Project: Volga German/History of Volga Germans

Categories: Volga German Project


In 1762 and 1763, Catherine the Great invited Europeans to settle and farm the Russian frontier lands of the Volga River. All who did so could maintain their language and culture and have freedom of religious practice. Those migrants were exempt from serving in the Russian military "forever". Over the next five years, German farmers from the Palatinate and Rhineland, the Kingdom of Bavaria, Baden, and Hesse came by the thousands.

Many who had been recruited to immigrate to Russia met in a centrally located town and were loosely organized into groups, each headed by an appointed leader, and then traveled to a northern seaport. The people from Hesse usually moved northward through Giessen, Kassel, and Hildesheim to the seaport town of Lübeck. It took many emigrants six weeks to go from Isenburg, near Frankfurt, to Lübeck, a distance of 300 miles or so.

The voyage from Lübeck, Germany to Kronstadt, Russia took 10 to 11 days under favorable conditions—but in some cases it took 6 weeks. Englishmen then captained most ships, and the goods sold onboard ship were extremely over priced. There were claims some captains intentionally diverted and delayed voyages in order to make more onboard sales.

Once getting to Russia, there was another long journey of close to a year to get to their actual settlements from the port of Oranienbaum in northern Russia to their southern Volga villages. This nearly always involved some harsh winter travel, mostly on foot, and the death toll was high.

NO STRANGERS TO HARDSHIP: From their homelands in Germany, the trip to their new village on the Volga took about a year, first by ship, then wagons and on foot from the northern part of Russia to the southern part of the Volga river. Many died on the way. The Russian government also did not have all the promised seed and livestock available in a timely manner, and often the settlers arrived too late to plant a crop to ripen before winter. There was mass starvation that first year. They had little wood to build a home in time for winter, so often they built temporary homes underground, lived without heat, and had to cook their meals with dung as the only available fuel. There was much sickness and few or no doctors.

During the first years, the settlers were at risk from raids from Mongols. In fact, Katherine the Great wanted the settlers to act as a buffer between Russians and the Mongolian hordes. They did not bother to warn the settlers about this before they left home!

The Russian census taker, Popov, observed that in many villages, every summer gophers destroyed much of their grain crop. Wolf packs decimated livestock. He writes of the village of Kutter: "The inhabitants of this colony work diligently but, because of the lack of good land in the lower reaches of this colony, half of the seed was sown on non-arable land and wasted. The settlers justifiably complain about the quantity of wetlands. Vegetable gardens planted near the yards bear scant fruit, so the colonists, by means of canals, drained a swamp. They divided the land into small plots and there planted potatoes and garden vegetables. Because of the lack of good pasture in the lower lands, there is cattle plague here. More than 29 head of stock perished this past autumn and this spring. Because of this, the stock of the colonists will never be in desirable condition, in my observation, horses suffer from diseases when fed steppe grasses. This colony has shortages of everything it needs. They have no possibility of improvement from any direction, given the conditions described above and because of the constriction in possession of crown lands."

Kutter DID hang on and increased in prosperity. But famines came with each drought. There was very little margin for crop failure.

If this were not enough, the Volga Germans underwent raids by an army led by Pugachev, the Bolshevik revolution, and civil war.

Eventually, Russia took back the freedom from military service and forced German migrants into the Russian Army. Starting in 1872, many families began fleeing to the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina. Most continued in farming, already used to the freezing temperatures and desert-like environments.

The years 1921-1922 saw massive numbers of deaths from starvation throughout Russia, caused by Lenin's policy of forced grain requisition as part of the kulak (wealthy private farmers) extermination campaign. The Germans living along the Volga River in Saratov and Samara had resisted the grain requisition. As a punitive measure, Lenin ordered the Volga area settlements be completely stripped of all grain and livestock and that mass executions be carried out. Over 30% of the Volga German population was deliberately starved before Lenin allowed international famine relief organizations into the area. The Volga and Ukraine were the main bread baskets of Russia, and the Germans skilled farmers, but the famines lasted throughout 1924.

The final destruction of the Volga Germans as a people came in 1941 with mass deportations to Siberia where many were never heard from again. When the policy ended, survivors were allowed to leave Siberia but not return to their ancestral villages. Many thousands have returned to Germany since then, since Germany guaranteed citizenship to all who could prove German descent. Story of their deportation:

Very interesting write-up here:

Also see this history as seen through the Filbert family:

Also see this history as researched and written BY Amy Brungardt Toepfer/Agnes Dreiling book CONQUERING THE WIND, first published 1966/1967/1974 "An Epic Migration from the Rhine to the Volga to the Plains of Kansas."

TRANSPORT OF THE COLONISTS TO RUSSIA: From: "Transport von Oranienbaum bis zur Wolga (1766-1767" by Brent Mai. List of all colonists who arrived in Russia via Oranienbaum: It gives both surnames and first names.

return to Volga German Team

This page was last modified 16:58, 15 May 2021. This page has been accessed 1,181 times.