The Manifesto had promised that houses would be ready for occupancy. Instead they found treeless steppes with dry prairie grass nearly two feet high. The houses promised by the Russian government, were inadequate and were not constructed until the second year.
At first they lived in houses dug out of hillsides, called semlenke (semlinkas) or earth houses to escape Evann Marosoff Frost). They had shortages of building materials, seed to plant, doctors, drinkable water, and suffered periodic attacks from the savage Mongolian tribes to the east, who raped, burned, pillaged, and sacked villages, and took slaves of these Germans. Many tried to escape back to Germany, but found the way blocked. and were killed or brought back by Cossacks. The villages they founded were self sustained communities of dislocated Germans, much as the Scotch-Irish communities of Ireland. They retained their customs, language, and married within themselves for generations, creating close knit communities.
The years, 1772-74, were exceptionally hard on the new colonists, as they experienced the heat of the Pugachev revolt in the Volga region. In August, 1774, Norka was raided by the notorious Russian outlaw, Pugachev , resulting in such devastation and destruction, that, for a century, the children were kept in line with threats that Pugachev would get them unless they behaved. This insurrectionist, Pugachev claiming to be Czar Peter Ill (it was not yet common knowledge that Peter was assassinated by accomplices of the Empress Catherine), hung anyone who hesitated to recognize him as the Czar] sought out nobility among the colonists. He found support from many common people as they were oppressed by the other bands of robbers, and seeking order to the chaos. Pugachev promised ‘mountains of gold’. Among Pugachev‘s allies were the Kirgiz, a Persian word for forty daughters, based on a legend the son of Noah from which they descended had forty daughters. This was intended as a proud tribute to the sexual powers of their ancestor.
These were often compared to the American Indians.. Their attacks were vicious and devastating. Those who they did not kill were taken into slavery. They raped, pillaged and burned the villages of the Volga and Black Sea regions. There are indications that 7,000 people were killed or enslaved by these hordes in the first ten years of settlement. The 1775 census showed 24,000 remaining of the 27,000 original colonists, the tremendous toll attributed to pioneering hardships of sickness, unbearable heat, cold winters, drought, floods, dust windstorms, wild animals (wolves, bears and lynxes) and nomadic marauders. The very young and old were hard pressed to survive these hardships, many died of consumption and lack of proper food.
During long, cold, winter months they had other side lines to keep them busy, such as hide tanning, wagon making, barrel making, cabinet making, etc… They made their own bricks out of clay from river banks, mixed with straw, to build their houses. An ample fish supply from the rivers, and hunting of rabbits, hares, wild boars, geese and ducks supplemented their meager diet. Their crops included rye, wheat, barley, oats, sunflower seeds (Russian Peanuts!, also, from which cooking oil was made), watermelons (which they pickled immature one’s for delicacies, and from which they made syrup!), and they had their own gardens, and orchards of fruit trees. In the early years crop failures were common due to heat and dust storms and north winds with treacherous snow storms.
Due to a severe drought cycle from 1769-1775 the first crop was not harvested until 1775. The colonists accrued heavy debts borrowing for food allowances and seed. These villages were close to each other for protection from marauders of Turks who raided the villages slaughtering, mutilating, raping, pillaging, and taking slaves to the east. For this reason the people lived in villages, though their farm land may have been far removed, and scattered, an acre here, and acre there.
Cattaneo, an old pastor from Norka, reported on the wanton attacks of the Kirgiz savages on the east side of the Volga, who, commonly murdered, raped, and took slaves of the colonists, while pillaging, and burning their villages. Cattaneo, also reported in 1786, on the gangs of robbers, that followed orders from experienced leaders who had affiliations with the wealthy Russians, that way laid travelers in unpopulated areas. Typically, they would warn their victims to fall, face down. to the ground and allow themselves to be bound, while stripped of their possessions. They only attacked during daylight hours, as this was considered ‘honorable’ robbery. Before the arrival of German colonists to the area, these robbers met little resistance. To resist meant certain torture and death. The German travelers armed themselves and refused to obey the demands of these robbers, often killing the robbers and taking their beautiful horses and possessions as booty.
Another method of extortion included riding in on a village and threatening to burn everything if a great tribute were not paid. Again, the German’s resisted. Eventually, the colonists, with the help of the Russian government, exterminated these robber bands. Each colony’s church parish set up commissioners to set out and crush these gangs. Cattaneo also lamented the oppressive police regulation required, which allowed no member of a village to leave without a pass from its mayor, who was personally held accountable for all his villages citizens. He recorded that he, himself. could not send medical help for victims of such an attack, from a neighboring village, because of such regulation. Horses had to be branded with village brands, and were guarded by herdsmen, who were held responsible for their value if they were stolen from the pasture. In all, it took nearly thirty years to establish some measure of security from these bandits, and the Kirghis, Tatters and Mongols.
