German Russians

views updated

German Russians

ETHNONYMS: Germans in Russia, Germans from Russia, Russian Germans, Russo-Germans, Czar's Germans, nemetskie kolonisty (German colonists), Sowietdeutsche (Soviet Germans), Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans), Baltic Germans, Volga Germans (Wolgadeutsche), Black Sea Germans (Schwarzmeerdeutsche), Volhynian Germans (Wolhyniendeutsche), Caucasus Germans (Kaukasusdeutsche), Siberian Germans (Sibiriendeutsche), "Unser Leit/Unsere Leute" (Our People)


Identification and Location. German Russians are a diverse ethnic group whose settlements once were found in various areas of the Russian Empire and the former Soviet Union. Those ethnic Germans tended to cluster in agrarian colonies or urban neighborhoods where they could maintain the language and cultural traditions of their German-speaking ancestors. Other than their ability to retain elements of their ancestral culture, there was little that all German Russians living in Russia or the Soviet Union shared. Their regional names indicate the different areas in which they settled: Baltic Germans, Siberian Germans, Caucasus Germans, Volhynian Germans. The two largest German Russian groups are the Volga Germans, who established numerous colonies on both sides of the Lower Volga River, and the Black Sea Germans, who founded many colonies on the Ukrainian steppes and in the Crimea. To the Volga Germans, the city of Saratov served as a common reference point; for the Black Sea Germans, that function was served by the port city of Odessa.

Demography. German Russians began settling in the Russian Empire in the mid-1500s, during the time of Ivan the Terrible. More German-speaking settlers arrived in the late 1600s, during the reign of Peter the Great. Although the numbers of those early German merchants and technicians were relatively small, their influence on Russian society was significant. In the 1760s Catherine the Great (herself a German Russian) invited foreigners to settle in Russia, and approximately 27,000 settlers answered her call. The vast majority of the would-be colonists were from war-ravaged areas of what is now central and western Germany (Hesse, the Rhineland-Palatinate, and northern Bavaria). The colonists, who were directed to desolate lands bordering the Volga River, later became known as "Volga Germans."

In the early 1800s Czar Alexander I invited foreigners to settle in "New Russia" on fertile lands north of the Black Sea. Thousands of German-speaking immigrants again answered the call of a czar and settled in the environs of Odessa. Those colonists became known as the "Black Sea Germans." Other migrations of German settlers continued until the mid-nineteenth century. By 1897 there were nearly 1.8 million ethnic Germans in the Russian Empire. The vast majority of those German-speaking people engaged in agriculture. Only a small number (less than 25, 000) were members of the hereditary nobility, and nearly all of those German Russians lived in the Baltic provinces.

Tens of thousands of German Russians immigrated to North and South America from the 1870s until 1914. Among the German Russians who remained in Russia, revolution, civil war, famine, deportation, and exile resulted in the deaths of many thousands. By the end of World War II the three thousand settlements founded by German-Russian colonists had been eradicated or emptied of Germanspeaking citizens. Those who survived the great deportations established new settlements in Siberia, Kazakhstan, and other areas east of the Urals.

In 1970 the Soviet census revealed that about 1.8 million German Russians were living in the Soviet Union, nearly all of whom remained in exile in Siberia or Middle Asia. With the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s and early 1990s, thousands of German Russians obtained visas and moved to Germany. After the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991, thousands more streamed into Germany, the land of their ancestors. By the year 2000 about 1.5 million German Russians (called Aussiedler ) had emigrated from the former Soviet Union and put down roots in Germany. By the year 2000 less than a million German-Russian descendants remained in Russia and other areas of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Linguistic Affiliation. German Russians traditionally speak a dialect of German that varies with their area of origin in Germany and their place of settlement in Russia. The Volga Germans speak a largely Hessian dialect, whereas many Black Sea Germans speak either Schwäbisch (Swabian) or Plattdeutsch (Low German). Although Germans in Russia often show a marked preference for their local dialects, older German Russians can understand and read Hochdeutsch (Standard German) as well. In the isolated areas of their forced exile there are few opportunities for formal education in German.

History and Cultural Relations

When large numbers of German settlers came to Russia in the 1700s and early 1800s, their movement was mainly in response to special manifestos issued by the ruling czars. Both Catherine the Great and Alexander I promised the new colonists many privileges, including tax exemptions, free land, exemption from military service, and religious liberty. To thousands of war-weary peasants those manifestos seemed like a godsend.

