Germans from Russia History

There are many excellent sources that explain the history of Germans from Russia in much greater detail than that which is presented below.  We encourage you to check out our Sources page for books, historical societies and websites that will further your knowledge of your Germans from Russia heritage. 

In 1729, German princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Ahalt-Zerbst-Domburg was born in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) to Prince Christian Auguste.  Empress Elizabeth of Russia chose Sophie to marry her nephew, who would become Tsar Peter III.  Upon her marriage, Sophie took the name Catherine II, Empress of Russia.  A bloodless coup forced her husband, Peter III, to abdicate after being in power for only 6 months.  He was murdered shortly afterwards, and she assumed the throne and would be known as Catherine the Great, reigning from 1762 until her death in 1796.

Just three weeks into her reign as tsarina, Catherine issued her first manifesto, inviting all foreigners to settle in her new empire.  Her plan was to settle Western European farmers, targeting farmers in the Germanic states in particular, into the eastern part of Russia. Russia needed farmers to break and settle the vast amounts of unoccupied land. They would also serve as a buffer between invaders and what she considered her "civilized" empire. 

Her invitation was met with no response.

One year later, Catherine issued a second manifesto on 22 July 1763, sweetening the pot with incentives like free land, freedom of religion, tax exemption, interest free loans, exemption from military service, freedom to return to their land of origin at any time.

The Germanic states, then still a part of the Holy Roman Empire and not Germany as we know it now, were devastated by five generations of wars beginning with the Thirty Years' War in 1618. Catherine's second manifesto may have seemed like an offer to paradise, and many Germans took her up on it and settled colonies in Russia along the Volga River. These first waves of immigrants are often referred to as the Volga Germans. 

Many of the Germanic states did not escape the impact in the following years of the French Revolution, the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, all occurring between 1789 and 1820.  At the same time, Russia had expanded around the Black Sea, so when Catherine's grandson, Tsar Alexander I, came into power, he issued another manifesto on 20 February 1804, offering the same incentives to the German people but this time settling in colonies along the Black Sea.  These wave of colonists would come to be known as the Black Sea Germans, and included many Catholic as well as Protestant colonists.  

Although residing in various parts of Russia, the German colonists kept their culture, heritage, religion, food customs and language.  When many immigrated to the United States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, they continued to keep much of their ethnic identity, and it survives today, 253 years later.  

Germans from Russia Settlement Locations Project

It's a question that nearly everyone researching their Germans from Russia heritage has at one point or another.  Where exactly were my ancestral villages located?

For Dennis Bender, the origin of the Germans from Russia Settlement Locations project stemmed from simply from wanting to know exactly where places like Tarutino, Kassel and Johannenstal were situated today.

"Shortly after my mother passed away in November 2007, I got very involved in duplicating and organizing the 100+ years of family photos that she left behind. After that, I decided to try my hand at doing a family tree in MyHeritage program. Since that program and others like it only recognize today’s geographical locations, I became quite determined."

Some family tree programs tied in with the big online maps such as Google Maps and MapQuest will allow alternate names to be given to locations, but without knowing the current name or the having the GPS coordinates of an ancestral village, its easy to get stuck. Bender's goal was to create a short cross reference list of locations that included GPS coordinates.

"In February 2011, I stumbled upon the website Find a Grave and decided to pay tribute to my family’s ancestors for all to see," Bender said. But there were only a handful of cemetery locations in Ukraine and Moldova. Many locations he had on his cross reference guide weren't even available on Find a Grave. They simply didn't exist. Undeterred, he contacted the administrators of Find a Grave and asked them to add the town names he needed. They were agreeable, but they said they could only add four requests at a time to their database.

Patiently and persistently, Bender requested four new locations at a time until he got the 51 locations he required for his family memorials. He set up and pinpointed the cemetery for the newly added village, added the GPS coordinates, photos, descriptions and added memorials for each of his relatives. Freely sharing his work, other Find a Grave volunteers as well as his own family members asked for his help finding even more ancestral villages, and Bender obliged.

Bender gives a lot of credit to, Elaine (Becker) Morrison for her assistance and encouragement when he started his research. Morrison became and continues to be Bender's mentor and confidant.

"When I tried to remember my beginning interest in Germans from Russia activities," Morrison said, "I immediately thought of our late friend Herb Poppke. Herb loved to share his knowledge of South Russia and present Ukraine that included his large collection of maps, past and present. As I thought of his influence, I remembered a song of several years ago:
It only takes a spark
To get a fire going
And soon all those around
can warm up in its glowing
"My first effort for GRHS was to serve as the cemetery coordinator," said Morrison. "Years later, my efforts in recording our family history likely served as the spark that ‘warmed up’ my cousin's son: Dennis Bender. He did not know of my interest in cemeteries, but he found his own niche by working with Find A Grave and The Germans from Russia Heritage Society. May the fires continue to glow!”"

Sparking interest was certainly what Bender did. His work, which he updated often and freely circulated in PDF format, garnered attention, including publication in the newsletter of Germans from Russia Oregon and Washington Chapter of GRHS and in the GRHS quarterly journal, Heritage Review.

Sandy Schilling Payne was an early recipient of Bender's list through their contact on Find a Grave. "What was really interesting about it," she noted, "was that there really wasn't anything else like it."

She said here was this very simple and straightforward list of ancestral villages from a handful of colony groups, which were by no means complete, along with their GPS coordinates and their current names. It wasn't just focused on one particular area or set of colonists.

"The coordinates were pure gold," she said. "For me, I don't even care what the current name is. As long as I have those coordinates, I can place on a map where my ancestors were born, lived and died. It doesn't matter to me what it's called, if anything is still standing, or if its just a field of sunflowers."

When Payne, who is on the editorial board of the GRHS Heritage Review, was proofreading articles for the March 2016, she saw that Bender's latest list would be included in the issue. "I wondered what it would look like if all the villages were on a map, color coordinated by group. How many would there be? Where would they be? What would that look like? What story would that tell?"

Payne contacted Bender and asked if she could create a Google map with his data to be included in the issue. He was in agreement just as long as it would be free for all to use. Free access to information is very important to him. "Genealogical information and related material left on the shelf is of little or no value," he said, reciting his motto. She concurred and assured him the map would always be free.

The map has grown from 103 villages to over 3,000.

"I would like to extend a special thank you to Elaine Becker Morrison and Sandy Schilling Payne for their contributions and guidance. Without their talents, none of what you're viewing here today may have ever materialized."

The project continues to be a work in progress.

Germans from Russia Settlement Locations
Project Timeline
2016Located VillagesEvents
January93List published in German from Russia Oregon and Washington chapter (GROW) newsletter.
February103Initial Google map created.
March198List published in GRHS Heritage Review along with a link to the Google map.
May888Outgrew initial design of Google map. Request from GRHS to add to their webiste.
June1,001Website/blog set up as home for the project and maps.
July1,168Colony maps released along with a redesign of the main map.
September1,519Presented the project at the Germans from Russia Heritage Society's International Convention in Rapid City, South Dakota
October2,228Volhynia maps complete
December2,672Crimea map complete.
January3,077Galizien map complete
February3,085One year anniversary of the release of the Germans from Russia Settlement Locations map.
MarchPresented the project to the Alberta Genealogical Society - Medicine Hat & District Branch in Medicine Hat, Alberta.