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Czars Caused 'Rooshian' Revolution in Kansas' Economy: Germans From Russia: Changes in Policy Caused a Massive Migration to Kansas

Blankenship, Blankenship. "Czars Caused 'Rooshian' Revolution in Kansas' Economy: Germans From Russia: Changes in Policy Caused a Massive Migration to Kansas." Topeka Capital-Journal, 5 October 2002.


Many of the Mennonite Germans from Russia lived in temporary communal housing such as these dwellings north of Newton pictured in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper on March 20, 1875, Kansas State Historical Society

The Empress of All Russia lured immigrants by promising free land, moving expenses, freedom from taxation for 30 years and an exemption from civil and military service for the newcomers and their descendents.

Among the thousands of Germans to take advantage of Catherine's offer were Catholics and Lutherans who settled along the Volga River. By the 1860s the Volga Germans numbered around 250,000, approximately as many people as living then in Kansas.

Meanwhile, Prince Gregory Potemkin, Catherine's lover and favorite, was trying to colonize South Russia, which was opened to settlement after Russian acquisition of the Black Sea Coast and the annexation of the Crimea in 1783-84.

Gregory invited in many groups, including Mennonites, who were eager to escape the draft and heavy taxation in Frederick the Great's Prussia. The Mennonites moved as religious communities.

There were other motives to migrate, as well, Saul said, including the splintering off of some Mennonite communities because of disagreements over dogma.

The reforms a 100 years later by another czar, Alexander II, generally are believed to have triggered a partial exodus of the Russian-Germans. In an attempt to treat all his subjects equally, Alexander eliminated exemptions to military service, which naturally upset the pacifist Mennonites. Catholics and Russians feared the army would convert their young men to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Perhaps the biggest inducement were the opportunities to be found in the United States for some of the same things their forebears found in Russia, especially land. As reward for building railroads through Kansas, Congress had given the Kansas Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroads the right to claim 7 million acres in alternation sections 20 miles on both sides of their rights of way.

The railroads began a deliberate campaign to recruit settlers among the Russian-Germans, who after converting the prairie to farmland would use the railroads to ship their goods to market and buy merchandise delivered by rail.

The railroads printed circulars in German and sent agents to Russia. The railroads not only sold farmland to the immigrants, they also granted land for churches and schools and supplied some farmers with seed wheat for their first crop in Kansas.

As a concession to their religious convictions, the Kansas Legislature adopted a law granting exemption from military service on religious grounds.

One-third of all Russian-Germans left Russia, many of them settling in Kansas, with the Mennonites congregating in Marion, Harvey and McPherson counties and the Volga Germans concentrating in Ellis, Russell and Rush counties.

Russian-Germans also moved to other parts of the state, including Topeka, where the Volga Germans founded St. Joseph Catholic Church. The Little Russia neighborhood of North Topeka was a Volga German settlement, and those Russian-German roots continue to be celebrated annually at the Germanfest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the Oakland neighborhood.

Although they lived in relatively isolated communities in Russia, the Russian-Germans did adopt some customs from their Slavic neighbors. Most of the Russian-Germans, who came to Kansas could, in fact, speak some Russian as well as German.

The Western Magazine in 1881 pictured a prosperous Mennonite colony in Harvey County. Russian-German farmers preferred to group their homes in villages and commute to the fields, Kansas State Historical Society
The newcomers were different enough in appearance, manners, and language from other German immigrants, Kansans began to refer to them as Russians or "Rooshians."

The Rooshians arrived at a critical time in Kansas history -- the end of a depression, severe drought and terrible grasshopper infestation. At the time more people were leaving Kansas than arriving as discouraged homesteaders pulled up stakes and left for the cities or new territory, Saul said.

The Germans from Russia brought an immediate influx of cash to the Kansas economy and likely saved the Santa Fe from bankruptcy. Legend credits the Russian-Germans with introducing to the state the red, winter, hard wheat, called Turkey Red, which proved ideally suited to the Great Plains.

Saul said the Russian-Germans actually were accustomed to planting spring wheat in Russia. But grasshoppers wiped out their corn crop and most of the spring wheat planting, leaving the new immigrants no choice but to plant winter wheat. But the Russian-German must be credited with bringing to Kansas their experience of farming vast dryland prairies.

Saul concludes in his Kansas Historical Quarterly essay that the legacy of the Germans from Russia, who later would endure anti-German backlash during the two world wars, went beyond the timing of their arrival.

"The most lasting and important gift of the Russian-Germans to Kansas, however, was their determination to stay," Saul wrote. "They brought families, invested all their resources, and immediately began the construction of substantial houses and church, whole communities, many of which have survived for a century."

Saul concludes: "While many other settlers drifted on from county to county, from state to state, as itinerant homesteaders or tenant farmers, the Russian-Germans stayed on through good times and some of the worst droughts in American history to cultivate the Plains and establish their own particular 'good society.' "

Accustomed to severe Russian winters, the early Volga Germans to arrive in Kansas wore large coats and head coverings much heavier than the Kansas climate required.

On the Net

To learn more about the Germans from Russia take a virtual tour of the Kansas State Historical Society's exhibit, "From Far Away Russia: Russian-Germans in Kansas." The tour can be found at www.kshs.org/exhibits/russia/russia1.htm.

Reprinted with permission of the Topeka Capital-Journal.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
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Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
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