History of the Germans in Russia

The article below was written by Dr. Igor Pleve who is one of the preeminent Volga German historians. The article describes the various ethnic German groups within the Russian Empire and explains the unique characteristics of the Volga Germans and the importance of studying this group separately from other German ethnic groups.


A Brief History of the Germans in Russia

Written by Dr. Igor Pleve, for the Center for Volga German Studies at Concordia University. Translated from the original Russian text.

The formation of various groups of the German Russian population took place over several centuries in different parts of the vast Russian Empire. Social, religious and geographic differences resulted in limited contact and mutual influence among the groups. The following sections describe these differences in the German population of Russia.


Social Classes

  1. Colonists - This group of Germans arrived in Russia as part of early colonization activities and were compactly settled in the Volga region, in Ukraine and near St. Petersburg. In the late 19th to early 20th centuries, some colonists moved to subsidiary colonies in the North Caucasus, Siberia, and Orenburg regions. Despite their general social status, each group had pronounced features associated with the time period of their settlement, places of origin in Europe, and social and economic relations.  In 1871, the colonists lost many of their privileges and their social status was changed to common villagers.


  1. Burghers - Numerous people from various Germanic and other European states came to Russia as privileged citizens. They lived primarily in cities and can be divided into two categories. The first category of Burghers experienced the strong influence of Russian culture and quickly assimilated. The second category preserved the national traits of their country of origin.


  1. Nobles - The Russian nobility was replenished by the Germans after the Baltic states were annexed to Russia. A part of the German nobility received titles in the service of the Russian state, and others brought it from their former homeland. This social group was characterized, on the one hand, by the preservation of national and religious traits, and on the other, by isolation from the rest of the German population of the country.


Religious Faith

  1. Lutherans - The Lutherans were the largest group and were represented in all of the social classes. They formed an absolute majority among the nobility and the colonists. (Translator note: This group also includes those of the Calvinist or Reformed faith.)


  1. Catholics - The majority of the German population of Russia who practiced this religious faith were colonists. A small number of Germans adopted Orthodoxy. Religious differences created barriers in contacts between the Germans. These differences were not as distinct in the cities as they were in the countryside. 


  1. Mennonites - They originally settled in New Russia (Ukraine) and the Volga region. In later years they colonized regions in the Orenburg steppes, Siberia and Central Asia. The Mennonites completely preserved their originality. Being natives of Holland and having serious religious contradictions with Catholics and Lutherans, they tried to avoid contact with German colonists, except for purely economic reasons.


Geographic Territory


In our opinion, it is possible to distinguish six main groups of the German population of Russia by their geographic place of residence. Each group had pronounced features and were stable communities until 1917.


  1. Germans of the Baltic States - They became part of Russia’salready formed group, with their own national, cultural and territorial features. The high level of education and social status allowed many representatives of this group to enter the highest echelons of power and the military elite of Russia. There was little mutual influence or contact with other groups of Germans, with the exception of individual representatives living inMoscow and St. Petersburg.


  1. The Germans of St. Petersburg and Moscow - They can be divided into two parts: one took the path of assimilation and loss of national identity, the other retained their primary national traits. The latter was characterized by great mobility and constant replenishment due to new arrivals in the 18th through the early 20th centuries from all over Europe, including German states, foreigners, and the departure of a certain part of the Germans back to their homeland. As a result, Russia fully received all the new achievements of Germany in the fields of science, language, and education. The different social status of the Germans in the capital cities prevented close interaction. For them, the only unifying factor was the church. Relations with the German colonists were usually not maintained. The only exception may be the colonists who settled near St. Petersburg in the 18th century.


  1. Germans of the Volga region - Formed as a national group at the beginning of the 19th century from the masses of colonists who responded to Catherine II’s Manifesto. These Germans arrived on the Volga between 1764-1767. The compact settlement, rigid state control, loss of contact with their homelands led to isolation, not only from their former homelands, but also from other groups of the German population of Russia. A characteristic feature of the Volga Germans was the preservation of the linguistic and cultural traditions of their German homelands in the mid-18th century.


  1. Germans of New Russia (Ukraine) - After victorious wars with Turkey, immigrants from German lands were invited to facilitate the rapid development of newly incorporated territories within the Russian Empire. This wave of colonists was different in composition from arrivals in the Volga region. Only experienced farmers and artisans who had a family and prescribed assets were taken to the settlementareas. The changes that had occurred in the German states for fifty years after the first wave of colonists arrived on the Volga were reflected in the culture of the new settlers. The Germans of New Russia had practically no contact with the other groups of colonists.


  1. Germans of Transcaucasia - Settled at the same time as the Germans in New Russia, they represented a relatively homogeneous religious and ethnic group of Swabians from Baden-Württemberg. Dispersed settlement delayed their social stratification until the beginning of the 20thcentury. There were practically no contacts with German populations on the Volga and the North Caucasus. They maintained contacts only with kindred religious and ethnic settlements in New Russia. According to the German historian Eva Maria Auch, the colonists of Transcaucasia did not develop an awareness of themselves as part of the Germans of Russia.


  1. Germans of Volhynia - They were the last wave of German colonization in Russia. Although the colonization of this region took place throughout the first half of the 19th century, it acceleratedin the 60s and 80s. They have become an influential factor in the economic life of the region, especially in the field of agricultural production. Two-thirds of the Volyn Germans came from the Polish provinces of Vistula, which largely determined their orientation, both economic and cultural. There were no contacts made with the German population of other regions of Russia.


  1. German settlements of Siberia, Orenburg and Northern Caucasus began to be created at the end of the 19th century, as subsidiary colonies of the groups cited above,and before 1917.  They did not form unique communities, but instead brought the culture and traditions from their mother colonies.


From all the above, we conclude that the consideration of the history of the Germans in Russia is possible, starting only from the study of certain social, religious and territorial groups or combinations thereof (for example, social and religious). Attempts to consider the Germans of Russia as a single ethnos before 1917 will inevitably lead to a violation of historical accuracy in their studies, and the real history will be adapted to predetermined narratives.


Tragedies unite people. The deportation of 1941 accelerated the process of bringing together various social, religious and territorial groups of Germans, which allows us to discuss the existence of a Russian German ethnos from that point forward.


Pleve, I. R., Rye, Richard R (translator). (2001). The German colonies on the Volga : the second half of the eighteenth century. Lincoln, Neb.: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia.


Dr. Igor Pleve, Saratov, Russia, June 2019.