The Germans from Russia: Follow the Timeline

1756-63: Seven Years War
An important factor in bringing the Germans to the Lower Volga. The areas of now central Germany were devestated, creating more instability for the peasants.

When Frederick II came to the Prussian throne in 1740, he inherited his father’s large and accomplished army. Although Frederick II was interested in the intellectual ideas of the Enlightenment (he was a friend of Voltaire), he still believed might equals right for European monarchs.

He sent his army into Silesia, a rich, all-German province.

The invasion was the spark for a worldwide war with France and Russia joining the side of Austria and Britain siding with Frederick II and Prussia. By 1762, the Austrian Alliance was near its goal of conquering Prussia and dividing its territory. Fortunately for Frederick II, Empress Elizabeth of Russia died and her successor, Peter III (an admirer of Frederick II), withdrew Russia from the war and spared Prussia.

July 1763: Catherine II of Russia issues her second manifesto
Her first manifesto inviting foreigners to settle in Russia (1762) brought few results. Large numbers of German peasants accepted this invitation which spelled out the conditions under which they could immigrate and granted special rights and privileges.

Catherine II (1729-1796), Empress of Russia (1762-1796)
Born on April 29, 1729, in Stettin, a city in what is now Poland, into the family of Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst, Catherine was christened Sophia Augusta Frederica. When she was 15, she was invited by Empress Elizabeth to come to Russia and be the bride of the heir to the throne, Peter.

Catherine was highly-intelligent, strong-willed and beautiful, everything her husband Peter was not. As Empress Elizabeth neared death, Catherine became less concerned with her husband and more concerned with gaining the crown.

She took as her lover a young army officer, Gregory Orlov. Orlov and his four officer brothers commanded considerable support with the army and gained Catherine the support of the Imperial Guard.

With the support of The Guard, she overthrew her husband shortly after he took the throne and the Orlov brother, then murdered Peter III. Catherine was crowned Empress on September 22, 1762.

Her reign was one of the most prosperous periods in Russian history. She instituted internal politcal reforms and occupied vast territories on Russia’s southern borders. As a student of the Enlightenment, she hoped her greatest achievement would be the emancipation of serfs, but the importance of the nobility to Russia and her reign never allowed her the opportunity to do so.

Catherine II died on November 6, 1796, and was buried in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.

1764-67: Founding of German colonies along the Lower Volga River
  * Uruguayan independence leader Jose Gervasio Artigas is born (1764)
  * American engineer Eli Whitney is born (1765)
  * The 17 volume “Encyclopedia: The Rational Dictionary of the Sciences, the Arts and the Crafts,” a seminal work of the Enlightenment, is published (1765)
  * Thomas Malthus, English economist best known for the theory that population growth will always outpace food production necessitating reproduction control, is born (1766)

1771-74: Kirghiz Raids and Pugachev’s Rebellion - Ravish the Volga colonies.

Kirghiz Raids

The Russian military conquest of the steppe began with the military action of Ivan VI (1533-1582). It was Ivan VI who began Russia’s south and eastward expansion into non-Slav territory with his annexation of the entire length of the Volga and much of Siberia.

Peter I continued these efforts in the eighteenth century by building forts at Omsk, Orenburg, Petropavlovsk, and others. Cossack settlements were established across the steppe from the 1730s to the 1760s.

The native peoples of this area were the Tartars, Azerbaijani Turks, and the Kirghiz. These nomadic groups sometimes included robber bands that raided Cossack and German settlements. Later, the term “Kirghiz” would be replaced with “Kazakh.”

Pugachev’s Rebellion

Emelian Ivanovich Pugachev led the 1773-74 Russian peasant uprising. A Don Cossack, he claimed to be Peter III, announced the end of serfdom, and gathered an army of Cossacks, serfs, and Tartars. After seizing towns in the Volga and Ural regions, he was caught and executed in 1775. The revolt led Catherine II to strengthen serfdom.

1786: Mennonites from West Prussia begin immigrating to Russia
The 1772 Partition of Poland threatened their military service exemption as conscientious objectors. Their settlements were established primarily in the Tauria region of South Russia.

