The Tragic Saga of the Volga Germans

May 15, 2014 by

When I was a college student in Russia, one of my classmates was a Volga German from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. At the time, her identity made no sense to me as Germany, the Volga River, and Uzbekistan are thousands of miles apart. Who are the Volga Germans? How did they come to live in Central Russia, and later in Central Asia? This post examines the twisted history of yet another group victimized by Stalin’s deportations.


The first German colonists—some 30,000 people—came to settle in Russia in 1763 at the invitation of Catherine the Great, herself of German descent. The majority of the early German colonists were refugees from the central German states, such as Hessen and the Palatinate, ravaged first by the Thirty Years’ War, which ended in 1648, then by the continuing confrontation between Catholic Austria and Protestant Prussia, and finally by the Seven Years’ War, which began in 1754. By 1763, the average inhabitant of Central Europe, regardless of religious or political allegiance, was under an extreme tax burden, constant threat of injury to person or property, and routine conscription into military service for one side or the other. Thus, the climate for emigration was ripe.

Less than a month after her coronation in 1762, Catherine the Great issued a manifesto inviting in all persons who wanted to settle in Russia, with the sole exception of the Jews, who were expressly excluded. The purpose of this invitation—reaffirmed by a more detailed manifesto issued the following year—was to populate the lower Volga frontier, which had been acquired by the Russian Empire almost two centuries earlier but remained sparsely settled by Russians. For centuries, the nomadic Kazakhs and Kalmyks had been ravaging the steppe of the lower Volga River basin. Russians and Ukrainians had attempted to settle the region, but three battalions of soldiers sent there to protect them had been slaughtered. In 1732, Empress Anna turned to forced settlement of the area, sending in 1,057 Russian, Ukrainian, and Don Cossack families to build a new defense line along the Volga between Tsaritsyn and Kamyshin. However, these settlers failed to defend the locale, and many of them turned to banditry themselves. Stability along the Volga was badly needed. Catherine’s manifesto, however, depicted the area in a much more peaceful and promising light:

“Inasmuch as the vast expanse of Our Empire’s territories is fully known to Us, We perceive that, among other things, no small number of such regions still lie unimproved that could be employed with lucrative ease for a most productive settlement and occupation by mankind, most of which regions conceal within their depths an inexhaustible wealth of multifarious precious ores and metals; and since the selfsame [regions] are richly endowed with forests, rivers, seas, and oceans convenient for trade, so they are also exceptionally well adapted for the establishment and growth of many types of mills, factories, and various other plants.”

The manifesto promised religious freedom, exemption from military service, thirty years of tax freedom and more. It even provided specific information about who was covering transportation and settlement expenses, outlining as well protections and rights afforded to those who answered Catherine’s call. More than 30,000 did so. Between 1763 and 1772, German colonists founded 106 settlements along the banks of the Volga River, generally divided according to their religious confession.

Early on, the Volga German colonies came under attack during the Pugachev’s Rebellion of 1773-1775. The insurrection started among Yaik Cossacks headed by Yemelyan Pugachev, a disaffected ex-lieutenant of the Russian Imperial army. Pugachev claimed to be Tsar Peter III, who had actually been assassinated in 1762, promising freedom and land to the enserfed peasants. Motivated by these promises, his force quickly numbered in the thousands. During 1773-1774, Pugachev’s band rampaged throughout the Volga region, wrecking havoc as they went from village to village. Many of the German settlers fled to the countryside, burying whatever valuables they possessed, while others remained in the villages, only to be beaten and hung on hastily erected gallows. Whole villages were burned down. The rebellion was eventually crushed by government forces, and Pugachev himself was captured in the Urals after his fellow rebels betrayed him in September 1774. He was taken to Moscow and after a trial was executed in January 1775.

