first ten years, the Volga German Republic developed its industry and to a large extent mechanized agriculture. The Republic of the Volga Germans played a leading role in the introduction of modern production methods in agriculture in the USSR. [5]

Beginning in the school year 1938-1939, the official language of instruction in all schools was changed to Russian or Ukrainian. At first the change only took place outside of the Volga German Republic, but by 1939 all German districts were dissolved. Many Germans were deported to Kazakhstan between 1927 and 1933. According to the 1926 Census, only 379,630 Germans remained in the Volga region in contrast to the 650,000 in 1914.

With the outbreak of WW II, all Germans became enemies of the state. Germans were considered to be a "fifth column" supporting the Nazis. In 1941 the "Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic of the Volga Germans" was abolished and all the Germans of the Republic (ca. 340,000) were deported to Central Asia, Siberia, and Kazakhstan. Many young men were drafted into the Russian army, and the young women were used as domestic servants in the cities.

In 1955, the Soviet Union released information about the whereabouts of more than a million Volga Germans and granted them belated amnesty. By the mid-1960s, the government admitted responsibility for the persecution of innocent people and declared the actions of 1941 as null and void.

Settlement in Alberta

Volga Germans from the villages of Dreispitz, Huck, Norka, Pobochnoye, and Shcherbakovka came to Alberta in the mid-1890s, settling in the Calgary area as well as west of Edmonton in Stony Plain and Glory Hills (they had come from the village of Norka). Both areas attracted additional immigrants from the Volga in the following years, for example, in the vicinity of Trochu, Beiseker and Duffield. [6] Reformed Church Volga Germans also settled near Mellowdale (1897) in the Barrhead area.

Notes

[1] "German settlement map," http://www.rollintl.com/roll/grsettle.htm. Accessed on March 12, 2004.

[2] "Who are the Germans from Russia?" http://feefhs.org/frgcdcwt.html. Accessed on March 10, 2004.

[3] "A People on the Move: Germans in Russia and in the former Soviet Union: 1763 - 1997" http://www.lib.ndsu.nodak.edu/ grhc/history_culture/history/people.html. Accessed on April 4, 2004.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lehmann, Heinz, The German Canadians: 1750-1937. Immigration, settlement and culture. Translated, edited and introduced by Gerhard P. Bassler (St. John's, NF: Jesperson Press, 1986), p. 118.

Sources

1. "The Volga Germans. A brief history," http://www.lhm.org/LID/lidhist.htm.

2. "German settlement map," http://www.rollintl.com/roll/grsettle.htm

3. Excellent reading: "A People on the Move: Germans in Russia and in the former Soviet Union: 1763-1997"   (http://www.lib.ndsu.nodak.edu/grhc/history_culture/history/people.html).