Bismarck/ND: Germans from Russia in North Dakota | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 29.10.2001
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Bismarck/ND: Germans from Russia in North Dakota

In the 18th century, the Russian tsar urged Germans to settle on the river Volga and on the Black Sea. In the 19th century, many of them moved on to America.

Margie Miller, proud to be a Russian-German-American

Margie Miller, proud to be a Russian-German-American

When talking about German-Americans, one immediately thinks of people whose ancestors left Germany and came to America decades or even centuries ago.

Although this may very well account for most of them, in North Dakota one encounters a different group of German-speaking immigrants: They are Germans from Russia.

In 1763, the Russian tsar Catherine the Great urged Germans to come to Russia and settle on the banks of the river Volga and on the Black Sea. She promised them free land and religious freedom. Yet, conditions changed in the course of the following decades: life for the Germans in Russia became more difficult.

In the mid 19th century thousands of Russian Germans from the Volga and from the Black Sea decided to leave the region and head to America.

By the end of the 19th century, approximately 70,000 German-speaking settlers from the Volga river region and from German villages in what is now the Ukraine had moved to North Dakota. Today, half of North Dakota's population has Russian-German roots.

German is still spoken in some villages there. Margie Miller, a 72-year-old Russian-German, recalls the German songs of her childhood.

Even the North Dakota state capital cannot deny its German heritage: the city of Bismarck was named after Otto von Bismarck, prime minister of Prussia and founder and first chancellor (1871-90) of what used to be the German Empire.

In the late 19th century the chancellor was so popular among the German immigrants that the Northern Pacific Railway company decided to name the city after him once the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1883.

The Northern Pacific Railway attempted to attract German immigrants to come and live in the prairie area. Instead, large numbers of Russian-Germans were drawn by the prospect of cheap and nearly limitless land. Between 1870 and 1915 a lot of families moved to America to escape oppression in Russia.

The Russian tsar had deprived them of their privileges, and had even attempted to conscript them to military service. For the deeply-religious Russian-German pacifists, this was unbearable. Not only were they running out of land for their rapidly-growing families, they were now no longer free to practice their beliefs.

Many Russian-Germans, desperate for a new start in life, headed for America, where they were again promised land, farms and religious freedom.

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