The devastating consequences of Pugachev’s raids through the German colonies were to be felt for many years. Yet new German colonists continued to arrive. 1812 saw the arrival of 180 soldiers, mostly of German origin, who had been a part of Napoleon’s Army when it invaded Russia. Beginning in 1848, a group of Mennonite colonists from West Prussia founded several villages called the Am Trakt Settlement, and another group of Mennonites established a cluster of villages called the Alt-Samara Settlement to the northeast of Samara some ten years later. The next wave of German colonists came in 1863-1864 from Upper Silesia and East Prussia, fleeing the uprisings in Western Poland. Eventually, the original “Mother Colonies” grew to the point of overcrowding, and beginning in the 1848 a series of “Daughter Colonies” were established, mostly to the south and east of the original settlements.

The 1897 Russian census enumerated nearly 1.8 million ethnic Germans living in Russia, though not all of them were Volga Germans. Some Germans, for instance, settled in the capital of Saint Petersburg, where German bakeries produced the first white bread in Russia. Pushkin memorably describes such establishments in Eugene Onegin (translated by S. N. Kozlov, 1994):

И хлебник, немец аккуратный,

В бумажном колпаке, не раз

Уж отворял свой васисдас.


And thorough German baker goes

In paper cap for each of us

To open his wasistdas.


Most of the Volga Germans, however, were farmers. Their chief crops were winter rye, wheat, sunflowers (from which oil was produced), potatoes, and millet. Other crops grown in the Volga German colonies included oats and barley for animal fodder; hemp and flax for clothing; cabbage for sauerkraut; pumpkins, carrots, onions, sugar beets, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, and many other types of vegetables and fruit. Several prominent industrialist families emerged from the Volga German community, most notably the Schmidt family, which produced the “Flour-Kings of Russia”. The community ran its own churches (Lutheran, Catholic, and Reformed; the map reproduced on the left shows them by brown church symbols) and schools.


The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and especially the subsequent Civil War wrecked havoc once more on the Volga German community, which found itself caught between the Red Army and the While Cossack forces. In the aftermath of the struggle, famine took the lives of roughly one third of the Volga German population. In October 1918, the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic had been established, with its capital in the Volga port of Kosakenstadt, which the Soviets renamed Engels in 1931. According to the 1926 census, Germans constituted two thirds of the republic’s population, with Russians and Ukrainians forming nearly all the rest. Following the early Soviet policy of establishing cultural autonomy for large minority groups, the German language was promoted in education and administration.. Twenty-one newspapers in German were published and a German-language theater was established. Germans were also encouraged to move into management positions. In contrast, religious services and organizations were banned in April 1929 as part of the general anti-religion program initiated at the time.

Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 22, 1941 brought the end of the Volga Germans’ limited autonomy. The Soviet government declared all Germans to be enemies of the state. The Russian population responded with increasing hostility towards the Volga Germans, as towards all things German.* Two months after the start of the Great Patriotic War, Stalin issued a formal Decree of Banishment, which abolished the Volga German Autonomous Republic; two weeks later, approximately 440,000 Volga Germans were stripped of their citizenship and mass deportations soon began. Treated now as prisoners, Volga Germans were transported by trains to resettlement camps in Kazakhstan and Siberia, areas called “human dumping grounds” by historian Robert Conquest. Some 20,000 NKVD (Peoples Commissariat for Internal Affairs) troops and huge quantities of rolling stock and other resources were diverted from the war effort in order to shift vast numbers of women, children, and the elderly to these remote camps. The deportees were in some cases were given as little as five minutes to pack their belongings and food for the trip in their one allowed suitcase. Those resisting or attempting to hide were summarily shot. Packed 50 to 60 people into unheated freight or cattle cars, their agonizing journey could take up to two months—typically, winter months. Water was given only when the train stopped every three or four days. Food, when provided, was generally salted herring, which only made the prisoners’ thirst that much greater. Tens of thousands are believed to have died during the journey. In some cases, bodies were left in the overcrowded railcars for weeks on end; in others, they were thrown out beside the tracks. Most estimates indicate that close to 40% of the deported population perished. Those who survived the journey often found themselves in distant lands unprepared to receive them, with inadequate clothing, little shelter, and wholly inadequate means to support themselves in temperatures as low as -40ºC (-40ºF) in Siberia.

