In 1868, Hermann Dalton, a Reformed pastor from Basel, Switzerland traveled across the vast expanse of the Russian steppes to find out what had happened to the German Protestants who had migrated there earlier in the century. His amazing first-person account provides a rare insight into these first evangelical Christians to take the Gospel into this forbidding and hostile land. Their persecuted descendants would emigrate to far-off lands, many to the United States. Those who remained were ruthlessly dealt with by Stalin during the great famine engineered by the Soviet state.

There are two regions especially in which for miles around only German countrymen are settled: in the south of Russia near the coast of the Black Sea, and on the fertile banks of the Volga. Our various tasks directed us for a short time to both regions, for here as elsewhere among the Germans our Reformed brothers in the faith are represented. A few general remarks are, accordingly, at the outset, in order about the colonization. So much of interest is presented that even one glimpse directed there warrants more than one page. They are branches separated from the large German oak tree, the one branch planted on the vast steppes of the South, the other planted along the fertile banks of the Volga River. Years and decades have gone by since this separation so that the motherland has almost forgotten her children, and the children too have forgotten their native land. Has the detached branch evolved a self-supporting, peculiar life which yet assures a prosperous future for the sprig? Or instead has the “beggar’s fist” of the steppes (in the characteristic expression of the poet) taken root in the manner of the seed which survives for a while on the rich humus soil structure, but which as soon as it would like to extend deeper roots, thrust into the dry sand structure, causes the tree to die? Who could conclusively resolve the question now? For both views, we have forcible voices to present their opinions….

Volga German pioneer family statue, Victoria, Kansas.

Well-known, first, is the fact that South Russia separated from Turkey to become a possession of Russia during the preceding century. Only wandering Tatar tribes who lead their nomadic existence on the vast steppes had thinly peopled the area. A pretty but important problem faced Russia in introducing culture into this far-flung wilderness, but with great vigor, with considerable sacrifice, and also with skill and happy results, Russia undertook to itself this project. If one were to have ventured there 80 years ago, traveling through the endless, wild steppes with their rank growth of grass and then today were to come the same way, he would not recognize the region, and would form a deep respect for those who had accomplished the transformation.

The first step that Russia took to accomplish this transformation was to attract settlers from everywhere to this newly-acquired land. The most desirable step, however, was the promotion at all costs of the immigration of Germans — those born colonists who with their upright, temperate industry are of the highest quality and who have conquered the most frugal regions of the world. The particular conditions in Germany at the beginning of the century favored this desired purpose. The poor, oppressed peasantry barely sustained itself one step above bondage, the extravagant demands of landowners abused and exhausted the land, so that the prospects that Russia offered were for thousands a strong inducement. The settlers would not have a manor lord, their village authorities would be self elected, they would be exempt from military service forever; every family would be assured of 60 dessiatines of land (about 250 Prussian morgens or 162 U.S. acres) and a loan of 1080 rubles to get started.

As a result of this invitation, thousands of families, especially from 1805 to 1809 and from 1812 to 1817, left their homeland and moved in long caravans toward their new homes. Great was the misery and distress on the tiring trip, greater yet was the misery and distress on their arrival in the inhospitable steppes when they unloaded their meager belongings from the Moldavian oxcarts into the wild tall grass of the steppes. With most of them the first crop sowed upon the new soil was bitter tears. But one couldn’t allow his hands to remain idle. The government did what it could, but in the deserted, desolate region it could not be counted on for much help. The grandfathers in the colonies still relate how they dug their homes in the earth at first. A large, square, deep hole was dug in the ground, covered with poles, reeds, grass and dirt, the interior walls plastered with mud; therein one was able to withstand the first winter. The next year four stout corner posts were planted in the ground, beams with rafters laid thereon, the beams covered with thin poles and the rafter structure covered with reeds and grass, the space up to the beams filled with interwoven shrubbery, the entire structure inside and out plastered with mud. This was at least more comfortable. And now it has become even more comfortable. An instinctive feeling of eases takes possession of the traveler when, during the middle of the summer, he has placed several miles behind him on the treeless, hot and dry steppes in an uncomfortable vehicle, then toward evening turns into a friendly colonial village which extends along a wide country road. The separate houses are built neatly of stone, all with the same inside arrangement. When one steps from the street across the yard and threshold of a dwelling, the visitor is face to face with the kitchen, the sitting room to the left, the bedroom to the right. As a rule, the visitor is lodged in the sitting room, the greatest ornament of which is a clean bed with pillows heaped high. The furnishings of the house are extremely simple and clean; no spot shows on the always freshly whitened walls; tables and benches are, as a rule, made of unpainted wood; in a corner on a small stand are a few books, only religious in character.

Volga Germans joined with others in departing from Hamburg for the United States.

The improved dwellings are a sign of increased wealth. One can say definitely that conditions are altogether better for the settlers than for those who remained in their homeland. Several very fruitful harvests contributed to this fortunate prosperity, particularly at the beginning of the colonization. In recent years, unfortunately, it has not been as good because of the recurring destruction by grasshoppers on the one hand, and on the other because of drouths [sic], increasingly severe by the years, which have caused much worry for the future and have required ever-increasing efforts to strike water. In addition, in recent times, in several areas, to the customary needed harvests a more acute state of distress has entered due to an excess of population in several colonies. There were, for example, in the colony Neudorf 57 births and only 24 deaths in the year 1862; in 1864 there were 61 births to only 14 deaths. The result of this has been that branches must separate from the mother colony and must buy their own land, which acquisition already is attended by large costs.

