Following Czar Alexander II’s liberation of about twenty-three million serfs (March 3, 1861), many acquired title to their land which accelerated agricultural production. Ukraine, Europe’s breadbasket, was the home of traditional farmers, ethnic Ukrainians, and many Volga Germans who still owned and farmed the land. In 1871, Alexander II revoked the right of the German settlements to enjoy self-government. In 1874, he revoked their immunity from military conscription. The Volga German community numbered about 1.8 million by 1897.
According to the 1914 census, there were 2,416,290 ethnic Germans in Russia when World War I erupted. Therefore, the government viewed them as possible enemies or of having enemy sympathies and sought to purge all ethnic Germans from the European areas of their Empire. Hence, in 1915 and 1916, the government deported about 200,000 Germans from Volhynia, a historic region in Eastern Europe straddling Poland and Ukraine, Poland, and Bessarabia to the German colonies in the lower Volga River when Russia started losing the war. The government exiled many Germans to Siberia as enemies of the state. The chaotic-creating Bolshevik Revolution of February 1917 prevented the deportation of the remaining Russian Germans.
World War I dismantled the Austria-Hungary Empire and thereafter various factions fought for Ukrainian territory which affected the Ukrainian nationalist movement. During World War I, Prime Minister Ivan Goremykin said that Russia was not just against the German Reich but also against the German people and stated that they had to suffer discrimination and persecution.
During the Ukrainian–Soviet War (1917-1921) to prevent Ukraine’s independence, the Bolsheviks invaded Ukraine, on December 11-12, 1917, and brought the predominantly Christian Ukraine under its control. In 1919, the Soviets began sending Christian pastors to the Siberian gulags. The Christian Volga Germans, after the revolution, were of a different mentality than the atheistic revolutionaries.
In 1921, officials divided Ukraine between the Soviet Union and Poland, with small areas going to Czechoslovakia and Romania. Partisan fighting continued against the Soviets until mid-1922. In response, the Red Army absolutely terrorized the countryside. The Bolshevik Revolution, followed by a civil war, caused the cessation of food production and distribution. Bolshevik expropriations created a horrific famine in 1921/22 during which a quarter of the population starved to death. The Bolsheviks then imposed collectivization in the agricultural regions. Some Volga Germans enlisted with the White Army against the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. The Red Army conducted fierce attacks on the Volga German communities.
The 1921 famine impacted 25,000,000 people, particularly the Germans of the Lower Volga valley. Edgar Gross, using official government documents, the 9th All-Russian Congress of Soviets in December 1921, indicated that the famine had “hit the Volga German Commune especially hard.” Bernhard Bartels stated that the German Commune was the “center of the famine.” After the Russian Civil War, the famine led to the deaths of a third of the Volga German population. On February 20, 1924, the Soviet government upgraded the Volga German Workers’ Commune to the status of Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), the first national autonomous unit in the Soviet Union. They divided the ASSR into fourteen cantons.
The kulak problem was the focus of the disagreements between Trotsky and Stalin. All new nations were obligated to sign minority rights treaties as a condition for diplomatic recognition, which also applied to the newly reorganized Soviet nation. The Bolsheviks then divvied up the land among the millions of grateful peasants according to family size. What initially appeared as a dream come true, property-ownership soon turned into a nightmare because the government seized everything that the peasants grew or produced, including animal stock, literally the peasants had to relinquish all the product of their labors to armed “food regulation” agents. The peasants had little recourse against the government. Yet, the government could not compel the peasants to work hard which created the deadly famine of 1920– 21. Therefore, the Soviets relaxed their policies through the New Economic Policy (NEP), issued on March 21, 1921, which permitted the trade of foodstuffs but also included a food tax. Trotsky disapproved of the NEP as he preferred the immediate suppression of the kulaks because their widespread opposition to the Bolshevist policies. This temporarily invigorated the country.
By 1923, because of the NEP, there was enough grain to feed the population and to export. However, dire results occurred as a result of Stalin’s industrialization process. While the USSR had abundant produce, the peasants, who had suffered because of the scarcity of essential commodities, were reluctant to sell their products. Even if they received rubles for their products, would there be available merchandise to purchase. Yet, there were plenty of tanks, airplanes, ammunition but there were no refrigerators, washing machines or toilets. By 1927, the discouraged peasants decided to either retain their products or simply stop producing. In response, Stalin and his cronies decided to eliminate the hardest-working peasants, those they deemed the smarter wealthier peasants, the middle class, by abolishing the private land ownership and establishing collective farms. Stalin tasked units of the Red Army to occupy certain regions where high-producing farmed peasants resided.