1796: Catherine II dies at age 67
Her son Tsar Paul I begins his reign. Paul’s reign would end in 1801 when Catherine’s grandson Tsar Alexander I took the throne.
  *  The great Manchu Emperor Kau-Tsung dies in China.
  * The Napoleonic Wars begin when Napoleon defeats Austria in Northern Italy.
  * Edward Jenner introduces the smallpox vaccine.
  * Agha Mohammed of Persia makes Tehran his capital.

The son of Peter III and Catherine II, Paul was born on September 20, 1754. After the overthrow and murder of his father, he lived with his family in Gatchina Palace, where he had his own court and army.

On the day of Catherine II’s death, the 42-year-old Paul declared himself Emperor. He was unpopular ruler. He was extremely hostile toward his mother, whom Russians referred to as Catherine the Great. He liberated the Poles, limited the power of landowners over serfs, and established procedures for the transfer of power from one monarch to the next.

He sealed his fate when he abruptly reversed Russia’s position as an enemy of France to union with the French. This move was probably the chief reason the conspirators against him had him suffocated on the night of March 12, 1801.

1803: Alexander I reissues Catherine’s manifesto
The manifesto renews the invitation to foreigners to settle New Russia. The Black Sea Germans respond to the invitation in great numbers. So many responded that, in 1804, a restrictive decree is issued that requires future immigrants to have families, possess at least 300 guilders worth of cash or goods, and be skilled in farming or handicrafts.

The eldest son of Emperor Paul I, Alexander was born on December 12, 1777 and raised by his grandmother, Catherine II, who considered him her successor. He came to the throne in 1801 after the murder of Paul I. The young Emperor was extremely popular, following many of the successful policies of his grandmother. His reforms included a restructuting of the country and an attempt to codify Russian legislation.

  * Alexander I dies on November 19, 1825.
  * Robert Fulton propels a boat by steam power.
  * Beethoven composes his “Kreuzer” Piano Sonata.
  * Intervention of Napoleon leads to the reorganization of the German states.
  * United States purchases French Louisiana.

1804-18: Colonists endure a long and difficult journey either overland or by river
Between 1804-1812, colonists were unable to make the trip by way of the Danube River because of the Russo-Turkish War. In 1817, thousands died of disease and exposure as the inexperienced colonists took barges down the Danube.

The Russo-Turkish War
The Russo-Turk War was a series of campaigns in which Russia expanded at the expense of the Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey). In 1696, Peter I won the first Russian victory by capturing the fortress at Azov. In 1736 war broke out again, with Austria as a Russian ally.

The first major Russo-Turkish War (1768-74) began when Sultan Mustafa III, encouraged by France, declared war on Catherine II of Russia. The Russians conquered the Crimea, installed a pro-Russian khan there, and overran Moldavia and Walachia. The treaty ending the war solidified Russia’s Crimea gains (Catherine annexed it outright in 1783), gave Russia a voice in Turkish domestic matters, and allowed it navigation rights on the Black Sea.

Catherine’s second war (1787-92) gave Russia the southwest Ukraine, with Odessa. The war of 1806-12 gave Bessarabia to Russia.

1825: The reign of Tsar Nicholas I begins
He is the grandson of Catherine and brother of Alexander I.

  * First railroad opened in England.
  * Tea from China introduced in Europe.
  * Alexander Pushkin writes “Boris Godunov.”
  * Latin American War for Independence (1811-1826), led by Simon Bolivar, nears an end.

Nicholas I (1796-1855), Emperor of Russia (1825-1855)
Nicholas was born May 25, 1796, the third son of Paul I. He was not considered likely to become Emperor so he received an education in military engineering and became inspector general for the army’s engineers. Nicholas I came to the throne after the death of his brother Alexander I and the refusal of his brother, Grand Duke Constantine, to accept the throne. He was crowned August 22, 1826.

The principal issue of his reign was the maintanence of pro-Russian regimes in the Black Sea straits. Nicholas attempted to resolve the partition of the Ottoman Empire. The result was the Crimean War (1853-56), in which Russia suffered a bitter defeat at the hands of a Western Alliance and Turkey.

