Ep. 13 Midas touch begins to tarnish

By the turn of the century, estate owners relied primarily on Russian and Ukrainian peasants for labour in the fields, sometimes hiring more than a hundred debt-ridden “emancipated” serfs or peasants to bring in the crops.[1]

On an estate of several thousand hectares there might be 100-200 oxen, 30-40 draught horses, dozens of plows, cultivators and seeding drills, as well as a dozen or more carriage and riding horses.[2]

Herds of 30-40 milk cows were common, while hogs and sheep provided meat for the estate tables. On some large estates 20-30 hogs might be slaughtered at a time, most of the meat destined for the workers.[3]

Your typical Mennonite estate owner was an active farmer who worked hard, planned carefully, and taught his sons every facet of estate ownership from buying pedigreed stock to fixing machinery in the smithy. He experimented with new crops and helped to develop new machinery. Estate owners were also keen on improving livestock breeds and took active part in local and regional breeders associations. They had the money and initiative to import expensive breeding stock from abroad – bulls and stallions, primarily – and took particular pride in their purebred horses. Indeed, these fine animals became a kind of symbolic trademark – almost a fetish – for Mennonite estate owners in the era before cars and other mechanical vehicles. Visitors to the estate were always encouraged to inspect the horse barns, and prize horses were paraded around the rondell in the courtyard by well-practised stable boys. The owners probably took more photos of their purebred stallions than of their marriageable daughters. Not only were estate owners concerned to improve their own equine stock and dairy herds but also those of the Mennonite colonies.[4]

Industrial development

The land gave birth to Mennonite industrial development. Mennonites adapted their agricultural implements to the Russian environment and soon were selling their farm equipment across Russia. In fact, the family of the woman Gerhard would marry, was among the first Mennonites to envision Siberia as an economic opportunity rather than a punishment. In 1897 Peter Johann Wiens established a convenience store and a successful retail business selling farm equipment near Omsk, Siberia.

Muehle von A. A Defehr und Co. in Milerowo

A.A. DeFehr and Co. in Millerovo with his steam-powered flour mill.

The rapidly expanding Mennonite milling industry exported its products internationally. “By 1911 Mennonites owned over fifty percent of the milling industry and were responsible for producing 10 percent of the region’s agricultural implements.”[5]

Hildebrand and Priess built farm equipment

Hildebrandt and Priess advertising their farm equipment in the Russian media.

P A Ediger sold industrial equipment from Sweden and England

P.A. Ediger advertising farm and industrial equipment imported from Britain and Sweden.

“By 1914, the high quality flour products of Niebuhr and Co., for example, were being exported to Finland, Turkey, Greece, the Sudan and Java.”[6] Mennonites practically re-invented the city of Alexandrovsk, today known as Zaporizhia, by relocating their business acumen from the farm to the city. Zaporizhia’s population today is more than 700,000, but in 1860 there were only 3,000 people living there, and no Mennonites. The neighbouring villages of the Khortitsa had many commercial and industrial enterprises and there was no reason to cross the Dnepr to Zaporizhia. In fact the government had exempted rural businesses from taxation to encourage growth outside of cities. The colony had everything it needed. But when a railroad connected Zaporizhia to the Crimean port of Sevastopol and to Moscow it now made sense for Mennonites to move to the city. Mennonite businessmen were now allowed to own commercial and industrial operations outside of the colonies, and they wasted no time. Zaporizhia became the regional centre for marketing grain, shipping both by rail and river boat to distant ports. The Mennonites were so successful that the city limits of Zaporizhia were expanded to include the Mennonite village of Schönwiese.

Hermann Niebuhr's mill in Alexandrovsk, Ukraine.

Hermann Niebuhr’s mill in Alexandrovsk (today Zaporizhia), Ukraine.

Hermann Niebuhr’s milling empire originated in Schönwiese where he milled nearly a third of the grain grown in eastern Ukraine. He diversified into land, banking, and a sanatorium on the Dnepr.[7] Peter Lepp and his son-in-law Andreas Wallmann established several factories which built farm equipment. Abram J. Koop started out as an apprentice at Lepp and Wallman’s factories and went on to build several factories of his own both in Khortitsa and in Zaporizhia. Koop then partnered with August Helker to build a cast iron factory. Kornelius Hildebrand and Sons partnered with son-in-law Priess to manufacture farm equipment and cast iron products. These factories with hundreds of employees and millions of rubles in sales shone the way for other smaller ventures throughout German New Russia. Khortitsa, and Zaporizhia, were perfectly located on a major river, a major railroad and major ore deposits to the west and coal deposits to the east. Things were going so well for the Mennonites and for Germans in New Russia that there was talk of establishing a separate German autonomous province in Ukraine.

