Virginia, US

"Von Gottes Gnaden

Wir Catharina die Zweyte,

Kaiserin und Selbstherrscherin aller Rußen..."

In July, 253 years ago, Tsarina Catherine II, the Great, signed an ukaz which facilitated the immigration of tens of thousands of Germans and other central Europeans to Russia. This invitation manifesto is an interesting showcase of large-scale immigration policy.

The invitation manifesto of 22 July 1763 contains terms on eligibility, rights, obligations, and privileges for potential immigrants to the Russian Empire. We want to take a closer look at how Catherine, from German origin herself, designed it. German migration to Russia is also an example of the fact that migration policy is a long-term matter, as the history of the Russian Germans is reaching into the present in both Germany and Russia.

The manifesto was translated into several languages; however, it came to its greatest effect in its German version. Marketed in the German lands by professional agents, about 30,000 settlers from the German states followed the invitation and settled mainly into the Volga and the Black Sea regions in the first four years alone. Many more were to come. By 1914, 2.4 million Germans were counted in the Russian Empire.

Using modern terms, German emigration was caused by push and pull factors. The Western and Southern German lands had suffered greatly from the Seven-Years War consequences as well as a very strict military draft. At the same time, emigrating to Russia was made attractive by an extensive set of privileges and incentives.

Eligibility criteria  for Germans and central European immigrants

In the manifesto, there were no specific eligibility criteria for immigration. Catherine simply invited any foreigner to come to her empire. For those who couldn’t (could not) afford the travel, emigrants were given allowances for the journey by Russian foreign representations. This policy went on until 1803, where in light of an increase in immigrants due to the Napoleonic wars, proof of wealth or certain skills were introduced as an immigration threshold.


Immigrants were obliged to pledge allegiance to the crown, after whichever religious rite they wanted to follow.


The immigrants were in large parts treated as ordinary citizens. They were granted free movement within Russia and freedom of profession. These rights were in practice not granted, though. Settlers usually had to move into designated areas and had to sustain themselves as farmers. This led to a huge death toll amongst the settlers as the lands that were designated to them were not arable and had first to be cultivated by the settlers, which was all intended by the government as an effort to make better use of the empire’s huge untapped resources.

Settlers were also given freedom to exercise their religion, including the freedom to erect churches and belfries. Building monasteries and proselytization amongst Christian denominations was forbidden, though.


A crucial part of the manifesto was an extensive set of privileges for the new arrivers. A tax exemption for the first 30 years (5 years when moving into a city) which included the second generation of the settlers, was supposed to give them an easy start into working and integrating into Russia. They could also claim interest-free loans for house or farm-building to facilitate their efforts of cultivating the largely unpopulated areas they were sent to. Innovation by settlers was supported by a 10-year export and sales tax exemption for producers of innovative products that had not been made in Russia before. For settlers who decided to leave Russia again, which they were free to do, the empire would levy and exit-tax on their wealth of 20 % for those that left within the first years and 10 % who wanted to leave after five to ten years. After ten years, emigration was tax-free.

The Germans were also given the right to extensive self-government in their news settlements with only minimal oversight by Russian authorities. This included the freedom to speak their language and uphold to their culture as well as to set up their own schools. This large cultural freedom made the Germans develop to become one of the most distinctive minorities in Russia. It also prevented integration into Russia and assimilation over generations and made it possible to treat them differently from other Russians with all what followed from that in the 20th century. 

Finally, the immigrants were also exempted from any military and civil service. Immigrants were not banned from the military, though. If they wanted to join the military, they were eligible for a “douceur money” of 30 rubels.

In light of contemporary immigration policies, it is remarkable how open an absolutist ruler was to grant big scale privileges to immigrants. Also, it shows that language must not necessarily be a barrier for immigration and that it is important to properly advertise a country as a potential emigration destination in the countries of origin. Also, demanding only rudimentary signs of integration and assimilation had big advantages in the short term, as the German communities were able to develop into often times flourishing economic centres while maintaining their language and habits. In the long term, however, the distinctiveness of the Russian Germans made them subject to policy changes that led to the decline of the community. As a consequence, about 2, 3 million Russian Germans re-migrated back to Germany since 1950.

If you have any questions about this blog please contact Marius Tollenaere.