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WHEN in 1762 Catherine the Great ascended the throne of the Czars as empress of all the Russias, her one great ambition was to make her reign the outstanding period of Russian history. Ambitious, energetic and competent, she was prepared to go to any lengths to realize her aim. Herself a German by birth, she clearly realized the inferiority of her semi-Asiatic subjects and at once set out to remedy it by the introduction of Western Civilization, following the example of her renowned predecessor, Peter the Great.
One-of her most successful moves in this direction was the bringing in of foreign colonists to settle and develop the vast semi-arid districts of her wide-flung domain.
Her first invitation to outsiders was issued on December the fourth, 1762. Owing to various causes, however, this appeal met with practically no response. Undismayed by this first failure, she issued a much more detailed invitation on July the twenty-second of the following year.
This invitation, the so-called "manifest," was a good sized document setting forth the conditions, rights and privileges, under which settlers could enter her empire. Among other things it guaranteed to all foreigners forming colonies in hitherto unsettled districts of Russia, free exercise of religion, the right to build churches, bell towers, and schools, but no monasteries, to have priests, teachers, etc. Furthermore, all such colonists should for thirty years be free from all taxes, levies, and land service. For an indefinite time they were also to be exempt from military duty.
Fearing lest the second "manifest" should share the fate of the first, Catherine sent imperial commissaries to the various countries with instructions to extend her invitation far and wide among the masses. Thus in 1763 Captain J. G. von Kotzer, assisted by Messrs. Florentine and Psanu, all Germans by birth, was sent to Frankfort in order to induce as many as possible of their countrymen to emigrate to Russia.
These gentlemen conducted an intensive campaign to secure settlers, offering free transportation, money to maintain them on the road, and many other inducements, not contained in the "manifest." The new country was pictured as a veritable paradise, where a life of ease and plenty would be the happy and inevitable lot of all who availed themselves of the golden opportunity.
Despite the grave obstacles thrown in their way by the various German principalities which strictly forbade the emigration of their subjects, Captain von Kotzer and his assistants were so successful that from 1763 to 1767 they induced some eight thousand families (about 25,000 persons), to emigrate from Hessia, Saxony, Alsace, Baden, Wuertemberg, Bavaria, Tyrol, Switzerland, and the Palatinate. Their success was due in no small measure to the chaotic affairs in Germany consequent upon the Seven Years War which had just ended.
As rendezvous for the emigrants various centers, such as Rosslau near Dessau on the Elbe, Luebeck, Regensburg,- Freiburg, etc., were designated. From these centers the colonists moved on to Luebeck - seldom to Danzig where they embarked for Kronstadt on the Gulf of Finland.
From Kronstadt the various groups of colonists proceeded to Oranienbaum, where they were met and welcomed by Catherine. From Oranienbaum different routes were followed to reach the lower Volga district. The most common route was to sail along the Neva, and down the Wolchow for some distance past Novgorod. Here the newcomers disembarked and began the wearisome journey overland to Torzhok on the Volga, where the majority were forced by circumstances to winter. Some, however, pushed on to Kostroma, but none could reach Nishni- Novgorod, where the government had prepared some kind of winter quarters for them. The sufferings entailed in all this travel can better be imagined than described.
Transcribed from The Golden Jubilee of German-Russian Settlements of Ellis and Rush Counties, Kansas, August 31, September 1 and 2, 1926
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