Ep. 17 Lenin stuggles for control, Soviet Union becomes a thing

Gerhard would have turned 107 today and would have hated how Lenin bullied his way into power. He was seven years old, old enough to read the constant worry and fear on his parents’ faces but too young to know the cause.

Lenin may have snatched power, but he had not achieved control and was now in a desperate battle with his enemies both inside and outside of Russia. The German Army was occupying Mother Russia and forces loyal to the monarchy formed the White Army and were marching on the capital. Various other revolutionaries with their own visions of Russia roamed the countryside looking for support. To get a sense of the intensity of the struggle here is a sample of what General Lavr Kornilov of the White Army told his

Lavr Kornilov was an outstanding military commander in the Imperial Russian Army as well as a talented scientist and translator

Lavr Kornilov, outstanding military commander as well as a talented scientist and translator.

generals when he exhorted them to take no prisoners: “The greater the terror, the greater our victories.”[1] He vowed the White Army must succeed even if it was necessary “to set fire to half the country and shed the blood of three-fourths of all Russians.”[2]

For his part Lenin was no pushover either.

He pursued the cause of revolution exclusively, single-mindedly, whatever the cost in human suffering. It was he, not Stalin, who founded the one-party state; he who created the feared secret police and the system of forced labor camps later known as the Gulag; and he who first gave the order for summary executions of suspected political opponents.[3]

Bold measures were needed, and Lenin took them. He issued a decree that abolished all private ownership of land with no compensation; peasant communities were to distribute it among themselves.[4]

…it was the greatest shift in land tenure in Russian history, and it persuaded many peasants to fight in the Red Army, because they feared the anti-revolutionary White Army would take back the land.[5]

This conversion, which would take years to complete, was made law on November 8, 1917. Here are excerpts:

Landed proprietorship is abolished forthwith without compensation …

The land of ordinary peasants and ordinary Cossacks shall not be confiscated …

All land … shall be taken over without compensation and become the property of the whole people, to be used by those who cultivate it …

Persons who suffer by this property revolution shall be entitled to public support only for a period necessary for the adaptation to their new conditions of existence.

Urban and village household land, orchards and household gardens shall remain in the use of their present owners, the size of such holdings and the amount of taxation levied for the use thereof to be determined by law.

All livestock and farm implements of the confiscated lands shall be reserved for the exclusive use of either the state of the communes … and no compensation shall be paid therefor.

The farm implements of peasants possessing little land shall not be subject to confiscation.[6]

It’s easy to see the effects this would have not only on the Mennonite communities and on all the German settlers, but also on their peasant neighbours. “Peasants from the surrounding countryside, emboldened by anti-German propaganda and the fall of tsarism, felt justified in robbing their well-to-do ‘German’ neighbours.”[7] In late 1917, as the Russian Revolution spread to the Ukraine, there was an explosion of long-repressed popular anger. In some villages, groups of peasants burned the landowner’s estate while shouting ‘All this belongs to us! All this belongs to us!’[8]

Gerhard’s sister Lydia was six, Katja was two, Nikolai one. They were children growing up on the wrong side of the revolution that would tear the family apart.

It was now clear the relationship between the Russians and the Mennonites had become toxic. In his Mein Leben Hat Ein Ziel (My Life Has One Goal) Johannes Schleunig describes an encounter he had with a high ranking member of the Ministry of Agriculture as their train rolled through a lush German agricultural region:

All this, with one stroke of the pen, will now belong to us. Riches worth billions will fall to us through decrees being prepared at the highest levels; for these Germans will be driven from their lands, and then we will settle our returning victorious veterans on them … Don’t you know that every German in Russia is a spy, and that these people received funds from the German government to establish their colonies, that they have their own bank in Berlin to extend credit to them, that every German village [in Russia] is a strategic point for Kaiser Wilhelm, that they possess a dual citizenship making them subjects in Russia and also in Germany? It is only right that we dispossess these spies of their homes and property.[9]

Peter J. Braun. Scan courtesy Mennonite Library and Archives

Peter J. Braun

On the other hand, respected Mennonite intellectual leader Peter J. Braun was even less generous in his views of the Russians:

The very sight of them arouses our passion, for they are the ones who destroyed our houses and possessions, laid waste to our fields, destroyed our forests, who robbed us blind, cursed and humiliated us, made us poor and wretched, who maltreated and raped our mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, who murdered our fathers, brothers and sons like dogs, indeed worse than dogs, and in the most despicable manner possible, destroying the flower of our people in the process. They are the ones who brought us to the brink of destruction, who have conjured up want and hunger, misery and grief, and who continue to poison our sons and seduce our daughters and infect our families. We hate and loathe this people for it has devoured our sheep and cattle, continues to steal our bread, drives us from hearth and home wishing to be rid of us, callously and heartlessly abandoning us to misery and death by starvation.[10]

Yet, as much as Mennonites may have loathed the Russians, Mennonite industrialists and estate owners continued to feed Russian soldiers with wheat and weapons. The agri-industrial complex was still firing on all cylinders.

