The Germans from Russia and New Resources
Michael M. Miller, Germans from Russia Bibliographer
North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, North Dakota
Let me extend a special thank you to the Federation of Genealogical
Societies for the opportunity to share with you my experiences with
the growing interest in the study of the Germans from Russia in America.
Before I review resources and archives of the Germans from Russia,
it is important to share with you important highlights in the heritage
of this unique ethnic group in America.
Beginning in the 1760's and continuing for more than a century,
German farmers and artisans migrated to Russia in numbers totaling
more than 100,000. Catherine the Great issued a manifesto in 1763
that made alluring promises to all foreigners regardless of nationality
and religion who would settle the uninhabited regions of Russia.
The earliest migrants went mainly to the Volga regions. Then,
for many years, the main movement was to the Black Sea region, the
Crimea, Bessarabia and the South Caucasus. Finally, in the 1860's,
there came a major movement into Volhynia.
For the first generation on the Russian steppes carving out the
new farms and villages was a harsh, often bitter experience. But
hard work was a fact of life for them, and they were persevering,
industrious people much beyond the ordinary. Within a short time
they had established thriving, agriculture-based colonies. The Russian
steppe with its rich black soil was now home.
What makes the history of these people unique is that in each
new settlement they totally retained their German culture and way
Ultimately, the insistence of retaining their strong ethnic identity
within a larger, unsympathetic nation left the Russian Germans vulnerable
to new troubles. Promises made in the original Russian manifestoes
were withdrawn; harassment and persecution from native Russians
Again immigration was the response. The immediate cause for immigration
was the cancellation of their exemption from military service. From
the 1870's into the early 20th century thousands of Germans in Russia
left for a new promised land. For most this meant starting over
again on the plains of the Americas where, like their forebears,
they began the hard task of being pioneers in a strange new country.
Agriculture was again the way of life for the majority.
The Volga Germans settled primarily in Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska.
The Black Sea and Bessarabian Germans settled in the Dakotas and
the western Canadian prairie provinces. My grandparents emigrated
in the 1890's from the villages of Krasna, Bessarabia (now Moldova)
and Strassburg near the Black Sea, Ukraine.
Because of large families, no definite number can be given, but
it has been estimated that there are about five million German-Russians
in North America. I grew up in Strasburg, North Dakota, speaking
more German than English. South-central North Dakota is the most
heavily populated German-Russian region in the United States. Based
on the 1990 census, other than the English language, 25% of the
language spoken in North Dakota's three south-central counties was
the German language. Strasburg is the birthplace of the late bandleader
Lawrence Welk who was born in a sodhouse and spoke little English
until he was twenty-one. His parents immigrated from Catholic Black
Sea colonies in the Ukraine.
Not all of the German-Russians emigrated to America. Some two
million stayed in the former Soviet Union. For them their history
has been difficult and often tragic. During World War II they were
deported from their homelands, and their autonomous republic as
well as German schools and cultural institutions dismantled.
Today they live in the Siberian region of Russia, Kazakhstan,
and Uzbekistan. Resettlement programs within the former Soviet Union
are taking place in Siberia and the Ukraine but close to 200,000
ethnic Germans per year since 1991 have emigrated from the CIS back
to Germany. In 1995, an average of 15,000 Germans are immigrating
to Germany especially from Kazakshstan.
With new freedom and access to information in the former Soviet
Union, historians, scholars, archivists, students, and librarians
are gaining access to new sources and records.
Notable books covering the history of the Germans from Russia
include: From Catherine to Khrushchev: The Story of Russia's
Germans by Adam Giesinger; The German-Russians: Two Centuries
of Pioneering by Karl Stumpp; Homesteaders on the Steppe,
and Paradise on the Steppe by Joseph S. Height; The Tragedy
of the Soviet Germans by John Philipps; Plains Folk: North
Dakota's Ethnic History, and Russian-German Settlements in
the United States by Richard Sallet, translated by LaVern Rippley
and Armand Bauer.
