How do you prove exactly where in Europe your ancestors lived before they migrated to Russia? We know that we can't rely on the place names given in the published translations of the First Settler's Lists because those are sometimes inaccurate. The best proof of your ancestors' origin location is to find them in the church records of the location where they resided prior to emigration.
The holders of church and civil records have made significant progress in digitizing their materials so that they can be accessed online. Unfortunately, not every record that ever existed is online. Records are added to online collections regularly, so you might be pleasantly surprised to discover that records you could not find in the past are now available. Some of these records are on free websites and some are on subscription web sites. I frequently use a combination of free and subscription sources when I am researching.
Some web sites that might be useful in your research are listed below. This isn't an exhaustive list of every possible web site that might have records for Volga German Origin locations, but these are a good place to start:
Family Search (free)
Long time researchers will remember the days when you ordered microfilms from Salt Lake City to view at your local Family History Center. Family Search discontinued that service in 2017 and embarked on a project of digitizing all of the films in their collection. While you might not be able to view everything in the collection from home, Family Search likely has more European church records than any repository.
Ancestry does have some church records, and usually the way you discover them is by searching for the names and locations you are interested in.
If you are looking for Catholic records and can't find them on either Family Search or Ancestry, this is the next place you should check. The collection here was originally focused on records in Austria, and has now expanded to include many other European countries including Germany. The web site has a map that shows what locations have available records.
The records on Archion are primarily Protestant (Lutheran and Reformed), though not exclusively. There are some Catholic and Jewish records available. The records on this web site came from Archives in Germany, so the available records are almost entirely from places within the modern borders of Germany. The exception to that are some records for the former eastern provinces of Prussia. There are many records here that have never been filmed by Family Search, and some records that Family Search has filmed but does not make available online.
French Department web sites (free)
Many settlers in the Volga German villages came from France. Many French records are available online through the Department Archives for each region of France
Danish National Archives (free)
A few years before Catherine the Great invited colonists to settle in the Volga region, King Fredrick V of Denmark invited colonists to settle in Schleswig-Holstein. Many of the colonists were unhappy with the quality of the farmland there and emigrated to Russia when given the opportunity. The records for the settlements within the modern borders of Denmark are housed at the Danish National Archives.
© Margreatha Hein, 2022