Alsace, France

Encyclopedie de L'Alsace, Volume 5, Pages 2695-2698

Article by Professor Jean Schweitzer, Strasbourg, France

Translation from French to English by Michele LeBoldus, Ottawa, Ontar


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Emigration to Russia at the Beginning of the 19th Century

Following Austro-Hungary’s lead, Russia under the Czars tried to attract settlers to clear the vast territories of the Steppes- land formerly under Turkish control. Once again, Alsatians responded to the lure of a foreign land. But as in the past, they were part of a grander migration scheme which would once more affect all the Rhine provinces.

Using the same tactics as the Vienna Court several decades earlier, the Czarist government-now at the dawn of the Napoleonic era- delegated agents to the Rhine to recruit colonists for the Ukraine area. Highly praising the new country in a bid to recruit new settlers, the immigrant agents sold more lots than were available. As a result, success was a long time coming. Thus at the dawn of the 19th Century, nearly every village in the North of Alsace lost dozens of families- in search of a better life whether in Podole, Tauride or the Crimea. But rarely were they aware of their final destination.

The Original Villages

It has been established that Alsace at this time experienced two waves of mass migration which essentially affected a specific region:

a) Between 1804 and 1810, the arrondissement (district) of Wissembourg, in particular the cantons (townships) of Seltz and Lauterbourg, were the most affected. Curiously, this geographical area covers roughly the same locations as the Great Flight of 1793. These poor catholic peasants found themselves excluded from the Ecclesiastical tenant farms and the erratic national social programs thus losing their limited means of existence.

Of all the communities hurt by this emigration were the cantons (townships) of Seltz with a loss of fifty families and Neewiller-Lauterbourg with forty-five families leaving for Ukraine. Other close areas affected were the outskirts of Landau and Bergzabern and the region of Rastatt on the opposite side of the Rhine.

b) In 1817 however, a year of misery and poverty, departures essentially occurred in the Protestant villages of the Saverne district which a few decades earlier had already lost entire families- now firmly ensconced in Danubian countries.

A difference in time and space but also in the administration’s attitude to those leaving caused some changes. In the first decade of the 19th century, because of the official decree forbidding departures from France, they took place clandestinely. During the restoration however, emigration was authorized by request.

As to the global outcome of these two chaotic time periods, over a thousand families- 3,500 Alsatians, mostly from the Lower Rhine-leave for Russia.

By a unique paradox, the established colonies of the clandestine emigres of the first wave of departures are well documented. But the precise destination of those emigres of 1817- who left with official authorization- is still a perplexing enigma for historians.

Routes and Stopover Points

From 1804 to 1809, the departure route started on the Danube to Vienna. After crossing the Rhine secretly at Seltz, the Alsatian emigres were assembled at the small gathering centre of Steinmauren. Those leaving Baden- in equal numbers to the Alsatians-were from the Rastatt district. At Ulm, the travellers were put under the charge of the Russian Immigration Officer. Barges had been hired for the 10 day voyage to the Austrian capital of Vienna.

There, heads of families were presented to the Russian Ambassador and obtained official entrance visas. Then the journey resumed via the Austro-Hungarian postal route- which crossing Gallicia then ran along the border of the Czarist Empire. This was a considerable detour because the political map of the day once again saw Bessarabia under Turkish domination.

During the 1808/1809 massive immigration departures, new routes were needed- another consequence of the changing political times in Central Europe. Napoleonic troops occupied part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and thus cut off the Danube route. Officials were resigned to a rerouting via northern Austria.

Passports were obtained from the Russian Consul Bethmann - a rich banker in Francfort-sur-le-Main. The lengthy convoys destined for the Black Sea area trudged through Thuringia, Saxony and Silesia. In Poland, west of Krakow, they rejoined the transverse arterial route beyond Brody to the Russian border.