Resources on the Germans from Russia
A wellknown writer of the archives and manuscript repositories
in the former USSR is Dr. Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, a research
associate at the Ukrainian Research Institute and a fellow of the
Russian Research Center at Harvard University.
Important directories by Patricia Kennedy Grimsted include: Archives
and Manuscript Repositories in the USSR, Moscow, and Leningrad
(9); Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the USSR, Estonia,
Latvia, Lithuania, and Belorussia and A Handbook for Archival
Research in the USSR.
Much credit needs to be given to the Family History Center at
Salt Lake City for their continuing efforts to microfilm civil,
church, and land records that are becoming available via local Family
History Centers. Access to the records of Bessarabian German villages
on microfilm already exists which were filmed from the State Archives
in Leipzig, Germany. Today most of Bessarabia is the Republic of
Moldova. Some of the former Black Sea and Bessarabian German villages
are in southern Ukraine near Odessa.
We know there are extensive archives at the Odessa State Archives
which are available primarily by contacting professional genealogical
research services. Some records also exist for the Black Sea German
Mennonite organizations in Canada have uncovered valuable records
in the Odessa archives and progress is being made to microfilm these
documents. The Mennonite microfilming project at the Odessa State
Archives uncovered knowledge of genealogical records relating to
the former Beresan, Glückstal, Kutschurgan, and Liebental villages.
Excellent Mennonite archives exist in Winnipeg, Manitoba and at
Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.
A wellknown Mennonite researcher, Dr. George Epp, former President
of Menno Simons College at the University of Winnipeg stated in
a recent letter, "Soviet libraries were always strictly controlled,
and Soviet Archives were simply the domains of the KGB. Even today
archives are not open to the public. Few western scholars have had
the opportunity to visit Soviet archives."
Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Harvey Dyck, 78 reels of microfilm
containing the Mennonite Molotschna colonies are available at the
Mennonite Heritage Centre in Winnipeg.
The Russian Government Historical Archives in St. Petersburg contain
nearly all records of the Russian nobility and heraldry of the 19th
century up to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The archives also contain
family history records of other ethnic groups including Cossack,
Ukrainian, German, Baltic, Finn, and Jewish.
It is the St. Petersburg Records which has literally been a gold
mine especially for persons with ancestors from the former German
Lutheran villages of South Russia. The microfilm contains the church
books of the Evangelical Lutheran Consistory of St. Petersburg from
1833 to 1885. The St. Petersburg Consistory encompassed a huge geographic
area stretching from the city of St. Petersburg to the Black Sea.
The valuable finding aid to the St. Petersburg microfilm is the
book, The Lutheran of Russia, Volume I, compiled by Thomas K. Edlund.
It is available for purchase from the Germanic Genealogy Society
in St. Paul, Minnesota. The microfilm has been difficult to use
because it is arranged by year instead of parish. Thomas Edlund,
librarian at the Family History Center in Salt Lake City, and his
staff of volunteers, spent over a year preparing this finding aid.
In the June, 1994, issue of Village Coordinators Newsline of the
Germans from Russia Heritage Society, I quote: "If you were to gather
a large number of Black Sea researchers in one room right now and
ask them what the number one activity was that was taking up their
time, now or in the near future, you would hear responses mostly
that says St. Petersburg films. Many believe that what we have seen
start to flow from old Russian archives, does not even represent
the tip of the iceberg. The LDS has many efforts underway, and all
German-Russian groups have a very good chance of seeing significant
volumes of their people's data over the next few years." Based on
the electronic mail messages found on the Germans from Russia Listserve
relating to the St. Petersburg Records and other German-Russian
genealogical activity, the community of German-Russian family researchers
is growing dramatically. The unfolding of Germans from Russia resources
on World Wide Web and Home Page is enhancing our research abilities
The indexing of the St. Petersburg microfilm has been a significant
contribution to our German-Russian research. Many compliments to
all those who were and are so actively involved in providing easier
access to one of the most valuable genealogical resources in the
1990s for German-Russians - the St. Petersburg Records.
A scholarly society of Germans has been formed in St. Petersburg.
