Ep. 27 Good-bye … again.


By now most Mennonites in Russia had at least considered emigration; but where would they go? Reasons to stay were fewer and fewer. Wars, revolution, drought and social change took its toll on the economy. Each side in the civil war demanded food from the people who grew it. People’s patience with the Bolshevik regime had grown thin, and peasant revolts flamed up in various locations. Bolshevism was on the brink of failure. Because of the continuous requisition of grain, farmers sowed less grain and produced less food. By 1921, ten million people were on the verge of starvation in the Volga region.[1] Lenin needed a scapegoat and found one among the upper class of peasants, the better farmers and business and village leaders who he designated as kulaks (means grasping fist in Russian). Kulaks had subverted the entire system and must be wiped out.

GERHARD We were a medium-sized farm and we were successful in our business. Then people got jealous. And since the Soviet system rewarded the lazy people and people who had never worked a day in their lives, now the shepherds and servants were lords of the land. It’s still true today.

 In 1921 there was a great famine because the crops had not been planted in time. The Revolution had caused great damage. My father was extremely worried about his children and my mother. So he dug a huge hole in the barn and poured wheat into it. Although it was not permitted, he wasn’t stealing, it was his harvest and so with his foresight we stayed above water. In 1921 my father helped distribute bread that arrived in our village in vehicles provided by the Mennonite Central Committee of America.

GPU secret police recover hidden grain

Secret police recovering hidden grain from a hole in the ground.

Gerhard’s attitude toward the Russians did not differ from most Mennonites. It is hard to conceive of a whole nation of lazy people who haven’t worked a single day in their lives, but with the turning of the worm, Gerhard’s bias is not surprising. He will have plenty more reasons to hate Russians before his tale is told, but the seeds planted had begun to sprout.

The Bolsheviks handed power to armed ‘committees of the poorest peasants’ with a license to plunder and murder the now hated kulaks. Within weeks, neighbour was killing neighbour. …it destroyed the class of peasants who had brought initiative and efficiency  to the rural economy. Agriculture regressed to disastrous levels. Grain supplies dwindled. The cities starved.[2]

How did Lenin feel about kulaks?

The insurrection of the kulaks must be suppressed without mercy. We need to set an example. You need to hang (I repeat, hang, without fail, in full public view) at least a hundred kulaks, the rich, the bloodsuckers. Then publish their names and take away all of their grain. Also, execute all of the hostages – in accordance with my previous telegram. Do it in such a way that people for hundreds of miles around will tremble and cry out, ‘Let us choke and strangle those bloodsucking kulaks!’

P.S. Use your toughest people for this.[3],[4]

Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the secret police, was the right man for the job:

Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands; let them drown themselves in their own blood.[5]

seizing grain from kulaks which was hidden in the graveyard, Ukraine

Secret police recovering hidden grain from a graveyard.

Once again Mennonites were in the crosshairs, this time though they made immediate plans to leave Russia en masse. A delegation of Mennonite leaders left the starving countryside and set out to find a nation willing to take on a hundred thousand refugees. Although millions starved to death in 1922, the American Relief Administration (ARA) saved millions more. This organization, funded by the American government, fed 10.5 million people per day between 1921-23.[6] ARA ceased its Russian operations June 15, 1923 when it learned Russia was exporting its own grain[7] rather than feeding its people. American Mennonites funded their own relief organization, the Mennonite Central Committee of America (MCC), which fed 40,000 people per day out of 140 field kitchens. Seventy-five thousand people, including 60,000 Mennonites received food, clothing and medical supplies during this famine, and 50 Fordson tractors.[8]

1917 Fordson tractor

Fordson tractor from America.

Mennonites knew they could no longer survive as a separate ethnic and religious entity in Russia, although many might have had second thoughts when Lenin announced his  New Economic Policy on March 21, 1921. The new policy sounded pretty good; maybe all was not lost. The punitive grain seizures ended; each farmer was required to remit a fixed portion of his crop and could sell the rest for profit. The push for collectivization was halted. Private industries were again permitted, and cooperatives could again earn money for themselves.

