Germans from Russia Now Second Largest Immigrant Group
Hard Work Pays Off for Hardy Homesteaders
Sometimes they are called “the other Germans.” Sometimes they are called the “Ruzlands.” Some come from the lands that border the Black Sea. Others from Mariupol or Dobrudja or the Caucasus country or the Volga Valley. Some are Mennonites; some are Hutterites. Some belong to the Roman Catholic Church; others are Lutheran. These are the German-Russians. They all lived in Russia, but they all were Germans by birth or heritage. Thousands have left Russia for the United States, and about 32,000 have migrated to North Dakota.
What were these Germans doing in Russia? In the 1760s Catherine II, the ruler of Russia, invited Europeans, especially Germans, to settle in Russia. Catherine, who was a German by birth, knew that Germans were excellent farmers and that Russia needed a more stable and plentiful food supply. She promised that immigrants would receive free land, could exercise religious freedom and would be exempt from service in the Russian army. In other words, Germans in Russia could continue in their German ways. Because Germany was going through political turmoil and war, over 50,000 Germans went to Russia by 1870. Alexander I, who became Tsar in 1801, continued to recruit Germans to live in lands that Russia had taken from Turkey along the Black Sea. Thousands more Germans took up land in Russia.
In Russia the Germans remained German. They kept their religion and their language. They did not mingle with the Russians and only a few learned the Russian language. Their elementary schools promoted Germanism, things German, not Russian.
These Germans in Russia earned reputations as hard-working farmers who were able to overcome a hostile environment. They were good farmers. Most eventually prospered.
But things changed for the Germans in Russia when Alexander II became Tsar in 1874. He ended German exemption from service in the Russian army and began a program of Russification — Germans were no longer a special people; they were to become Russians.
Angry over these broken promises, many Germans began to leave Russia. The 160 acres of land that the Homestead Act provided lured most to America, especially the Great Plains states. Now in 1910 about 60,000 Germans from Russia (the immigrants and their American-born children) live in North Dakota. They began arriving through north-central South Dakota in the mid-1880s.
In North Dakota they mostly have homesteaded in the south-central part of the state with heaviest populations in Emmons, McIntosh, and Logan counties. They have spread northward to Ramsey County and north-westwardly into the counties beyond the Missouri River (see map above).
The Germans from Russia have faced severe hardships. But their farming experiences in Russia served them well. They continue in their German ways which includes success in farming.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.