Germans from Russia refers to the large numbers of ethnic Germans who emigrated from the Russian Empire, peaking in the late 19th century. The upper Great Plains in the United States and southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan have large areas populated primarily of descendants of Germans from Russia. Argentina, Brazil and other countries have smaller numbers of Germans from Russia.
Their mother tongues were High German or Low German dialects, despite their having lived in Russia for multiple generations. The Germans in Russia frequently lived in ethnic German communities, where they maintained German-language schools and German churches. They were primarily Volga Germans from the lower Volga River valley, Black Sea Germans from the Crimean Peninsula/Black Sea region, or Volhynian Germans from the governorate of Volhynia in contemporary Ukraine. The smaller villages were often settled by colonists of a common religion, who had come from the same area, so one town might be all Catholic, or all Lutheran, for instance; the people often settled together from the same region of Germany and thus spoke the same German dialect. Also included were Germans of the Mennonite faiths (today mostly referred to as Russian Mennonite despite of their German language culture and ethnicity), and also Hutterites seeking religious freedom.
Originally recruited and welcomed into Russia in the 18th century, when they were promised the practice of their own language and religions, and exemption from military service, the German people found increasing hardship. With changes in Russian politics, the government took back some of the privileges granted; economic conditions grew poor, and there were a series of famines. These conditions led to German mass migrations from Russia.
After the 1917 Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union, and particularly under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, conditions for the remaining Germans in Russia declined considerably. The rise of Nazi Germany, with its concern about ethnic Germans in other lands and proselytizing the German volk, led to suspicions of any German within Russia. In 1932-33, the Soviet authorities forced starvation among the Volga Germans, seized their food claiming famine in the rest of the Soviet Union and ordering the breakup of many German villages.
After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin ordered the deportation of Russian Germans to labor camps in Siberia and Central Asia, as he was suspicious of potential collaboration with the Germans. In some areas, his forces attempted to bulldoze the German churches, and reused their tombstones for paving blocks. Many Germans in the Americas sent donations back to their communities, but others permanently lost contact with their relatives during the social disruption of the famine and Stalin's Great Purge, followed by World War II.
Unlike many other immigrants to the Americas during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Germans from Russia wanted to continue farming and settled in agricultural areas rather than industrial cities. Primary areas were the Plains states of Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, North and South Dakota, with some movement to specific areas of Washington and California (Fresno and Lodi for instance) in the United States; Saskatchewan and Manitoba of Canada; and Brazil and Argentina. These areas tended to resemble the flat plains of the Russian steppes. In addition, the upper Great Plains still had arable land available for free settlement under the Homestead Act. In the 2000 Census, North Dakota reported 43.9% of the population identified as having German ancestry. In 1910, 5% of the population of North Dakota had been born in Russia; it is likely most were ethnic Germans.
Since the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall and declining conditions in Russia, many ethnic Germans still living in the lands of the former Soviet Union sought German repatriation.
Germans from Russia were the most traditional of German-speaking arrivals. About 100,000 Volga Germans immigrated by 1900, settling primarily in the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska. The south-central part of North Dakota was known as "the German-Russian triangle". A smaller number moved farther west, finding employment as ranchers and cowboys.
The largest groups settled mainly in the Great Plains: North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas and nearby areas in the US. Outside that area, they also settled in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, and Fresno County in California's Central Valley. They often succeeded in dryland farming, which they had practiced 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.
Other Volga Germans made new lives in the industrializing American cities, especially Chicago, which had an immense upsurge in immigration from Eastern Europe during this time. Today Chicago has the largest number of ethnic Volga Germans in North America. The largest area of concentrated settlement was in Jefferson Park on the city's Northwest Side, mostly between the years 1907-1920. By 1930, 450 families of the Evangelical faith were living in this area, most of whom originated from Wiesenseite. Later during the period of suburbanization, many of their descendants moved out to outlying areas such as Maywood and Melrose Park. A number of families living in the Jefferson Park central business district along Lawrence and Milwaukee Avenue have Volga German immigrant ancestors.
