Who are the Volga Germans? Holding their Tradition across 3 Countries
My introduction to the Volga Germans came through food. Specifically, Kuchen. One of my readers reached out to me looking for a recipe for Kuchen like her Volga German grandmother made. In my experience, Kuchen is cake… and there are LOTS of cake recipes. So now it was time to do some digging…starting with, who ARE the Volga Germans? (and why did they call this pie-like dessert “Kuchen”). The Kuchen part was easy, but the history of the Germans who lived in the Volga River region of Russia was a lot deeper than I imagined. This ethnic community held on to their traditions and customs over hundreds of years and across three countries. Over 300,000 came to America, and their descendants still hold tight to their history. So, let’s find out a little more about the Volga Germans.
(Some of you with long memories might recognize parts of this post. Portions were originally part of the South Dakota Kuchen Recipe page, but I thought it was time to expand the history and separate it from the recipe. You can still find the recipe for Kuchen here)
Who are the Volga Germans
The Seven Years War (1756-1763) involved all of Europe with Germany as the battlefield. When the dust settled, most Germans were left in poverty, fields and farms destroyed, with only a patchwork government to keep an eye on things. Around that same time, Catherine the Great, former German princess (born in Pomerania) and current Czarina of Russia was recovering from a war with the Ottomans left the Volga region of her country barren. She needs farmers, and knows firsthand just how hard Germans work, so she devised a great plan…. invite Germans to fill the area with productive farms. She creates a Manifesto to entice poor farmers from the Rhineland and Hesse with offers of autonomy and land. Flyers went up all over Germany, and special agents went out to recruit Germans to come live in the Volga region.
The Manifesto of July 22, 1763 promised:
Freedom from taxation and licenses for 30 years to rural settlers.
Government support with interest-free loans and repayments after 10 years.
A guarantee of self-rule within the colonies.
Permission to bring personal possessions with them duty free.
No military service for all settlers and their descendants.
Free transport to areas of settlement.
Volga German Settlement Map public domain
Volga Germans In Russia
What started as a trickle of a few thousand settlers in 1767 became a Tidal Wave. Germans established 106 small communities along the Volga River. Each village built a church, paid for by the Russian government, then repaid by the Volga Germans. They set up schools that taught German language. And they even their own form of government and division of labor. The language was German. By 1869, there were over 250,000 Volga Germans, all living according to their German traditions within Russia.
But you could say they were victims of their own success. Others in Russia grew frustrated with the special treatment these “Germans” were handed, especially the exemption from military service. Slowly these rights were chipped away, and by the 1880s, many Volga Germans looked toward North America for the freedoms they wanted. Both the United States and Canada sent ambassadors to the Volga German communities to entice new immigrants.
Volga Germans in America
Volga Germans spent generations living as Germans in Russia, and they were used to staying within their community and maintaining their traditions despite outside influences. However, this led to problems in some areas. By holding tight to their way of life, their language, their traditions, even their clothing, they were considered outsiders. By the early 1900s, people had come to (mostly) accept Germans, but these new immigrants were German and not German. Over time, the Volga German community “Americanized” to a certain extent, and came to be praised for work ethic.
The first Volga Germans arrived in the Dakota Territories in 1872 to take advantage of the Homestead Act which promised any adult male 160 acres of land for only $10, provided they build a house, raised crops, and survived 5 years. (Not an easy task) This was a bet the Germans were happy to make, and they came by the thousands. And with them, they brought their way of life, and their recipes. (like Kuchen). Today HALF of North Dakota’s population has Russian German Roots.
You’ll find the highest concentrations of Volga Germans in the United States near Lincoln Nebraska, home to the headquarters of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia. It’s also the center of the American Volga Relief Society (set up to help the Volga Germans who had been starved by Lenin) One of the biggest employers was the railroad! From there… Volga Germans spread across the country.
