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German-Russians to celebrate 250 years of history

July 5, 2013
By Cassa Niedringhaus

CSU experts offering insights at 44th American Historical Society of Germans from Russia convention in Fort Collins.

In July of 1763, Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, issued manifestoes promising such things as freedom of religion, freedom of culture and language, and immunity from conscription to foreigners who would immigrate to Russia and farm its lands. The privileges were extended to the immigrants’ descendants as well.

The offer enticed many Germans to settle in Russia, but in the 1870s, when these privileges were revoked, many Germans then chose to settle in the United States. These “German-Russians” settled in states such as Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas and helped shape agriculture in these states.

250 years in the making

In recognition of the 250th anniversary of Catherine’s Manifesto, the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia is hosting its 44nd Annual International Convention in Fort Collins from July 7-14. Faculty from Colorado State University assisted in the planning of the convention, and several faculty members will be featured as speakers.

Catherine the Great“We are delighted to be in Fort Collins and are looking forward to an excellent convention program thanks to the hard work of the local organizing committee working collaboratively with CSU, which is contributing significantly to the program content,” AHSGR National President Jerry Siebert said.

Lou Swanson, CSU’s vice president for engagement, and Lee Sommers, associate dean for research, Agricultural Experiment Station, will detail the university’s current agricultural collaborations in the Volga Region in Russia. Dr. Ken Rock, emeritus history professor, will speak on the manifestoes, and Janet Bishop, associate professor/coordinator for archives and special collections at Morgan Library, will detail the collections available at CSU.

Hearty, successful people

Rock, who will be delivering the conference keynote address at the weeklong conference, said the initial German immigrants and their descendants possessed talent and a fierce work ethic that allowed them to succeed even in the face of hardship.

“Over the subsequent century (1760s-1870s) these hardworking German peasants and gifted agriculturalists – despite periodic raids by Asiatic nomads and Slavic Cossacks, limited rain, seasons of drought, and always a severe winter climate – turned the open grasslands of the lower Volga districts around the city of Saratov, Russia, into a prosperous grain-producing region and breadbasket of the Russian Empire. They accomplished this not yet knowing of the hardship, sorrow, tribulation and eventual deportation to come later amid the turmoil of wars and revolution in the 20th century during the harsh regime of the Soviet Union.”

Impact on area sugar beet industry

After migrating to the United States, Rock said the Germans from Russia moved steadily up the economic ladder, moving from stoop laborers living in shacks to renters and finally to landowners. They became the first sugar beet workers in Colorado’s irrigated Arkansas and South Platte river valleys and built a prosperous sugar beet economy in Colorado.

“Essentially, it was the Germans from Russia who deserve the credit for creating a viable and prosperous agricultural industry in the state of Colorado across the twentieth century,” Rock said.

Swanson and Sommers will speak to their experiences in Russia and the Russian farms they have visited because they are involved with developing collaborative relationships between CSU and several universities in Saratov.

“We’re going to be talking about the discussions that we’ve had with Saratov State University and Saratov State Agrarian University, along with local government officials on agricultural issues and agricultural research that’s needed in that part of Russia,” Sommers said.

These children in Nebraska were typical of the German-Russian immigrants that flooded into the area following 1870.He said the initial discussions between these universities began with the German-Russian connection, the CSU International Center for German-Russian Studies. Due to the similarities in climate and soil between certain areas of Russia and the Great Plains in the U.S., the universities are collaborating to improve their wheat development programs.

Strong partnership

“(We’re building) a collaborative wheat genetics and wheat improvement program where we can use information from both parties,” Sommers said. “We’re also engaging the Colorado wheat growers and their organizations and also the Colorado Department of Agriculture. They’re two other partners we have here that are interacting with their counterparts in Russia as well.”

Sommers said that building these types of connections between universities is important.

“I think it’s important that we share,” Sommers said. “There are things that we can learn from faculty and producers in Russia, and I think there are things we can share with them that would be beneficial to their activities as well. It’s very consistent with our land grant mission to try to reach out to stakeholders in Colorado as well as collaborators across the globe.”

Beyond the connection CSU shares with Russian universities and its International Center for German-Russian Studies, CSU also possesses the Sidney Heitman Germans from Russia Collection. This collection includes 60 oral histories and other resources the German-Russians in Colorado and their immigration experiences.

CSU and Saranov State University in Russia have had a partnership since 2008. Clarence D. Kissler, AHSGR member of both the Northern Colorado and Denver Metropolitan Chapters, said his parents emigrated from Russia in 1913. He said Fort Collins was a logical location for this year’s international convention.

“The city of Fort Collins and the nearby cities in Larimer and Weld County are where a large number of German-Russian families established their homes and farmlands,” he said. “It was known that Northern Colorado was ideal for agriculture, especially the growing of sugar beets. Nearly all of the early day Germans Russians and their families worked in the sugar beet fields in and around Fort Collins. As time progressed, many Fort Collins men became successful in professional fields and business.”