Later in 1774 the Treaty of Kutchuk-Kainardzhi ended the war with Turkey, ceding the steppes to Russia. This marked the end, by 1775, of Cossack autonomy in the Ukraine. (This was one year before the signing of the Declaration of lndependence in America.) Russia annexed the Crimea in 1783. The Ukraine was also absorbed into Empire about this time. The year 1785 saw the Charter for Russian Nobility and Merchants. And, then in 1787-92 the colonists would have heard news of the Russo-Turkish War; Campaigns of Suvorov, and the Treaty of Jassy. From 1789-1815, the events of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had an impact on the small German States, from which the colonists had emigrated, as they were invaded, and their men conscripted into the French army. German youths had to flee their homes to avoid service. These people were denied their religious freedoms, and this widespread dissatisfaction eventually led to a second migration to the Russian frontiers, this time to Bessarabia, on the Black sea.
The Holy Roman Empire was eventually abolished and the Austrian Empire consolidated. Fred C. Koch in his book The Volga Germans explained the shortage of clergy in the Volga region. Between 1764 and 1772 there were 6 ministers to serve 73 Lutheran and Reformed colonies. By 1820 the number of clergy increased to seventeen. Due to the economic plight of the early colonists, their could not afford to support the families of the clergy , and a minister was unlikely to subject his family to the struggles of such a lifestyle. Because the Catholic Priests, from the Mendicant order, had no family obligations, their material needs were more readily met by their constituents, and therefore, there was not a shortage of Catholic clergy. Even as late as 1905 there existed one Protestant minister for every 13,364 colonists! These ministers served 2-8 churches in weekly sequence. For this reason, the colonists came to accept other denominational ministers or priests to perform certain church functions, such as weddings and baptisms. However, they still stood fast to their differences on the Eucharist. Reconciliation occurred when a former Capuchin monk, Ignaz Fessler, came to embrace the Reformed faith and united with a Lutheran Pastor, Johann Huber, who had also been a monk, to gather the Lutherans in their communities on the Bergseite (west side, hillside, of the Volga). During the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in a Lutheran Church. the Reformed parishioners, as “guests”, approached the alter first. This worked alternatively if the host church was Reformed. The Reformed communicants remained standing as the pastor proffered the cubes of white bread and the chalice for them to “eat and drink” from their own hands. The Lutherans knelt to receive this sacrament and their minister laid the consecrated wafers to the communicants lips and personally gave them to drink from the cup. In this way each individual could receive communion according to his conscience as conceived from the teachings of Luther or Zwingli.
The Reformed church made up 3 of the 29 Protestant church parishes, however the two were brought within the administrative structure of the Lutheran consistories in 1832. The Reformed ministers did not make the sign of the cross at baptisms and used the Heidelberg catechism instead of Luther’s catechism in the church schools, and there were differences in their recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. However marriages between members of these churches helped the fusion of these churches. In 1816 they created a common hymnal for all the colonies.
Besides, Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, and Swiss Mennonite denominations, there formed another pietic group founded by Johann Janette, a Swiss member of the Moravian Brethren. This denomination formed synonymous to the exodus of colonists to the United States, and was known as the German Congregational Church. They had prayer meetings in member’s homes. Every congregation had the right to elect it’s own leaders, determine its own forms of worship, and be an independent body. There were no appeals to a higher body of officials, but the advice and cooperation of neighboring churches was readily sought. By 1848 this church had 500 member churches in the United States, mostly in Nebraska, Colorado and California. Their bi-monthly publication. the Kirchenbote, became a source of much genealogical material for the American Historical Society of Germans From Russia, as they published obituaries, etc. The church was the center of the community , physically and socially. Another institution which helped these colonists to see their future progress above the despair and hardships of the early days, the development of their parochial (church based) school system. This was vastly opposed with the apathetic system of the Russian serfdom.
The Russian government did not support a system of education for the serfs until 1861, whereas the German colonists had some of the finest elementary and high schools in the country. School was compulsory from age six to fifteen in the German colonies. To qualify to take communion. one had to attend church and attend Die Beigt, a religious service involving confession and registration. The confessional service was held on Saturday morning prior to the day Communion was offered. This confession was not of the ‘priestly type’ practiced in the Catholic church, but allowed spiritual advice to be given to individuals for application to personal problems. During this time, members in good standing could report those who planned to take communion, were unwilling to take the confession or who persisted in their evil ways. Men had to wear dark clothes. Ladies wore white aprons on their communion dress (Das Nachtmal Schetz) worn only for this occasion. The ceremony was solemn and dignified to indicate sorrow for breaking God’s laws.