We hope to continue our efforts to keep in touch with German rebirth
societies called Wiedergebrut both in Russia and in the Ukraine.
Patricia Eames at the National Archives has taken a leadership
role in the development of the Russian American Genealogical Archival
Service (RAGAS) funded with a grant from the International Research
and Exchanges Board (IREX). It is important to distinguish this
new service from the several profit making ventures that have developed.
In a recent letter Ms. Eames states, "These ventures are a healthy
sign that access to family history data is possible and will be
a benefit to both sides. The service RAGAS offers a reasonable rate
which should enable these ventures to have a much broader access
to many archives in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus."
The Russian-American Genealogical Archival Service was established
as part of a cooperative agreement between the U.S. National Archives
and the Russian State Historical Archives, under the auspices of
the Council for Learned Societies. The venture is not only designed
to provide access to Soviet archives, but also to provide training
and research support to archivists all over Russia, Belarus, and
Ukraine responding to reference requests for genealogical information.
Patricia Eames goes on to state, "As most genealogists have learned,
there must be professional standards and ethical guidelines when
providing a service of this type. Many persons are anxious to get
into the game and skim the fat dollars off unsuspecting American
clients without really understanding the nature of genealogical
research. In addition, since genealogical research as we Americans
know it has never been practiced in the Russian republics before,
it will help if Americans understand the realities faced by researchers
seeking access to archives in the republics of the former Soviet
In a letter of August 1, 1995, Patricia Eames states, "Vladimir
Soshnikow, director of RAGAS/Moscow has achieved his goal of becoming
completely self-sufficient and independent of the National Archives
Volunteer Association. He plans to continue the RAGAS project as
an informational archival service based upon his database and to
fulfill requests if the information available confirms a productive
approach. We look forward to promoting the development of international
genealogical research and information exchanges between American
and Russian genealogical communities and archives and hope we can
continue to work together towards this goal."
In general, records for Germans from Russia seem to have been
preserved and should provide a wealth of information. Through the
efforts of professional record searchers in Russia, historians in
universities, and the microfilm teams from the Family History Library
in Salt Lake City, responsible services will be created to fill
the tremendous need of persons seeking knowledge of their ancestors
in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
Our greatest need is to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together.
RAGAS representing the archival world, the Germans from Russia Heritage
Collection representing the history and biography profession, and
the Family History Library representing libraries, together, are
helping to establish a remarkable and professional means for recording
the cultural history of Russia based upon documentary evidence at
the village and town level.
In the summer, 1992 edition of Prologue published by the
National Archives, there is an article on the Russian-American Genealogical
Archival Service. This new venture offers exciting opportunities
for other cooperative activities with Russian archives and libraries.
Collections in Germany
German institutions are taking an active role to uncover resources
in the former Soviet Union. The Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen
located in Stuttgart offers access to extensive archives to all
Germans who have emigrated to other countries. The Institut is actively
uncovering materials in the former Soviet Union. For the German
ethnic scholar the Insitut has some of the finest collections in
The Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland and the Landsmannschaft
der Bessarabiendeutschen, both located in Stuttgart, offer comprehensive
library and photographic collections on the Germans from Russia.
The East European Institute in Munich also offers a good German-Russian
Collections in the United States
It is important to note the significant German-Russian collections
in the United States since materials are being added from Germany
and the former Soviet Union. Both the American Historical Society
of Germans from Russia at Lincoln, Nebraska and the Germans from Russia
Heritage Society at Bismarck, North Dakota have growing library collections.
The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at North Dakota State
University is one of the major resources in North America and the
world concentrating on the Black Sea and Bessarabian Germans. Valuable
contacts are being made with professors, archivists, and scholars
in the former Soviet Union.
Besides the book collection, German newspapers published in the
former Soviet Union are being received at NDSU. These include: Neues
Leben published in Moscow, Deutsche Allgemeine from Alma-Ata,
Kazakhstan, Zeitung für Dich, Altai, Siberia, Russia; St.
