VOLGA GERMAN AREA (Nemetskoe Povolzhie – Rus.; das deutsche Wolgagebiet – Germ.) is the name of a particular district, a historically-formed area in the Lower Volga region of Russia which used to exist on the territory, which now is a part of Saratov and Volgograd Regions. The district was formed as a result of the territory near the city of Saratov on the Volga river being populated by foreign colonists, settlers from various German regions and also Austria, the Netherlands, France as well as some other European countries. The settlers arrived in Russia from 1764 until 1773 following the decrees issued by the Russian Czarina Catherine II., dated from December 4 1762 and July 22 1763. In mid-20th century the said district was disintegrated by the then Soviet Russian government after the local Volga German population had been deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan following a Decree “On the Resettlement of the Germans Living in the Volga Area” by the executive commitee of the Supreme Council of the USSR issued on August 28 1941.
The arrival of the German-speaking newcomers in the Lower Volga region on a large scale occurred in the second half of the 18th century when the Government of the Russian empress Catherine II. began the formation of foreign settlers’ colonies in order to expand the population of the sparsely inhabited Volga region since the natural process of inland migration was not possible because of serfdom. Russian peasants were bound to the land and under the total control of the manorial lords they served. During the development process, the German-speaking colonists settled along the right and left banks of the rivers Karamysh, Ilovlya, Bolshoj (Great) and Malyi (Little) Karaman, Yeruslan, Torgun and other less significant local rivers and creeks, on the lands “which until then laid unused”. From 1764 through 1773 a total of 23,200 colonists arrived. The colonists founded 105 colonies and as of the late 19th century, their total population in the Volga area rose to 407, 500 (according to the 1897 census record). By then the Volga German colonists had founded 190 mother and daughter colonies on land given by the government. They also founded many smaller settlements and farms often referred to as khutor (khutor (Sg.), khutora (Pl.) – Rus.) on lands they either bought or leased. Thus the territory covered by the Volga German settlements in the region totaled about 30,000 square kilometres, the size of a middle large European country, like today´s Belgium.
Despite being surrounded by many other ethnic groups, the Volga German colonists kept their language, traditions, religion as well as their system of economic management, housing and family customs that they had brought from their respective places of origin. “The German lives beyond [the Russian city of] Volsk!” goes an old local saying. The fact that the distinctly German way of life took root in the Lower Volga area could be seen in the local topology, the way of place naming the local surroundings, such as gulleys, hills, fields and flat lands, meadows, creeks, ponds, lakes etc. Additionally, some old German church buildings that survived in the Volga steppe still show the size and multifaceted nature of the German architecture in the Lower Volga area.
In the territorial sense, the formation process of the Volga German area had already been manifested at an early stage when a number of colonist districts (kolonistskie okrugi – Rus.) were formed that later on, in 1871, were the base for the formation of the Volga German counties (nemetskie volosti – Rus.). After the Bolsheviks seized the power in Russia following the Revolution in 1917, a Trudovaya Kommuna, a Labour Commune of Volga Germans was established in 1918. In 1924 the commune was transformed into the Authonomous Socialistic Soviet Republic of Volga Germans (formal abbreviation: ASSR NP) which existed until 1941. Here, two different constructions have to be differentiated because the terms Nemetskoye Povolzhie (Volga German area) and Nemrespublika aka the Volga German Republic have a different meaning.
While the Volga German area is a naturally formed historical area where the Volga Germans had been living since their arrival in Russia in the late 18th century, the Volga German Republic was created in the 20th century supported by political motivation and was officially an administrative territorial part of the Soviet Russian state, the USSR. The Volga German area has never had strict borders and the process of its formation continued throughout the 1920s when new, formerly unoccupied lands were acquired leading to new Volga German settlements being started here and there in the region. The Volga German Republic, on the other hand, had strictly appointed borders, which were set in stone by various official documents and were shown on the administrative-economic maps of the region.
As an administrative-territoral quantity of the Soviet Russian state, the ASSR NP existed for 23 years and never totally included all of the historical Volga German area. Some of its larger territories were parts of the then Saratov and Stalingrad Regions, such as the Yagodnaya Polyana aka Berry Meadow district of the Saratov Region that despite being intermixed with other territories, was a part of the ASSR NP for a short period of time during the years 1932 through 1935. During the period of its existence some areas bordering the ASSR NP were never officially included into its territory and some were even substracted from it. For instance, the village Neu-Frank and khutor Neu-Walter, which were situated in the vicinity of the villages Frank and Walter in the Frank canton, were extracted from the territory of the ASSR NP in 1927. In another case, a considerably large area on the north-eastern border of the Repubic that was predominantly inhabited by Volga Germans was not included into its territory. Also, in the early 1920s an attempt was made to found Alexanderfeld rayon, a Volga German county on this territory and then subsequently add it to the Republic´s territory. Moreover, some official publications had already included this county as being a part of the Volga German Republic*). However, the area was never officially made part of the Volga German Republic. Later on, it was included in the Yershovskiy county of the Saratov Region. Also not included were numerous little settlements in the Nikolaevskiy, Frolovskiy, Olkhovskiy and other counties of the then Stalingrad Region (Stalingradskaya oblast), now Volgograd Region.
Historically-speaking, the capital of the Volga German area has traditionally been the city of Ekaterinenstadt, now Marx (named after the German socialist philosopher Friedrich Marx) the main Volga German colony in the Volga Valley. This township used to be the capital of the Volga German Autonomous Republic, and rightfully so.
Shortly after the outbreak of the war between Hitler´s Germany and the USSR on June 22, 1941, the high command of the Communist Party and the Soviet Russian government made the decision, on August 26, 1941, to relocate the Volga Germans from the territory of their Republic and also the bordering districts of the then Stalingrad and Saratov regions. The deportation of the Volga Germans that followed this decision began a tragic process leading to the loss of the Volga German heritage in the region, downplaying the region in terms of its unique value in regard to the Volga German history and culture. And though today the true reasons of why the Soviet Russian government did not allow the Volga Germans to return back to their traditional places of residence in the Lower Volga area after the end of the WWII still remain unknown, the outcome is clearly visible.
After the local Volga Germans had been expelled from the area, their traditions and cultural heritage began dying out; the place names have been forgotten, the cultural centres abandoned, Roman-Catholic and Evangelic-Lutheran religious practice nearly became extinct. The majority of the little Volga German settlements have ceased to exist, which is not surprising considering that even some of the larger Volga German colonies have been abandoned or destroyed. Today there is not that much remaining to remind one of the formerly blooming Volga German settlements in the region. These are some old German family houses, some factory and administrative buildings and just about two dozens of partially destroyed cultural sites and church buildings. Despite this current situation, many people worldwide keep proudly calling themselves the descendants of the Germans from the Lower Volga area in Russia.
Sadly enough, the Russian term Nempovolzhie, meaning the Volga German area, has yet to receive its proper acknowledgement in the contemporary scientific and popular literature dedicated to the subject of the Volga Germans. However, the history made by the Volga Germans gives us the right to apply the term in regard to the aforementioned region as a historical region per se.
Alexander Spack (Srednaya Akhtuba)
Translation by Tatjana Schell
*) Predvaritelnye itogi Vserossiyskoy demografichesko-professional´noy perepisi po Oblasti Nemzev Povolzhiya 28 avgusta 1920 goda, Marxstadt, 1921.