22 February 2019

German Colonies in the Poltava Province

Note: This post was updated on 24 Feb 2019 with the correct photos and source of the church. –SSP

Map of the Poltava Province, 1821.
Source: Geographical Atlas of the Russian Empire, General map of the Poltava Province.

The first German colonists in the Russian province of Poltava (
Poltawa) in the historic area known as Left Bank Ukraine were farmers from Frankfurt am Main. They arrived in the mid-1700s and settled in the village of Kremenchug. It would be another 50 years before larger numbers arrived. And when they did, they would make significant contributions toward the construction and textile industries in the province.

Malorossiya (Little Russia 1796-1802) was a territory created in 1796 that was comprised of most of modern-day northeastern Ukraine along with some adjacent regions. The territory proved too large to administer, so on 27 February 1802, Tsar Alexander I divided the area into the Chernigov and Poltava governorates.

At the end of the French Revolution (1789-1799), Napoleon seized power in France and created a de facto military dictatorship. By 1803, the Napoleonic Wars had begun. These major conflicts pitted the the French Empire against its allies until 1815. Sharing a border with France, the Germanic states obviously felt the immediate threat. When Tsar Alexander I opened the Black Sea up for settlement in 1804, German colonists responded overwhelming regardless of the immigration quotas that were set. Fearing the loss of military force at a precarious time, King Friedrich of Württemberg prohibited emigration from his kingdom from 1807-1815. Russia also felt the military threat of Napoleon. The governor-general in Poltava enacted a plan to build massive administrative offices and housing to support manufacturing in the area and brought in craftsmen needed to prepare for war. Poltava was already well equipped with specialists in metallurgy. What it lacked most were brick makers and weavers.

Volga Germans from the Saratov area who were experienced brick makers were invited to move to the city of Poltava to help begin mass producing building materials. Until then, Poltava had only two permanent structures made of brick. A master brick maker could only make 500 a bricks a day, not enough for the major construction projects planned.

Germans would also immigrate to Poltava to help develop its textile industry. The cloth Russia used to buy from England was no longer available due to broken trade ties with France. Poltava was well known for its high-quality wool which was plentiful. It needed weavers and knitters to manufacture fabrics to be made into military uniforms. In order to expedite this, on 20 June 1808, Alexander I invited artisan colonists from Bohemia, Moravia (both in present-day Czechia), Alsace (present-day France) and Saxony (a state in eastern Germany presently bordering Czechia and Poland) to settle in the cities of Poltava
Kostyantynohrad and Kremenchug.

The conditions of their settlement were as follows: 
  1. Freedom of religion. 
  2. Exemption from all taxes and duties for a term of 10 years. 
  3. In the following 10 years, land taxes were set at a rate of 15-20 kopecks per dessiatine [1 dessiatine = 2.7 acres] per tithing.
  4. Exemption from compulsory military service. Colonists were allowed to enter the civil service, subject to payment of the debt to the treasury. 
  5. Freedom to leave the colony or the Russian Empire, subject to payment of the treasury debt and 3 years taxes. 
  6. Freedom to sell their handicraft products throughout the country. 
  7. Per-diem in the amount of 12 kopecks per person per day for travel to Poltava and while waiting for placement. 
Housing would also be provided for the colonists who settled in the cities.

Arrival and Early Living Conditions

In November 1808, the first six families arrived. They were settled on what was then the outskirts of Poltava city. Houses were built for them along the streets of Fabrikantskaya (now Balakina St.) and Kolonistskaya (now Skovoroda St.).

Map of Poltava City showing the German Colony, 1857.
Source: War Archives, Stockholm, Sweden

The first large party of 130 German families reached Poltava in August 1809. They were placed in 16 houses. Over time, several more groups arrived with 54 families (249 people) settled in the city of Poltava, 41 families (218 people) in Kostyantynohrad, 2 families (10 people) in Kremenchug.

The houses provided in these villages were state-owned, small, inadequate in number, and of poor quality with paper-thin walls. The entire family lived and worked inside their homes, with their looms a part of their living quarters. Each family was expected to produce about 800 arshins [1 arshin = 28 inches or 71.1 centimeters] of cloth per year. For each arshin, they were paid 82 kopecks, including the cost of raw materials. Other expenses the colonists incurred were not reimbursed. Working conditions were severe, and disease and malnourishment were common. Medicine, like fuel, was added to the colonists' debt, keeping them from being able to leave.

In 1816, a new governor-general of Poltava was appointed who was more sympathetic to the working conditions in the German colonies in the province. Noting these conditions, he submitted a memorandum to the government. In response, Alexander I, through Ministry of the Interior, ordered the following measures be carried out:
  1. Cancel all debts of the colonists with the treasury.
  2. Give each family property with plots of land and hayfields.
  3. Give each family a loan of 100 rubles for three years.
  4. Any State provided tools used by the colonists were given to the colonists to own.
  5. Allow colonists to stay where they were or join others of their faith, Lutherans in Poltava or Catholics in Kostyantynohrad.
  6. Allow the colonies to set up courts and other self-government like other German colonies in Russia, including, by 1820, the election of a 3-year-term Schultz who oversaw the administration and management of each colony.
  7. Allow each colonist the opportunity to engage in his own craft at will, essentially become free craftsmen.
With mandatory quotas lifted and more autonomy, immediately German colonists began several small industrial enterprises that contributed to the production of fabric, leather and products made from them (socks, stockings, footwear, etc.). They would remain, some very prosperously, for decades to come.

