Germans in Russia

Aside from the commonly known “Volga Germans,” early German settlement in Russia dates back to the 16th century under the reign of Vasili III when a few German craftsmen and traders established businesses in Moscow. By 1682, 18,000 out of Moscow’s 200,000 citizens were Germans or other westerners. There were also “Black Sea Germans” (Bessarabian, Dobrujan and Bukovina Germans) who settled in territories on the northern bank of the Black Sea and formed a chain of colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries in what is now Ukraine on land which Catherine the Great gained for Russia through her two wars with the Ottoman Empire (1768-1774) and from the annexation of the Crimean Khanates (1783). These German settlers first arrived in 1787 from West Prussia in hopes that they would weaken the less desirable native Crimean Tatar population. Later, more Germans from Western and Southwestern Germany and from the Warsaw area also settled in the Caucasus from the beginning of the 19th century, expanding into Crimea in the 1850s.

A large portion of Russia’s ethnic Germans migrated there from its Polish possessions. Germans had been living in the part of Poland transferred to Russia from Medieval times. Then, through wars and the partitions of Poland in the 18th century and the changing borders of Prussia, Germans also widely settled in what is now commonly called Russian Poland. After the Polish insurrection of 1830, even more Germans left Poland for Russia, leading to several German colonies in Volhynia. Speaking a middle-German Prussian dialect similar to the Silesian, Germans remained in this central region and managed to keep their German culture intact a long time. They are referred to as “Vistula Germans.”

Other areas such as that around the Black Sea also received many German immigrants. The lower Dniepr river area around Ekaterinaslav (Dnepropetrovsk) and Aleksandrovsk (Zaporizhzhia) was settled with German Mennonites. Germans also opened new colonies in Altay in Russian Asia and were still expanding in Ukraine even at the start of World War One.

Czarina Catherine the Great of Russia, worried about her unruly frontier, enticed more than 30,000 Europeans, mainly Germans, to migrate to Russia and establish 104 colonies on both banks of the Volga river. Her first invitation in 1762 was followed by a subsequent Manifesto in July, 1763 which promised free lands, expenses for the move, freedom from taxation for 30 years, and exemption from civil and military service for themselves and their descendants. The empress’s agents recruited settlers especially from the poorer German states devastated by the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Thousands of war-weary colonists eagerly accepted her invitation and made the long, dangerous trek east and across Russia to the Volga. Although many were farmers, there were also craftsmen, clergymen, teachers and other professionals representing all major faiths.

Between 1762 and 1772. German settlement in Russia under her reign was restricted to the Volga Region where they were expected to establish villages, farms and businesses for the benefit of Russia. The colonists settled in the area around the cities of Samara and Saratov, which was founded in 1590 as a defensive fortress following the Russian conquest of the Tatar khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan. Many of the colonists that settled in the region remained in their original groups from their respective hometowns in Germany. Over the next three centuries, Germans turned the Saratov area into one of the wealthiest, most important cities of the Russian Empire, becoming an important center for industry, trade, agriculture, agricultural products, fishing, salt industries and manufacturing and metalwork. What had been a veritable desert when they arrived soon blossomed with their labor.

The Bessarabia Germans

Lutheran refugees who fled to the east left via the Danube. Some of them reached a region that in ancient times was known as Dacia, but later was named after the Romanian prince Basarab, from which the name Bessarabia was created. A fairly large country which since 1814 has become part of Romania, the German settlers in this region left behind German place names such Gnadenfeld, Leipzig, Katzbach or Dennewitz. After a turbulent history, the region is known today as Moldova. The present-day Moldavian Republic is sandwiched between Romania and a small piece of southern Ukraine, bounded by the Dniestr river to the north and east, the Prut to the west, and the lower Danube and the Black Sea to the south.

In 1803, Catherine II’s grandson, Tsar Alexander I, reissued her proclamation welcoming Germans, but he required new immigrants to either have 300 gulden in cash or special skills. After a trickle of colonists, full scale German colonization of Bessarabia began in 1812 when Russia acquired this territory from the Ottoman Empire. Tsar Alexander I issued an invitation to Germans to settle in this still comparatively empty region which had been seriously depressed because of the Napoleonic wars, poor management by the princes, high taxation, religious quarrels, and numerous failed harvests. The Tsar promised the settlers what Catherine the Great once had, free land, exemption from military service, and religious freedom.

Between 1814 and 1842, about 9,000 Germans migrated to Bessarabia and founded 25 mother colonies, their number increasing by the natural birthrate to 25,000 by 1842, when the demand for new land led to daughter colonies. After the abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1863, even more Germans came to fill the labor shortage which resulted, especially in agriculture. More than 150 communities were set up in the 125 years of German settlement in Bessarabia, and the German population of Bessarabia rose from 33,000 to 79,000 between 1861 and 1919. The highest concentration of Germans was found in the Akkerman Kreis where they represented more than 16% of the population. Some colonists left Bessarabia in the late 19th century for places such as North and South America. North Dakota, USA and Alberta, Canada saw large numbers of them.

There were 1,790,439 Germans settled in Russia by 1897. Their settlements thrived. Houses, schools and churches were erected with zeal in the lovely, rolling countryside and their new villages dotted the landscape. They had well established patterns of trade and commerce and this continued for almost 150 years. Desolate lands were turned into thriving villages and verdant farms.