Within a few years, agriculture and industry were back to their pre-war levels, with improved living standards that deflated much of the popular anger against the regime. Limited private enterprise spurred the Russian people to work harder in pursuit of personal gain. The peasants produced more food because they knew it was in their best interests to do so.[9]

Perhaps Gerhard’s father considered emigration too but in light of the improving conditions, decided he had too much to lose to start over.

Meanwhile, the Mennonite delegation was having no luck finding a country that would accept thousands of members of a strange autonomous religious sect. United States’ quota was too small to accept all Mennonites. Mexico was rejected by the delegation because “Indians” were not a good mix.[10] Canada had expressly forbidden any Doukhobors, Hutterites or Mennonites from entering the country based on the behavior of the early immigrants of the 1870’s.[11] They had refused to learn English, refused to attend public schools, and refused to serve in the military. All they had to do to avoid conscription was produce a card signed by an elder showing membership in a Mennonite church.

Mennonite exemption card in Canada2

Mennonite get out of jail free card.

This easy way out was often abused by those who had no inner convictions and no consistent moral life, but were formal members of the Mennonite community.[12]

A large number of Mennonite young men behaved unseemly. Without consideration of the reputation of the Mennonites, they visited pool halls and the dance floors. But when they were placed in military camps, they wanted to be freed.[13]

After the Liberals won the Canadian election of 1921, Mennonites convinced the government they were not like the “communistic” Hutterites.[14] They had to promise all new immigrants would be farmers, would be supported by their co-religionists and would not become a public charge.[15] Consequently, over the next eight years, the government permitted 20,201 Mennonites to come to Canada.[16]

Gerhard’s family decided to stay, and that would have been a good plan if not for the rise of a new leader who made Nestor Makhno look as gentle as Mr. Rogers.



[1] Sixsmith, Martin. Russia, A 1,000 Year Chronicle of the Wild East. New York NY: The Overlook Press, 2011, page 237.

[2] Sixsmith, op. cit., page 236.

[3] Service, Robert, Lenin: A Biography, (London: MacMillan, 2000), pg 365, quoted in Sixsmith, op. cit., page 238.

[4] A Trumpian post script if there ever was one.

[5] Excerpt from an interview with Felix Dzerzhinsky published in Novaia Zhizn on 14 July 1918, quoted in Lenin And The Use Of Terror Some Important Quotations, World Future Fund, http://www.worldfuturefund.org, accessed November 10, 2016.

[6] Kurusawa, Fuyuki (3 January 2012). “The Making of Humanitarian Visual Icons: On the 1921-1923 Russian Famine as Foundational Event“. Iconic Power: Materiality and Meaning in Social Life. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 68. Retrieved 19 July 2014, quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Russian_famine_of_1921%E2%80%9322, accessed Nov 18, 2016.

[7] Edmondson, Charles M. “An Inquiry into the Termination of Soviet Famine Relief Programmes and the Renewal of Grain Export, 1922–23″, Soviet Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3 (1981), pp. 370–385, quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/American_Relief_Administration, accessed Nov. 18, 2016.

[8] Epp, Frank H., Mennonite Exodus, 1962, D.W. Friesen and Sons Ltd., for Canadian Mennonite Relief and Immigration Council, page 59.

[9] Sixsmith, op. cit., page 244.

[10] Epp, Frank H., op. cit., page 70.

[11] Epp, Frank H., op. cit., page 94.

[12] Rempel, John G., Die Geschichte der Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization, (MSS in CMRIC archives), page 126, quoted in Epp, Frank H., op. cit., page 97.

[13] Toews, David, Memoirs, p. 5, quoted in Epp, Frank H., op. cit., page 98.

[14] Mennonites would throw their fellow Anabaptists under the bus again during WWII.

[15] Epp, Frank H., op. cit., page 105.

[16] Epp, Frank H., op. cit., page 178.

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