Bernhard Warkentin was born in a small Russian village in 1847, and travelled to America in his early twenties. Interested in flour mills, he was especially impressed with the wheat-growing possibilities in the United States. After visiting Kansas, Warkentin found the Great Plains much like those he had left behind. 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.
Negatively influenced by the violation of their rights and cultural persecution by the Tsar, the Germans from Russia who settled in the northern Midwest saw themselves a downtrodden ethnic group separate from Russian Americans and having an entirely different experience from the German Americans who had immigrated from German lands; they settled in tight-knit communities that retained their German language and culture. They raised large families, built German-style churches, buried their dead in distinctive cemeteries using cast iron grave markers, and created choir groups that sang German church hymns. Many farmers specialized in sugar beets--still a major crop in the upper Great Plains. During World War I their identity was challenged by anti-German sentiment.
By the end of the World War II, the German language, which had always been used with English for public and official matters, was in serious decline. Today German is preserved mainly through singing groups and recipes, with the Germans from Russia in the northern Great Plains states speaking predominantly English. German remains the second most spoken language in North and South Dakota, and Germans from Russia sometimes use loanwords, such as Kuchen for cake, although the word is primarily used for the sweet bread dessert made in a pie plate with topping like fruits or cottage cheese. Despite the loss of their language, the ethnic group remains distinct and has left a lasting impression on the American West.
During the 1970s, Dr. Kenneth Rock, a professor of history at Colorado State University, collected sixty oral histories of German Russian immigrants and their descendants as part of the "Germans from Russia in Colorado" Study Project. It documented life in the ethnic German communities in Russia, the immigration experience, work and social life in the United States, and interaction between the German-Russian communities and the wider society in both Russia and the United States.
Approximately one million descendants of Germans from Russia live in the United States. Modern descendants in Canada and the United States refer to their heritage as Germans from Russia, Russian Germans, Volgadeutsch or Black Sea Germans. In many parts of the United States, they tend to have blended to a large degree with the "regular" German Americans who are much more numerous in the northern half of the United States.
In addition to the large population of Volga Germans that settled on the American prairie, many also settled in the Canadian West. Beginning in the early 1870s, the Canadian Government had created promotional programs in Europe to entice settlers to the largely unsettled western areas, in what would become Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and British Columbia. Public policy also served to attract immigration following the passage of the Land Act of 1872, which provided free grants of homesteads to those who settled on the Western Prairie. In the early twentieth century, many immigrants moved from the United States to Canada in search of inexpensive land, and still greater social autonomy. These German-American immigrants brought not only their experience working on the American plains, but had also accrued wealth, giving a much needed boost to the economy of the Western Provinces.
The Volga Germans that flocked to Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came from different religious backgrounds including Lutheran, Catholic, and Mennonite. It was this last group, named after leader Menno Simons, that constituted the largest portion of the immigrant population. In Russia they had proven the best organized, preparing scouting parties to investigate the prospect of immigration to Canada and the United States. These scouts had been reliant on the assistance of established Mennonite groups such as those found in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Ontario. In the period 1873-1879, Mennonites formed blocked settlements in Manitoba with a total of close to 7000 members. Most settled in Southern Manitoba in the richest part of the Red River Valley. These communities were centered around religious homogeneity, and insistence on the tenets of adult baptism, and the refusal to bear arms or swear an oath. Many Mennonites had been propelled to leave because of the introduction of extended conscription, put in place in 1874, but set to take effect in Russia in 1881.
Many Volga Germans emigrated from the United States to the Western Provinces in the period 1890-1909. They sought to escape rising land prices, and imposition of laws that began to encroach on their relative autonomy. Canada was seen as a new frontier, a place of vast land, but little settlement. These immigrants settled mainly in the colonies of St. Peter and St. Joseph, East and West of Saskatoon in Central Saskatchewan. In the 1890s, twelve Catholic families established Rastadt-Dorf, and another twenty-one settled Katherinetal. Additional settlements were begun in Davin, Kronau, and Speyer as well.
