German Memories – Volga Germans


Volga Germans and other ethnic German repatriates including Black Sea Germans and Germans from other regions from the former Soviet Union are a separate group in Germany.

Since 1950, about 2.2 million ethnic Germans have left the former Soviet Union for Germany, in search of better economic and social conditions and an escape from post-World War II persecution. Most of these people come from from Kazakhstan particularly the northern part near Siberia. Another 1 million Germans still remain in Russia, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine.

The history of these ethnic Germans, especially the Volga Germans, had a hazardous past since they left the German soil centuries ago.

In 1763, Catherine the Great issued a persuasive manifesto inviting foreigners to settle in Russia. Because of the impoverished conditions in Europe due to the Seven Years War, and the aggressive campaign of immigration agents, many Germans answered the call to ‘paradise’.

During the four years from 1764 to 1767, Germans colonized 104 villages in the desolate Volga Valley of Russia near the city of Saratov. Of these, 44 were on the West side, the hilly side (Bergseite) of the Volga River and 60 villages were on the East side, the meadow side (Wiesenseite).

The villages ranged in population from 225 to 250 people each. The emigrants numbered a total of more than seven thousand families, an estimated 25 thousand people.

The majority came from Hesse Germany, with southwest Germany well represented and less coming from other countries. Separate religious affiliations were of primary importance and interdenominational villages were extremely rare. With few exceptions, all of the villages were Lutheran, Reformed or Catholic and later Mennonite.

Divorced from their fatherland, the Germans turned inward to form an isolationist attitude that would characterize their behavior for years to come. No farmer lived isolated and alone on their farm but they resided in a village where they enjoyed communal amenities in conjunction with the church and school. The church was the center of community life.

The Germans maintained their way of life and had minimal interaction with the Russians. For the most part they only spoke German and did not learn the Russian language except for essential government and business dealings. They built German schools, practised their German religion, Lutheran, Reformed or Catholic, and only married other Germans, usually from their own village.

They faced many hardships since their arrivals from Germany. The first problem for the immigrants was houses. The emigrants had been promised that these would be ready upon their arrival, but in most cases the newcomers found neither house nor lumber to build them. The settlers were shown how to make themselves mud huts, Russian style, in which they had to live sometimes for as long as two or three years before their houses were ready.

Other needs of the settlers were not met. Domestic animals were in short supply; the farm implements furnished were crude, the seed grain was always late. There were shortages of clothing, so essential in the cold winters and even shortages of food.

Russian officials profiteered at the expense of the immigrants.

Nature was also against the newcomers. After the bitterly cold winters, came the spring floods to wash away their mud huts and make them flee to the hills. The summers were hot and dry and crop failure followed crop failure. Ignorance of the qualities of the soil and the kind of cultivation it required were difficulties that could only be overcome with experience.

Not until 1775 did the colonists harvest their first good crop and finally became independent of government help.

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