Who are the Volga Germans? (Guest Post by Maggie Hein)

Who are the Volga Germans?

When I was a child, I was told that my father’s parents were German. As an adult, I became curious about exactly where in Germany my grandparents had come from and began to research my family’s genealogy. Imagine my confusion when all of the documents said they were born in Russia! I soon learned that my father’s ancestors were “Volga Germans”, a group with a unique history in the Russian Empire.

Germans in Russia? How Did that Happen?

There were Germans in Russia long before Catherine the Great became Empress in 1762. But it was Catherine who was responsible for the large-scale migration of Germans to the Russian Empire that began in 1763. Her manifesto inviting foreigners to settle in Russia detailed the benefits available to potential colonists. Those generous promises, and a vigorous recruitment effort by the Russian government, inspired thousands of families from many parts of Europe to take up the offer. An estimated 30,000 individuals attempted the journey to Russia between the years 1763 and 1773. The response was especially strong in what is today the country of Germany. 

The colonists settled in villages on both sides of the Volga River near the Russian city of Saratov, facing difficult times in the early years of their new settlements. The population increased and the need for more space led descendants of the original settlers to establish more colonies in both the Volga German region and other parts of the Russian Empire. 

Sadly, the Russian government eventually turned against its German citizens. In 1871, Tsar Alexander II revoked the privileges that had been granted by Catherine the Great, and in 1874 the exemption from military service was revoked. These changes drove many Volga Germans to immigrate to North and South America. For those who remained behind, decades of famine, oppression, and purges followed the 1917 Russian Revolution. The final blow was dealt to the Volga German colonies in 1941, when the entire population was deported to distant parts of the Soviet Union.

I Think My Ancestors were Volga German.  Where Do I Start?

Your first task is to identify exactly where in the former Russian Empire your ancestors lived. It is difficult to successfully research in Russia without narrowing your search to a specific location. If your ancestors settled in the United States, start by reviewing U.S. Census records for hints such as which family members were born in Russia and when your family immigrated to America. Death certificates, obituaries, naturalization documents, military draft registrations, and Social Security Number applications might provide a birth location. Ship manifests might also mention the last place they lived before immigrating. Clues in marriage licenses or church records may also exist.

The village of Frank, Russia (now called Medveditsa), 2013

I Know Exactly where my Family Came From in Russia.  How Do I Research my Ancestors There?

The good news is that many records for Volga German villages exist. The bad news is that those records are rarely online. The four Russian State Archives in the Volga German region with significant collections of genealogy materials are Saratov, Engels, Volgograd and Samara. Of these, only the Samara Archive has allowed FamilySearch to microfilm Volga German records. That collection of records includes a few Catholic church records and some censuses for the years 1850 – 1862. Outside of a few small collections, actual images of Volga German documents generally won’t be found online.

That being said, the lack of online records shouldn’t discourage you. Many independent researchers, the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR) organization, and individual AHSGR Village Coordinators have obtained and translated many Russian archival documents. Your best guide to information about your Volga German ancestors is the AHGSR Village Coordinator for your ancestral village. That person is most likely to know what records have survived and whether or not those records are available for research.

Unfortunately, some records have been lost. Some Volga German descendants are lucky and are able to document an unbroken line from themselves back to the initial settler families. Others will be disappointed that only a few scattered records exist for their village and complete genealogy research isn’t possible. Those of us who gather and translate records are constantly searching for new sources and are always hopeful that a surprise will turn up in some hidden corner of an archive.

Where Did My Ancestors Come From in Germany?

Tracing a family from Russia back to somewhere in Europe in the mid-1760s may sound daunting, but it isn’t impossible. There are numerous books and websites that give Volga German researchers clues about where their families lived before Russia.

The main source for Volga German origin locations is the 1767 Census, also known as the First Settlers Lists. These documents have been translated and published for almost all of the Volga German villages. While these are a valuable starting point, they aren’t completely accurate. Some of the place names are misspelled, some are nonexistent, and some are just plain wrong. I have proven the origin locations of hundreds of families and have learned that the place names in the published translations should be treated as suggestions, not proven facts.

Some Volga German settlers had a more complicated migration history. A few years before Catherine the Great began her colonization program, the King of Denmark attempted to populate Schleswig-Holstein with German colonists. That effort ultimately failed, and many of those colonists later migrated to Russia. There are also documented instances of Volga German colonists first immigrating to Brandenburg or Pomerania before later moving to Russia.

Volga Germans Around the World

After the fall of the Soviet Union, many ethnic Germans immigrated to Germany. However, many Germans still live in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union today. Large populations of Volga German descendants live in the U.S., Canada, and South America. Numerous websites and Facebook groups help us connect and collaborate with each other. We meet virtually, and sometimes in person, and work together to solve the unique challenges of researching our shared history.

About the Author:

Maggie Hein is one of the administrators of the Volga Germans website Her genealogy research focuses on Germans who migrated to Russia in 1766 to settle in the lower Volga River region. She blogs about Volga German genealogy research at  Maggie is also a volunteer AHSGR Village Coordinator for the Village of Frank. When she isn’t doing genealogy research, she is a tax accountant and co-owner of a CPA firm in the Chicago suburbs. 

One Response

  1. Great grandparents came from near Odessa (German farmers) and settled in South Dakota, and then Cleveland, North Dakota where my dad grew up. I’m now 74 and me and my 3 sisters (no sons born to dad to farm the farm!) rent out the property. We still have grandparent’s home and barn standing and kept in repair. We visit the farm, usually during August during combining. Spent much time on the farm with grandparents while growing up!

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