June 01, 1998

The Volga Germans

Soon after coming to power in a bloodless coup, Catherine II (later “The Great”), herself German, extended an invitation to Germans to colonize portions of the lower Volga, to improve farming in the region [colonization by Russians was not deemed feasible, because serfs were tied to the land they worked]. The offer included free land for all colonists, payment of passage to Russia, freedom of religion, freedom from military servitude, freedom from taxes for 30 years and self-government of national groups. Needless to say, this was an enticing proposal to German peasants who had little chance of owning land in Germany and who had suffered mightily under the Seven Years War (1756-63).

The German colonists flocked to the Volga region from 1764 on, establishing over 100 colonies between Saratov and Kamyshin and coming to be known as “Volga-Germans” (Nemtsy povolzhe). The majority of Volga-Germans came from the Southwest portion of Germany. Large numbers of Germans also settled along the Black Sea coast.

The Germans lived largely in isolation from the surrounding Russian population and, not limited by the ties of serfdom, were able to develop much better local economic conditions. But, toward the end of the 19th century, with the Russifying policies of Tsars Alexander II and Alexander III, the advantageous conditions and self-government extended the Germans was curtailed. This led to massive German emigration (over 100,000 to the US alone) and, with other reforms at the turn of this century, to internal emigration – to the southern Urals, Kazakstan and Siberia, where new lands were being opened up for settlers. The 1897 census showed some 1.8 million persons of German ancestry living in Russia, in over 2000 settlements.

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