Peter & Catherine

The "Great" Czars: Peter I and Catherine II

This page was begun 15 June 2001 -- rak.

Much that is modern Russia is the work of a most astonishing man -- Peter I, also called the Great.  A seven-foot giant of boundless energy and intellect, Peter (1682-1725) almost single-handedly dragged Russia from the east and made it a great European power.  Money, alphabet, navy, social structure, religion -- there is virtually no significant part of Russia that he did not fundamentally change.

However, the three related innovations that we here are most interested in are 1) the physical expansion of the Russian state, 2) the acquisition of a port on the Baltic Sea, and 3) the creation of a huge new city -- St. Petersburg.  

Peter fought wars to expand Russia and succeeded in getting that process going in almost every direction.  Without that effort, there would have been no "empty" land on which our people could settle.

His army took the territory and founded St. Petersburg there, opening the gateway through which our people could enter Russia without prohibitive expense.

But the demand for surplus crops to feed St. Petersburg was the key for us.  George E. Munro, wrote in Food In Russian History and Culture (Musya Glants and Joyce Toomre, eds.) Indiana University Press, 1997, pp. 31-32: 

"In his monumental overview of urban history, Lewis Mumford characterized the imperial city of classical Rome as ... a giant maw swallowing everything in its reach ... Mumford's characterization applies to Russia's imperial capital to a great degree as well.  Toward the end of the reign of Catherine II, St. Petersburg annually required tens of thousands of bushels of wheat, barley, oats, rye, semolina, fresh and dried fruits and vegetables, and nuts; large quantities of beef, mutton, and pork; over three and a half million pounds of butter; and from five to fourteen million eggs.... Agricultural resources over a wide area of the Russian Empire ... [had been] diverted or created to supply the capital's appetite.... Cereal production was increased in the middle Volga valley to provide the hundreds of tons of grain to be consumed in the city."

Peter had set the need in motion.  He left it to his grandson's widow to solve the problem:  how would the great city be fed?

Catherine II was not much impressed with the Russian serf system's ability to produce surplus crops.  She was a German princess who had been married to Peter I's grandson, Peter III.  She wanted German farmers as the means to grow her needed grains.  And she was used to getting her way:  when she wanted to be Czar, it just so happened that a very good friend of her's killed her imprisoned and loathsome husband givving her clear claim to the throne.

Catherine was the true successor to Peter the Great.  She carried out and extended most of what he started and added to it in many, many aspects of Russian life.  Prior to her accession to the throne, Russia had driven the nomadic tribes from the central-lower Volga.  So, like the American high plains once we had driven off the Native Americans, this huge area was mostly empty, awaiting population and cultivation.

Page references below are to Gottlieb Beratz, The German Colonies on the Lower Volga -- Their Origin and Early Development, 1915 (Leona W. Pfeifer, LaVern J. Rippley and Dona Reeves-Marquardt, trans., Adam Giesinger, ed., AHSGR, 1991).  To return either to the Baltic Sea, or to Oranienbaum, click on it.

In the December of 1762, the first year of her reign, Catherine issued her first call inviting western Europeans, excluding Jews, to come settle on the Russian steppes.  Few inducements were offered and there was little response inasmuch as the Seven Years War was still underway (p.21).

On 22 July 1763 she issued a second manifesto which became the cornerstone for the colonization of inner Russia (p.21).  In this she promised travel money; they could settle wherever they wished and pursue whatever living they wished; free practice of religion (but evangelism prohibited except as aimed at Muslims); 30 years exemption from taxes and military service if settle empty land (extra pay if you volunteer anyway); interest-free loans for land, livestock, houses and equipment; local self-government if settle empty land; duty-free import of goods if stay 10 years;  toll-free market days; and several other things of interest to industrialists (pp.23-29).

In the first years, Russian recruiters had not yet gotten the hang of seduction and German government prohibitions came thick and fast.  However, recruiters began to distribute Catherine's manifesto with penned additions like:

"Her Imperial Majesty is accepting people skilled in the professions or in farming ... In Rosslau, near Dessau, at the Black Bear, [you] will receive sustenance and will be well cared for in every way.  The innkeeper Hoffmann there will pay to each man daily 4 groschen, to each woman 2 groschen 6 pfennigs, for each child daily 1 groschen 6 pfennigs, along with free living quarters and free transportation;  single women ready for marriage also are asked for.  All must arrive there as soon as possible, because the commissioner will leave for Saint Petersburg within four weeks.  Written 12 April 1766." (p.38)

Suddenly a needed person or family need no longer be in need!  So by 1765 and more so in 1766, future colonists began to volunteer and to collect in the few places where immigration was not actively prohibited. 

Beratz writes:

The success of this recruiting system of the Russian emigration agents was extraordinary:  hordes of impoverished farmers, tradesmen and soldiers presented themselves to the commissioner to sign up for the emigration to Russia.  Poor nobility, artists, [army] officers, physicians, students ... criminals ... were not to be outdone by the common man and also wanted to seek their fortune by emigration into the land of the Russian Tsarina to extricate themselves for a time at least from the worry about their daily bread.... (p.39)"

As of 2001 the best estimates are that upwards of 30,000 Germans emigrated to Russia (see Igor R. Pleve, The German Colonies on the Volga, AHSGR, 2001, p.81), mostly sailing in 1766-67 out of the Luebeck in northern Germany to St. Petersburg.  Luebeck had many, many problems coping with the hordes of mostly unexpected immigrants -- passage on Baltic ships was hard to come by, overcrowding and all its attendant problems sorely afflected Luebeck.  After 1767, the German authorities, most especially those in Luebeck!, succeeded in stopping the recruiting and transport of colonists, and the emigration slowed to the tiniest of trickles.

The trip from Luebeck or sometimes other ports to Russia was via the Baltic Sea.  Click on it to continue the story.