On July 22, 1763, Catherine the Great issued a Manifesto inviting Germans to come settle in her country. The Empress of Russia’s invitation came at a time when the provinces of Germany were ravaged by the Seven Years War, famine and crippling poverty.
Catherine’s offer was difficult to refuse: generous acreage, free relocation expenses and supplies, no taxes for thirty years, freedom to practice their religion, no conscription in Russia’s Army, local self-government and more. German settlers were promised loans to help them buy livestock and equipment with no interest and a reasonable repayment plan.
The alternative was going to the Americas, but this option was a pay-as-you-go opportunity. For people who were already poor and couldn’t support their own families, buying tickets for passage across the Atlantic was nearly impossible. It seemed an easy decision to choose an old, established country like Russia over North or South America.
Because of her German heritage, German citizens believed the Empress would be fair to them. Instead, she used her heritage as a way to manipulate hard-working people to help settle the wild, untamed areas of her adopted country. They failed to realize that Catherine was a ruthless leader who gained her power by deposing her husband, Peter, Tsar of Russia, and claiming the Russian throne for herself. Later she had him murdered.
The Empress knew many Germans were desperate to provide for their families and would jump at the opportunity to improve their lives. Germans already had a reputation as hardworking and industrious, so if anyone could help the Russians tame their desolate frontier, she believed it would be them. Thousands of Germans accepted Catherine’s offer and moved their families to Russia. Many settled in small villages along the Volga River.
Life was far different from what they expected. These new Russian citizens were forced to remain in hostile territory plagued by unpleasant weather patterns, rocky soil, vermin and disease. The earliest settlers battled with nomadic Kazakhs from China and Mongolia, and as a result, many Germans lost their lives. Still they persevered.
In 1874 the government enforced conscription on all men, including the Germans along the Volga. This was a serious breach of promise to the settlers who were strong pacifists. Many Germans in Russia moved their families to America to avoid being forced to join the military, while others stayed behind, hoping their government would re-exempt them.
Many of these Germans immigrated to North and South America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. For those who stayed in Russia, life remained harsh as they were ranked near the bottom of the country’s class system and routinely treated poorly.
By the early 1900s, those still living along the Volga River still considered themselves Germans, not Russians. Socialization with other native Russians was minimal. Intermarriage was considered taboo.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, all of Volga Germans were considered enemies of the state. They lost their citizenship and were deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia. The weak, the elderly and those attempting to resist resettlement were shot. Many died before reaching their final destination.
My maternal great grandparents and their young families came to the United States in the early 1900s. They left loved ones behind, some of whom did not survive their exile to Kazakhstan. After the deaths of my grandparents, family members lost touch with their remaining Russian relatives.
In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. This led to an agreement between Russia, then the USSR, and Germany to allow the USSR’s citizens of German ancestry to return to their homeland. In the late 1990s, relatives of my grandmother’s family tried to contact us using an old address. Somehow the letter made its way to me, and my husband and I had it translated.
The letter revealed that descendants of my great grandmother’s sister had finally left Kazakhstan and moved to Berlin, Germany. This led to one of my great grandmother’s sons traveling to Berlin to visit his first cousin and other family members. I obtained a significant amount of information about the families who remained behind, to where they were relocated, and their ancestors and descendants.
Through my grandparents, I heard firsthand stories about the struggles of the German people in Russia, specifically those living in villages along the Volga River.
Note: The historical commentary above was originally used in the preface of book I wrote called Braha. Although the book is about fictional characters, it was based on the real events that led to the immigration of Germans to Russia, and the eventual disillusionment of these Germans that led to many immigrating from Russia to North and South America.
- Stump, Karl, The Emigration from Germany to Russia in the Years 1763 to 1862 (Lincoln, Nebraska: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, Third Printing 1993).
- Mai, Brent Alan, 1798 Census of the German Colonies along the Volga, Economy, Population, and Agriculture, Volumes 1 & 2 (Lincoln, Nebraska: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, Second Printing 2005).
- Beratz, Gottlieb, The German Colonies on the Lower Volga, Their Origin and Early Development (Lincoln, Nebraska: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, Translation Copyright and Printing 1991; Originally published as Die deutschen Kolonien an de unteren Wolga in ihrer Entstehung und ersten Entwickelung in Saratov, Russia in 1915 and reprinted in Berlin Germany in 1923).
- Kloberdanz, Timothy L., The Volga Germans in Old Russia and in Western North America: Their Changing World View (Lincoln, Nebraska: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia Second Printing 1997; First Printing Anthropological Quarterly, October 1975, Volume 48, Number 4).
- The American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, http://www.ahsgr.org/
- The Center for Volga German Studies at Portland University, Portland, Oregoon, online database, Settlements, Mother Colonies, Colony of Grimm, http://cvgs.cu-portland.edu/settlements/mother_colonies/colony_grimm.cfm
- Family Search.org, online database, Learning, Wiki, Germans from Russia, https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Germans_from_Russia
- Sea Distances.org, http://www.sea-distances.org/
- Volga Russian Map, http://rollroots.com/volga.htm
- Major, August, vital information and personal stories from the Kazakhstan territory, Russia and Berlin, Germany now in the personal files of J. M. Mangano.
- Brester, Alexander, vital information, photos, and other information from German families living in Beryozovka, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia.
- Kaiser, Alexander, vital information and personal stories about living in Grimm and the Germans’ journey from Germany to Russia
- Miller, Ruth Kaiser, vital information and personal stories about her parents and grandparents and their lives in Russia
- Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934, Staatsarchiv Hamburg; Hamburg, Deutschland; Hamburger Passagierlisten; Microfilm No.: K_1793. Source Information: Staatsarchiv Hamburg. Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2008. Original data: Staatsarchiv Hamburg, Bestand: 373-7 I, VIII (Auswanderungsamt I). Mikrofilmrollen K 1701 – K 2008, S 17363 – S 17383, 13116 – 13183. See: http://ancstry.me/2wWKsoy.
- Personal family recollections and records directly from Alex Kaiser to his daughter Ruth Virginia Kaiser and granddaughter Julie Miller Mangano prior to his death in 1978.