"Volga-German" defines people of German (and other Central European ethnicities) origin who accepted Tsar Katharina's invitation in 1766 to colonize the undeveloped steppes on either side of the Volga River.
They took a year to make the passage, and many died along the way. Despite promises to the contrary there were little supplies when they arrived on the empty plains. Their first years there were very difficult and many perished from hunger and from raids by the original nomadic inhabitants of the steppes, the Kirghiz.
They finally succeeded and began to prosper, and although Russian citizens, retained their language and german customs. They very rarely married with Russians and remained a culture apart until World War Two.
In the 1870's they bagan to worry about their promised liberties being eroded. They had been guaranteed freedom of religion and from military service. This came to an end, and many Volga-Germans prompted by this and by overcrowding heeded notices of free land in the Americas and a large exodus occurred in the years 1875-1910. Most went to North America, but there were also large settlements in Argentina and Brazil.
Even though hundreds of thousands of them left, the majority stayed behind and in the Russian Revolution many were killed or starved when they were treated as wealthly land owners or when they were shot defending their grain stores. Famine and crop-failure also reeked havoc in the early 1920's and finally in 1941 Stalin declared the Volga-Germans to be enemies to the state (as they were feared to be still loyal to their German homeland) and the entire population (100s of village, 2 million plus individuals) were deported to the outer regions of Russia, including Siberia.
It was at this time that they began to lose their culture. The speaking of German and its instruction were outlawed, and many family units were broken and destroyed, so the passing-on of their ethnic traditions became nearly impossible. Even after the fall of the iron curtain they were denied the right to return to their homeland and only recently have been allowed and have begun to do so.
Those who immigrated to the New World, faired somewhat better. As their ancestors before them, they came to virgin land and through years of diligent work turn the prairies into farms and their numbers grew. In Ellis County, Kansas were I grew-up the majority of the inhabitants were Volga-German or of V-G descent.
At first the American Volga-Germans stayed clannish, as they had in Russia, keeping to their own, marrying amongst themselves, but as the 20th Century dawned and the world changed in drastic ways, so to did the Volga Germans. They succumbed to the migrant way of life in the new world and eventually began to mix with the rest of the population, creating German-Irish, (like me) and German-other ethnic mixes.
In WWI and WWII, they were treated as possible enemies and sympathizers with the German Cause, and their language was forbidden to them and also became a stigma. Many willingly left their ethnically rich past behind, americanized their names and wholeheartedly merged into the American melting pot. Only fifty years later did they begin to rediscover and reclaim their past and take pride in what had once been shameful.
The first Oktoberfest took place in Hays Kansas, in the late 1970's and the Centennial of their arrival was celebrated in 1975. Volga-German Historical Societies and Internet Chat Groups have exploded in the last few years. There are Volga German descendants in every corner of the United States and Canada.
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