Tag Archives: Catherine the Great of Russia

A Brief History of the Volga Germans

eunice-photoBack around 2012, when I first joined ‘Women Writing the West’, I somehow managed to start a correspondence with a fellow author in Kansas—Eunice Boeve. One might think that a romance author sitting in NYC and a predominantly YA and western author living out in KS had nothing in common, but Eunice and I have found a lot of common ground and continue our correspondence to this day.

Eunice was born and raised in Northwest Montana and Idaho, the middle child of seven born to a storytelling father and a book loving mother. She writes historical fiction novels for adults and young people, and for the past seven years has written a chapter story for a program called Newspapers in Education, from which her latest book, A Home in America, has evolved. Her books have received a number of awards, including a Kansas Notable book award. She lives in a small Kansas town with her husband and an aging red dachshund.

You can find all her books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and various other locations. Her website is: http://www.euniceboeve.net

Eunice has very kindly agreed to give away two copies of her book, A Home in America, to two people leaving a comment on this blog. And I’m pleased to announce the winners are Anne Schroeder and Colleen Donnelly.  Our thanks to everyone who left a comment!


Thank you, Andrea, for hosting me on your blog this month.

The history of the Volga Germans gives testimony to what the human spirit can endure, for they came to Russia and against incredible odds built a life from

Volga Germans

Volga Germans

literally nothing, but the ground under their feet. In 1763, Germany was in shambles, ravaged by seemingly unending wars and the demands of the ruling class, leaving the common citizen totally destitute. Then Catherine the Great of Russia offered land along the Volga River, free and clear with housing and horses and plows, and with no hope of a better life, they jumped at the Russian ruler’s seemingly spectacular offer.

But, when the first group arrived, there were no houses, no horses, and no plows. There was land, lots of land. But the nomadic tribes who had lived there for centuries considered it theirs. They swooped down on horseback, killing the men and capturing the women and children. With no place to go, no means to return to Germany and nothing there anyway, they stayed, and by sheer force of will, muscle, and faith, carved out a life on the Russian plains. That first winter, they dug caves for shelter with wagon boards for doors. These strong-willed people declined to interact with Russia in any way. They did not claim citizenship nor intermarry, but clung to their German language, customs, and religion as fiercely as they tamed the hostile land.

At first, they were promised freedom from the military, then Russia began to impose mandatory military service on males from sixteen to forty-five. With no feelings of loyalty to Russia, they felt no obligation to fight for the country, and many began to suspect that other demands would follow. With the idea of leaving Russia, they sent scouts to North and South America and these men brought back good reports of both countries, but favoring North America. Those who wished to immigrate and could manage the fares, left all they knew behind, sometimes even family members, and departed for the Americas.

Volga German Pioneer Memorial, Victoria, KS

Volga German Pioneer Memorial, Victoria, KS

Of those who did immigrate to America, many came to Kansas. Others settled in other states, including North Dakota, and Nebraska. For the most part, they kept together creating their own small towns. Those small towns around Hays, Kansas were given the names of the villages they left behind in Russia, like Herzog, Liebenthal. Pfeifer, Schoenchen, and Munjor, and, with the exception of Herzog, are still in existence today. Herzog is now Victoria. Settled by the English when the English left, the two towns became one. The fact that America is made up of a very diverse population, and English is the main language, made it almost impossible to exist in isolation as the entire Volga River Germans did for some one hundred plus years in Russia. So even the Volga German so steadfast in remaining German, began to mix with others, as have many other ethnic groups who came to this land we call America.


A Home in America, Book cover by Julie Peterson-Shea, published by Rowe Publishing  and available at http://rowepub.com/a-home-in-america/ and http://www.amazon.com/Home-America-Volga-German-Story/dp/1939054818/

   home-in-america-book-cover-image  A Home in America begins in the year of 1892, with Eva and her family living in the Volga River area of Russia settled by their forefathers from Germany in the mid 1760s. They have always considered themselves to be German and have kept their language and traditions, as promised them, along with being exempt from military service, when they settled this part of Russia. But 130 years later, Russia is disregarding those earlier promises and many, including Eva’s family believe they would be better off in America. Going to America, though, means leaving Great Grandmother behind. Great Grandmother, now old and blind, has been the only mother Eva has ever known, her own mother dying the day she was born. Father has remarried, but although she likes her stepmother very much, it is Great Grandmother whom she still considers her mother and she cannot bear even the thought of leaving this woman she has loved like a mother all her life.

This story began as a Newspaper in Education story and was featured in five Kansas newspapers for 8 weeks beginning Jan. 5, 2016, and told of their journey to America. The rest of the story chronicles their next year when they settle on a farm near Herzog (Victoria), Kansas.


 Excerpt

“After much thought and prayer,” Father says, “Great-Grandmother, Leah, and myself have decided it would be best for our family to leave Russia.” He pauses, then adds, “So next spring we will leave for America.”

I am so surprised, so shocked I think I could be knocked off this bench with a feather. Beside me, Great Grandmother bends her head in prayer and her fingers begin traveling the beads of her rosary, her lips moving in silent supplication. Fear clutches my heart as I realize how old, how feeble she has become. Will we leave her here, like Mia’s family will leave her grandmother?

I raise my eyes from Great Grandmother’s bent head and the rosary in her hands, to see if Father has noticed my fear and will reassure me with a smile, but he is busy answering Peter and Michael’s excited questions. Then I’m remembering this morning at the cow shed and how Leah had remained silent when I said I was glad we weren’t going to America and with a small jolt of anger, I turn to her.

Her brown eyes meet mine and they seem to ask for forgiveness, but I feel no forgiveness. She could have at least warned me! I close my face into a tight mask and blink back my tears and hold on to my angry thoughts so they do not become words. I know that Great-Grandmother cannot make such a long trip and I also know I cannot leave her. Then Great-Grandmother’s hand finds mine and my anger at Leah dissolves and I realize those words were not hers to tell, but Father’s.

A coldness settles over me as I listen to Father tell of the rumors growing stronger every day; rumors of Russia headed for war with Japan. And if they go to war, men and boys sixteen to forty-five will be called to fight for the Russian army. Peter will turn sixteen next summer, Father, who is forty, will have to go immediately. Michael at thirteen, nearly fourteen, is safe, but for how long? Wars can last for years.

Father says it was those same rumors of war that sent Uncle Johann and his family, to America and that we would have gone with them, but for Great-Grandmother. At his words, my anger, cooled, again rises up in me. Does Father think she can go with us now, even though she is now blind, and five years older?