The Germans in Russia
Hundley, Elaine Helbling. "The Germans in Russia." German-American Journal 54, no. 4: (2005), 13.
Ask anyone what comes to mind when asked to describe the Irish and
the answer will be shamrocks, St. Patrick, green beer, and leprechauns.
For the Polish it will be polkas, for German it will be hard workers,
stubbornness, cleanliness, punctuality, reliability, and kuchen. What
about the Germans from Russia? The Germans from where? Who are they?
Where are they?
I am a first generation German from Russia and was born in North
Dakota but have lived in Illinois for the past 37 years. My mother
was born of a German family in South Russia in 1903 and my father’s
family was also German from Russia. How did they get there and why?
How did they get to America and why?
The Germans from Russia are descendents of Germans who settled
in Russia in the years about 1763 to 1862. Their story begins with
Tsarina Catherine II (Catherine the Great) who was empress of Russia,
but a German princess by birth. In July 1763 she issued a manifesto
to attract people from Western Europe to settle in Russia. The manifesto
promised new settlers freedom of religion, freedom from taxes for
a 5-30 year period, freedom from military service, and free land
to farmers. By the end of 1767, German settlers from central Germany
had established more than 100 colonies along the Volga River, near
A second settlement in the Black Sea region began in 1803 when
Czar Alexander I, a grandson of Catherine II, issued a similar decree
enticing foreigners to settle in South Russia. In addition, he promised
interest-free loans for purchase of equipment, self-administration
of the community and schools, and free land equivalent to 80 to
216 acres. These colonies extended into the Crimea and into the
Caucasus. The Black Sea Germans came primarily from southern Germany
in the Rhineland Palatinate, Baden, and the Alsace, plus a large
number of Mennonite Germans came from the Danzig area in Prussia.
In 1812, Germans colonized the Bessarabia area. Two other areas
in Russia where large numbers of Germans settled were Volhynia and
the Baltic provinces.
Catherine II’s purpose in investing the Germans was to settle
the untilled land, act as a model for Russian peasants, and to act
as a buffer between Russia and the Asiatic nomadic tribes which
harassed the Volga region. In Russia (the area is now present day
Ukraine), the Germans lived in colonies, isolated from their Russian
neighbors, and kept their German language, their religion (mostly
Lutheran, Catholic, and Mennonite), foods, and culture.
Leaving their homeland, the Germans traveled by river flatboats,
wagon trains and by foot. Those traveling to the Beresan area traveled
over 1700 miles in 4 months time arriving in the fall of 1809. The
initial villages in this area were Landau, Speier, and Sulz. These
villages exist today but have Russian names. My Helbling ancestors
were among the first settlers of Speier. The first year in Russia,
the immigrants built dugouts with sod. The winter was bitter and
the dugouts cold and damp. Many of the settlers became sick and
by spring, many had died, including entire families. The next spring
homes were built of clay bricks. To this day, many of the original
buildings are still in use. Houses, schools, and churches still
stand, although in great need of repair. Magnificent churches built
by the Germans were taken over by the Soviets during WW II and used
to house livestock or turned into meeting places. Interior furnishings
and religious pictures were removed. The remnants stand today.
The colonists grew wheat, corn, and potatoes. Instead of the German
pronunciation of potato as Kartoffel, the colonists called them
Grundbere. That is the word still used by my relatives today. The
food of the colonists was bread, noodles of all kinds, meat dishes
prepared with sauerkraut and potatoes, Borscht soup and pumpkin
Plachinka. They were learned from the Russians and are still staples
in the Germans’ from Russia descendents in America today.
Another food from the Russians is Easter Bread called Bosca. It
is baked in coffee tins so that the tops rise and look like the
domes on Russian churches. The dough is colored yellow and flavored
with anise. The "old way" to obtain the color is to
raise saffron (suffra as we pronounce it), harvest the dried red
flower which is made into a yellow tea which becomes the coloring
for the Bosca. Yellow food coloring gives the same result but lacks
the continuity of carrying on this tradition. The baked bread is
then frosted in various colors and sprinkled with little candies.
The word bosca probably came from the word “paska,”
In the 1870s, the promises of the Russian government were gradually
withdrawn. The colonist had their right to local self-government
taken away along with their right to keep their own German-language
schools. The military draft was reinstated. The Germans then looked
to the New World to once again immigrate. The land where they lived
in South Russia was called the Steppes. The lands to which they
would move were called the Prairies, in USA to North Dakota, South
Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The Germans
who remained in Russia faced terrible times during the Russian Revolution
and the World Wars. Letters and retrieved achieves attest to the
misery they endured. Because they were German, many were killed
outright. Their homes and property were taken over by the Russians.
Fathers and sons were taken out at night and shot in view of the
families. Many were sent to the Siberian area of Russia where life
was exceedingly grim. Present day Germany is gradually resettling
the descendents of these Germans by establishing homes for them
near Odessa, Ukraine, and in Germany itself. Since these descendents
have lived many generations in Russia, they no longer know the German
language and culture which presents major challenges for Germany.