By the latter 19th century , the school day opened with prayer and hymn. then Biblical history catechism. followed by German reading, writing and arithmetic, and after lunch, Russian followed by History and Geography, art, music, and closing prayer and hymn. Though the German schools were superior to the Russian school system, the German students who exhibited promise, were then entered the Semska Schule (State-owned school), as it was prerequisite for entry into the University of Saratov. This government education was paid for by the state. From this University came the teachers, pastors, doctors, highly skilled craftsmen required by the colony.
The following description of Volga village life is derived from Marie Miller Olson and and Anna Miller Reisbeckm AHSGR, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1981, Norka: A German Village in Russia. The most respected man in town was the minister. Whenever citizens passed the minister they had to take off their hats in a very obsequious manner. Next was the schoolteacher, who often assisted the minister, as religion and education were closely mingled in the classrooms. Chief textbooks included the Biblische Gesangbuch , or “Bible Stories”, the catechism, the Bible and the Volga Gesangbuch. It was not until 1890 that the Russian Language was made compulsory in the schools. Music was a major part of the service, and no one took Bibles to church. The text was read to them and then they went home to look it up. The minister sometimes received payment of wheat, rye, barley , hay, potatoes and wood. Three traditional bells used to signal marriages, deaths, and celebrations, as well as to help locate the village during storms, and the end of each days toil at 7:00 PM.
Several important town officials included Vorsteher (Mayor), the Schreiber (Secretary), the Strasjnick (town Marshall) and the Sotnick, (peace Officer; responsible for public whippings). Two county officials called the Obervorsteher (chairman) and the Kreis Schreiber, (county Secretary). Church officials such asKirche Vorsteher (deacons) were elected in general business meetings. There were officials to watch the herds, the forests, etc… and a night watchman who also delivered any letters.
Weekends were the time for social activities, as many would be in the fields during the week, in the Summer. In the winter, storytelling, card games, Bible reading, and the like filled long winter nights, while the women threaded spools, rolled yarn and wove handkies, caftans and clothes, or quilted. Monday night was ladies night out, they took their spinning wheels, knitting and crocheting to church for prayer meetings! Children had homemade dolls and toys, and played beans (similar to marbles). Sleigh riding and skating (skates more like short skis) were winter activities, while swimming and hopscotch were for summer fun.
Yards did not have grass as water was too precious a commodity. School work was done on slates and blackboard with much memory work. Most houses were either wood, stone or homemade brick, (most common. not unlike sod houses) with 18″ walls. Clay was then applied to the outside and whitewashed. The inside walls were papered. Some houses were of the quadrant style (square roofed) and others gabled. summer kitchens (Backhaus) were often built before the main house. The floors were stomped hard and strewn with white sand. Each home had a kitchen. living room, small bedroom, pantry and entry. There were built in stoves, of brick and clay , in both the living room and kitchen. These burned dried manure for fuel. The living room also served as a bedroom with 2 or 3 beds. Children slept in trundle beds, stored under the larger ones. River water was used for irrigation of gardens of potatoes, cabbage, squash, watermelon. dill, carrots, beets, gooseberries, cucumber, and cherry, damsom plum and apple trees. Livestock was taken to the wells to drink, while household water was fetched in barrels or pails.
All citizens were farmers, in spite of their other occupations (i.e. blacksmith, cobbler, carpenter) by decree of the Russian government. Eventually the government found this a bad policy and allowed some colonies to engage in other work. (In Norka it was spinning and weaving cloth (sarpinka).) Wheat was the chief export and Rye was used by the poorer people. Colonists made a trip to Saratov, once or twice a year, to acquire the things they needed. that couldn’t be grown or made. The mode of transportation was a Troika, with a team of three horses. The reason for three, was, in case of a wolf attack, there would still be a team. One could be sacrificed to distract the wolves, so they could continue their journey, safely.
Land was divided by the Mir system, whereby every ten years land was reassigned or allotted by lottery, to families according to the number of male inhabitants. Originally, each colonist was assigned acres of land to work. and was issued a wooden homemade plow, a sickle, a hatchet, a rake, a pole wagon and two horses. The land was worked by oxen. Crops were seeded by hand. During summer months on Sunday nights, the villagers would head to camps in the fields, often several miles from the village stay for the week. On Friday afternoon they would head to the village where social church and family activities occurred. The lucky couples were those whose turn it was to stay and guard the encampment as many families often shared a single house (parents and married children), those who stayed in the were given a chance at some privacy!
