Category: Volga German Project

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History of the Volga Germans

By the 1760's, Europe had been through many recent wars, including the Seven Years' War (ended 1763) and the Thirty Years' War (ended 1648). The Reformation had caused much religious conflict. German peasants were struggling under massive taxes to fund the wars causing dire poverty level living conditions. The foreign and German armies had devastated fields and towns, livestock, and many homes. Industry and trade had been disrupted, unemployment was rampant, and the sons of families were constantly spending part of their lives or losing their lives fighting in wars that held no interest or benefit to themselves.

In December 1762, and again in July 1763, Catherine the Great, Czarina of the Russian Empire and former German princess, issued her Manifesto inviting all non-Jewish Europeans to come and start farms on the Russian frontier lands of the Volga River Region. All Europeans who did so would be protected by Russian law in that they would maintain their language and culture and have general freedom of religious practice. Originally, those migrants were exempt from taxes and serving in the Russian military.

With the English and French being much more attracted to the Americas rather than Russian plains, over the next five years, Germans from the Palatinate and Rhineland region, the Kingdom of Bavaria, and the Lands of Baden, and Hesse came.

The promise of a better life for themselves and for their children offered great hope of opportunity. All debts had to be paid. Real estate, cattle, and furniture had to be sold. Possessions had to be packed for travel or sold off. Clothing for the long journey had to be made ready. Strong reactions came from Germanic rulers over their subjects, with laws threatening severe punishment, confiscation of goods, and prohibiting the sale of property. Emperor Joseph II forbade any further migration to Russia from anywhere in Germany in 1768. People continued leaving in large groups.

Eventually, Russia ;(Tzar Nickolas II) took back the freedom from military service and began to force Russian German sons into the Russian Army. At that point, many, many families fled to the United States, Canada, and South America, settling in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, North Dakota, nearby areas in the U.S., Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

Outside that area, they also settled in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, and Fresno County in California's Central Valley. Most continued in their family's farming occupation, already used to the freezing temperatures and desert-like environments.

Communal land ownership was invested in each new colony. The colonists adopted a Mir system by which every 10 years or so the land (based on the number of males in a family) was apportioned to each family. It was not all contiguous as each family was responsible for patches of land of various uses (planting crops, grazing, woodland, and later vinyards). These apportionments were so.varied that the land designated for a family would not be the same as they had been assigned previously. Thus there was little incentive to practice good husbandry of the land. Especially, crops were not rotated nor was land ever left fallow. In 1904 Tsar Nicolas decreed that the Volga Villages could by unanimous (or majority?) vote in the town councils divide and award private ownership of parcels of land.

Galka, in 1904, was the first Volga colony to vote for private land ownership.

A student at the University of Leipzig, Maximilian Julius Pretorius, wrote a well researched thesis for his doctoral degree in economics. A relative was living in Saratov, who had previously lived in Galka. This gave him an entry to the village. He lived there for a period in 1904. He made a careful study, firsthand, of all aspects of the village economics and wrote the definative discourse on economics of the Volga German colonies. It was his intention to write a follow up study after a few years of private ownership of the village lands. Unfortunately he died in World War I. His thesis was published in the original German in 1912. Both the German and an adequate English translation are available from Jayne Wunsch Dye (father born in Galka), at Jaynedye@me.com .

The exodus of Volga Germans had begun about 1875 but few had the money to relocate. Their sources of cash were sale of crops and work at trades. Owning land of your own allowed rental or sale of that land. Voila, passage money for your whole family.

As an aside, in Galka in 1904, the most ostentatious fashion statement was galoshes for the wife. These could only be purchased in a large city and, unlike as in Galka,, had to be a cash purchase. It DID NOT RAIN in Galka. Galoshes were quite redundant, worn only to Church on Sunday, and never allowed to have a speck of dust on them.


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