Cumberland Academy

Who Are the Volga Germans?

The Volga Germans are a unique ethnic group that settled in the lower Volga River region from 1764 to 1767 under a Russian colonization program promoted by Catherine the Great’s government. These colonists retained their native language, religious beliefs, customs and traditions while at the same time being influenced by the land and their neighbors. By 1875, many Volga Germans began migrating to both North and South America. 

Between 1764 and 1772, 106 colonies were established along the Volga River near Saratov. Historically, these original colonies became known as “Mother Colonies“. Colonists were assigned to settlements according to their religious confession.

Illustration of a portage by the colonists en route to the settlement area on the lower Volga River. Source: “Das Manifest der Zarin” by Victor Aul.

The 900 mile voyage by ship from Germany to Russia could normally be made in 9 days. Inclement weather and unfavorable winds could prolong the journey to several weeks. Sometimes dishonest ship captains would delay which allowed them to sell provisions at inflated prices as the colonists’ supplies diminished. In one case, the journey from Lübeck to Russia lasted three months.

Many left their homes to escape a war-ravaged Central Europe that had suffered socio-economic devastation wrought by the Seven Year’s War which ended in 1763.

Recruiters under the employ of Catherine II (Catherine the Great) were sent to many areas of Central Europe with her Manifesto which invited people to migrate to Russia. By 1798, there were more than 38,800 individuals living in 101 German speaking colonies along the Volga River near Saratov.

The Origin of the Volga Colonies

Catheriene the Great, Empress of Russia (1762-1796)

Catherine the Great followed Peter the Great’s idea of importing Germans and other Western Europeans in the hopes that their skills and knowledge would help elevate Russia’s status and standard of living without changing the fundamental culture of the country.

Catherine was herself born in the German kingdom of Anhalt-Zerbst, so she had a strong connection to the German-speaking world. On July 22, 1763, Catherine issued a manifesto that invited European peasants to settle the somewhat inhospitable and often lawless region of the Lower Volga River around the city of Saratov.

A Volga German Couple.

When the first German colonists began arriving in the Volga region, they quickly learned what any Russian could have told them – life in Russia can be difficult. The first set of difficulties they encountered came from the very government that invited them to Russia. There were no ready made homes waiting for them so they had to build sod houses much as their ancestors later did when they migrated to the plains of America and Canada.

German colonists resting in their travel to a destination village near Kamianets-Podilskyi (now the Ukraine).

Early History of the Glückstal Colonists

by Homer Rudolf
The Glückstal Chronicle provides us with almost all of the information we have for the years before the four Glückstal mother colonies were founded and settled. There was, in fact, a period of over four years from the time the first families arrived until the actual settlement began.

It was in July of 1804 that the first three families arrived from Württemberg, and the Russian officials made the decision to settle them in the small Armenian village of Grigoriopol on the Dniester River. That occurred in early 1805. An additional 67 families arrived in Ovidiopol from Württemberg in 1805, and joined the group in Grigoriopol; plus 9 families from Prussian Poland in 1806 [sic, 1808]; 24 families from Hungary in 1807; and three families from German lands [most likely colonies in Prussian Poland] in 1808-1809. Of these, only 21 families had their own homes in Grigoriopol – the rest lived with Armenian families until homes were constructed for them between February 1806 and May 1807 [Glückstal-1848].

Glückstal Colonies Surnames
Found in the St. Petersburg Records Database

. . . Obenauer, Oberlaender, Ochsner, Oechsle, Oestenberg, Opp, Ost, Oster, Ott, Otto . . .


Germans from Russia Emigration and Immigration

From 1880 to 1920 more than twenty-five million immigrants, many from Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ukraine, were attracted to the United States and Canada.

In North America, the Germans from Russia were attracted to the great prairies, which were not unlike the steppes of Russia where they had been farming for generations. Volga Germans settled mostly in Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas. The greatest concentration of Black Sea Germans is in the Dakotas. German Mennonites from Russia settled in Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, California, and Manitoba. Most Volhynian Germans settled in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Western Canada.[1]

The following work is of great value to those researching Germans in Russia. It lists most of the original German colonists who came to Russia and usually indicates their place of origin in Germany:

  • Stumpp, Karl. The Emigration from Germany to Russia in the Years 1763 to 1862. Tübingen: Karl Stumpp, 1972

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