Lost Privileges

Posted by Marcus Yoder on 5th Jul 2018

Recently we have looked at the Russian Mennonites and their settlements in Russia. Also we looked at how a small group (Kleine Gemeinde) broke away from the main group over concerns about morality, involvement with the government, and the rapid generation of wealth. This group was also the first to leave Russia for the New World. The emigration of 1873-1874 is the first emigration of these people in any number since the establishment of the settlements. About 10,000 people, mostly from Molotschna, went to the United States, settling in the central plains, while about 8,000 left Chortitza and settled in Manitoba, Canada. As in the past, the motives for these mass migrations were mixed. Some left because of fear of Russian encroachment and others because they saw economic opportunity.

The Russian encroachment these people feared came as a result of the losses of Russia in the Crimean War. In 1861 there was a general reform of the Russian military; previous to these reforms, Russia had maintained a large army without general conscription. Anticipating the loss of their freedom from military service, the Mennonites send a delegation to the government in 1872. They met with several members of the Imperial Council. There was some discussion at this meeting about alternative service, but no commitments from the Council. Two more delegations were sent in the following two years to try and deal with this issue. But on January 1, 1874, the new law requiring mandatory military service for all able-bodied twenty-one-year-old men was enacted. It did provide for noncombatant service for the Mennonites. This service was to be forestry or industrial service in peacetime and hospital service in wartime. In spite of this concession, about one-third of the Mennonites left Russia in the 1870’s.

The rising Russian nationalism brought other issues to bear on the Mennonites. This process culminated when the Russian authorities announced on July 16, 1870, that the Mennonites would have ten years to comply with a new arrangement that required them to teach Russian in their schools, and their schools to be supervised by the government’s education authorities. Public records had to be kept in the Russian language as well. This was a heavy blow to the Mennonites, who had assumed that the decree that Catherine the Great had provided was for perpetuity.  While the language issue seems small in modern eyes, it was anything but that in the eyes of these German Mennonites. They saw their freedoms being eroded and felt they were being forced into assimilation. Leonhard Suderhmann spoke for many of these people when he said in 1873, “Those of our young people who enter Russian schools are lost.”[1]

These colonies had developed culturally as they grew. Schools, hospitals, and other institutions for public service were established. At the end of World War I the Mennonites of Russia had about 450 elementary schools with about 16,000 scholars, and twenty-seven secondary schools, called Zentralshulen, with about 2,000 scholars and a teaching staff of about 100 people. As a result of governmental involvement, most subjects were taught in Russian except for the Bible and German literature. Trade schools, specialized schools for the deaf, teachers colleges and one seminary were among their later accomplishments in education. Mennonites in their isolated communities also developed rest homes, mutual aid programs, hospitals and mental institutions. With the advent of the Revolution of 1917 and the anti-religious Marxist philosophy, most of the Mennonite educational system was wiped out.

This capitalistic development and isolation were destined to clash head-on with the communist ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution. The outbreak of World War I, with Germany as Russia’s foe, spelled the beginning of the end of the prosperity of the Mennonites. They were seen as Germans first, and therefore, a part of the enemy. The Russian press poured a continuous stream of criticism against them. One writer said that, “our entire western border, the south, the Caucasus are populated by a dense interlocking network of German colonies. ”The isolationism of the Mennonites in language, customs, and mode of dress, which had remained primarily German, may have helped this view. The Mennonites, to their credit, tried to help the Russians with medical services that included a hospital built at Chortitza to serve wounded soldiers. They did this at their own expense. They also raised funds to help with medical expenses and to help the wives of Russian soldiers who were wounded or died in combat.

In the civil war that raged from 1918-1921 between the Red army of Lenin and the White army of the old ruling class, the Mennonites suffered horribly. The Red Army arrived at Molotschna in February of 1918 and began a reign of terror. This was relieved when the Germans occupied the Ukraine in April. After the armistice was signed ending the war in November of 1918, the Germans left. What followed was four years of terror from both sides of the civil war. The landless peasants who had watched the Mennonites grow wealthy began to express their anger. An anarchist named Nestor Machno led an army of about 100,000 that raped, murdered, and pillaged the colonies. Machno, a former Mennonite employee, was intent on avenging himself on these people. He and his forces joined the Red army on the condition that he would be permitted to rule over the area occupied by the Mennonites. This period and the subsequent rise to power of the Communists spelled the end of these isolated Mennonite enclaves. Many were deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan where they melted into the population and were never heard of again.

The same pioneering spirit that had moved these Mennonites from Western Europe to the Russian steppes when faced with hardships moved many of these same people to the Americas. Today there are settlements of these Russian Mennonites in North, Central and South America. Many of their settlements still embody the same principles of colony-like settlements, agribusiness, and innovative industrial development. As one looks at their history in Russia it is easy to see where these traits originate. It is also true that they had a huge impact on Russia in varied ways. They may be viewed as an isolated religious group, or they may be seen for their contribution to Russian society and industry in the nineteenth century. This contribution, which is multi-faceted and important, may have been the catalyst that allowed Russian agriculture and industry to join the rest of the industrialized world. We must also wrestle with the fact that in the end their faith often led to much punishment and sometimes even martyrdom. Their wealth, status, and fancy houses did not save them from the wrath of the people they had exploited, or at the very least not cared for. How do we treat the less privileged of our world? Are we so consumed with our small worlds that we forget that we could lose all our privileges very quickly?

[1]Cornelius J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History (Scottsdale PA: Herald Press, 1993), 139.