Lepp and Wallman postcard

Lepp and Wallman corporate postcard.

In later years the Bolsheviks merged Koop, Lepp and Wallmann and Hildebrand and Priess to form a large agricultural factory called  Kommunar which was partly destroyed and partly evacuated to the east during World War II. After the war it was rebuilt in Zaporizhia to manufacture cars, known as Zaporozhets,[8] which were produced until 1994.[9]

Clearly Gerhard’s forefathers also rode the industrial wave; his grandfather Franz sold the agricultural implements made by Lepp and Wallman or another Mennonite factory.

These industrial magnates formed a distinct social group devoted to its own survival in the same way the estate owners used intermarriage to secure their profits. Russian writer Natalia Ostasheva Venger, of the Dnepropetrovsk National University, calls it a clan mentality.

As the industries grew, they acquired less private and more collective types of ownership. By the turn of the century a large Mennonite monopoly of well-defined dynasties with clan-like characteristics had emerged.

The clan system saved the Mennonite enterprises in the face of economic competition.

… it should be noted that the dynasty marriages … had been concluded not only to ensure reliable partnerships, but also to avoid any outflow of capital from the enterprises. This was guaranteed by the Niebuhr family’s central position in the clan system. The family of Hermann Niebuhr included four daughters, Justina, Maria, Katherina, and Sara. They were married to the richest representatives of the trade-production dynasties of Johann Lepp, Andreas Wallmann, and Abraham Koop. Meanwhile Abraham Koop’s daughter became the wife of Jakob Niebuhr. The dynasty lines were interlaced and thus the capital of these families was joined in a common endeavor.[10]

Now we know why everyone looks so unhappy in family portraits taken at the time.

H.H. Willms mill in Halbstadt today produces condensed milk

H.H. Willms mill in Molochansk today produces condensed milk.

An era of prosperity had begun for the Mennonites who stayed in Russia. It’s no surprise they became very successful both in their agricultural and industrial endeavours. They owned more than 1.2 million hectares, developed new techniques for tilling the soil, bred a better cow, introduced a more productive sheep, cultivated potatoes, previously unheard of, and rotated their crops. They milled their own grain in their own mills and invented and manufactured six per cent of Russia’s farm equipment. They helped make Ukraine the breadbasket for Russia and became rich. Those who stayed behind benefitted.


How rich were they?

The Mennonite approach to wealth can be summed up in the tale of an old estate owner who went to his bank and asked to have his entire account placed before him in gold. He stared at it awhile and then said, “All right, now you can put it back again.”[11]

How much is enough? The Mennonites lost sight of their original values of equality and sharing, and now a colony farmer earned a hundred times more than his Russian and Ukrainian workers, his fancy carriages were driven by skilled coachmen, and his teams of horses, trained to trot in a distinctive fashion, were chosen on the basis of matching their colours and builds.[12] According to Adolph Ehrt, three per cent of the Mennonite population owned at least 34 per cent of the capital. Twenty-five per cent owned little or no capital. [13] Yet instead of joining the coming revolution, the poor aspired to be estate owners.

David Penner, writing under the pseudonym A. Reimarus rebukes the poor and middle class Mennonites:

The only aim in life that the religiously befuddled and politically unenlightened Mennonite poor and middle peasant classes had in mind was to become wealthy. Standing between the poor and middle class Mennonite peasants and their Russian class counterparts were the numerous and special privileges the Mennonites enjoyed.

… most poor Mennonite peasants preferred to sit at the low end of the prosperous Mennonite table and accept whatever crumbs the profligate bourgeoisie might throw them.

… The larger peasants (kulaks) and the estate owners were thus regarded as ‘Brothers in Christ’ and conceived not as class enemies, but instead as people to be envied and emulated.[14]

With hundreds of great estates scattered from Siberia to Ukraine, Mennonites had arrived, aloof and wealthy. Their villages were neat and arranged in orderly rows, their fields tilled and weeded, they spoke languages unknown to their neighbours, and they believed they were superior to the Russian peasants and other colonists.  And they did not escape the notice of their neighbours.[15] Their wealth linked them with the Russian aristocracy who were soon to be driven from the scene.

