Catherine the Great
After displacing Peter III from the Russian throne, his wife, Sophie Fredericke Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, a German native of Stettin, took the vacant imperial throne under the name of Catherine II in 1762. "Catherine the Great" published manifestos in 1762 and 1763 inviting Europeans to immigrate and farm Russian lands while maintaining their language and culture. Although the first had little response, the second improved the benefits that were offered and was more successful. In addition to land development, an important consideration for Catherine was the provision of a buffer zone between her Russian subjects and the nomads to the east.
Germans responded in particularly large numbers due to poor conditions in their home regions. People in other countries such as France and England were more inclined to migrate to the colonies in the Americas than to the Russian frontier. Other countries, such as Austria, forbade emigration. Those who went to Russia had special rights under the terms of the manifesto. These were later revoked when the need for conscription into the Russian army arose in the latter part of the 19th century. This was especially offensive to the German Mennonite communities, whose doctrine teaches against war and aggression. Some Germans emigrated to the Americas or Germany to avoid the draft, though many did remain in Russia.
The 20th century
After the Russian Revolution, the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was established from 1924–1942. Its capital was Engels, known as "Pokrovsk" before 1931.
As the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, 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 (and Germans from a number of other traditional areas of settlement) eastwards, to Kazakhstan, Altai Krai, Siberia, and other remote areas. Similar deportations happened for other ethnic groups, including Poles, North Caucasian Muslim ethnic groups, Kalmyks, and Crimean Tatars.) In 1942 nearly all the able-bodied German population was conscripted to the labor army, many did not survive the labor camps.
The Volga Germans never returned to the Volga region. After the war, many settled in the Ural Mountains, Siberia, Kazakhstan (2% of today's Kazakh population are recognized as Germans - approximately 300,000), Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan (approximately 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 immigrated 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 to be a refugee or expellee of German ethnic origin or as the spouse or descendant of such a person (e.g. Greece had a similar law for the Greek minority from the former Soviet Union). This exodus 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. Today, there are approximately 600,000 Germans in Russia (Russian Census (2002)), a number that increases to 1.5 million when including people partly of German ancestry.
Volga Germans immigrated to the United States and Canada and settled mainly in the Great Plains; Alberta, eastern Colorado, Kansas, Manitoba, Michigan, Minnesota, eastern Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, as well as in Oregon, Washington and Fresno County in Central California, often succeeding in dryland farming, a skill learned in Russia. Many of the immigrants who arrived between 1870 and 1912 spent a period doing farm labor, especially in northeastern Colorado and in Montana along the lower Yellowstone River in 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, Russian Germans, Volgadeutsch or Black Germans. In many parts of 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.
A Contemporary History of the Volga Germans
by William G. Cutler (1883)
In 1875, and the two years following, large numbers of Russians came into the county and located in colonies. There are, in all, about twelve hundred Russians in the county, located in five separate settlements. Two of these colonies are located on the Smoky, close to the south line of the county, one on Big Creek, about a mile south of the military reservation, one just north of the Kansas Pacific Railway, about half a mile from Victoria, and one on Victoria Creek, about five miles farther north.
Most of these Russians took claims upon their arrival, which they immediately commenced to improve. They also built villages to which they gave names after some place in their native country. The village to the north is named Schoenchen and contains about 150 people; the one on Big Creek is named Catherine and has about 200 people; the two on the Smoky are named respectively, Munjor and Peifer (sic) the former having a population of about 300, and the latter of about 150.
The most important of the Russian villages is that just north of Victoria, which is named Herzog, and which contains a population of about 400. This latter has the appearance of being quite a town, and in building it some attention has been paid to regularity in laying off the streets. Many of the buildings are very comfortable frame houses, but the majority of them are made of sod, and so constructed as to afford the inmates a considerable degree of comfort. The other villages are similarly built, with the exception that regularity in laying off streets has been disregarded.
Herzog is regarded at the capital of this Russia Minor, and there is established the chief patriarch and priests. The place has a very fine stone Catholic Church, which was erected by Sir Walter Maxwell, who took considerable interest in the English Colony under George Grant. The Russians also erected a large stone monastery, 45x120 feet, to which another wing similar in dimensions is now being added. These Russian villages are occupied, chiefly, in the winter season, as the people reside upon their farms during the other seasons of the year, and only retire to the villages when the weather will not permit them to work on their farms.