Ep. 6 To Russia – with conditional love

At times it is easy for me to imagine that most German settlers in Ukraine were Mennonite, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Mennonites were a tiny minority of the new settlers to that region and to the Russian people there was no difference between the Mennonites and the Germans – they were all just Germans. As time went on, there were fewer and fewer factors which could be said to distinguish a Mennonite from a German. Both practiced their own religions and attended churches of their choice, both farmed the same fields, both engaged in the same industries, both had the same civil administration system and eventually both took up arms against their Russian neighbours.

The second reason we should consider the broader German migration is that Gerhard was born in what was likely an Evangelical village[1] and may not even have grown up in the stereotypical Mennonite milieu. His village was considered a closed village, but closed only to non-Germans, not to non-Mennonites such as Lutherans and Evangelicals.


Alexandre Benois. At the German Quarter (1911)

At the German Quarter, 1911 by Alexandre Benois

Germans and Russians have been trading with each other long before any Mennonites existed, as early as 1200 CE. In the 15th century Ivan III recruited artisans, miners and military specialists from Germany in an effort to modernize. A German mercenary commanded the artillery in the Russian victories over the Tatars in Kazan (1552) and Astrakhan (1557).[2] Peter the Great also invited expertise from German lands in the years 1689-1725 and a third of these doctors, builders and craftsmen remained in Russia and maintained their religion and ethnicity and thus a permanent German presence in Russia was born.

It was Catherine II who really opened the door to the Germans, and it is her maiden name which provides a clue as to why she may have favoured Germans as settlers. Before she married, she was known as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg,[3] from Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland). Coincidentally her husband (whom she most likely had murdered) was known as Karl Peter Ulrich before achieving tsardom as Peter III, and was born in Kiel, Germany, 90 kilometres north of Hamburg.[4]


Catherine the Great by A.R. Lisiewska (de Gasc), 1742

In the Russian Empire, Germans were strongly represented among royalty, aristocracy, large land owners, military officers, and the upper echelons of the imperial service, engineers, scientists, artists, physicians, and the bourgeoisie in general. The Germans of Russia did not necessarily speak Russian; they spoke German, while French was often the language of the high aristocracy.[5]

Catherine’s first call for settlers in 1762 netted no one. She had forgotten to provide incentives. In 1763 she motivated settlers with religious freedom, self-government, tax-exempt status for 30 years, interest free loans for materials and equipment to be repaid installments beginning in ten years, freedom from military service for all time, and up to 32 hectares of free land.


German colonies in the Volga region by Dr. Karl Stumpp

Russian ambassadors were sent across Europe advertising Russia’s new settlement policies, and those places where times were the toughest, food was in short supply, and taxes were most onerous received the most vigorous response. In June 1767 some 30,000 Germans completed the two-year mission to Saratov on the Volga River in central Russia.[6] When they arrived their land had not yet been surveyed, promised buildings had not been built, but the beams and planks for 250 shelters had been delivered. That first year the settlers lived in holes in the ground. In subsequent years crop yields were low and many settlers died still living in their burrows. Conditions were so bad that many Germans took part in the peasant rebellions of 1773-74. Today, Saratov is a city of a million people.

After the peasant rebellions were quelled, it became clear to the colonists that their settlements had a second purpose: they were to be the buffer between Russia and the Kalmyk and Kazakh tribes, on whose nomadic lands their colonies had been built. Numerous colonies were attacked by these tribesmen; by 1775 3,000 colonists had been killed and more than 1,200 sold into slavery.

The Russian government was so disappointed by the progress of the colonies it tried to recover the costs of the colonization from settlers who obviously had no means to pay. Upon an investigation into the reasons for the poor performance of the colonies, the government reinstated the special status of the settlers and corrected a number of injustices.

In 1785 Catherine II began advertising for settlers to Ukraine, this time including Mennonites of Gdansk and the surrounding region. Now she sweetened the pot to70 hectares of free land and many hundreds of families took up the arduous journey in the succeeding years. This call for settlers was different from the previous invitations in that now Russia was interested in model farmers, farmers whose duty it would be to set an example for the Russian peasants and the villagers of other nationalities. From the Mennonite perspective, now you’re talking.

This land is not my land

At the time Menno Simons was preaching non-violence to his followers, the future home of the “Russian” Mennonites was a continuous battle ground between Cossacks and their northern allies and the Tatars of the Ottoman Empire. In the 14th and 15th centuries the Cossacks had emerged from a group of escaped serfs who developed “democratic, self-governing, semi-military communities.”[7]

Reply_of_the_Zaporozhian_Cossacks painting by Ilja_Jefimowitsch_Repin

The Reply of the Zaparozhye Cossacks by Ilya Repin, 1880-91. In 1676, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed IV, demanded the Cossacks submit to his rule. In the painting the cossacks are taking turns suggesting replies, each one more vulgar and obscene than the last.

