In the hope of attracting Germans to live in the Russian empire, the Empress of Russia, Catherine II, issued a decree on immigration in 1763, which offered them privileges such as grants of land, assistance with development, local self-government, free exercise of religion and exemption from military service. By 1775, some 30,000 people from Hesse had accepted the invitation to settle along the banks of the River Volga. From 1780 onwards, immigrants from south-western Germany in particular colonised the Russian shores of the Black Sea and Novorossiya ('New Russia' – now, to a large extent, the southern Ukraine). Mennonites emigrated from Danzig to the Chortitza region.
The German immigrants established colonies across the steppes around the Black Sea from Odessa and the Crimean peninsula to the Caucasus. They employed various agricultural technologies to cultivate the land and farmed cattle on a large scale. From there, subsequent generations migrated to the Transcaucasus, Siberia and Central Asia, where they established further German colonies.
After Russia's victory over the Ottoman Empire in 1812, Tsar Alexander I called on Germans to come and settle in Bessarabia. These immigrants came predominantly from Swabia, but also from Prussia. Their reasons for emigrating, amongst other things, were economic hardship, the Napoleonic occupation and the desire to exercise their religion freely. Setting out on crude barges, popularly called Ulmer Schachtel, the majority of emigrants from South Germany reached their destination near the delta of the Danube from 1816/17 onwards. Another wave of settlers arrived between 1814 and 1816, travelling overland from Prussia via Warsaw. Farming and education in the Black Sea region flourished until 1914 in communities with a fundamentally Protestant-Pietist outlook.
Forcible collectivisation in the 1920s and 1930s, resettlement in 1939, and deportation in 1941 and after 1945 brought the history of German settlements in the southern Ukraine to an end.
Besides the region's fertile 'black earth', the German communities flourished because of their technical expertise and constant development of farming methods. Three-year crop rotation, climatically adapted horse and dairy cattle breeding, new threshing techniques, the use of horses instead of oxen as draught animals, the development of new farming machinery such as lightweight one-, two- or three-furrow ploughshares, and systematic pest control measures made it possible to grow cereals, breed livestock and cultivate grapes for wine. Flour mills and oil mills were built, as well as factories for roof tiles.
In Bessarabia and on the foothills of the lower Caucasus, German colonists developed wine production. As well as importing vine stocks, they put a lot of effort into local grape varieties (e.g. Tauris), since the quality of the wine depended primarily upon how well the vines adapted to the local climate. Wine and spirits merchants such as Christopher Vohrer and Christian Hummel planted different types of vine. They sold the wine from the Caucasus as far as St. Petersburg, Moscow and Tomsk in far-off Siberia, where it enjoyed great popularity.
The settlers who came to the Black Sea region belonged to different religious denominations: Catholics, Protestants and Mennonites. The key motives for emigrating from south-western Germany were religious persecution and, likewise, the Chiliastic vision of 'a thousand-year kingdom of peace' that was to be founded in the Caucasus near Mount Ararat as proclaimed by Swabian Pietists. After the earliest Protestant separatist communities came the followers of charismatic figures such as Ignaz Lindl of Augsburg, a Catholic preacher of repentance.
Communal life in the settlements was based on religious principles. The churchmen enjoyed a great deal of authority and occupied political posts. In Bessarabia, charitable and social institutions were established, such as the Alexanderasyl in Sarata. The churches themselves were relatively large in comparison to the villages (e.g. Teplitz, Arcis, Tarutino), acting as landmarks on the open steppes. The German settlers began setting up a comprehensive, structured educational system early on. The parish school buildings were used for religious assembly as well as teaching. The first state-recognised teaching college at degree level was founded in Sarata in 1844.
The German colonists in the Crimea and in the Black Sea region achieved economic success in a relatively short time; many of them became quite wealthy. After 1871, many tenants were able to buy their hitherto leased properties as a result of ongoing Russian legal and administrative reforms. During the 19th century, the total area of land owned by ethnic Germans there rose from some 640,000 ha to around 4.2 million ha. Germans often initiated industrial production, worked in civic financial departments, and founded the first factories, breweries and banks. A notable example was Johann Höhn, who invented the 'colonist plough' and became a successful manufacturer of agricultural machinery. The settlers' descendants rose in social status in three regional centres in particular: Odessa, Cherson and Simferopol. They occupied important positions in the financial sector, architecture, local government and politics, while their middle-class lifestyle contributed a west European flair to the cultural life of the cities.
In 1828, Ferdinand Friedrich, Duke of Anhalt-Köthen, purchased more than 50,000 ha of steppe land from Tsar Nicholas I. In the same year, twenty-five German emigrants set off overland to southern Russia with almost 3,000 sheep; the destination was a region north of the Crimea, newly named after the Duke's family, the House of Ascania. Sheep-breeding turned out less profitable than had been hoped and so, in 1856, the entire area (with livestock) was sold to Ferdinand Falz-Fein, a German living in the region. Great progress was subsequently made in sheep and horse-breeding. Fein's grandson, Ferdinand Falz-Fein, established an 'animal paradise' and a landscaped park as adjuncts to the livestock business. There he experimented with crossing wild species and domesticated animals (e.g. Zebroid). He also reintroduced Przewalski's Horse, the only extant wild species. His son, Waldemar von Falz-Fein, chronicled the family history in the 1930s. The present-day descendants of Askania Nova's two founders, Crown Prince Eduard von Anhalt and Baron Eduard von Falz-Fein, continue to support the maintenance of the reserve.
Askania Nova achieved fame in the 1920s, when the artificial insemination of sheep was developed there. The sheep used in the Soviet animal breeding centre were all descended from those introduced by the settlers.
The German settlers who came, from 1763 onwards, to live along the middle reaches of the River Volga, comprised a sizeable proportion of the German Russians. The settlement process was beset by great difficulties. They adopted the Russian system of equal division of estates among the heirs upon inheritance, resulting, in time, in numerous small properties that could only be farmed economically with great effort. Many farmers turned to growing and trading in cereals. Others lived from milling flour, or worked in the newly established textiles industry. The settlers had large families, and, as they grew in number, many left to form colonies elsewhere, even as far away as Siberia.
From 1924 to 1941, the region was a German autonomous Soviet republic, in which German and Russian were both official languages. Two thirds of its 600,000 or so inhabitants had German ancestry. The Republic aroused the interest of left-wing Germans, who frequently came to visit as 'political tourists'. This came to an end when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, after which the ethnic Germans of the Volga region were deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia