Ep. 11 Serfs go free and the Mennonite marriage splits up

In the 1860s, Gerhard’s grandfather Franz Abram was of marrying age and likely married Augusta Balau during this period. Franz apparently sold agricultural equipment, but fumbled the financial ball and had to sell off some of his lands to make ends meet. Perhaps these new landowners were the impetus for creating Gerhard’s home village Nikolaipol. We’ll never know.


Freeing the serfs

The fallout from the Crimean War was the catalyst for a massive change in Russian society commonly known as the emancipation of the serfs. The feudal system was still alive and well in Russia, having been abolished a hundred years earlier in Europe.

The Crimean War was a contributing factor in the Russian abolition of serfdom in 1861: Tsar Alexander II (Nicholas I’s son and successor) saw the military defeat of the Russian serf-army by free troops from Britain and France as proof of the need for emancipation.[1]

“The Crimean War also led to the eventual realization by the Russian government of its technological inferiority, in military practices as well as weapons.”[2] Russia had been favoured to win the war, but was humiliated. Tsar Alexander II decided to make changes—the serfs were going to be free.

1907 painting by Boris Kustodiev depicting Russian serfs listening to the proclamation of the Emancipation Manifesto in 1861

1907 painting by Boris Kustodiev depicting Russian serfs listening to the proclamation of the Emancipation Manifesto in 1861.

The tsar tasked the nobles with deciding how to divide the land so that 23 million former serfs could own a plot and live their own lives. Not surprisingly the peasants lost out to the nobles in the exchange. Nobles gave up one-third of their estate lands to the government for which they were compensated “far in advance of the market value of their property. They were also entitled to decide which part of their holdings they gave up. Unsurprisingly, they kept the best land for themselves. The serfs got the leftovers.”[3] The lands were given to the village to manage and the former serfs, now peasants, could buy the land for themselves.

Since they had no savings, they were advanced 100 per cent mortgages, 80 per cent provided by the State bank and the remaining 20 by the landlords. This appeared a generous offer, but as in any loan transaction the catch was in the repayments. The peasants found themselves saddled with redemption payments that became a lifelong burden that then had to be handed on to their children.[4]

On the eve of the first Russian Revolution in 1905, most peasants still couldn’t make ends meet on the land and had to hire themselves out as labourers.

Peasants Reading the Emancipation Manifesto, an 1873 painting by Grigory Myasoyedov

Peasants Reading the Emancipation Manifesto, an 1873 painting by Grigory Myasoyedov.

The emancipation of the serfs also created a problem for many nobles living on expansive estates because their source of free labour was gone. Many of these estates were granted to nobles who had performed a service to the tsar and came complete with their own forced labour.  Many of these nobles were not interested in farming so when the serfs were gone, they tended to sell their land. It was a buyer’s market and nobody likes a good deal more than a Mennonite.

Freeing the serfs from their slavish servitude to the Russian nobility was but one of many social changes imposed by Tsar Alexander II. He appointed judges for life and introduced juries to the justice system. He established a new criminal code and simplified civil and criminal court procedures. He modernized the banking system and poured millions into improving the railway infrastructure.[5] He formed elected local self-government units called zemstvos in rural areas as well as in larger towns. Zemstvos consisted of representatives from all classes of Russians, from peasants to nobles but in fact 74 percent of the representatives were nobles and wealthy landowners even though they were less than two per cent of the population. The zemstvos did not create a setback for the Mennonites, on the contrary, they gave wealthy Mennonite landowners control of not only their own people, but also of the peasantry in the surrounding regions.

What gave the Mennonites greater cause for concern was the imposition of Russian language education for all and universal military conscription. Russian was now to be the language of instruction in schools, and schools were to be supervised by the Russian government. Most importantly, exemption from military duty was abolished. Military service at that time was a 10-15 year commitment[6] and the settlers were given ten years to comply.

Mennonites argued they had been pacifists since the Reformation and could not now give military service under any circumstances.

Surely many settlers must have asked themselves why the tsar was now reneging on his promises upon which the settlers had relied for nearly a hundred years. At once Mennonites sent scouts to North America in search of a place where they could keep their privileged status.[7] German Catholic and Protestant colonists from the Volga, Bessarabia and New Russia also began to leave. Many didn’t wait to see the new laws implemented, they packed up and left the country.

From the Russian perspective it is easy to see why the tsar was nervous about having 1.7 million Germans in his borderlands who were not required to lift a finger in defense of their adopted home. More than a few minorities in Russia harboured dreams of independence. The proponents of pan-Slavism urged the tsar to take control of the people and to unite them under the Slavic flag. It was time to toss the national mosaic into the melting pot. If German immigration continued, the result would be not Russification but Germanification of the region.[8]

By 1865, the dream of a Mennonite heaven in Russia was fracturing.  Bitterness resulting from the land crisis, the Russification of their education system and now they had to provide military service. To make matters worse, a new offshoot group of Mennonites, called Mennonite Brethren was gaining popularity with its renewed focus on individual piety and living a vigorous Christian life. Anwohners left their villages to begin new villages elsewhere in Russia. Kleinhäuslers received nothing so it should not be a great surprise to learn that one third of the entire Mennonite population needed to get out of this bad relationship.

The steamboat “International” and barge “Harty” arrive at Fort Garry with 380 Mennonite colonists, the first such group to arrive in Manitoba, 1874

The steamboat “International” and barge “Harty” arrive at Fort Garry with 380 Mennonite colonists, the first such group to arrive in Manitoba, 1874.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Transportation-Boat-“International”.

Entire villages, full congregations, and hundreds of family units sold or left behind their belongings, boarded steamships for frigid plains of Canada and the United States or the jungles of Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico.

Once again, Mennonites were people of no fixed address.



[1]Moon, David (2001). The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia, 1762–1907. Harlow, England: Pearson Education. pp. 49–55. ISBN 0-582-29486-X.74] quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Crimean_War

[2]“STMMain”. Russianwarrior.com. Retrieved 29 November 2011.75 quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Crimean_War Accessed March 24, 2016

[3]Lynch, Michael, “The Emancipation of the Russian Serfs, 1861: A Charter of Freedom or an Act of Betrayal?” Published in History Review Issue 47 December 2003, quoted in http://www.historytoday.com/ michael-lynch/emancipation-russian-serfs-1861-charter-freedom-or-act-betrayal. Accessed March 30, 2016


[5]Meliantsev,  Vitali, Three Centuries of Russia’s Endeavors to Surpass the East and to Catch Up with the West: Trends, Factors, Consequences, a paper presented to the Havighurst Colloqium in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies, Miami university, Oxford, Ohio. 2002, pg 8.

[6]Zeit Online, Op. cit.

[7]Interestingly the United States never promised Mennonites freedom from military service.

[8]Zeit Online, Op. cit.

3 thoughts on “Ep. 11 Serfs go free and the Mennonite marriage splits up

  1. Cuz you write so well…I kinda wish my grandparents were Mennonites. In reality I think my father’s co-dependents were Roman. As you will recall, they killed Jesus. A nasty lot. After they killed Our Lord they moved to England and set up the Anglican Church.


  2. Aristocrats who lost land, even thought they were compensated, soon found their income reduced. Unwillingly to compromise their lavish lifestyles they began raising the rents on the lands they still owned. The Fuerstenland settlement originally paid 1.5 rubles/dessiatine. By the turn of the century it had been increased ten-fold.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s