Monday, January 23, 2012

Shades of Catherine the Great

One of the more noticeable things here in the northern corn belt is the prevalence of German surnames.  Farming is a LOT harder than it looks and after 150 years of harsh climate, Predatory economics, and assorted other major hazards, a large percentage of the survivors are German.  A surprising number of these immigrants, however, came from Russia.  This is an interesting story and one I heard from kids in my grade school who spoke German at home but whose grandparents had fled Russia in the 1870s.  Here is their story as told by a North Dakota historian in 1910.

Germans from Russia Now Second Largest Immigrant Group
Hard Work Pays Off for Hardy Homesteaders
Bismarck, 1910 
Sometimes they are called “the other Germans.” Sometimes they are called the “Ruzlands.” Some come from the lands that border the Black Sea. Others from Mariupol or Dobrudja or the Caucasus country or the Volga Valley. Some are Mennonites; some are Hutterites. Some belong to the Roman Catholic Church; others are Lutheran. These are the German-Russians. They all lived in Russia, but they all were Germans by birth or heritage. Thousands have left Russia for the United States, and about 32,000 have migrated to North Dakota.

What were these Germans doing in Russia? In the 1760s Catherine II, the ruler of Russia, invited Europeans, especially Germans, to settle in Russia. Catherine, who was a German by birth, knew that Germans were excellent farmers and that Russia needed a more stable and plentiful food supply. She promised that immigrants would receive free land, could exercise religious freedom and would be exempt from service in the Russian army. In other words, Germans in Russia could continue in their German ways. Because Germany was going through political turmoil and war, over 50,000 Germans went to Russia by 1870.  Alexander I, who became Tsar in 1801, continued to recruit Germans to live in lands that Russia had taken from Turkey along the Black Sea. Thousands more Germans took up land in Russia.
In Russia the Germans remained German. They kept their religion and their language. They did not mingle with the Russians and only a few learned the Russian language. Their elementary schools promoted Germanism, things German, not Russian. 
These Germans in Russia earned reputations as hard-working farmers who were able to overcome a hostile environment. They were good farmers. Most eventually prospered.

But things changed for the Germans in Russia when Alexander II became Tsar in 1874. He ended German exemption from service in the Russian army and began a program of Russification — Germans were no longer a special people; they were to become Russians. 
Angry over these broken promises, many Germans began to leave Russia. The 160 acres of land that the Homestead Act provided lured most to America, especially the Great Plains states. Now in 1910 about 60,000 Germans from Russia (the immigrants and their American-born children) live in North Dakota. They began arriving through north-central South Dakota in the mid-1880s. more
My childhood classmates were Mennonites and the BIG beef they had with Alexander II's great betrayal was his plans to draft their young men into military service—a huge no-no for a Protestant splinter group that had been devout pacifists since the 1530s.  Nothing so provokes traditional leaders like the idea that some folks think themselves too holy to participate in their wars.  So even though the Mennonites had been working Russian soil for over 100 years, they were persecuted and essentially tossed out of the country.

Flash forward to today.  23 MILLION hectares of fertile Russian farmland lie fallow—the result of the failed experiment that was Marxist agricultural collectivism.  So the Russians have taken a page from their history and have invited German farmers to come and make their prairies bloom again.
Pigs and Protection Money
German Farmers Seek their Fortunes in Russia
By Steffen Winter   01/12/2012

In the 18th century, Catherine the Great invited German farmers to come to Russia and cultivate the land. Over two centuries later, the country is recruiting Teutonic pioneers once again in a bid to put vast tracts of fallow land to use. The land holds great opportunities for agricultural entrepreneurs -- provided they have strong nerves.

The roads are a problem. The dark, frost-damaged asphalt is patched in many places. As the black Toyota Camry bumps along the road, Alexander, the driver, glances quickly into the rear-view mirror and steps on the gas, passing trucks that look like they haven't seen the inside of a repair shop in a long time.

Sitting in the back seat, Stefan Dürr is being thrown back and forth on the bumpy road. As he looks out the window, he sees trees and low shrubs flying by. Beyond them is a vast, shimmering Russian landscape, a region of dark fields and kilometer upon kilometer of black earth -- the Voronezh Oblast. The German points to the signs along the side of the road. On one sign, the words EkoNiva Agro are painted in black on a white background. "It all belongs to us," he says cheerfully.

When Dürr, 47, a former activist with the Bavarian Young Farmers Association, studied agriculture in the northern Bavarian town of Bayreuth, he anticipated leading a comfortable life on his grandfather's farm in the Odenwald region near Heidelberg. Instead, he is now the owner of more than 170,000 hectares (about 420,000 acres) of prime Russian farmland. 
With his curly hair, and in his blue wool sweater and gray jeans, Dürr could be mistaken for a tractor driver. But he has achieved breathtaking results as a businessman. He now speaks Russian with almost no accent, and is cultivating fields in the Kursk, Voronezh, Orenburg, Novosibirsk and Kaluga regions. Through his holding company, EkoSem-Agrar, he employs 2,800 people in farming, owns a herd of 28,000 cattle and most recently generated revenues of €80 million ($102 million). In good years, he earned €200 million selling agricultural machinery, a business he has since spun off. According to Dürr, EkoNiva, one of his subsidiaries, is among the top 30 agricultural companies in Russia. 
Dürr's success story, and his pioneering achievements as a Western European deep in the heart of Eastern Europe, serve as a model for the Russian government. Almost 250 years after Empress Catherine the Great attracted tens of thousands of German settlers to her realm, Russia is once again courting Western settlers to revive a farming industry that is ailing in some areas. 
Dürr has, in fact, attracted imitators. The Westphalian meat baron Clemens Tönnies has just announced a plan to invest millions in Dürr's neighborhood. Together with a Russian partner, Tönnies wants to build 10 new pig farms, which are expected to produce 62,500 tons of meat a year. It is one of the largest projects ever planned in Russia, and it promises an investment of more than €100 million in the Voronezh region. 
Eckart Hohmann, a former banker with the German state-owned bank WestLB, is already there. He and a business partner from the northeastern German region of Mecklenburg are farming an area of 29,000 hectares 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Moscow. His "Rheinland Farm" produces brewers' yeast, seed grain and wheat. "The Russians practically forced the land on us," says Hohmann, adding that the business already achieved profitability some time ago. Not far from his farm, three farmers from Ingolstadt, in Bavaria, are cultivating a total of 4,000 hectares -- and they plan to expand. 
Some 23 million hectares of fertile farmland is currently not being used in Russia. Much of this land is in the coveted Black Earth Region. In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, collectives everywhere went bankrupt, and the country was forced to import grain. The Kremlin has since made agriculture a top priority, and it is openly recruiting Western expertise. 
Its efforts have been successful. When Bavarian Agriculture Minister Helmut Brunner returned from a tour of Dürr's vast farms, he was so enthusiastic that he practically called upon Bavarian farmers to leave the country. "The Russians have made it clear that they want more Bavarian farmers," Brunner said. more


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  2. I knew why my family left Germany, but was unsure as to why they left Russia. This explains a lot. My German families were Wahl and Nittel. Thanks for the info.