Catharine II of Russia
Few people know, but until 1941 in Soviet Russia on the Volga there was an autonomous entity, the majority of its population was ethnic Germans. But how did representatives of these European people get into our country and manage to organize a republic?
The first German colonists on the Volga appeared after the July 22, 1762 manifesto of Catherine II “On allowing foreigners to settle in Russia and the free return of Russian people who fled abroad”, according to which foreigners were allowed a free entry into Russia, and if they had no means it was allowed to contact Russian diplomats to provide money.
Already in 1763, the first German immigrants arrived in the country and ended up in St. Petersburg and Oranienbaum, where they were sworn in and began to acquaint themselves with local laws and traditions. Over the course of three years, over 30 thousand Germans and other foreigners arrived in Russia, and in groups, began to go to a new place of residence – in the Volga region, where they were given land for the construction of colonies. The way, which turned out to be very difficult, was accompanied by high mortality, as a result of which more than three thousand colonists died before reaching the banks of the Volga.
By 1773, there were 105 colonies in the Volga region, where the Germans cultivated, in addition to the traditional rye and wheat, potatoes, oats, tobacco, flax and other crops. Also in these territories butter, leather and flour production were developed. The Volga region has become one of the richest regions of the country.
After the October Revolution and the advance by the Bolsheviks of a policy of people self-determination on October 19 1918, the Council of People’s Commissars approved the formation of the Volga Germans Labor Commune, originally a part of the Saratov province. The three autonomous entities included three counties with the predominantly German population, and the city of Pokrovsk (now Engels) became its center on June 22, 1922.
On December 19, 1923, the Labor Commune was separated from the Saratov Province into the Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic of Volga Germans. The population of the new entity amounted to over half a million citizens, among whom 66% were ethnic Germans. German and Russian languages were approved as the state ones, and after the adoption of the 1926 Constitution, the Ukrainian language was also adopted.
The supreme executive authority in the republic was the Council of People’s Commissars of the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic consisting of eight people’s commissars. Legislative power was represented by the Executive Committee of the Soviets of the Volga Germans. There was a museum on the territory of the republic, newspapers and literature in German were published. The literacy rate among the population was very high, there were 5 higher educational institutions and 171 schools in the republic, there were dozens of clubs and even the German National Theater.
The results of collectivization became deplorable for the Volga Germans, since many good owners were deprived of their property and sent to other regions of the country, and the rural inhabitants attached to collective farms were held hostage to the new system. The situation was aggravated by the famine of 1931-1933, which caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people. On the territory of the Volga region mass demonstrations by those dissatisfied with the new state policy were held, but all of them were suppressed.
The Stalinist repressions did not pass over the Volga German republic, and many party leaders who actively participated in the autonomy construction, including Adam Welsh and David Rosenberg, were shot. Most of the repressed were accused of having links with Nazi Germany and underground activities. German nationality commanders were resigned from the army, especially from the border units.
Volga Germans – Forced Resettlement
After the outbreak of World War II, ethnic Germans were suspected of possible subversive activities. Therefore, the decree of August 28, 1941 determined the liquidation of the autonomous republic, and the Germans were deported. They were allotted 24 hours for preparation, after which they were sent to Siberia, Kazakhstan and the Urals. The territory of the republic was divided between the Saratov and Stalingrad regions.
After Stalin’s death, several attempts were made to recreate the Volga-Germans republic, including on the territory of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Already during the years of Perestroika, the Society of Soviet Germans “Rebirth” made another attempt to revive the republic in the Volga region and to achieve the rehabilitation of illegally repressed and resettled Germans, but it also ended in failure.
Until now, Russian Germans, which number about 400 thousand people, do not have their autonomy and often live where they were sent by the Stalinist government.
Since the beginning of the 1990’s they have been establishing cultural ties with Germany, publishing newspapers in their native language and participating in international seminars and conferences. But until now, the Germans are the only repressed people, not rehabilitated either after the death of Stalin, or after the collapse of the USSR.
Translation: Tatiana Yakovleva