Gerhard’s family too had established a middle class existence in a sea of poor peasants betrayed by the promise of their emancipation.

Historian James Urry raises tough questions from the Christian point of view:

How could the principle of a people with a distinctive faith, existing in separate moral space, be reconciled with an aggressive involvement with a wider world of business, profit and capitalism? How could a group which stressed community and co-operation based on Christian love face the gross inequalities wealth produced, not only within their own settlements but also in their dealings with their neighbours? How could the stress on a simple life, which did not recognize ‘worldly’ pursuits and goods, be justified in the face of the increasing manifestations of wealth in everyday life?[17]

As the troubles began Mennonites tended to blame the wealthy elite for their circumstances despite pursuing their own estate dreams. Estate owners had the resources to withdraw “into their own cliques, alone with their memories and the fading photographs of their once grand lives.”[18]


What the estate owners feared most of all was that their days of privilege and power were numbered as the grumblings of discontent and threats of violence from peasants and workers became ever louder and more ominous.[19]

But the estate system was based on a fatal illusion: the belief that Mennonites could live and function freely and indefinitely in a land where ordinary people, the peasants and workers, had not enjoyed freedom for a thousand years; where only the members of the ruling elite enjoyed freedom and where, all too briefly, Mennonite estate owners, for better or for worse, were permitted to be part of that ruling elite. They could not see until it was too late that they had created their small oases of prosperity and privilege within a horizonless steppe that was more like a prison to its peasant millions. And that sooner or later those peasants would stop singing their melancholy songs and start rattling their chains.[20]



[1] Reimer, Al, Peasant Aristocracy: The Mennonite Gutsbesitzertum in Russia, Journal of Mennonite Studies Vol. 8, 1990, page 83.

[2] Ibid., page 84.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, page 81.

[5] Neufeld, Reina C., “We Are Aware of Our Contradictions: Russlaender Narratives of Loss and the Reconstruction of Peoplehood,” Journal of Mennonite Studies, 27, (2009): page 132.

[6] Venger, Natalia Ostasheva, The Mennonite Industrial Dynasties in Alexandrovsk, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Vol. 21 (2003) page 96.

[7] Epp, David H. “Niebuhr, Hermann Abramovitch (1830-1906).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 15 Jun 2016. http://gameo.org/index.php?title Niebuhr,_Hermann_Abramovitch_(1830-1906)&oldid=93096.

[8] Klassen, N.J., Mennonite Intelligentsia in Russia, Mennonite Life, April 1969, page 57.

[9] https://www.wikiwand.com/en/ZAZ_Zaporozhets#/First_generation_.281960-1969.29, accessed July 6, 2016.

[10] Venger, op. cit., page 97.

[11] Reimer, op. cit., page 78.

[12] Urry,  James, “Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth the Mennonite  Experience in Imperial Russia,” Journal of Mennonite Studies Vol. 3, 1985, page 23.

[13] Ehrt, Adolf, Das Mennonitentum in Russland von seiner Einwanderung bis zur Gegenwart (Langensalza: J. Betz, 1932) pg 96, quoted in Urry, page 13.

[14] Reinmarus [David Penner], Anti Menno: Beitraege zur Geschichte der Mennoniten in Russland. (Moscow: Zentral Voelker Verlag, 1930), 58-59; trans. Jack Thiessen, quoted in Urry, James, Wealth and Poverty in the Mennonite Experience: Dilemmas and Challenges, Journal of Mennonite Studies, vol 27, 2009 page 30.

[15] Urry, op. cit., page 24.

[16] Urry, op. cit., page 25.

[17] Urry, op. cit., pages 28-29.

[18] Urry, op. cit., page 29.

[19] Reimer, op. cit., page 85.

[20] Reimer, op. cit., page 86.

2 thoughts on “Ep. 13 Midas touch begins to tarnish

  1. Eddie! Love this saga. One minor point tho: Everyone looked gloomy at family photos taken at the time. Even Queen Victoria. Well, with good reason. Ricky

    Liked by 1 person

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