The early years of settlement were difficult for the German-Russian colonists, but eventually many experienced a degree of prosperity. Adaptation did not come easily, as evidenced by a folk expression used by German Russians: "For the first generation there is death, for the second there is want, only for the third there is bread." Between 1816 and 1875 more German settlers moved into Russia. Those later settlers, however, did not receive the special privileges of the earlier colonists. Among those latecomers were the Volhynian Germans, who settled near the cities of Novograd-Volynsky and Zhitomir.

No matter where they settled in Russia, Germans who lived in villages tended to have limited social contact with their Slavic neighbors and other outsiders. The Volga Germans were especially wary of socializing with Russians, Kazakhs, Bashkirs, and members of the many other ethnic groups they occasionally encountered. Even when Volga Germans befriended Russian villagers, fellow colonists often warned: "Der Russ hot noch 'n Russ im Busem The Russian always has another Russian hiding within" (i. e., Russians are two-faced). Such ethnocentric sentiments, expressed in speech and song, led to strong feelings of in-group loyalty and ethnic solidarity.


The earliest German settlements in Russia were urban, dating from the 1500s. German-speaking artisans and workers established a German suburb in Moscow that managed to retain its distinctive cultural flavor until World War I. The majority of German-Russian settlements, however, were agrarian villages on the treeless steppes. A large church typically stood in the middle of each village, with a separate bell tower nearby. Although most German Russians were farmers, they lived in tightly-knit communities and worked the fields surrounding the home colony. On the Volga German villagers often built huge homes of hewn logs that could easily accommodate large extended families. In the Black Sea region many colonists' homes were built of Batse, a type of home-made earthen brick similar to adobe. Those dwellings were whitewashed and often were accented with a bright blue border. German Russians took pride in the appearance of their villages, and each colonist family was expected to sweep not only its farmyard but also the street in front of its home.


Subsistence. Most German-Russian villagers were farmers who grew grain crops, principally wheat, barley, and rye. The villagers also had milk cows and other animals and prided themselves on being largely self-sufficient.

Commercial Activities. Most of the grain grown by the German Russians was sold at nearby markets or flour mills. Although monetary exchange was a part of their economic life, villagers regularly engaged in various types of barter.

Industrial Arts. In the Volga region the colonists became known for their woven Sarpinka (a type of gingham). Thickly layered felt boots (Filzstiefel) also were made and proved especially popular because of the harsh Russian winters. Since tobacco was grown in the Volga region, the making of carved tobacco pipes was common. In the Black Sea region various types of agricultural implements were constructed. Those commercial activities were especially evident among German-Russian Mennonites in the Molotschna region, who excelled in producing innovative farm machinery.

Trade. Handcrafted products were traded by German Russians at local open-air markets. The colonists often searched out Tatars and gave them sarpinka in exchange for finely crafted leather goods. Tobacco and tobacco pipes were traded to Russian villagers for wooden bowls, woven belts, herbs, and other items. The informal trade network allowed for minimal social contact but ample opportunity to acquire a variety of material goods.

Division of Labor. In German-Russian villages males and females assumed different work roles. Nearly all of the domestic work was done by the women, especially cooking and child rearing. Except for planting and harvesting, farming was largely a male domain. During the busy times of the agricultural cycle women worked in the fields alongside men. Blacksmithing, carpentry, and shoemaking were exclusively male pursuits, and baking, pillow making, and midwifery were wholly in the hands of experienced females. Children worked alongside the adults starting at a very early age, as evidenced by the German-Russian proverb "He who can hold a spoon must work." Child labor was not considered cruel or harsh; it was seen as necessary and even healthy.

Land Tenure. Early in their history the Volga Germans adopted the mir system of Russian land tenure, in which each male villager regardless of age received an equal allocation of land. The land, however, was considered communal property and thus switched hands every few years. The mir system made it practically impossible for outsiders to move into the Volga German colonies and take up residence. In contrast, the Black Sea Germans followed the rule of ultimogeniture, in which the youngest son inherited the family's home and arable land. Older brothers had to find land of their own, often with monetary assistance from their father. As a result of this arrangement, "land hunger" was most noticeable in the Black Sea region, where the German colonists eventually acquired millions of acres.


