The Volga Germans (Rivers Special II)

This is Part II of the Rivers Special. Click the following for Part I, in which we briefly look at the Volga River's importance on the Russian economy; as well as some of the great artworks it has inspired.  

Germans in Russia
This story begins with Catherine the Great, the empress who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796.  Much like the United States encouraged settlement in its western territories, Catherine wanted to encourage settlement in Russia's more southern and eastern territories. In both cases, the increased settlement was designed to increase agricultural yields and push out native inhabitants.  (It is worth noting that the Russian call for settlers specifically forbade Jewish immigration.)  Herself from Germany, Catherine also believed immigrants from Western Europe could bring improved agricultural techniques to the region. Many Spanish, Portuguese, French, and British eschewed Russia for the New World colonies their home countries had already established, but many German-speaking people felt pulled towards Russia's Volga region.  With promises of tax-exemptions, free land, freedom of religion, and freedom from military service, Russia seemed like a dream calling. Thanks to their early autonomy, the Germans that settled in the region over the next century came to be known as the Volga Germans.

Settling the Volga
Thousands of Germans settled along the Volga, but they faced hardships from the climate and from the nomadic groups who believed the region belonged to them. Despite deaths from disease and fighting, the Volga Germans' initial settlements grew so large that they had to branch out into other settlements along the region; as well as throughout the world. The area also became synonymous with the German immigrants as they helped to increase Russia's agricultural yields.  To this day, the Volga is responsible for about 25% of Russia's agricultural production.

Leaving the Volga
A little more than one hundred years after their initial settlements, the Volga Germans faced a new set of difficulties.  Tax exemptions had run out and despite initial promises, Russian leadership now demanded military service.  The outbreak of WWI and the following Civil War brought rampant destruction to the region.  Throughout these struggles, many Volga Germans once again migrated - this time to the Great Plains of the United States. There they would prove a vital resource to the agricultural production of the region.

The Bolshevik Promise
For those who stayed in Russia, the initial promise of Leninism was one of regained autonomy. Lenin established the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, but this too was short lived. Many of the Volga Germans were devout Christians and as the 1920's came to a close, the USSR stepped up aggression against churches - confiscating church property and banning religious teachings.  Once Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, all Germans were considered enemies and many Volga Germans were killed or sent into exile.  Those that did survive were also forced participants in Stalin's Russification strategy and were sent to live in other lands, such as Kazakhstan,  while their farmlands were taken over by Russians that Stalin moved into the region.

Since the 1990's, Germany and Russia have worked (sometimes closely, sometimes not) to recreate a German-Russian region for the descendants of the Volga Germans to return to.  Despite whatever outcomes arise from this, the history of the Volga Germans has been played out not just along the river from which they are named, but on a global scale and their descendants serve as proof of the human spirit to overcome environmental and man-made difficulties.

For more on America's German-Russians, North Dakota State has a comprehensive online library of articles, pictures, and even recipes.

Thanks for reading!

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