Nicholas died on February 18, 1855. Many believe he poisoned himself after hearing the news of the Russian defeat at Evpatoria.

1830: The Polish Insurrection
Brings about the immigration of many Polish Germans to Bessarabia, and some to the Volga region.

The Polish Insurrection
In 1796, three powers - Germany, Russia and Austria - joined in attacking and partitioning Poland. Thadeus Kosciuszko, who had taken an active part in the American Revolution, fought to the last but could not defeat the three major powers, which partitioned the “Commonwealth of Both Nations” as the Polish-Lithuanian Union was called.

Throughout the 19th century Poland endeavored to win back its freedom, but the difference of power was too great. Through the uprisings of 1830 and 1863 the unequal battle continued, at the cost of thousands of lives.

1855: Tsar Alexander II takes the throne
He is the son of Nicholas I, great-grandson of Catherine II.

  * Walt Whitman writes “Leaves of Grass.”
  * Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) continues ravaging China, costing 20 million lives.
  * London sewers are modernized after a cholera outbreak.
  * World Exhibition is held in Paris.

Alexander II (1818-1881), Emperor of Russia (1855-1881)
Eldest son of Nicholas I, Alexander was born April 17, 1818 and came to the throne in 1855, after the death of his father. His reign was marked by important reforms. He abolished serfdom and turned Russia’s sights from expansionism to internal affairs. In 1867, he sold Alaska to the United States. In 1877-78, he defeated the Ottoman Empire liberating Bulgaria and reversing the conditions imposed after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War.

On March 1, 1881, he was mortally wounded by a bomb thrown by a student, I. Grinevitskii, a member of the revolutionary organization “The National Will.” The Cathedral of the Resurrection of Blood was erected on the site of the murder.

1861-63: Another wave of German immigration begins
‘The abolishment of serfdom left a significant drain on the workforce and prompted the start of immigration to Volhynia. The second Polish Insurrection of 1863 brought more Polish Germans to Russia.

  * Abraham Lincoln becomes United States President. (1861)
  * U.S. Civil War begins. (1861)
  * Victor Hugo writes “Les Miserables.” (1862)
  * Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address after the Battle of Gettysburg, PA. (1862)

1871: The Imperial Russian Government repeals the manifestos of Catherine II and Alexander I
The decree terminates, after a period of ten years’ grace, the special privileges of the German colonists.

1872: Ludwig Bette, a former colonist who had immigrated to the United States, returns to the Black Sea colonies
Noting the unrest among the colonists, he extolls the virtues of the United States, urging emigration to the U.S.

  * Austria, Germany and Russia form an alliance.
  * Rebellion against Spanish rule in the Phillippines.
  * U.S. General Amnesty Act pardons most ex-Confederate soldiers.
  * Jules Verne writes “Around the World in 80 Days.”

1873: The first group of German-Russian settlers in the Middle West arrives
175 men, women and children arrive in Yankton, Dakota Territory in one of the worst blizzards on record, the Easter Sunday Blizzard. After the storm, they find suitable land northwest of Yankton where Lesterville, S.D. is now located.

1874: A second decree institutes compulsory military conscription of the German colonists
The 1871 issuance and this latest decree impels thousands of Germans from Russia to immigrate to North and South America.

1881: Alexander III comes to the throne after his father, Alexander II, is assassinated
Russification becomes the official policy, requiring school to be taught in Russian and business to be conducted in Russian. All of the rights of self-government once enjoyed by German colonists were lost.

  * St. Gotthard Tunnel opens in Switzerland.
  * First electrical tram car in Berlin.
  * Vatican opens its archives to scholars.
  * Pablo Picasso is born in Spain.

Alexander III (1845-1894), Emperor of Russia (1881-1894)
The second son of Alexander II was born February 26, 1845. Alexander III became heir to the throne when his older brother Nicholas died in 1865. He became Emperor in 1881, at the age of 36, after his father’s assassination.

