The Russian Germans

(Source: Ingeborg Fleischhauer and Benjamin Pinkus: The Soviet Germans – Past and Present edited with an introduction by Edith Rogovin Frankel, St. Martin’s Press, New York in association with the Marjorie Mayrock Center for Soviet and East European Research ant the Hebrew University, Jerusalem 1986)

It is more than two centuries ago since Empress Catherine the Great issued her Manifesto inviting foreigners to come and settle in Russia. Many ethnic Germans called Volksdeutsche (p. 2) responded to the Manifesto and entered the country. Coming from areas played by chronic instability and military conflict, the German colonists were attracted by the opportunities with Catherine’s offer opened up. Thousands of German families entered Russia in the few years immediately following the promulgation of the Manifesto in July 1763 and continued to come in a series of waves during the next century. The background were disparate; they came from a wide range of German states – Baden, Württenberg, the Palatinate, West Prussia, Danzig – and even from German communities in Poland and Galicia, and they belonged to different Christian denominations. While the most were Lutherans, there were also colonists belonging to the Chatolic, Reformed and Mennonite Churches. p 2)

In their social origin the settlers were rather more consistent, largely they were from lower strata of society and had carried their living in agriculture or skilled crafts.

Most of the Catherine’s colonists were sent to the Volga region, and of these most settled south of Saratov on both banks of the river. Later group settled to other areas a large group in the lower Black Sea area and other in the Crimean, along Dniepr, in Bessarabia, on the Dnestr, in the Caucasus, in Volhynia and Siberia. (p. 3).

Empress Catherine’s aim, as stated in the Manifesto, was to populate undeveloped regions of Russia and open them up to productive settlement.
In order to encourage foreigners to settle in Russia, the government offered special conditions and privileges such as exemption from taxes for thirty years, material help in the construction of their homesteads, freedom of worship and permanent exemption from military services. It should be noted that the Germans came as free peasants to a country of serfs. It was hoped that their traditionally industrious character and productive farming methods would not only prove successful in Russian conditions but would serve as an example to the local farmers. (p. 3)
…To the Russian-German reader, the Reverend Conrad Keller described some of the useful characteristics of the German colonist in South Russia in the early twentieth century. “The German colonist is courageous, valiant and able, and has a taste for order and discipline, which makes him an excellent and serviceable soldier, openly recognized as such by even the Russian officers. The general aspiration of the German colonists is directed more toward material then spiritual riches of life, for which reason even school affairs are still left far behind them. “Money and land” is the cure-all cry among most German colonist.” (p. 3)

Twenty-five years later, Father Keller said much the same thing in his own way:
“Distinctive intellectual characteristic of the colonists are keen understanding, sagacity, good memory and rather slow but intensive power of comprehension. Among the colonists the ability to learn foreign languages is rare, for the Russian language is mostly incorrectly pronounced by them, to be sure, even if well learned in school. The German colonist is not much good at associating with foreigners, at which time his behavior is mostly unnatural and awkward. The German colonist adapts himself easily among other people, but clings to his narrower homeland with devotion.”(p. 4)

They continued to work the land which they had acquired, of course, some of them living the most modest of lives while others were great landowners, grain-growers and millers. And they continued to live largely in their own communities, marrying within the group and maintaining their separateness. (p. 4)

In the period of expansion, beginning in the 1860 (…) they converted themselves (…) from exclusively agricultural and artisan production to manufacturing and industry. The tools and machines, the plough and vehicles with which the German colonists in South Russia provided the Russian peasants played as great a role in opening up intensifying the agrarian economy there as did the windmills and later the steam-driven mills of the German cereal production in the Volga region for the cereal trade in the empire. (p.23)

The taxes paid by the colonies, which already came to over 1 million rubles annually in the middle of the nineteenth century, likewise indicated the contribution of the German settlements to Russia’s national economy. (p. 23)
In 1914 landed property in the possession of German peasants in the other provinces of the Russian empire (except the Baltic provinces) amounted to about 10 million hectares. Most of the German-held land occupied an extraordinarily wide belt stretching from the western to the southern borderlands of the empire. (p. 22)

Read more about the Manifesto of 1763
Read more about the Empress Catherine II