Public domain, via Wikimedia CommonsVolga Germans in Kansas
In 1872, the Kansas Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroads actively recruited Volga Germans by printing up information in the German language and sending their agents to Russia. The railroads promised land along rail lines… a win win for both the farmers who would have a way to ship their grain, and the railroads, who would be paid for shipping. It also helped that Kansas allowed its residents to opt out of military service for religious reasons. By 1879, 12,700 Volga Germans had made the move to Ellis County, Kansas, “Land of the Volga Germans”. There they built what would become the largest Catholic Church west of the Mississippi River, St. Fidelis.
In 1882, a group of Volga Germans in Nebraska decided to make the move to the Pacific Northwest in search of space. Around then, another group from Kansas with the same plan headed north east. Both groups ended up in Eastern Washington Territory (it didn’t become a state until 1889). Compared to Russia, the incredibly fertile soil made farming easy. The railroads worked with the farmers to insure success… they sold land to farmers that connected with the tracks, making it easy for farmers to sell and ship. In this way, the “Great Plateau” filled with Russian German townships like “Odessa, Mohler, Ritzville, Sprague, Marcellus, packard, Krupp, Wilson Creek, Batum, Schrag, Tiflis and Moscow.” (American Historical Society of Germans from Russia- Seattle CHapter). For a detailed description of their journey, beginning in Germany, the time in Russia, and then the move to the Midwest and finally the Pacific Northwest around Walla Walla. Today, I highly recomend the book Hardship to Homeland, by Richard Scheuerman.
The first group of 24 Volga Germans arrived in Fresno California in 1887, after seeing advertisements extoling the virtues of the San Juaquin Valley published in Nebraska newspapers. This “Sommerland” had fertile soils just waiting for German industriousness. Land was expensive though, at $600 an acre, so most worked hard as laborers until they could afford to buy their own property. After the poor soils of the Russian Steppes, they had no trouble growing crops like Sunflower Seeds, Turkey Red Wheat, and Watermelons. Between 1887 and 1920, the population grew to 8000. The Volga German church, first built in 1895 on D street has since moved a few times, and there is still a strong community of approximately 100,000 descendants living in the Fresno/Madera region.
Sugar beets brought Volga Germans to Colorado. By the early 1900s, and anti immigrant sentiment was sweeping the country. Volga Germans tended to wear their ethnic clothing, which set them apart, and made it hard to find work. The families often resorted to working in fields as laborers. The Great Western Sugar Company saw an opportunity, and actively recruited the large families to work in the fields. Over time, and through hard work, they were able to buy farms, and become more established in society. By the 1970s, Volga Germans were the second largest ethnic group in Colorado. Today more than 500,000 descendants live in Larimer and Weld counties
But not all Volga Germans left Russia
Despite the chipping away of rights and privileges, some Volga Germans chose to stay in Russia. After the Bolshevik revolution, religious persecution meant that their churches were closed, and pastors exiled. In 1918, the “Worker’s Commune of the Region of the Volga Germans” was established, and led the way in farm production in the USSR. Then in 1923 the Commune was reorganized, and became its own autonomous ethnic region, the “Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic” located in Pokrovst (later Engels). By 1939, the Volga German ASSR had population of 650,000, with 60% German. They were still allowed their own language and schools, as well as administration, so by 1937 had their own constitution and university. Like in the rest of the USSR, private Farms converted to collectives, and were the most productive region in the USSR.
Design emblem of the Volga German ASSR
The final blow came in 1941 when the German Nationals were labeled Enemies of the State. The Volga German Republic was dissolved. Strong young men were conscripted into the Soviet Army, women were put to work as servants, and the rest were shipped off to Siberia. The German communities in Russia were essentially erased, although some cemeteries still have the German headstones.
(note- in 1955, the USSR admitted to persecuting the Volga Germans…and released information about their location.)
Volga Germans In America Today
Today, the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia has a mission to “discover, collect, preserve, and share the history, cultural heritage, and genealogical legacy of German Settlers in the Russian Empire”. Their website is a treasure trove of information on Germans from Russia, and a wonderful starting place for research.