In the period between World War I and World War II, conditions in Russia worsened, especially following the Revolution and the Great Famine of 1921. Many Volga Germans sought to leave the USSR, but faced opposition from a government that did not wish to see so large a portion of its population leave. The Russian government imposed a fee for obtaining a passport, which lead to protests as many would-be immigrants flooded the streets of Moscow. Many Mennonites were eventually able to leave, and between the World Wars, over 20,000 left destined for Canada.
Beginning in the second decade of the twentieth century, and continuing until several years after the Second World War, the ethnic background of the Volga Germans made them prey to discrimination. By 1914, Germany had become Canada's enemy, and the Volga Germans were not immune despite many families having not set foot in Germany for hundreds of years. This period saw the suppression of many German cultural customs, including the suppression of their print media, and the closure of German schools. The Wartime Elections Act, passed in September 1917, revoked the citizenship of any German naturalized after March, 1902. Many settlements were renamed to disguise their obvious German origin.
The 1920s period also saw the movement of Volga Germans within Western Canada as well. Many pushed further west, settling in British Columbia. The area had the appeal of a warmer climate, an escape from the frigid prairie. Other Volga Germans were propelled by economic factors such as the Great Depression, which not only impoverished many, but also coincided with a tremendous drought ushering in crop failures. The economy of the Prairie Provinces, and much of Canada, was dependent on the success of wheat farming. Wheat had been a staple crop for the Volga Germans in Russia, and translated well to the climate of the Canadian West. Repeated crop failures meant a large influx of the German-Russian population into larger cities and towns, a fact that would contribute to the gradual decline of their culturally homogeneous communities. The prairie lands abutting the United States border experienced Dust Bowl conditions, which sent swarms of families to the coastal areas of British Columbia. Throughout the period following World War II, new immigrants joined their families in British Columbia, congregating in the Fraser Valley, and Vancouver Island. The mid-twentieth century brought immigrants from South American regions, namely Argentina and Brazil, as they fought to maintain their cultural autonomy in increasingly nationalist areas, dominated by nationalist leaders like Juan Perón. Lutheran and Catholic Volga Germans were also significant migrants to Canada, but lacked the organization of their Mennonite brethren. Early on, these immigrants were more likely to settle in Saskatchewan, especially around the city of Regina. Despite their location near earlier Mennonite communities, settlements remained religiously homogenous.
Throughout their history in the Canadian West, the Volga Germans have been able to maintain many of their cultural characteristics, including their dialect, proliferated through Saturday schools and Canadian policies that allowed for cultural freedom. These schools operated on Saturday mornings for around three hours, and became especially vital as the German language was no longer taught in the Canadian public school system after World War I. The Mennonites, unlike most Volga Germans, were able to maintain these schools even after World War II. The dialect of the Volga Germans was also maintained through the Church, especially in the Mennonite community.
Before the Volga Germans had left for North America they had been regarded as privileged colonists in Russia. When they arrived in the United States and Canada they found that they were treated the same as any other Eastern European migrant group. The Mennonites may be seen as an exception as they successfully used connections with their brethren in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Ontario. Through their hard work on the North American plains, they established themselves as a productive portion of Canadian and American society.
The Germans from Russia originally spoke German dialects such as the Palatine dialect or Mennonite Low German (Plautdietsch) at home. Since the villages in Russia often were populated by settlers from a particular region and were isolated from Germany, they maintained their regional dialects. Depending on their specific dialect, Germans from Russia had difficulties understanding Standard German, because German dialects in general differ greatly from the standard language. It was only after emigrating from Russia to the Americas that the Germans lost their German dialects, generally within a few generations in their new countries. In the 1950s it was still common for the children in the Dakotas to speak in English and the parents and grandparents to use German. Songs in church would be sung in two languages simultaneously. Probably the person best known for having a "German from Russia accent" in English (a result of having learned English as a second language) was bandleader and television star Lawrence Welk.