The first Germans to forge links with Russia were the German missionaries and merchants who traveled there over 1,000 years ago; their stay in Russia, however, was relatively brief. Grand Duke Ivan III (1462-1505) brought in doctors, apothecaries, architects, and military officers from many European countries including German principalities. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the largest increase in German settlers.
Large-scale immigration began as a consequence of the manifestos laid down by Catherine II (the Great) on 4 December 1762 and 22 July 1763, encouraging foreign immigration to Russia. The manifesto drawn up in 1763 granted particularly favorable conditions to new immigrants, including complete exemption from military service, religious freedom, the opportunity for self-government, several years' tax exemption, and immigration support. During the years 1764 to 1767, between 23,000 and 29,000 German colonists settled in Russia. Most came from Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate, northern Baden, and the Rheinprovinz, but some from France, Sweden, and Holland. Although some of the immigrants colonized areas near St. Petersburg, most gravitated toward the Volga Lands, setting up 104 colonies near the city of Saratov. The second major phase of immigration started in 1789 and lasted, despite periodic lulls, until 1863. During this period, immigrants consisted mainly of Mennonites and Protestants entering the southern Ukraine; a further 55,000 people immigrated to Russia from Württemberg, Baden, Palatinate, Lorraine, Alsace, and Switzerland. The immigrants were to help secure Russia's borders and develop districts long since fallen into disuse as new areas of commercial productivity. By 1914 there were 3,500 German colonies, and the total German population was estimated at 2,338,500.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the urban and rural German populations were divided into national and religious communities, with numerous well-developed clubs and societies. At this time many German officials, merchants, and citizens actually formed part of the Russian upper class and, because they owned land, the rural Germans were wealthy and living apart from the surrounding peasant population. Every year they employed tens of thousands of Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, and others for seasonal work in southern Russia and the Caucasus, which encouraged the spread of German farming methods and machinery among Russian and Ukrainian farmers. Moreover, elements of Ukrainian and Russian Baptism can be traced back to the Bible-class teachings ( Stunde ) of the Swabian Germans.
As a result of immigration, trade in crafts flourished, and milling and material production ( sarpinka ) became well established in the Volga Lands. The production of agricultural tools and equipment was particularly successful in the southern Ukraine, and the Johann Hoehn factory (in Odessa), which produced plows, grew to be the largest of its kind in southern Russia. As a result of the termination of self-government in 1871 and the reinstatement of general liability for military service in 1874, however, the internal political climate took a dramatic turn for the worse. In addition, the pan-Russian movement demanded the expulsion of Germans from the western district of Russia (in Volhynia) and new alien laws. The withdrawal of privileges, combined with the increasing Russification, eventually led to the emigration of 18,000 Mennonites to the United States (1872-1873); 10,000 colonists left for Brazil (1890), and several thousand more emigrated to Canada, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
During World War I, anti-German feeling in Russia reached a high pitch, and in the winter of 1915-1916 approximately 200,000 Germans were deported from Volhynia to other parts of the country. All Germans were to have been deported from the European part of Russia to Siberia and Central Soviet Asia by the end of 1917, a plan that could never fully be put into effect because of the Revolution in 1917. After the fall of Czar Nicholas II and the subsequent proclamation of civil rights and rights to self-determination, various ethnic groups in Russia began to seek autonomy. The German autonomy movement was centered in Odessa, Moscow, and Saratov. The Commission for German Affairs in the Volga Lands was finally set up in Saratov in May 1918, and on 19 October 1918 the German colonies of the Volga Lands were granted autonomous status, the first instance of national autonomy in Soviet Russia. In 1924 the district was transformed into the Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic of Volga Germans (ASSRVG). In the twenties and thirties, German provinces existed in the Ukraine, the Crimea, Transcaucasia, around Orenburg, in northern Kazakhstan, and in the Altai region. In the ASSRVG and the German provinces, German became the official language and was spoken in the schools. Numerous newspapers, journals, and books were printed, and the education system ran from kindergarten to university.
Following the seizure of power in Germany by the National Socialist German Workers' (Nazi) party, conditions for Germans in the former Soviet Union deteriorated. In 1938 the autonomous German provinces were disbanded, and after Hitler had declared war on the Soviet Union, Germans were deported on a large scale to Siberia and Central Soviet Asia. The Germans in the Volga Lands were subsequently accused of collaborating with the enemy and the ASSRVG was eliminated. By 1941, 226,000 people had already been moved to the eastern parts of the country, with most men and women being drafted into the Worker's Army (Trudovaja Armija). Approximately 895,000 Germans were deported during the course of World War II. In 1956 the rest of the German population was placed in special settlements under the supervision of the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD).
As a result of political and social changes, conditions have greatly altered for the Germans in Russia. Today they find themselves in a diaspora, and many are scattered among Muslim communities. Since 1941 political and legal discrimination have turned the Germans into the outsiders of Soviet society; at the same time, cultural pressure and assimilative processes have resulted in widespread adaptation to Slavic values.