One of the four main Cossack groups, the Zaporizhian Cossacks[8], built their fortress on Khortitsa Island in the mighty Dnepr, the future home of the first Mennonite settlement. But these fiercely independent warriors were not the only ones contesting the southern steppes. The Tatars of the Crimean Khanate made almost annual forays across the steppes to feed its slave trade with the Ottoman Empire. According to Alan W. Fisher, three million Slavic people were exported as slaves between the 14th and 17th centuries.[9] Just twenty years before the first arrival of Mennonites, Tatars captured 20,000 Russian and Ukrainian slaves.[10]

Kuban Nogai from 1769.

Nogai Tatar warrior from the album “Circassians: warriors and masters” by photographer Zhanna Shogenova.

This pattern of attack and counter-attack continued for more than two hundred years before Russia under Catherine II was able to push out the Ottoman Empire and in 1775 order the destruction of the Zaporizhian Cossack fortress on Khortitsa Island. It should not come as a surprise that both the Orthodox Cossacks and the Muslim Nogai Tatars raided Mennonite settlements for years to come.


Let’s face a fact about the great Mennonite migration to Russia: it had little to do with any pacifistic tendencies Mennonites may have displayed on a Sunday morning, but a great deal to do with economics. Prussia, until Frederick the Great began imposing civic obligations such as military service, had been very good for them. Like any other business entity, they had to slog through the difficult early days of floods and bugs and swamp fever, but by mid-1700’s they were doing very well. “… 94 percent of the Mennonite families were financially independent, owning or renting substantial property.”  And Mennonites wanted what any successful business endeavor wants – MORE. But the Prussian king finally ended their ability to purchase land without a concomitant increase in military service. That meant the more land you owned, the more military service you were responsible to provide. Years earlier Mennonites had fallen into the trap of paying money instead of providing military service.

Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great

As long as the reigning autocrat needed money more than he needed soldiers, that was fine. One can hardly imagine Menno’s Anabaptists would have agreed to pay for the upkeep of a training college for Prussian officers: they would rather have drowned. In addition, the Mennonite population was growing rapidly and creating a class of people with no land and no way to make money other than to join the service sector of the 1700’s. So the rich couldn’t get richer and the poor were getting poorer.


Tsar Catherine was anxious to maintain possession of the vast lands she had captured both in the north and the south of her empire. In the south she had driven out the Ottoman Empire and was faced with holding an area the size of Spain. When she came to review her winnings, her victory parade in Crimea was so lavish it sparked another five years of war. En route to Crimea Catherine met two Mennonite travelers, Jacob Höppner and Johann Bartsch, sent by Prussian Mennonite congregations to investigate her offer of refuge in Ukraine.

The next episode looks at some factors motivating the migration to Russia, and some of the difficulties of the early settlers.

Bartsch and Hoeppner routes

Bartsch and Höppner seeking the new Mennonite homeland: you can’t question their due diligence.




[1]Mennonitische Geschichte und Ahnenforschung, http://chort.square7.ch/index.html, a list of villages shows Gerhard’s home village to be an Evangelical village accessed September 2, 2017.

[2]Zeit Online, blog entry http://kommentare.zeit.de/user/rowisch/beitrag/2007/10/26/die-geschichte-der-deutschen-russland, dated October 26, 2007, accessed July 11, 2016. Author credits Dr. Albert Eisfeld’s Deutsche in Rußland und der Sowjet­union 1914–1941, as his source.

[3] This what happens when the hyphenation of names gets out of hand.

[4]Zeit Online, blog entry,op. Cit.

[5]https://www.wikiwand.com/en/History_of_Germans_in_Russia,_Ukraine_and_the_Soviet_Union. Accessed July 11, 2016.

[6]Zeit Online, blog entry, op. Cit.

[7]Grau, Lester W., The Cossack Brotherhood Reborn: A Political/military Force in a Realm of Chaos, (1993) Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, KS. Retrieved 23 August 2015. Quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Cossacks, accessed March 21, 2016.

[8]The word “cossack” is an Old East Slavic word meaning “free man.”

[9]Fisher, Alan W., Muscovy and the Black Sea Slave Trade, Canadian American Slavic Studies, 1972, Vol. 6, pp. 575–594. Quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Crimean%E2%80%93 Nogai_raids_into_East_Slavic lands#/overview, accessed March 21, 2016.

[10]Kizilov, Mikhail, Slave Trade in the Early Modern Crimea From the Perspective of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources, Oxford University. Quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/ Crimean_Khanate#/Slave_trade, accessed March 21, 2016.

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