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The Germans from Russia are the largest ethnic immigrant group in North Dakota, and their impact on the culture and landscape of the northern plains is profound. German-Russian culture, dating from a settlement era in the 1880s, predominates in south-central North Dakota. Because of the hunger of the German-Russians, an agricultural people, for land, their settlement culture also sprawls across north-central and western North Dakota. Three counties in the German-Russian heartland of North Dakota--Emmons, Logan, and McIntosh--have come to refer to their region as German-Russian Country, recognizing the richness of their ethnic immigrant ancestry and encouraging travelers to explore it.
Who are the Germans from Russia? They are ethnic Germans who originated, historically, in the German-speaking principalities of central Europe and migrated, mostly during the late 1700s, into the Russian Empire. This was on invitation from the Russian government, which deployed the German settlers to occupy frontier lands and make them productive. Despite initial hardships, the Germans prospered in Russia for several generations, but eventually their situation was made precarious by the Russification policies of the late nineteenth century. So, they began to emigrate to other lands, mainly in North America, and particularly on the Great Plains. Nearly all of the German-Russian settlers in North Dakota are what is known as Black Sea Germans, meaning they came here from colonies near the Black Sea, mainly in what is now the Ukraine.
The immigrant settlers of German-Russian Country almost all took up farming, many availing themselves of the provisions of the Homestead Act. Because their settlements concentrated in particular localities, they formed strong ethnic communities that stubbornly preserved their culture, a culture characterized by two traits: the German-Russians are an agricultural people, and they are a religious people.
The religious life of the German-Russians left enduring marks on the land that are wonders to present-day travelers. Demoninationally, the German-Russians were divided, with about equal numbers of Lutherans and Catholics, plus many smaller evangelical bodies in the regional mix. The Lehr Tabernacle, historically the site of fervent camp meetings, still operates as a religious center near the town of Lehr, and is an architectural feature of interest. Catholic Germans from Russia built churches of astonishing size and ornateness, such as St. Mary's of Hague, St. Anthony of Linton, and Ss. Peter & Paul of Strasburg. Protestant churches generally are more modest, but nevertheless significant. For example, St. Andrew's Lutheran Church, near Zeeland, preserves not only a lovely wood-frame church dating from 1906 but also its predecessor, a stone and gumbo vernacular building dating from 1892. The wrought iron crosses crafted as grave markers by German-Russian blacksmiths are fascinating works of folk art filling many German-Russian cemeteries. Roadside shrines built by German-Russian faith communities, such as the Prairie Bells Grotto, are common.
Visitors to German-Russian Country have the opportunity to enjoy traditional German-Russian cuisine, which features, more than anything else, dough in various manifestations! Knoephle (spelling varies), strudels, noodles, and dumplings abound. The German-Russian desert known as kuchen, a particular favorite across the region, features a custard-like filling, often including fruit or cottage cheese, on a thin yeast dough. The traditional schnapps of the German-Russians, known colloquially as redeye, is flavored with caramel and anise.
The Germans from Russia Heritage Society is a popular organization dedicated to the preservation of German-Russian history and culture. The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection of North Dakota State University provides academic support for cultural preservation through public programming and by maintaining a comprehensive research collection of German-Russian materials.