Friday, July 22, 2005

Happy Manifesto Day

On this day in 1763, Tsarina Catherine II issued a manifesto inviting all Christian foreigners to settle in the Russian Empire and receive a litany of rights and benefits out of reach for the vast majority of the world's population. The Tsarina granted the new settlers free land, freedom of religion, 30 years tax exemption, interest free loans, communal autonomy and eternal freedom from military conscription. Most of the people who took advantage of this offer came from the German speaking states in Central Europe and they initially established compact colonies on the lower Volga. By 1769, around 23,000 German colonists had established residency in the Volga region of the Russian Empire in response to Catherine II's invitation. In a rare instance of history, one woman created an entire ethnic group with a single royal decree. She is the metaphorical grandmother of the Russian-German people.

In subsequent years, Germans settled other regions of the Russian Empire. Most notably the Black Sea coast of of what is now Ukraine and what was the Crimean Khanate until 1783. The first German settlers to this region arrived in 1789. Hundreds of thousands more Germans immigrated to the Russian Empire during the next century. By 1897, nearly 1.8 million Germans lived under Tsarist rule. In the 1870s, Tsar Alexander II began to revoke the rights granted to the German colonists by Catherine II. Most notably he subjected them to military service starting in 1874. Declining political, economic and social status prompted a huge wave of Russian-German migration to the New World in the late 19th and early 20th century. By the late 1930s over 1 million Russian-Germans lived in the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. While a somewhat greater number still remained in the USSR.

The history of the Russian-Germans in the USSR is detailed in other posts on this blog. It is a story of great suffering and endurance. By 1989 there were over 2 million Russian-Germans in the USSR. In the next decade over 75% of them resettled in their ancestral homeland of Germany. Today the millions of people of Russian-German descent live spread amongst the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Germany, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and other countries in Eurasia and Latin America. All of these people can trace part of their heritage back to a single decree issued by Catherine II on this day in 1763. For the record my great grandparents on my father's side were ethnic Germans from Volhynia in Ukraine who came to North America near the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. So to everybody of Russian-German descent in the Americas, Europe and Asia, Happy Manifesto Day.

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