After a trek of several weeks, our future colonists finally step onto Russian soil. Upon their arrival at the outpost of Radzivillov, they are quarantined and spend 3-4 weeks in makeshift huts. At the end of this forced halt, the immigrants are once again en route. The seemingly endless journey then extends along Central Europe and shifts abruptly beyond the border to descend directly to the Black Sea coast.

In all, three months are spent travelling the 2500 kilometres ( about 1500 miles). Appalling circumstances are their constant companions: non-existent basic comforts, unhygienic conditions and dwindling supplies. Even personal safety was at risk. More than one person never sets eyes on Russia.

Settlement Areas in Russia

After a particularly arduous journey, our immigrants have arrived.There they discover one of their own illustrious countrymen- the Duc de Richelieu (1766-1822), an émigré of the (French) Revolution and now Governor of new Russia since 1805.

Upon their arrival in Ukraine, the immigrants were parcelled out between the 4 cantons (townships) of the Odessa Province.The Russian Immigration Office based their settlement areas on a proven formula. A successful agricultural village made up of various ethnic backgrounds should have as a common element a common religion. This would then cement an atmosphere of cooperation among rural centres without forgetting completely the origins of these new nationals.

One of these cantons (townships) had Selz as its’ seat of government- a designation taken directly from the Alsace region. And for a very good reason: of the 100 families settled in this village, 90 had left this northern area of Alsace. Also significant were the designations of two other settlers’ villages in the same township- Elsass and Strassburg- which followed the same place names as in the Palatinate and Baden.

Besides their common faith and customs, they had brought to this Slavic land their Frankish Rhine dialect from the Wissembourg area- which some of their descendants wonderfully speak to this day.

The settlers first years were very arduous given the fact they were mainly cast to the four winds on the vast steppe. But after a long and strenuous beginning, many descendants of these Alsatian pioneers have become renowned in their larger community. In the religious community, two illustrious descendants would rise to the highest ranks in the Roman Catholic Church of southern Russia. Msgr. Anton Zerr, the third Bishop of Tiraspol, had his ancestry from the Neewiller-Lauterbourg area. Msgr. Alexandre Frison, martyred for his faith, had his ancestors come from Seebach.

It didn’t take long for there to be a shortage of land given these young dynamic families had many children. This led to new immigration by the third generation. Little by little, new communities were founded in the East-even as far away as Siberia. However, at the end of the 19th century, there appears a unique migration movement towards North America. This became a providential exit route for the sons in large families cramped by the exploitation of their fathers. Added to this lack of new land was the increasing abolition of privileges the immigrants had flourished under for so long.

Slowly opening up the west of North America, the great transcontinental railways found it hard to be profitable in these huge, deserted tracts of land. An understandable worry which led to the bringing of settlers to the North Central Plains. Not long behind were the immigration recruitment offices in Odessa, praising the vast territories overseas.

As such incredible access to new lands was offered to the colonists in Ukraine, sons and great-grandsons of our Alsatian pioneers leave in substantial numbers. Leaving their native Russia, they generally travel via Hambourg to board ships for North America. It was a curious exodus that saw certain villages in Ukraine literally transplanted to the vast expanse of the Prairies straddling the Canadian and American border.

But in the Czarist Empire, families still loyal to Russia continued to scatter far and wide even to present-day Siberia.

After 1870, the legal status of these immigrant descendants will change completely. By an edict on 4 June 1871, St.Petersburg retracts the laws given the colonists. This act hastens the departure to North America which is then at the ready to welcome new immigrants. The Russian Revolution of 1917 would sound the death-knell of the autonomous enclaves- not an unpleasant thought for the moujiks ( Russian peasants ?) who constantly envied the German colonists prosperity.

For these German-speaking kulaks, history will not be kind to them. The Second World War will provoke the annihilation of these once flourishing communities, causing the survivors to be cast to the fours winds of the earth.

Copyright translation: Michele LeBoldus, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Our appreciation is extended to Michele LeBoldus for translation of this article.