*All photos in this post are from the genealogy files of Rick J. Greenwald and are the property of Rick J. Greenwald.
During the reign of Russia’s Catherine the Great, many Germans immigrated to the Russian steppes. They built their villages along the Volga River, spreading outward from the city of Saratov. A little over 100 years later, their descendants left Russia for North and South America.
Catherine the Great was in power for 34 years, from 1762 until her death in 1796. During her early years in power she invited western Europeans to come to Russia to farm. She had expanded Russia and wanted the steppes along the Volga River to be settled. Many of the immigrants who came were from Germany. The first colonists arrived and built settlements in 1764. Between the years of 1764 – 1766 there were 104 villages established. By 1772 the number of settlers along the Volga River had reached 32,623. Most came from Germany which was in a great state of religious turmoil. A smaller number of immigrants came from the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland and the Netherlands area. The incentive that Catherine the Great offered was free land to farm on, the ability to keep their language and culture, and exemption from military service. Each village had a German name and a Russian name. For instance, one village close to Saratov was called Beideck (German) and Talovka (Russian).
The new settlers endured many hardships those first few years, but eventually the villages began to thrive. Nearly 100 years later, the Imperial Russian Government issued a decree repealing the Manifesto of Catherine the Great terminating the special privileges of the German colonists. In 1774 the Russian Government issued a second decree amending the previous one. This decree instituted compulsory military conscription for the German colonists. Because of these decrees thousands of German Russians immigrated to Canada, the United States, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
In 1874, five men from the Volga settlements were elected to come to America on a scouting mission. They returned with a report that Kansas would make a fine place to purchase land to farm and build new settlements. In 1875 the first of the German Russians came to America and built a new settlement in Ellis County, Kansas. In the following years more immigrants arrived and built new villages in Kansas. By 1915, there were settlements in Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and California. Also in plains provinces of Canada, and the grasslands of South America.
Cathedral of the Plains, Victoria, Kansas. This church was originally built in Herzog Kansas, one mile from Victoria, Kansas. Herzog was a Catholic German Russian settlement that grew rapidly and eventually merged with Victoria, keeping the Victoria name.
Because of fear after World War I and World War II, many of these new Americans tried to hide their German roots. Then because of the Cold War with Russia there was even more incentive for their offspring to hide both their German and their Russian roots. It was not really talked about until the 1960’s and 1970’s. This is when the generation that is now known as the “Baby Boomers” began looking for their heritage. Organization such as the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR) came into being. Many of this organization are descendants of the Germans who settled in the Volga Region. Their headquarters is in Lincoln, Nebraska because many Volga German Russians first came to Lincoln before moving on to Colorado, Montana and further west.
Another organization, Germans from Russia Heritage Society (GRHS) focuses on Germans who immigrated to the Black Sea region of Russia. Its headquarters is in Bismarck, North Dakota. A Canadian organization, the Society for German Genealogy in Eastern Europe (SGGEE) is chartered in Calgary, Canada and focuses on Germans in Poland and the historic Volhynia province in Ukraine.
The American Historical Society of Germans from Russia headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska houses a large library, an indoor Museum of cultural artifacts and an outdoor display of historic buildings.
When these families moved to their new settlements they kept to themselves and keep up with the culture and traditions that they had always known. Most lived in neighborhoods that were mostly populated by other families of German Russians. Their children integrated into the new culture, however they tended to marry into families of people in the neighborhood. Because these people left Germany in the late 1700’s and lived in isolation in Russia, keeping their German language, culture and traditions,
Their traditions, language and foods differ from the modern Germans. Some words are hard to translate, much like the language of American Amish who came to the United States in the late 1700’s. If you are ever in Nebraska or Colorada and see a fast food chain called Runza, go in give it a try. This is a baked meat sandwich brought to Nebraska by the Volga Germans. It was baked by wives and mothers to pack in lunches of their guys who went to work all day in the fields. Very much like a Hot Pocket, but I think it’s better.