How could people whose conscience forbids them to do evil produce mines and missiles and so on? The business of war brought immense earnings to the ‘pacificist’ Mennonite bourgeoisie. As an example there is a factory named ‘Martens, De-Fehr and Dyck’ which during the war filled huge orders for mines. A co-owner of the factory Cornelius De-Fehr was a member of the ‘Committee for National Defense’ and obtained his orders from there. The mine manufacturers Dyck and Martens were preachers, and the third member of the group, De-Fehr, was the choir leader of the local Brethren congregation.[11]

Martens, DeFehr und Dyck in Millerowo, agricultural machinery factory

Factory of Martens, DeFehr and Dyck in Millerowo.

In February 1918 Bolsheviks from Moscow and Petrograd (St. Petersburg) flooded into the colony villages and evicted local leaders at gunpoint and organized workers’ and peasants’ councils with Bolsheviks who saw as their revolutionary duty to take as many goods as possible from the counter-revolutionary forces and distribute them to the needy.[12]

Thousands of demobilized soldiers and deserters roamed the street having previously fought in other armies, including those of the tsar or Lenin or some other warlord. They came from the poorest classes of Russian society and were not exempt from the effects of poverty. They were diseased and alcoholic: some of them had survived the war drinking anti-freeze. They were uneducated and abused. When they fell sick with typhus and were left behind, their enemies hung them from trees. They had fathers who’d been shot and sisters who’d been raped. Most of them would be dead within a year. They wanted an equal share of the wealth they helped to produce.[13]

Civil war in Russia

Land re-distribution was underway in a chaotic and dangerous environment. This was not the more organized collectivization of land that occurred later but now the peasants, many of them neighbours of Mennonites, were extracting equalization payments from the wealthy estate owners and the well off. Mennonite colonists “…who would later ally themselves with the Whites, came under a reign of terror. Arbitrary arrests, forced requisitions, robberies and executions became the order of the day.”[14]

Gerhard’s sister Lydia remembers the Russian neighbours entering their house and “nationalizing” the seeds they had stored for spring planting.

You might think how unfair! You might also think how different the result had the Mennonites maintained Menno Simons’ vision and shared the bounty which came with royal privileges. Instead they had once again cast their lot in with an autocratic monarch and had taken full advantage of their privileged opportunities without regard for the effects.

In the next episodes we’ll see how the Mennonite feelings toward the Russian people causes them to throw off their cloak of pacifism to reveal a violent and bloody side that has been simmering just below the surface for years.



[1] Mayer, Arno J. (2002). The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-09015-7. Quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/White_Terror_(Russia) accessed August 9,2016

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sixsmith, Martin, Russia, A 1,000 Year Chronicle of the Wild East, New York NY, The Overlook Press, 2011, page 216.

[4] Ibid., page 217.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Meisel, James H., and Kozera, Edward S., Materials for the Study of the Soviet System, 1950, The George Wahr Publishing Co., Ann Arbor, Michigan, pages 19-21.

[7] Chipman, Josephine, The Mennonite Selbstschutz in the Ukraine 1918-19, Winnipeg, University of Manitoba, 1988, page 84.

[8] Tsebry, O. (1993) [1949] ‘Memories of a Makhnovist Partisan’ [pamphlet], London: Kate Sharpley Library, pg 7, as quoted in Foster, Wayne, The Makhnovists and the Mennonites: war and peace in the Ukrainian Revolution, May 25 2011, https://libcom.org/history/makhnovists-mennonites-war-peace-ukrainian-civil-war,accessed September 7, 2017.

[9] Schleunig, Johannes, Mein Leben Hat Ein Ziel quoted in Friesen, Abraham, In Defense of Privilege – Russian Mennonites and the State Before and during WWI., Kindred Productions, Winnipeg and Hillsboro, Historical Commission of the U.S. and Canadian Mennonite Brethren Churches, 2006, page 252.

[10] Braun, Peter J. In his correspondence, quoted in Friesen, op. cit. page 275.

[11] A. Reinmarus (David Penner), Anti Menno: Beitraege zur Geschichte der Mennoniten in Russland, (Moscow: Zentral Voelker Verlag, 1930), page 66.

[12] 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 the source.

[13] Foster, Wayne, The Makhnovists and the Mennonites: war and peace in the Ukrainian Revolution, Blog post dated May 25 2011 accessed September 6, 2016

[14] Friesen, Abraham, In Defense of Privilege – Russian Mennonites and the State Before and during WWI., Kindred Productions, Winnipeg and Hillsboro, Historical Commission of the U.S. and Canadian Mennonite Brethren Churches, 2006, page 275.

6 thoughts on “Ep. 17 Lenin stuggles for control, Soviet Union becomes a thing

  1. Hi Ed. I read your posts with great interest since my mother and your dad had the same experiences growing up. A lot of it in the posts sounds familiar. Thank you Ed. Your cousin Bill.

    Liked by 1 person

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