- Revolution, Reform und Krieg: Die Deutschen an der Wolga im ausgehenden Zarenreich
As part of the Russian government's efforts to settle the empire's newly conquered steppe lands, Catherine II issued proclamations in 1762 and 1763 that promised foreign colonists legal and social privileges, the right to internal self-government, freedom of religion, land grants, loans, and tax freedom for 30 years. It was mainly Germans who responded to her invitation, and by 1775 a group of 30,000 Germans had settled on the left and right banks of the lower Volga. These settlers, who became known as Volga Germans, established agriculture and trade centers in what later became the provinces of Saratov and Samara.1 The Volga Germans differed from other German colonists, such as the Black Sea Germans who settled in the fertile steppes of New Russia in the early 1800s, in that they adopted the Russian communal system of periodic redistribution of land. Most Volga Germans lived compactly, separate and isolated from their Russian peasant neighbors in 200 colonies. They showed little inclination to assimilate with the Russians. By the late 19th century the Volga Germans had grown to half a million, and constituted, at 8 percent, the second largest local ethnic group, after the Russians at 76.8 percent in Saratov and 64.8 percent in Samara. Ukrainians, Tatars, Mordvinians, and Bashkirs made up most of the balance.
Victor Dönninghaus examines the Volga German population not during its formative period, when it acquired the characteristics that distinguished it from other German colonists and from its Russian neighbors, but during what he describes as a period of accelerated social, economic, and cultural changes associated with modernization in the period from 1905 to 1917. His primary interest is the relationship between the policies of the central and regional authorities on the one hand and the conduct of the Volga Germans on the [End Page 431] other. At the center of his study the author puts the modernization of the Volga German agrarian order with its atypical—for Russian-Germans—communal order and "the relationship between their keeping their distance and integrating into the whole society of the Volga region (1905–1917)" (9). Dönninghaus uses statistical data, previously unexploited central and local archival materials, and the regional press, both Russian and German, to add insight into daily life to buttress his analysis.2 The result is a comprehensive study of the Volga Germans between the troubles of 1905 and the Revolution of 1917 that supplements earlier general surveys of the Volga Germans and specialized monographs devoted to single aspects of their history.
Dönninghaus's study is divided into five chapters. The first assesses the economic and social position of the Volga Germans at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, when a money economy began to penetrate into rural areas as manufacturing increasingly replaced peasant handicrafts at the same time as the railroads and the telegraph opened up a new world for rural dwellers. In contrast to the traditionally rosy picture of Volga German prosperity consistently painted in the Russian nationalist press, the reality was quite different. Though there was no agricultural "crisis" in the empire as a whole in this period, the Volga Germans experienced the same locally deteriorating living conditions as the Russian peasantry who had settled in the same general region, on the southern edge of the central agricultural region from Samara and Saratov to Poltava. The author traces an all too familiar picture of tremendous rural overpopulation that resulted in an ever-growing shortage of land, rising land and rental prices, frequent harvest failures, increased indebtedness, and the fragmentation of the large and complex patriarchal household. Each new fractional household was worse off in terms of land, livestock, and tools than the previous one. Volga Germans, like their Russian neighbors, sought alleviation in seasonal off-farm employment in the towns and cities, such...