Alexander III’s reign coincided with an industrial revolution in Russia. His domestic policy was very harsh, directed not only against revolutionaries but other liberal movements. His paranoia prompted him to live in Gatchina, the palace of Paul I, which was designed like a medieval fortress.

Alexander III died October 20, 1894.

1914: World War I begins
The war caused severe restrictions on travel and ended the wave of German Russian immigration that had begun more than forty years earlier.

1915: Volhynian Germans are deported to Volga Region and South Russia
The deportation is a result of the advancement of the eastern front during World War I. The war caused further difficulties for Germans in Russia. Although they fought and died in the Russian military, they were accused of being spies and saboteurs. Innumerable Germans were sent to Siberia for “crimes against the state.”

  * Tetanus epidemics rage on the war fronts.
  * Junkers builds the first fighter airplanes.
  * Filmmaker D.W. Griffith makes “Birth of a Nation.”
  * Albert Einstein postulates his General Theory of Relativity.

1916: Volga Germans ordered to be banished
Because of internal troubles in Russia, the order was never carried out.

1917: The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia ushers in the Communist regime
The revolution also ushered in a period of lawlessness. German villages were raided and robbed and Germans were murdered. Many Germans were driven from their homes and displaced to Siberia and Middle Asia.

1920-23: Period of famine in Russia claims hundreds of thousands of lives
Death by starvation in the Volga German colonies is estimated at 166,000, one-third of the population.

  * League of Nations established in Vienna. (1920)
  * Earthquake in China kills 200,000. (1920)
  * Insulin first given to diabetic patients. (1922)
  * Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch fails. (1923)

1928-33: Second period of famine again claims many lives in Russia
The dreadful famine that engulfed Ukraine, the northern Caucasus, and the lower Volga River area in 1932-33 was the result of Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization instituted in 1929. The policy had a disastrous affect on agricultural productivity. Soviet law required that no grain from a collective farm could be given to the members of the farm until the government’s quota was met. Despite declining productivity, Stalin raised the quota in 1932 to 45%. The policy, and the methods used to implement it, condemned millions to death by starvation.

1939: Outbreak of World War II
Russian leader Joseph Stalin was, at first, allied with Adolf Hitler. In 1940, they revoked the Romanian annexation of Bessarabia and agreed all ethnic Germans in the region would be resettled in Germany. As there was no place for them in Germany, many settled in western Poland.

1941: War breaks out between Germany and Russia
The already planned displacement of all Germans in Russia was executed without exception. Men between the ages of 16 and 60 were sent to “Trudarmija,” a special prison camp, where they were treated as enemies of the state. Their possesions were seized and they were not permitted to return to their communities.

  * McMillan and Seaborg discover plutonium.
  * Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt sign the Atlantic Charter.
  * The Japanese attack the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
  * Dmitri Shostakovich writes his 7th Symphony during the siege on Leningrad.

1945: The War is ended
In the years after World War II, about 70,000 German-Russians were able to make their way to Germany. The German Russians in South Russia (today southern Ukraine) trekked out with the retreating German army during World War II. Most were deported back to Siberia, Russia. Others were evacuated to the central and east Asian portions of the USSR.

1991: The Fall of the Soviet Union
Brought major political changes and a significant immigration of more than 2 million ethnic Germans to Germany.

  * Bay of Bengal cyclone kills 135,000 in Bangladesh.
  * Operation Desert Storm is launched to free Kuwait from Iraq.
  * South African President F.W. deKlerk announces the abolition of apartheid laws.
  * Mikhail Gorbachev resigns as the last president of the Soviet Union.


Germans From Russia Heritage Collection at the North Dakota State University Library

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change

Related Media

  1. The Germans From Russia: Who are the Germans from Russia?
    Video: Catherine II issued a manifesto in 1763 offering free lands along the Volga River to European settlers, Those settlers later became known in the U.S. as Germans from Russia.
  2. The Germans From Russia: Germans From Russia in North Dakota
    Video: Much the same way as Catherine's manifest had brought Germans to Russia, America's Homestead Act brought Germans from Russia to the United States.

Related Links

Download the teachers' guide from Germans from Russia. Click here.