Petersburgische Zeitung from St. Petersburg, Russia; and Deutsche
Kanal from Kiev, Ukraine. These newspapers have uncovered research
activities and valuable contacts for use in locating archives and
manuscripts unknown to American librarians and scholars.
In 1987 the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies published
the annotated bibliography Researching the Germans from Russia,
which is the most comprehensive research tool covering the literature.
Letters from Russia
On a personal note one of the most valuable sources of locating
archives in the former Soviet Union has been our continuing correspondence
with German families. In an April 1991 edition of the German newspaper
Neues Leben, an article I had written appeared about the
German-Russian experience in America. Within a short time letters
began arriving from ethnic Germans in Russia seeking their Dakota
and American relatives.
People like Paul Krüger near Omsk, Siberia who has since immigrated
to Germany, and Matthäus Gunthner in Russia have shared our letters
with their colleagues and professors at their universities. For
fifty years there was no contact and now because of family reunification
we have gained wonderful friends in Russia as well as opened doors
to unknown resources in remote places such as eastern and western
On the horizon are some interesting developments that may help
to uncover additional German resources in Russia and the other states.
Major German resettlement programs are taking place in regions of
Siberia and on a limited basis in the Ukraine. German language,
ethnic, and history departments are becoming part of universities
where resettlements are taking place. Germany has provided major
financial assistance with the relocation programs as well as enhancing
German studies at universities near large German populations such
as Omsk and Novosibirsk, Siberia.
Political and economic conditions in Russia, the Ukraine, and
the other states offer many uncertainties in providing greater access
to the valuable archives and library collections in the former Soviet
Union. The United States and Germany need to take a leading role
in sharing new technologies to aid in the development of efficient
finding aids. Extensive microfilming projects of historical documents
urgently need to be accessed and pursued.
America's college and university libraries need to pursue cooperative
programs with similar institutions in the former Soviet Union in
the form of the successful "sister city" programs well known throughout
The National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Family History
Center, and academic societies are pursuing important projects.
North American ethnic societies including Ukrainian, German-Russian,
Jewish, and Armenian can play a valuable role by identifying collections
and archives. (26)
The Society of German American Studies submitted a report at the
Clinton Presidential Transition Roundtable Meeting in Little Rock,
Arkansas, dealing with the establishment of basic human rights for
the German minority group in Russia, and also for German minority
groups in Poland and eastern Europe.
Formerly closed government archives in Russia are now opening
to foreign researchers. The Russian Government Historical Archives
in St. Petersburg contain nearly all records of the Russian Empire
from the 18th century up to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Included
in the archives are records of family histories of Germans who emigrated
to Russia, as well as German commercial activities.
In June of 1994 I visited Odessa, Ukraine and the former Black
Sea and Bessarabian German villages. I reviewed archival collections
and meet with colleagues and fellow Germans from Russia. I walked
the streets in my ancestral villages of Strassburg, Black Sea, of
my Baumgartner grandparents and Krasna, Bessarabia now Moldova,
the ancestral village of my Müller grandparents. Both families immigrated
to south-central North Dakota in the late 19th century.
One of the highlights of my visit to Odessa, Ukraine, was the
seminar with correspondence at Odessa State University. I shall
never forget the university students desire to learn more about
the Germans who had once lived in the same villages where these
students live today.
I look forward to returning to Odessa and to the former German
villages in June, 1996, as tour director for the historic tours
sponsored by the North Dakota State University Libraries, Journey
to the Homeland: Germany and Ukraine.
In my closing remarks, I would like to reference you to an article
that appeared in Prologue published by the National Archives that
states, "We Americans have learned to expect the record to be there
for the asking. We take for granted the liberal access we have to
our archives, court houses, and other repositories.
We may establish links to the past without fear of reprisal; the
names of places and boundaries of states are unchanging; we may
expect archives to be safe repositories. This is the gift of living
in a democratic society that ensures individual rights under a government
that is accountable to its people through open access archives."
My thanks for the opportunity to visit with you today. For a German-Russian
from the plains of Dakota, it has been a pleasure to share these
comments with you.