[Ger-Poland-Volhynia] Why, oh why, are we so enamored by Catherine?

Jerry Frank FranklySpeaking at shaw.ca
Thu Oct 27 06:49:56 PDT 2005

Some who know me probably observe that I get very aggravated when I 
see distorted views of Catherine the Great as published by supposedly 
knowledgeable people on what should be reliable websites.  While I 
can forgive amateur genealogists who have not taken the time to 
thoroughly research their history, I have a real hard time with 
people who claim special knowledge on the topic and then publish 
their work in public newspapers (or journals or other sources) as 
authoritative works.  See in particular 
which came to my attention today.

While I have seen much misinformation spread about Catherine's 
involvement in the German migration to Russia, this one really takes 
the cake.

My complaint is primarily with Part 1 of this article as I am not 
familiar enough with North Dakota history to comment on the rest.  To 
lay the basis for my argument, please note that the author is 
presenting a fictionalized view of Catherine beginning near the time 
of her ascension to the throne c.1762.

In the third sentence, the author portrays Catherine travelling down 
the Danube River to view the vast steppes of her domain.  Hmmm - 
seems to be that the Danube at this time was flowing from 
Wuerttemberg through Bavaria, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then 
through the Ottoman Empire.  Not one kilometer of it appears in 
Russia so why would Catherine have used that route to 
travel?  Perhaps she would have used the Don or Volga but never the Danube.

Moving on to the second paragraph, we find that Catherine has, "risen 
to the top through imagination and guts."  I suppose I can sort of 
agree with that.  After all, having her husband killed was rather 
imaginative and gutsy!  But I cannot accept the next sentence in the 
time line which the author would have us follow.  The fact is that 
Catherine did not defeat the Turks until over 25 years after the 
first significant migration of Germans into Russia.  In 1792, 
Jedisan, where Odessa was located, was ceded to the Russians by the 
Turks.  Further conflict followed and it wasn't until 1812 that 
Bessarabia was taken from the Ottoman Turks by Russia, 16 years after 
Catherine's death!

Was Catherine really wondering about producing wheat to ship to the 
world market?  I suppose that is possible but a far greater concern 
was military protection along the eastern border.  She wanted a 
buffer zone between her Russians and the Mongol hordes.  Settling the 
vast steppes along the Volga with foreigners would certainly help 
that cause.  (See Human Capital by Roger Bartlett, a view provided by 
an Englishman not influenced by German thought.)

Catherine remembers the farms of her youth and wants the same in 
Russia?  Well, she did reject fully her ethnic and religious roots in 
favour of becoming fully Russified.  I suppose she might have held on 
to that one obvious thread of connecting to her roots.  (In case you 
hadn't noticed, I am trying to be facetious.)

Now, in the next paragraph, Catherine's thoughts turn to the 
wonderful Mennonites and their special culture and abilities.  If 
this is true, then why did she not approach the Mennonites to request 
their presence in Russia.  She DID NOT - not with her first Manifesto 
nor her second.  Instead, she distributes her Manifestos throughout 
ALL of Europe hoping that someone, anyone, will come.

Moving on a bit, as I don't want to nit pick, we find mention again 
of the Danube River, claimed to be a transportation route for Germans 
responding to the Manifesto with troikas zipping past them.  The 
Germans in fact did not use this migration route till well after 
Catherine's death in 1796 and it was in no way associated with her 
Manifesto.  Troikas never travelled along its side, nor along the 
side of any other Germans migrating to the Black Sea region 
overland.  This oversteps the bounds of fictional journalistic licence.

With these major historical and timing errors in Part 1, one wonders 
if the other parts can be trusted for accuracy but I will leave 
analysis of that for others with more experience than I.

I would add, in closing, that, even for the Volga Germans, the role 
of Catherine in their migration is overplayed.  Catherine had 
rejected her Germanic ethnicity and heritage and cared naught if the 
steppes were settled by English, French, Germans, or a mix of 
all.  She did little other than sign a political document called a 
Manifesto.  The document was not prepared personally by her but 
rather by her advisors and government officials.  The Manifesto was 
not a whole lot different than the Homestead Acts of Canada and the 
USA.  Agents were sent by both countries to Eastern Europe to attract 
settlers, just as the Russians had done in Europe at the time of the 
Manifesto.  In spite of that similarity, no one makes a big issue of 
the Russian Germans being invited to Canada by the Queen or Prime 
Minister, or to the States by the President.  The Manifesto was a 
political device designed to help with political problems.  The 
Germans happened to respond in very large numbers because of 
circumstances in their homeland and because of the prospects for self 
improvement in a new land.  Yes, I will even venture to say that even 
the Mennonites were more motivated by the prospects of a new life 
than by the altruistic opportunity of freedom from military 
service.  If freedom from military service was THE motivating factor, 
why did so many Mennonites remain behind in Prussia?

So please folks, help spread the word.  Correct error about Catherine 
when you see it.  And remind people to put perspective on her actions.


Jerry Frank - Calgary, Alberta
FranklySpeaking at shaw.ca  

More information about the Ger-Poland-Volhynia mailing list