 Religion and Culture

Most of the German colonists were Lutheran with number of Catholics settling together in the colony of Kostyantynohrad. Eventually there would be two Lutheran parishes. The parish in Poltava was established in 1804, with pastors serving until 1932. Peter and Paul church stood in the German colony in Poltava until it was destroyed by the Soviets in the 1930s. The parish in Kremenschug was established in 1863 with pastors serving until 1919. The Kremenschug congregation in 1905 included 216 Germans, 22 Latvians, 10 Estonians, 5 Swedish and 47 others.

Like other German colonies in Russia, those in Poltava kept their language, culture, religion and married mostly among themselves. Being that they were very much in the minority when it came to ethnicity, language (.16% of the population spoke German in 1897) and religion (Protestants, Catholics, Mennonites combined were .4% of the population in 1897), there was likely more assimilation into the culture around them simply in order to do business.

Peter and Paul church in the German colony in Poltava circa early 1900s.
Source: WikiCommons

The Industrial Revolution in Russia

The Industrial Revolution and the development of capitalism came later to Russia than it did to other European and Western nations. Those nations transitioned to new manufacturing processes between about 1820-1840. Tsar Alexander II's 1861 Emancipation Manifesto freed serfs from private estates and domestic households across Russia. In total, an estimated 23 million people became free Russian citizens–free to marry, free to own property, free to run a business, etc. And this meant that large populations of people were suddenly also free to seek employment in cities. With this influx of workers, by the 1880s, large scale factories were producing textiles and steel, and coal mining became important to support these factories. Steel was used to construct railways, one of which was the Trans-Siberian Railway, which opened up vast amounts of territory for settlement and domestic trade. The textile factories made fabric mainly for the Russian military. The manual production of fabric was no longer needed and the small home factories run by German colonists closed.

Far Reaching Ties

While some German colonists returned to their homelands as the need for their expertise was replaced by industrial manufacturing processes, some stayed in the cities or moved to smaller villages. A search by location in indexes of the EWZ (EinWanderungsZentralstelle) Film Series 50 shows colonists in Poltava had ties all over the former Russian Empire and to cities in the German Reich. It includes a number of colonies in Volhynia, Bessarabia, Volga, Molotscha, Prischib, St. Petersburg, Siberia, Crimea, Liebental, the Don, as well as to cities in present-day Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Czechia, Belarus and Poland. For such a small percentage of German population in the province, their ties to other locations is much wider than anticipated, as the map below shows. 

Areas in Russia and other countries that had ties to the Poltava Province (pink pins).

Search for Colony Names

Even though they arrived about the same time as the Black Sea Germans, the colonists who settled in Poltava have a different immigration story. No historical map exists of the German colonies in Poltava, making the area a challenge. Some of the names of the places came from the research of a handful of Ukrainian historians who study the impacts of the Germans on the textile industry in the 19th century. The majority of the names of the places came from the Germans who had to leave their homes in Poltava during WWII. From their immigration applications where they reported where they, their parents and their children were born, a list of colonies was compiled 

  1. "Німецькі колонії на Полтавщині" (German Colonies in the Poltava Region), by Dr. Iryna Petrenko, Poltava University of Economics and Trade (2015). Dr. Petrenko's research focuses on the city of Poltava and construction and textile industries to which the Germans contributed. Special thanks to her for sharing her research with me and getting me off to a good start with the list of colonies. 
  2. EWZ (EinWanderungsZentralstelle) Film Series: 50 from the National Archives and Records Administration, index by the Germans from Russia Heritage Society. This is the first time in this project that this source has been used. This index is a part of GRHS's members genealogy database and is the only index of these records at this time that is searchable by locality without requiring a surname. These records were created for ethnic Germans who, during WWII, were resettled from the Soviet Union back to Germany and had applied for German citizenship. Part of the process was proving their German ethnicity through genealogy, so these records contain a lot of family history information–most important to this project are the places of births for those being resettled as well as their parents and children. The information in these records is only as good as what was reported, recorded, transcribed and translated. All spelling variations found have been included. This source is provided in each of the colonies where it was used, the exact URL is not given because it is a GRHS members-only database. If another public index is found that provides the same capability, this source will be updated. 
  3. Birth record lists from GRHS for Neu-Strymba (Bessarabia), Prischib (Prischib) and Johannenstal (Beresan) and others. The records seemed to have come from Russian archives but didn't always have source identifying information on them. The few colonies found in these documents were all confirmed with EWZ records.
  4. AHSGR's Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans From Russia. A full journal and work paper search of organizations including AHSGR, GRHS, SGGEE, EEG, etc. was performed. While there were several references in articles to Poltava as a whole, there a few issues of the AHSGR journal that provided a few specific colony names that were added to the list. 
  5. German-Russian Village List, also known as the "Long List," created by Dale Wahl (1999). Very few listings for Poltava/Poltawa, but it was useful because it indicated what other villages were nearby. 
Of that list of colonies reported to be in Poltava from the sources listed above, less than half were found. Without a map showing cities and landmarks near the colonies, there was no credible way to determine where some of them are now, or where they used to be if they have been abandoned or destroyed. The former province now spans across the modern-day Poltava oblast along with parts of the Cherkasy, Kharkiv, Kiev and Sumy oblasts. Common place names proved impossible to narrow down because there were just too many possibilities. Because this area was occupied by the German army in WWII, one can also assume that many of the small agrarian colonies as reported by those who were resettled no longer exist. 

Below is the map of the new colonies. On the main GRSL map, you may notice I've begun shifting areas around to make room for more of the interior governorates.