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Life Along the Volga

"The apple does not fall far from the trunk, tradition agrees, and so the essential ingredients of the Volga German lifestyle consisted of homeland culture imports." 
Historian Fred C. Koch

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For the first two years, the new arrivals lived underground in holes that they dug and covered with reeds, branches, and anything else that might keep out the rain, snow, and bitter winter cold. Catherine's Manifesto had promised housing for all. That part of the contract was not what the settlers expected. The earliest settlers were at risk from the Kirgiz and the cold, heat, and starvation.

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Volga log house

As the area developed and more tradesmen settled along the river, the housing that would last for hundreds of years began to appear along both sides of the river. The side with low foothills was the Volga Bergseite, and the meadow side was the Volga Wiesenseite.


The influx of thousands of people into the Volga Rivera area gave the settlements a security measure that only originally existed. Because of the small numbers, the people were vulnerable to attack from the Kirgiz. The Kirgiz were pastoral, nomadic tribesmen indigenous to that corner of Russia. Catherine the Great had given land to the Germans from Russia that Kirgiz had previously thought of as their own. For the skilled horsemen and warriors, the new settlers were no match.

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Ambush by the Kirgiz

As the colonies grew, the style of the homes began to take shape. Many of those homes are inhabited by Russians today.

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Farmhouse of family with modest means

The houses were not lavish, but they were warm in winter, cool in the winter, and they provided safety and relative comfort compared to what the Germans had left behind in Prussia. As colonists created more wealth, the homes began reflecting the success of some of the entrepreneurs.

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House of wealthy colonist

By the mid-1800s, the Germans had taken the barren landscape and turned it into the "breadbasket" of Russia. Several of the families had made fortunes in the wheat business. They had become a form of aristocracy in the area. During the mid-1800s, the Volga region provided nearly one-fourth of the wheat grown and processed in the world.

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Camels pulling for wheat harvest

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Threshing grain in Messer

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Colonist Wagon - A typical horse-srawn wagon on the street of a Volga German colony

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Camel wagon

Horses were not the only beasts of burden along the Volga. The ownership of a camel also signified a level of prosperity for the locals.

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The Sledge Ride by Jaroslav Vesin

Basket sleds were a unique form of transportation.

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A formal wedding picture of a Volga German wedding in Russia in the early 1900s

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Volga wedding with family, guests, and a band

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Warenburg street                                        (Compliments of Dr Brent Mai,  Volga German Institute)

The church was often the center of village life.  Parishioners between 1905 and 1907 constructed the Warenburg Lutheran Church above. The villagers of Warenburg built the original Warenburg Lutheran Church in 1770.

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The Warenburg Church 2017

The Russians used the Warenburg Church as a tractor repair shop (in the narthex) and a youth gathering facility.

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Church School in Tarlykowka, Russia

Many Volga German men were conscripted into the Russian army to fight against Germany during World War I. The Russians had little respect for the Germans. Some of the Volga German Russian soldiers went into battle with guns but little or no ammunition. In some cases, Volga German soldiers were not issued guns. Only Russian soldiers were supplied with doctors, medical support, and medical supplies.

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George Steinhauer - Russian military

Vladimir Lenin's success led to the abdication of Czar Nicolaus II and the end of the Provisional Government. October 25, 1917, marked another major event that would directly impact the future of the Germans in Russia. The Germans fought on both sides of the revolution. The colonies were virtually destroyed and pillaged as the Reds would come through and take food and animals. When the tide of battle changed, the Whites would do the same and take what little might be left.

Warenburg Massacre

In fall 1918, the men of the colonies near Saratov were conscripted to fight with the Red Army. The townspeople organized and attempted to defend themselves and their previously promised autonomy. The killing of Soldiers of the Red Army resulted in retaliation from the Reds. The Red Army leaders convinced the insurrectionists to surrender by telling them that no harm would come to them or their families. In truth, those who surrendered were machine-gunned by a firing squad and killed. The families of those killed were immediately sent from the village by the leaders of the Reds. Others suspected of involvement had all of their possessions taken, the wives and children were forced to leave their homes. Those who could not pay for the damages incurred by the Reds were shot. The Red Army then took the colonists' cows, horses, other livestock, food supplies, and clothing.

The Famine of 1921

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Children of the famine - Volga region, 1921

The famine took its toll on everyone, especially the children. Many were left as orphans after their families perished from illness and starvation. The Volga Relief effort was begun in Oregon and supported the Cross Church in Fresno and by churches in Nebraska.

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American Relief Association camel transport

Camels saved lives during Volga Relief 1021-1925

World War II

The outbreak of World War II signaled the final major blow to the survival of the Volga German colonies. According to Volga

"In 1941, all the colonists who had not yet migrated from the Volga region were deported by Stalin's Soviet government to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and other remote areas because of their German heritage. The formal decree came on August 28, 1941, which abolished the Autonomous Socialistic Soviet Republic of the Volga Germans.

On September 1, 1941, Stalin announced a mass evacuation for the 440,000 Volga Germans. Ten days later, they began their forced deportation to Kazakhstan and Siberia. Stalin's military forced the Colonists to work in the Trudarmee (labor army) in camps such as Kolyma. The Volga Germans were stripped of their citizenship and did not regain their civil rights until after Stalin's death."

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