250 years ago, Russia’s tsarina Catherine the Great signed a manifesto inviting foreigners to settle in her country. A German national herself, Catherine's decree marked the beginning of the history of Russian-Germans.
While the offer was directed at all foreigners, Catherine was targeting Germans in particular. Born in 1729 as Sophie Friederike von Anhalt-Zerbst-Domburg in Stettin in Pommerania, Prussia (today Szczecin, Poland), the tsarina was herself a German national. Afer a coup d'etat and the murder of her husband Peter III. (who was born Peter Ulrich von Holstein-Gottorp and a German prince himself), Catherine came to power in the summer of 1762.
Inviting foreigners to settle in Russia was one of her first official acts. Immigration from the West, says historian Yekaterina Anissimova, meant to the tsarina "the hope of both economic and above all socio-cultural progress of the backward country whose ruler she was."
Striving for economic power
In her typical poignant style, Catherine the Great described the treasures of her empire with all its rivers and lakes in her manifesto as well as "an inexhaustible wealth of all kinds of precious ores and metals" waiting "hidden in the depth." She also wrote that she hoped for the "development and growth of many kinds of manufacturing, plants, and various installations." Her goal was to stimulate population growth and productive use of "uncultivated" regions.
But of course she was also hoping to stabilize her own rule with the support of new loyal citizens. Russia's nobility were partly against her; the absolute majority of farmers were bondmen and effectively slaves of their noble rulers.
In her manifesto, Catherine promised immigrants from the West numerous incentives: exemption from military service, self-governance, tax breaks, initial financial aid, 30 hectares (75 acres) of land per settler family. In addition, freedom of language was guaranteed - in particular to German immigrants. And above all, the manifesto granted immigrants "the free and unrestricted practice of their religion according to the precepts and usage of their Church."
And come they did…
Freedom of religion was the decisive factor for most resettlers who wanted to leave Europe and its religious wars behind.