Kin Groups and Descent. Because of the mir system among the Volga Germans, the patrilocal extended family was the basic social unit. Although descent was reckoned bilaterally, there was a pronounced patriarchal emphasis in many Volga German families. The grandfather was accorded a special place of respect and ruled over an extended family household numbering as many as twenty to thirty members. The Black Sea Germans also reckoned descent bilaterally, but the basic social unit was the nuclear family. Brothers and their wives and children often lived in close proximity, and there was frequent social contact.

Kinship Terminology. German Russians adhered to a kinship terminology very similar to that of their former German homeland with a few important exceptions. A strong feeling of kinship predominated in a German-Russian village to an extent where all older males and females were addressed as Vetter (Uncle) or Bas/Wes (Aunt). Among the Volga Germans the terms Vater (father) and Mottr/Mutter (mother) often were assigned to one's paternal grandparents (not one's biological parents). Volga Germans referred to their cousins as Halbgeschwister (half brothers and half sisters). When raised in the same patrilocal household, cousins would affectionately refer to one another as Bruder (brother) or Schwester (sister).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. German Russians traditionally practiced endogamy and used local matchmakers to arrange marriages. The custom of matchmaking (known as Freierei or Kupplerei ) proved especially popular in the colonies in old Russia. Marriages between individuals of different religious faiths were strictly forbidden. Since marriage was seen as a union linking large families, it was not uncommon for brothers from one household to marry sisters from another household. Among the Volga Germans patrilocal residence was the norm. The Black Sea Germans, however, expected only the youngest son in a family to bring his wife into the parental home. Divorce was a rarity in German-Russian villages but became more common during the Soviet era, especially after the German Russians were forced into exile in the early 1940s.

Domestic Unit. German-Russian families tended to be large and sometimes included as many as fifteen to twenty children. Among the Volga Germans the Grossfamilie (extended family) could include thirty or more individuals. Epidemics frequently claimed the lives of many villagers, especially small children. Orphans usually were taken in by uncles, aunts, or other relatives.

Inheritance. Property, especially land and dwellings, usually passed from parents to their sons. Daughters were entitled to claim only smaller items of sentimental value, such as books, pieces of jewelry, and religious objects.

Socialization. Children were reared in a fashion that emphasized cultural conformity and proper behavior. Among the Volga Germans grandparents played an especially important role, raising their grandchildren while the parents worked in the fields. Values were inculcated by using traditional stories, folk songs, and proverbs that had been handed down for generations.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. German Russians belonged to a number of social groups that ranged from family groups to village factions. Group affiliation and individual identity were intertwined at several levels. In the Volga German colonies nearly every village was divided into the Oberdorf/Iwwerdorf (upper village) and the Unterdorf/Unnerdorf (lower village). The centralized church square often served as an unofficial demarcation line. Nicknames for each of the two village halves were common, and there were often dialectal differences as well. In some cases youths from different sides of the same village challenged one another and engaged in bloody physical encounters.

Political Organization. As a result of the special manifestos that figured so prominently in their history, German Russians had a fair measure of local autonomy. While subject to Russian laws, the villagers were able to govern themselves in their own language and with their own elected officials. In the late 1870s village autonomy began to be affected by the growing pressures of Russification, and many German Russians decided to emigrate. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 the villagers witnessed a gradual erosion of their local autonomy. In 1924 Soviet officials allowed the creation of an "Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic of the Volga Germans," but it was dissolved by Stalin less than twenty years later.

Social Control. Because of their village existence, German Russians relied heavily on gossip and ridicule to enforce acceptable behavior. Individuals who stole clothing or vegetables were paraded through the streets and taunted by children. More serious offenses were referred to village officials or the Russian authorities.

Conflict. At the village level German Russians tried to resolve internal conflicts with the assistance of village elders or members of the clergy. If the two village halves continually fought each other, the local priest or minister tried to mediate. External conflicts beyond the village were rare until the years that followed the Russian Revolution. German Russians who opposed Bolshevism or collectivization occasionally took up arms, but those peasant rebellions were crushed by the Soviet authorities.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. German Russians belonged to a variety of Christian denominations. The largest proportion of German Russians were Lutheran. The next largest group was Roman Catholic. Other religious groups included Mennonites, Reformed believers, and Baptists as well as a number of much smaller pietistic groups such as the Tanzbrüder (Dancing Brethren).

