Kuchen, a German coffeecake, is part of a centuries old German tradition.  Sunday afternoons between 3pm and 5pm, many Germans gather with family and friends for kaffee and kuchen, a custom that resembles the British afternoon tea ritual. In this century kuchens were proclaimed the official dessert of South Dakota, a state located in the Northern Great Plains of the American Midwest.  How, exactly, did this happen?  It was a long and winding road.

German kuchens have less sugar, and more butter or shortening than most cakes, and usually feature fruit toppings (apples, apricots, berries, figs, peaches, or plums) and streusel.  Some use yeast to puff the dough higher.  This confection, delicious at breakfast, for an afternoon snack, or as dessert at dinner, made a long and painful migration from Germany to America.

Catherine the Great began life as a minor German princess and became a Russian empress following her marriage in 1745 to Prince Pyotr Fyodorovich, grandson of Peter the Great, who became Czar Peter III in 1762.  He ruled for only 6 months before he was forced to abdicate and Catherine was installed on the throne.  Peter died shortly thereafter under “mysterious circumstances”. 

In 1763, after a conflict with the Ottoman Empire left large swaths of Russian farmland fallow, Catherine proclaimed open foreign immigration to Russia, particularly for her fellow Germans, who she hoped would redevelop the land.  A wave of German immigration ensued and German colonies were established in Russia, many in the lower Volga River area.

Difficult economic conditions, wars in central Europe and German religious intolerance motivated much of this immigration.  Catherine’s declaration freed German immigrants from the military service required of Russian citizens, and from most taxes.  Moreover, it granted immigrants autonomy and gave them political rights unavailable to them in Germany.  This was particularly attractive to religious groups like Mennonites in Prussia where participation in the military, prohibited by their religious beliefs, was required and dissent against mainstream Lutheranism and Calvinism was not tolerated.

In 1803, during the Napoleonic wars, Catherine’s grandson, Czar Alexander I, reissued her proclamation and Germans responded in large numbers. The first census of the Russian Empire, conducted in 1897, reported roughly 1.8 million respondents who indicated German as their native language.  But changes in Russian politics towards the end of the 19th century rescinded the privileges of immigrants to practice their own languages and religions, economic conditions worsened, and famines followed.  Mass German immigration from Russia resulted, many choosing to resettle in the upper Great Plains of the United States, primarily the states of Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas and North and South Dakota, and southern Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada.

The 20th century brought the 1917 Russian Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union.  Under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, bias against ethnic minorities increased and conditions for the remaining Russian Germans worsened.  By 1932-33, western observers charged that Soviet authorities forced starvation among Volga Germans and dismantled their villages.  Stalin’s Great Purge following World War II bulldozed German churches and reused the tombstones in their cemeteries for paving blocks.  Many German Russians were deported to labor camps in Siberia and Central Asia. 

Russian Germans who came to America fared better.  They often formed tight communities separate from the general population.  These villages were usually in rural agricultural regions rather than the urban industrial environments of large cities where many other immigrant groups settled.  In general, members of each community practiced the same religious denomination, spoke the same German dialect and migrated from the same area in Russia.  They established German language schools and churches and absorbed the American culture around them slowly.  In the 1950s it was still common in the Dakotas for children to speak English while their parents and grandparents spoke German.  Now, although it is likely that fewer people in the Dakotas would claim German as their primary language, German culinary influence has only grown, particularly in regards pastry.  In 2013 kuchen was proclaimed the official, mainstream South Dakota dessert.