George Walters, in Wir Wollen Deutsche Bleiben: The Story of the Volga Germans,** noted that little is known about banished Volga Germans who survived this horrible ordeal. He fumed over the fact that that Russia has escaped censure from the international community for what it has done. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Volga Germans were officially “rehabilitated”, but due to the existence of a socialist German state in East Germany, their Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was never reestablished. Most of the surviving Volga Germans and their descendents remained in Siberia and Central Asia through the early decades of the post-war period. In the early 1980s, however, opportunities opened for emigration to Germany, in accordance with the German Law of Return. The resulting exodus of Volga Germans, most of whom did not speak German by that time, accelerated after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But not all members of the community left. According to the most recent censuses, nearly 600,000 ethnic Germans live in the Russian Federation and another 180,000 live in Kazakhstan.

One Volga German who deserves a special mention is Boris Rauschenbach, a preeminent Soviet physicist and rocket engineer. Despite working on crucial military technologies including auto-targeting anti-aircraft projectiles, Rauschenbach was deported in March 1942 and sent to a labor camp near Nizhny Tagil in Urals, along with many other Volga Germans. However, his research was so important that he was soon transferred from hard labor to a desk job at one of the sharashkas, the secret research and development laboratories-cum-prisons also run by the NKVD. In 1946, he was released to exile in Nizhny Tagil, where he worked with Mstislav Keldysh and Sergey Korolyov, who were known as “the Chief Theoretician” and “the Chief Designer” of the Soviet space program. In the 1950s and 1960s, Rauschenbach worked on interplanetary flight control and navigation, including development of equipment that took the first photographs of the Moon’s far side. In 1961, he was on the mission control overseeing the flight that took the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space.


Rauschenbach’s work on the first Soyuz spacecraft docking systems led to an unexpected twist in his career. During the docking operation, the pilot could see the other spacecraft only on a TV screen. Does such a screen render real objects well enough, wondered Rauschenbach, to bet the lives of two crew members on it? This puzzle led him to study human perception of flat images and to develop a mathematical theory of perspective in art. Rauschenbach’s mathematics prove the impossibility of rendering a 3-D object on a 2-D surface without distortions, a challenge constantly faced by artists and cartographers alike. For example, the Mercator projection, which preserves the angles and the shapes of areas, distorts the size of areas, especially in the polar regions. Similarly, artists often use foreshortening—illustrated on the left with a detail of Caravaggio’s painting Supper at Emmaus—depicting objects extended along the line of sight relatively shorter than those extended across the line of sight.


In his Spatial composition in painting, Rauschenbach went beyond math and into the physiology of vision, pointing out that we see not merely with the eyes, but also with the brain, which transforms and interprets the image captured by the lens of the eye. For example, at great distances we see parallel lines as converging at the horizon, in accordance with linear perspective, but at shorter distances (within 5 yards or so) the brain “corrects” the image captured by the lens of the eye and makes parallel lines look parallel or even slightly divergent (as a result, photographs of objects in interiors, capturing what a lens “sees” without the benefit of the “correcting” brain, often look oddly unlike what we actually see).


Rauschenbach examined how great artists—from medieval Russian icon-painter Andrei Rublev to French post-impressionists Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh—deliberately distorted perspective in attempts to approximate what the eye-cum-brain actually sees, or failed to do so and had to “cover up” the results as van Gogh did by placing a brightly covered bed in the corner of the room where perspective lines do not quite add up (see image on the left).

The next Languages of the World post will consider the intellectual history of mapping the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface both in cartography and in art.

Finally, it should also be noted that Russian Germans played a significant role in the settlement of the Great Plains in the United States. Particularly important was their introduction of climatically appropriate strains of winter wheat to the region. As noted by the authors of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection:

“By 1920, according to the census of the United States, there were 116,539 persons here who were born in Russia but still spoke German as their mother tongue. At this time a total of 303,532 Russian-Germans living in the U.S., scattered in approximately 1500 settlements throughout the country but being especially numerous in the prairie states between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and the Rocky Mountains.”



*Even three decades later, Soviet children played role games pitting “us” against the “Germans”.


**1982, Kansas City, MO: Halcyon House Publishers.



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