At home among strangers, a stranger among his own

I took this name from a Russian movie, which is set during the time of the Civil war between the Reds and the Whites in 1917, because I think it really expresses the essence of the subject I am going to talk about.

Last night I had a conversation with another blogger, Silver Threading, about her having Russian ancestors, who fled to US in 1902. I always love talking about history, ancestry and travelling and that story combined it all, so it got me very curious. Hearing the names of her ancestors, I asked whether they were Russian Germans and she agreed that indeed they were. At that point, I expressed my opinion that her great grandfather made a wise decision about leaving the country, saving his family a lot of trouble as most of the Russian Germans went through repressions.

Today I was still thinking about this story and decided to look up what I can find about that German settlement, she told me about. Actually, Silver Threading, you might be interested – I found the surname of your great grandfather mentioned amongst the inhabitants of this settlement in 1798. Germans moved to this region on Volga after Catherine the Great published manifestos in 1762 and 1763, inviting Europeans to settle in Russia, offering them farm lands, various benefits and freedom to maintain their languages and culture.

The settlement I researched was one of the first ones to appear and Volga Germans lived there ever since, working the land and growing the community. Just remember, when Silver Threading mentioned her ancestors, she called them “Russian” and not “German”. Even after 1917, when bolsheviks came to power, they still remained settled in this region, although some of them lost their property – but then again, this happened to many other people. My Russian ancestors, for example, also lost their house, because it was the largest in their village and was given to the Soviet government needs. However, life continued, harder than before, but everybody tried to adapt. Russian Germans lived in their Russian villages for almost 2 centuries until Germany decided to invade the USSR in June 1941. In September 1941, all the Germans living in this region were suspected in collaboration with the invaders and sent off to labour camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan. People living in the village in question were all sent to Siberia, where men worked in Labour camps and women struggled to bring up their kids in harsh conditions.

These people considered Volga to be their home for 2 centuries and yet – they were Russians to the Germans and Germans to the Russians. Already in the 90s, Germany allowed for all the descendants of those Germans to come back, however, by that time some of them already could not speak German, assimilated with the locals of the lands, where they lived, and even upon arrival to Germany many of them could not feel like they came home. At home among strangers, a stranger among his own.

Just as a point of reference, Catherine the Great, the most renowned female leader of Russia, was German, born in Prussia as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg and taking the name Catherine, when she accepted Orthodox religion. In fact, all Russian rulers, after Peter the Great, would take brides from German or neighbouring states. Nevertheless, Nicholas II (whose grandmother was Marie of Hesse and by Rhine and mother – Princess Dagmar of Denmark) together with his wife Alexandra, previously named as Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, and their children were canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church as passion bearers, thus making them martyrs of the Russian people, ones of their own.

A question to you – do expats, or immigrant, no matter how settled they are, ever become one of the own in a new country? Or does it take generations to be accepted?7039054313_4c45b618e2_o


  1. Thank you, thank you, for filling in so many blanks for me and my history. I am blown away! I told you yesterday that I felt a connection to you immediately. In answer to your question about immigrants ever feeling like they belong to a country… I want to say that one always identifies with the land of their birth. However, I must have inherited the love of travel from my long ago Russian/German relatives. I have lived all over the United States and traveled and lived overseas in the U.K. while serving in the U.S. Air Force. America is my birth country and I do identify with it. However, there is a part of me, deep inside that hungers for the knowledge of my relatives. My mother died when I was young, so a huge part of that culture was lost. My father shared only small amounts of our history. He was not much of a talker. Our culture is the one thing that defines us, no matter what country we live in, even though we may have obtained citizenship to that new country. They say you can never go home… Home is where you make your life. <3 Thank you for giving me some of my heritage. <3 <3 <3

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you so much. I knew you were on to something when you brought up Catherine the Great… I remember my Grandpa Steinle telling me about her and why they came to Russia. There history was important to them even then. By the way, I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; whereas my Father was born in Lawrence, Kansas where all the Russian/German immigrants got cheap land for growing wheat from the U. S. government. From Germany, to Russia, to America… sounds like a great story to be told in book form! :-)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I recently found out that my family were German living in Russia. Growing up I only heard that we were German, not where they came from. This was so informative. It puts a piece of the puzzle where it belongs. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting question, and one close to my heart. I lived a long time in a country that suffered at the hands of my ancestors. Although regarded as an honorary citizen due to my lack of nationalistic sentiment and empathy with the cultural heritage of my friends, I was still always the outsider. But then I am also an outsider in my country of origin. Thought-provoking article.

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    • Thank you for commenting! I myself don’t feel much at home in my home country anymore, leaving so young, but my girls are third culture kids now, not spending more than 2 years at one place – I wonder where they would feel at home.


  4. In America most people have descended from people who came from somewhere else. I think it is easier when you speak the language of the country you are coming to. Many people’s ancestors in America were not accepted at the beginning. There could be much prejudice. But many people were running away from oppression in their own birth countries and loved the idea that they could come to America. That there was opportunity for them here. I have read that many royals of Europe intermarried among themselves. English and Russian monarchs had German relatives.

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  5. An interesting question. I lived in Mexico for three years as an expat. Many Americans have lived there for years, but they seemed, for the most part, to live an American life around other Americans. I didn’t, but I was still an expat, not a local. I only knew one true ex-pat, my boss at a travel agency, who called himself Pepe Lobo. His American name was Joe Wolf and he went to Mexico when the peso was still a big silver coin, he told me. Even he wobbled on the line between local and non-local. But he didn’t have anywhere else to go. And he would have been as much as stranger back in the U.S. as he was in Mexico. And that’s also a reality of the ex-pat. I didn’t fit when I came back. Oh, I knew English well enough, but I missed, and still miss, Mexico. And maybe that’s the gift as well as the cost.

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  6. My grandmother on my mother’s side has told us that her mother’s father Wilhem Mattern was born in Königsberg ( Kaliningrad ) in 1824. He fled from being involved in some war and settled in Denmark about 1850. My grandmother Asta 1890-1982 had traits that show she originated from a distant place and I was fascinated. I will write about it in a blog post and maybe make a Pingback to this post?

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    • Thank you TinyExpats ! my grandmother’s mother Laura never learnt proper Danish or proper German. She was put to a German school in Copenhagen. She must have felt like a foreigner in the country where she was born

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    • I think Danish, but this misunderstanding of putting the children in a German school in Copenhagen has made it difficult for her. Now I think about it was her written language that was such a mixture. She had a very distinct Copenhagen dialect. My mother told me a story that she Laura and her other grandmother on her father’s side who came from the country couldn´t understand each other.

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    • I think it’s so important to know different languages, but you settle in a certain country that the children learn the language both spoken and written. We know so much more today. At that time children were not reckoned much value. So many died young

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    • Yes, very true. I was looking into our family tree, trying to record any relatives that are still remembered by grandparents. There were many families where some kids died at young age, falling ill with something that our kids are protected with vaccination against.


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