As each son was born into the family, they were allotted more land. This is why the land was scattered, as it was allotted at various times. (This may also explain the families, over time, switched villages in the same area.) A family of all girls did not have much whereas a family of boys was quite prosperous. Family custom was to choose the bride for the son, who then moved in with the groom’s family, until there were to many children, and then the land was re-divided. As with European custom, they (intermarried with cousins to keep wealth in the family. Each son was apprenticed and taught a trade besides farming, i.e. carpenter, brickmakerIlayer, blacksmith. Weddings were a big social occasion.
WEDDING ON THE STEPPES Taken from George J. Walter’s Wir Wollen Deutsch Bleiben: The Story of the Volga Germans, page 52, Halcyon House Publishers, Inc., 1991, Kansas City, MO. In the German colonies, most marriages were arranged by the parents, though there were exceptions. Young lovers frequently found ways of circumventing their parents’ wishes and convincing them lovers should be permitted to marry whomever they wished. Once a union was decided upon there was much to do on the part of the young couple and their parents. First there was the matter of proper clothing. After all the wearing apparel was considered one of the highlights of the feast. Much sewing had to be done, and material had to be bought. For those who lived in the outlying villages, this meant a trip had to be made to Saratov or Katharinenstad The parents of the groom customarily gave the wedding reception. which in some cases lasted three days. The wedding feast concerned more than the families of the bride and groom. The whole neighborhood was involved. Animals such as chickens hogs and the fatted steer were slaughtered and dressed. Several kinds of sausage such as Bratwurst and Blutwurst and head cheese were made. The last few days before the wedding were baking time. Before long the kitchen and yard were filled with delightful aroma of fresh baked bread and kuchen and rolls. Kranz and Krummelkuchen, round or oblong cakes, were topped with sugar and butter crumbs, or a syrup and flour mixture, cheese, pumpkin, apple or blackberries. The bride was richly dressed in ashes-of-rose silk, crowned with a wreath of orange blossoms and the accustomed veil. At the appointed hour the groom arrived. He was dressed in traditional black. Before going to the church, the bride and groom knelt on lace spread to receive the blessings of the parents. The church service was impressive. The feast, or Hochzeit, was held at the home of the groom’s father. The celebration now began in earnest. Drinks were passed around and toasts made. For women and men, it was considered a great privilege to be allowed to serve in any capacity at the wedding. Not being asked to do so, especially for those closely related to the family of the groom, was considered a slight even an insult.
Winters were harsh, with lots of snow. They were sometimes snowed in for days at a time, according the late Joseph Kautz. When spring came, it remained.There were no spring frosts. Summers were, warm with violent thunderstorms, downpours and hail.
The Volga river system was the main mode of transportation for the region. A Russian proverb states: “The Volga is a good horse, it will carry anything you put on it.” There were once over 300,000 boats who man-hauled barges from port to port. By 1850, large steam vessels arrived on the scene, much the same as those of the Mississippi River basin in the United States. The buffer colonies in Odessa were founded in 1796. Catherine the Great died leaving her heir, Paul I (1796-1801), “an idealist in pursuit of the absolute”, to reign. He was mentally ill, given to violent , temper and erratic in decision making. However, he had a generous side, and the tyranny of his actions was mitigated by a strong sense of duty. He brought Russia into the modem era, with new (middle class) standards which involved duty and responsibility, over the old exercises of absolute privilege and hedonistic pleasure. Court morality and intrigue was not much better, but was dressed more in line with enlightened thought. Bureaucracy increased. Appointed advisors, or colleges, were now obliged to shoulder some personal responsibility. Censorship was used extensively, to keep liberal ideas of the French Revolutionaries out of Russia. Trade and education were encouraged. He took steps to defend the serfs from the arbitrary rule of the landowners, in favor of the state. He remodeled and reconditioned the Army and Navy, imitating Frederick the Great and, even Napoleon, in standards. Idle nobility were replaced by trained and proved officers. Paul I, found himself allied with Napoleon against the British in 1800. The Nobility, enraged and disappointed with his policies to reduce them to servants of the state, conspired with his oldest brother Alexander, who with the help of some of his best, broke into his bedroom on March 23, 1801, and butchered him in the cruelest manner. Alexander I (1801-1825) then usurped the throne, and promoted his co-conspirators to high offices.
Russian sovereignty was formally recognized by the state of Georgia at this time. By 1806, there was another outbreak of war with Turkey. In 1807, the Russians entered into the Tilst with Napoleon. Russia joined Continental system. Peace with Turkey was established at Bucharest in 1812, involving the acquisition of Bessarabia. Napoleon invaded and retreated from Russia. This disastrous event, along with Napoleon’s growing unpopularity led to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Persia ceded Baku in 1813. With the incorporation of Georgia. a struggle was ended that had begun by Peter the Great. Alexander I, issues an ukase on November 29, 1813 inducing more Germans into on the second great migration.