Nearly every German-Russian village was either Protestant or Roman Catholic, and few colonies included villagers of both denominations. Thus, in the Black Sea region the colonies of Elsass and Strassburg were Roman Catholic, whereas in the Volga region the villages of Balzer and Norka consisted entirely of Protestant believers. Although German Russians believed in one supreme being, there was a great diversity of opinion about how one should pray or worship. Well into the twentieth century folk religion continued to coexist alongside official religion. Beliefs in ghosts, nightmare spirits (Alpdrücker), and witches persisted for generations.

Religious Practitioners. Protestant ministers and Roman Catholic priests were held in high esteem in their respective villages. Lay ministers could be found in many villages as well, especially in colonies influenced by the Brüderschaft (Brotherhood), a pietistic movement that emphasized prayer meetings, testifying, and revelationary teachings. Folk healers (Braucher) also were influential in certain villages, where they were thought to possess shamanistic abilities and other special powers.

Ceremonies. Among German Russians ceremonies and rituals accompanied all the high points of the Christian calendar year, from 1 January to Saint Silvester's Day on 31 December. Easter and Christmas Eve were especially sacred. Traditions were observed in official places of worship and in family homes. On Christmas Eve two masked visitors entered each home and inquired about the children's behavior. Those mummers were known as the Belznickel (Fur Nicholas) and the Christkindche' (Little Christ Child). The role of the Christkindche' always was played by a woman who wore a veil and a long white dress and wielded a willow switch.

Arts. German Russians viewed storytelling as a form of verbal art and appreciated a storyteller who could transport listeners to distant times and faraway places. One of the unique forms of material folk art among German Russians is the custom of making large wrought-iron grave crosses. These markers often contain elaborate scrollwork and are filled with religious symbolism (angels, heavenly crowns, lilies, crowing roosters). Each blacksmith who made iron crosses developed his own style, and it was not unusual for blacksmiths from different neighborhoods or villages to compete with one another. As a result, artistic styles and levels of workmanship varied greatly.

Medicine. German Russians traditionally made use of herbal remedies and magico-religious practices such as Brauche (a type of faith healing that incorporates rhymed verses and repeated signs of the cross). Midwives were known to use magico-religious folk medicine, especially in cases of hemorrhage or premature birth. With the advent of clinics, hospitals, and official medical practitioners, German Russians quickly incorporated those methods of health care into their culture. Traditional herbal remedies and elements of magico-religious folk medicine were not displaced by official medicine but instead were enhanced and expanded.

Death and Afterlife. Because of their Christian beliefs, German Russians traditionally view death as the beginning of a new level of existence. However, since transitions can be difficult, death also is seen as a time of physical separation that causes emotional distress. Sadness and weeping accompany German-Russian funerals, but there is also time for familial bonding, storytelling, and traditional German-Russian foods. Funerals are seen not only as events emphasizing loss and death but also as important rituals that remind mourners of the promise of eternal life.

For the original article on Germans, see Volume 4, Europe and Volume 6, Russia and Eurasia/China.


Conquest, Robert (1960). The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities. New York: Macmillan.

Eisfeld, Alfred and Victor Herdt, editors (1996). Deportation, Sondersiedlung, Arbeitsarmee: Deutsche in der Sowjetunion 1931 bis 1956. Köln, Germany: Verlag Wissenschaft und Politik.

Fleischhauer, Ingeborg, and Benjamin Pinkus (1986). The Soviet Germans: Past and Present. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Giesinger, Adam (1974). From Catherine to Khrushchev: The Story of Russia's Germans. Lincoln, Nebraska: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia.

Kloberdanz, Timothy J. (1986). "Unsre un' die Andre." In "Group Affiliation among the Volga Germans of Russia and the Great Plains," Plains Anthropologist 31(114): 281-291.

, and Rosalinda Kloberdanz (1993). Thunder on the Steppe: Volga German Folklife in a Changing Russia. Lincoln, NE: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia.

Koch, Fred C. (1977). The Volga Germans: In Russia and the Americas, from 1763 to the Present. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Long, James W. (1988). From Privileged to Dispossessed: The Volga Germans, 1860-1917. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Stumpp, Karl (1971). The German-Russians: Two Centuries of Pioneering. Lincoln, NE: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia.

Walth, Richard H. (1996). Flotsam of World History: The Germans from Russia between Stalin and Hitler. Essen, Germany: Klartext Verlag.