The Czar, The River, and the Thistle

Springtime in the southern plains. Although the days of the black dusters have long-since passed, March and April still bring with them the ferocious winds that once doomed the barren grasslands. While gone are the dunes that once piled against fences and buried unfortunate automobiles, stick around long enough and you might still see a remnant of the Dust Bowl days skittering across the road or piled up in ditches several feet high.

The tumbleweed.

This iconic plant has become a symbol of the American southwest, an emblem of the hard, dry, lonely expanse of land from Oklahoma to Arizona, where only the sturdiest of specimens survive and have room to roam (or try to escape, if you take another’s view). It’s thorny, fast-moving shape has become synonymous with drought, desert, and dust.

There’s just one problem with this perception: the tumbleweed isn’t native to the southwest. It isn’t even native to North America.

The story of the tumbleweed began in Europe in the 18th century when a German empress named Catherine was married into Russian nobility just after her fifteenth birthday. Despite her youth and inexperience, she excelled at her new role, eventually dethroning her husband and becoming ruler of Russia at age thirty-three, a position she occupied for nearly forty years, during which she adopted a new moniker: Catherine the Great.

Although a forceful and well-loved ruler in her adopted country, Catherine longed for her homeland. She encouraged German migration into Russia with a manifesto, published in 1763, promising homestead acreage, cultural autonomy, no taxes for the first thirty years, and no military conscription, as was normal practice. The land she offered was near the Volga River in southeastern Russia, strategically chosen as a buffer land between her country and the Mongol, Turk, and Kirghiz tribes who often raided the area, insulting her sovereignty and discouraging further settlement. She believed Germans were better equipped to deal with the threat and more likely than their Russian counterparts to fight back rather than flee.

Her manifesto worked. By 1863, there were more than a quarter-million Germans living on either side of the Volga, a treeless, windy, dusty area of land, desirable only because of the large river running through it. Although settled in Russian territory, working Russian land, snug in their protection by the Russian government, the Germans here refused to become Russian, retaining their language, their customs, and their nationalistic pride.

So when Czar Alexander II revoked Catherine’s manifesto in 1872, saying that the Volga Germans had to give up their language and enlist in the Russian army, these homesteaders refused. It wasn’t a stand for pacifism; it was a refusal to fight for a government they still viewed as foreign.

By 1873, many of the Volga settlements had become ghost towns, their inhabitants having packed up and headed for a new land, a new country and new government that, much like their beloved Catherine, promised space and autonomy, a place to live life as they wished: the American Great Plains.

Thousands upon thousands of Russlanddeutschen poured into Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas, where they found the treeless expanse a familiar and welcome sight. They settled into towns and villages where their unique brand of Russian-German heritage thrived, adapting to their new environment by learning baseball, jazz, and how to work a tractor, while keeping their traditional songs, food, and language alive. German was spoken on city streets, schnapps flowed in German homes, and the smells of sauerkraut and Kase noodles wafted from German homes–while American soil was plowed and American money was made. While viewed by some as strange and suspicious, as a whole, the new immigrants were admired for their enthusiasm, cleanliness, and efficiency. Despite all the hardships (and even worse hardships to come), the Volga Germans were home.

Determined to settle back in a life of agriculture, the new settlers had carried in their pockets seeds of turkey red, a hard winter wheat from Russia that was perfectly suited for the dry, arid climate of their new home. Also in their pockets? Incidental thistle seeds from a weed known as perekati-pole that grew rampant in Volga Valley.

Although foreign, the thistle seeds flourished in the Plains, soon overtaking many native plants. Their ability to reproduce by breaking from their roots and rolling across the fields soon earned them the much-more American sounding name of “tumbleweeds.”


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