Volga German

Missing image
Volga German pioneer family comemorative statue in Victoria, Kansas, USA.

The Volga Germans were ethnic Germans living near the Volga River and the Black Sea, maintaining German culture, language, traditions, and religions: Evangelical Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism. Many Volga Germans immigrated to the American mid-west in the 19th century.

After she displaced Peter III from the Russian throne, German princess Sophie Fredericke Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, a native of Stettin, took the vacant imperial throne under the name of Catherine II (the Great) in 1762. Since settlement by ethnic Russians had been slow in the Ukrainian lands conquered from the Ottoman Empire, Catherine published manifestos inviting Germans to immigrate and farm Russian lands while maintaining their language and culture. Germans went to Russia with special rights as a group, which were later revoked when the need for conscription into the Russian army arose in the latter part of the 19th century. The Germans, who had little commitment to the Russian Empire, often emigrated to avoid the draft.

After the Russian Revolution, the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Autonome Sozialistische Sowjet-Republik der Wolga-Deutschen; Автоно́мная Сове́тская Социалисти́ческая Респу́блика Не́мцев Пово́лжья) was established from 19241942 with the capital in Engels (known as "Pokrovsk" before 1931).

As the Nazis advanced into the USSR towards Volga, Joseph Stalin became worried about the possibility of Volga Germans collaborating with them. On August 28, 1941, he ordered a 24-hour relocation of Volga Germans eastwards. The males spent the war in Stalin's concentration camps, where the survival rate was very low. Similar deportations happened for other ethnic groups, see: Polish minority in Soviet Union, History of Chechnya, Crimean Tatars.

The Volga Germans never returned to the Volga region. After the war, many settled in the Ural Mountains, Siberia, Kazakhstan (2% of todays Kazakh population are recognized as Germans - approximately 300,000), Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan (appr. 16,000 = 0.064%). Decades after the war, some talked about resettling where the German Autonomous Republic used to be, but this movement met with opposition from the population resettled to their territory and did not gain momentum.

Since the late 1980s, many Volga Germans have emigrated to their ancestral homeland of Germany, taking advantage of the German Law of return, a policy which grants citizenship to all those who can prove German ancestry. This exodus has occurred despite the fact that most Volga Germans speak little or no German. In the late 1990s, however, Germany made it more difficult for Russians of German descent to settle in Germany, especially for those who do not speak some of the Volga dialects of German.

Volga Germans in North America

Volga Germans emigrated to the United States and Canada and settled mainly in the Great Plains; Alberta, eastern Colorado, Kansas, Manitoba, Minnesota, eastern Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Saskatchewan, and often succeeding in dryland farming, a skill learned in Russia. Many of the emigrants who arrived after between 1870 and 1912 spent a period doing farm labor, in northeastern Colorado in the sugar beet fields.

Bernhard Warkentin, a German Russian, was born in a small Russian village in 1847, and traveled to America in his early 20s. Interested in flour mills, he was especially impressed with the wheat growing possibilities in the United States. After visiting Kansas, Warkentin found the plains much like those he had left behind in his native Russia. Settling in Harvey County, he built a water mill on the banks of the Little Arkansas River - the Halstead Milling and Elevator Company. Warkentin's greatest contribution to Kansas was the introduction of hard Turkey wheat into Kansas, which replaced the soft variety grown exclusively in the State.

Modern descendants in Canada and the United States refer to their heritage as Germans from Russia. In the United States, however, they tend to have blended to a large degree with the much more numerous "regular" Germans who dominate the northern half of the United States.

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