Volga German Culture

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Volga Germans
Volga German area.gifVolga German cities and settlements

Gemeinschaft or community was defined by German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies as a tight and cohesive social entity with the presence of a "unity of will." Tönnies also believed that shared characteristics, such as geographic place or belief, could also result in Gemeinschaft. This paradigm of communal networks and shared social understanding has been applied to multiple cultures in many places throughout history and was certainly descriptive of the German colonies on the Volga.

These immigrants originated primarily in what is now the modern day country of Germany. Freed from the constraints of a feudal society, they faced the daunting task of creating new communities in a vast and unfamiliar land that they shared with other ethnic groups. The colonists and their descendants balanced a complex tension between their hunger to leave the past and their hunger to retain it. ​

Over time, this group of immigrants formed a new community that was shaped by old beliefs and their new homeland and system of government. In turn, the community shaped the family, and the family shaped the individual who felt an obligation to the well-being of the community. In this way, the community, the family and the individual were closely linked.

Agriculture[edit | edit source]

The first decade of poor harvests ended with a good crop in 1775. This first high yield crop was made possible by adequate rainfall for the first time after many years of drought. In addition, the colonists began to plough more acreage when they replaced their crude Russian sokhi with iron-tipped ploughs. The colonists also became adept at breeding draft horses to pull the tilling equipment. Commercial fertilizers were unknown and the farmers practiced a three and four year crop rotation. Several vast fields were maintained around each colony to insure adequate supplies of each agricultural commodity.

Farm work began in the spring as the snows melted revealed a growth of winter rye in at least one of the large colony fields. Volga Germans were heavy consumers of rye flour, and it was planted in late August following summer rains. Sunflowers, spring grains and potatoes were planted in late March and April. Sunflowers were processed for oil in various mills in the region. Millet was the third most important grain crop in the colonies and was also sown in the spring. Millet was used to make Hirsche, a coarse porrdige. Oats, barley, both used mostly as animal fodder, were also spring crops.

Hemp and flax were also grown for domestic clothing needs.

Cabbage, melons and pumpkins were gathered from communal garden near the villages. Sauerkraut was a staple food for the Volga Germans that was prepared in the fall. Garden vegetables planted in the Hinnerhof (yard adjacent to each home) included carrots, onions, sugar beets, tomatoes and cucumbers. Apple, pear and cherry trees were planted in both family gardens and large communal orchards. Most fruits were preserved through sun-drying. Wild pear trees and strawberries were common. Other berry varieties were also available. Mushrooms were harvested in August. Licorice root harvested in the fall was used to make Steppetee - a favorite Volga German drink.

Large cellars were constructed and filled with irregular blocks of ice insulated with straw to keep dairy products and fresh meat safely stored in the hot summer months. The ice was collected early in the year along the banks of the Volga and in the mill ponds during the spring thaw.

Families gathered for an annual butchering bee in November or early December. Fruit tree cuttings were used to smoke sausage and other meat products made by the colonists.

With the long harvest season over, fall plantings completed, and produce sold or stored, the villagers gathered to celebrate their bounty in an exuberant festival, the Kerb. This event signaled the end of the field season as the people prepared for the long Russian winter. Isolated on the steppe, the Volga German villages became quiet and self-sufficient until the next spring.

When Volga Germans became rich enough to want to leave their villages and set up as independent farmers, instead of operating as communal village farmers, they bought themselves land, but usually named the farms after their own surname - e.g. Diesendorf, Schmidt, Seiffert, Chutor or Khutor. A Chutor was a small settlement or outpost beyond the boundaries of the colony. They might very well have taken extended family along with them, or field labour employees, or other poorer families to work the land, so it would become 'farmstead'.

By 1940, the Saratov region had in fact become Russia's bread basket. The primary agricultural crop was wheat. Also grown was rye, barley, oats, and millet. The grains were sold in the city of Saratov.

In the United States, the Volga German immigrants were instrumental in the development and growth of the sugar beet industry.

CVGS Resources Beratz, Gottieb. The German colonies on the Lower Volga, their origin and early development: a memorial for the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first German settlers on the Volga, 29 June 1764. Translated by Adam Giesinger. Lincoln, NE: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 1991.

Dietz, Jacob E. History of the Volga German Colonists. Lincoln, NE: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 2005.

Erina, E. M., Salʹkova, V. E, & Internationaler Verband der Deutschen Kultur. (2000). Obychai povolzhskikh nemt︠s︡ev = Sitten und Bräuche der Wolgadeutschen. Moskva: Gotika.

Koch, Fred C. The Volga Germans: In Russia and the Americas, from 1763 to the Present. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977.

Lonsinger, A., & Hanke, Marion. (2004). Sachliche Volkskunde der Wolgadeutschen (1. Aufl.). Remshalden: Bernhard Albert Greiner.

Pleve, Igor R. The German Colonies on the Volga: The Second Half of the Eighteenth Century. Translated by Richard Rye. Lincoln, NE: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 2001.