Considerable freedom in self-government is allowed in the government of the various colonies. The guiding principle of all the colonies is one for all and all for one. Every community has its own self-government with a village mayor, two councilmen and a clerk. A number of colonies together are under a district jurisdiction, coming under a superior magistrate, two district associates, and a district clerk. In the same way, district jurisdictions and the entire colonization come under a so-called Welfare Office, with headquarters in Odessa and functioning under the ministry of the domain in Petersburg. The village mayor is elected by the community and heads the civil government and police power in his village, but criminal cases such as murder and theft in which the stolen goods exceed 25 rubles silver come under the jurisdiction of the district court in which the concerned village is located. The office of mayor, though elected by free majority vote, not infrequently remains in one respected colonist family. The mayor, therefore, exercises considerable authority in his colony, which authority can rise to that of a despot if he can maintain a simple majority in all matters. Those who maintain this majority are the determining expositors for the retention of the old customs. That which existed “at the time of the establishment of the colonies” is good and incontestable, whereas the best of new ways are open to question because they have not existed “since the establishment of the colonies.”

After this short overall introduction, we can now turn our attention to the religious life in general. Under the rights guaranteed to the colonists, we find the sentence, “that the colonists shall be free to build suitable churches for their religion, retain ministers, and observe the rights appertaining thereto.” To the credit of the Russian authorities, during the entire [period], they have observed this concession faithfully, and in various ways aided the Protestant church in the building of churches and schools, guaranteeing to it in its internal administration a self-determination and freedom in its holy work. It is evident, therefore, that the authorities have been well disposed to the churches of the colonists. The church and religious life, in the most evangelical colonies is very much developed. It comes into the foreground mightily, almost too much so. All other interests yield to that of religion. Politics, literature, industry, art, in so far as they can relate to a rural population, have entirely receded to the background, while all church and religious questions occupy most of the colonists in their leisure hours. The cause, in part, for this deserves investigation. The colonies were divorced from their homes of origin with no tie remaining; even to the oldsters in the villages, those who came as young boys or girls to Russia, the remembrances of the German fatherland are almost obliterated; even for decades, they have had no contacts. There they sit, as it were, alone on the lonely steppe. Mingling in a closer association with other nationalities has served to erase the differences among the Germans themselves; yet the German cares not for an intimate association with the ____.1Dalton’s unflattering description of other groups inhabiting the region is omitted. He stays in his own village and only maintains a limited contact with even the nearest German colony; often only a mile2The German “mile” here is equivalent to 5 of our miles.—wide field on the steppe separates a neighbor, but is a formidable obstacle for any contact. This, then, is how the colonist lives his lonely existence in his colony on the endless steppe to which broad plain no sound from the outer world penetrates. At times the steppe is wondrously beautiful in its magnificent solitude and its well-nigh majestic stillness. When the sun has set blood red in the west, and then as far as the eye can see, the clear starry heaven descends upon the endless plain, there is not an audible sound in nature, nor a visible object on the vast expanse to hold the eye, as all life in nature has been lifted, as it were, into the very heavens. These are mighty impressions and unforgettable, which vibrating on and on, must finally terminate as spiritual emotions. One is reminded involuntarily of the lives of the patriarchs when they wandered throughout the lonely grassy plains with their herds, safe and unmolested their entire saintly lives.

The surroundings, the isolation from the rest of the world, the lonely seclusion of the people, all have developed to a high degree an exceptional religious way of life, one perhaps found only in a very few regions. The colonist breathes and moves in a scriptural world, in which his greatest pleasure is to be occupied with his catechism. Morning and evening prayers in which the entire household participates have become rigid practice; the custom of the “study hour” was brought from Wuertemberg and is regularly observed everywhere; only the worst element of the community does not participate. Discussions within the narrowed confines of the most high-principled religious ideas get in motion and last for years with a touching patience. Generous collections are given for mission work; the money donated by ten thousands totals up to a goodly sum, such as Basel, Switzerland, received, for example, from these lonely villages, forgotten by the rest of the world.

Besides the obvious beautiful bright side, the gloomy dark side must not be overlooked. Just as there are places where the Word of God is precious, so also are there places where it has become cheapened. A sincere and solemn pious course has to guard itself from the dangers of the moral claims of a biased religion. Neither one, actually, allow themselves to be swayed, but each one, one-sidedly accented, carries distortion to both. From the blessed conviction of being saved through the grace of Jesus Christ, the more blessed conviction must follow, that of growing daily from the same abundance of grace in the sanctification of all mankind.

From Immanuel: A Tabernacle of God for the People. Printed by the Pilgrim Missions Publishing Company, St. Chrischona at Basel, Switzerland, about 1868. Translated by Theodore C. Wenzlaff. Abridged and reprinted from Heritage Review, December, 1974, by permission of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, 1125 West Turnpike Avenue, Bismarck, ND 58501


1 Dalton’s unflattering description of other groups inhabiting the region is omitted.
2 The German “mile” here is equivalent to 5 of our miles.