There are many excellent sources that explain the history of Germans from Russia in much greater detail than that which is presented below. We encourage you to check out our Sources page for books, historical societies and websites that will further your knowledge of your Germans from Russia heritage.
In 1729, German princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Ahalt-Zerbst-Domburg was born in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) to Prince Christian Auguste. Empress Elizabeth of Russia chose Sophie to marry her nephew, who would become Tsar Peter III. Upon her marriage, Sophie took the name Catherine II, Empress of Russia. A bloodless coup forced her husband, Peter III, to abdicate after being in power for only 6 months. He was murdered shortly afterwards, and she assumed the throne and would be known as Catherine the Great, reigning from 1762 until her death in 1796.
Just three weeks into her reign as tsarina, Catherine issued her first manifesto, inviting all foreigners to settle in her new empire. Her plan was to settle Western European farmers, targeting farmers in the Germanic states in particular, into the eastern part of Russia. Russia needed farmers to break and settle the vast amounts of unoccupied land. They would also serve as a buffer between invaders and what she considered her "civilized" empire.
Her invitation was met with no response.
One year later, Catherine issued a second manifesto on 22 July 1763, sweetening the pot with incentives like free land, freedom of religion, tax exemption, interest free loans, exemption from military service, freedom to return to their land of origin at any time.
The Germanic states, then still a part of the Holy Roman Empire and not Germany as we know it now, were devastated by five generations of wars beginning with the Thirty Years' War in 1618. Catherine's second manifesto may have seemed like an offer to paradise, and many Germans took her up on it and settled colonies in Russia along the Volga River. These first waves of immigrants are often referred to as the Volga Germans.
Many of the Germanic states did not escape the impact in the following years of the French Revolution, the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, all occurring between 1789 and 1820. At the same time, Russia had expanded around the Black Sea, so when Catherine's grandson, Tsar Alexander I, came into power, he issued another manifesto on 20 February 1804, offering the same incentives to the German people but this time settling in colonies along the Black Sea. These wave of colonists would come to be known as the Black Sea Germans, and included many Catholic as well as Protestant colonists.
Although residing in various parts of Russia, the German colonists kept their culture, heritage, religion, food customs and language. When many immigrated to the United States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, they continued to keep much of their ethnic identity, and it survives today, 253 years later.