Ep. 28 Last chance



24-year-old Josef Stalin.

Meanwhile in Moscow, Lenin was losing his grip on the revolution after suffering several strokes. In his final weeks of life he provided the Soviets with his own succession plan known as “Lenin’s testament.” The bottom line was: anybody but Stalin.[1] Party leaders read the document once, discussed it, and then conscientiously ignored it; in fact, any subsequent reference to the testament was considered anti-Soviet agitation.[2] “… Stalin decreed that Lenin’s testament did not exist; attempts to refer to it were denounced as treachery.”[3] Stalin remained as General Secretary, surrounded himself with friends, punished his enemies and established the first Five Year Plan. For Gerhard and his family this was the end of life as they knew it.

Lenin and stalin

Lenin and Stalin  in 1922.

A primary purpose of the Five Year Plan was to collectivize Russia’s agricultural land. By 1930 almost all of the thousands of small individual farms in Gerhard’s home province merged into large collective farms, known as kolkhozes.[4] Gerhard’s family’s lands, registered for collectivization for more than a decade, were finally taken away.[5] Quotas for food production were established and punitive procedures were enacted for non-performance.


In some kolkhozes (collectives) villagers voted to exceed the quotas under pressure from recently-arrived Soviet party members known as the Twenty-five-thousanders. Twenty-five-thousanders was the collective name for the frontline workers from industrial cities of the USSR, who voluntarily left their homes for rural areas to improve the performance of kolkhozes in early 1930. After a short orientation period they were sent on kolkhoz-organizing missions to the grain-growing regions of Russia. In this new egalitarian world everyone had a say, including shepherds, night watchmen, day labourers, destitute peasants and others who had nothing to lose.[6]

Twenty-Five Thousanders (1930)

Not everyone favoured the new system, not the German settlers and not many Russian and Ukrainian peasants, and definitely not Gerhard’s family. “Many peasants viewed collectivization as a return to serfdom. As well as having to give up their land and property, they lost the right to sell their produce for personal gain. Now they were forced to sell the vast bulk of the food they produced to the state, at artificially low prices set by the state itself.”[7] Despite opposition, the program was effective: within 12 months the percentage of collectivized households in Ukraine shot up from 5.6 per cent to 62.8 per cent and arable land in collectives went up from 3.8 per cent to 70.9 per cent.[8]

GERHARD My mother did not agree to [give up the cattle] and so my sisters took back our cattle. But that only lasted one year. In 1930 the village council told my father if he was not registered in the collective by a specific date and if he had not given up the cattle and the equipment, he would be held personally responsible for any consequences that might befall him. So the whole business was given up and the whole family, except Lydia who was already married, worked on the collective.

“Strengthen working discipline on collective farms” – motivational poster from Tashkent.

Under the guidance of the Twenty-five-thousanders, village councils “voluntarily” agreed to produce more grain than could be reasonably expected. If the quotas were not fulfilled, farmers had to purchase grain on the open market at five times the price the state paid them. If the quota remained unfulfilled, the penalty was five times the value of the shortfall. Fulfilling the quota was a village obligation, so even if an individual met personal quota requirements, he or she could still be on the hook for penalties owed by others who could not meet their obligations. And if a farmer was bankrupted in the process, the property was seized and auctioned off to the lowest bidder.[9]


Caption reads Kulak.

Many kulaks could not even join the kolkhoz and sometimes farmers and their families would be declared kulaks after they joined a kolkhoz and would then be kicked out without the property they brought in.


* * * * *

At Moscow’s Gates

1930 was the last chance for Mennonites and other German settlers to leave Russia. Ninety-five per cent of them resisted collectivization. The mass emigration of “Soviet” Germans from the USSR in autumn of 1929, in which Mennonites played a significant role, exists as one of the most outstanding and tragic examples of resistance to collectivization.[10]

Emigration from Russia had slowed to a trickle due to the increasing bureaucratic obstacles and fees involved in getting exit visas. Then 70 stubborn Siberian Mennonite families were permitted to leave after camping out in Moscow for six months. Then in August, 900 Swedish settlers returned to Sweden. These successful emigrations set off an all-out charge to Moscow for Mennonites from Siberia to Crimea. Many sold their assets and headed for Moscow; many others didn’t wait, they simply walked away from everything they owned.

As this news spread, Germans streamed into Moscow throughout the autumn despite a decree of September 16, 1929 that ended emigration and application requests for emigration.[11] By mid-November, 13,000 emigrants had gathered near Moscow waiting for permission to leave.[12] German officials in Moscow had second thoughts about accepting a bulk shipment of refugees who preferred to live in Canada, Paraguay or Chile rather than Germany where the economy was in dire straits.  German officials believed  refugees would soon lose their German-ness in Canada and felt emigration wasn’t in their fundamental interests.[13]

But when the Soviets unexpectedly decided they didn’t “need to keep kulak elements who desire to emigrate from the USSR,”[14] German officials were caught by surprise. The massive refugee camp outside Moscow “attracted foreign diplomats and journalists like a magnet, catalyzed further interest in emigration and exposed the negative attitude of some peasants toward collectivization,”[15] characterized by the media and public alike as the “colonist swindle.”[16]

Naturally Germany was expected to take them in. International media reports deplored the living conditions of these refugees. Soviet secret police (OGPU) began a brutal crackdown on the leaders, and began a forced liquidation of the camp, sending refugees back to their homes, or what was left of them.

“The return trip for the approximately 8,000 refugees is dreadful. Added to the emotional suffering is the rigor of the journey. Forty to sixty refugees loaded into each railcar, whose normal freight was cattle or coal. In many cars there is no stove. It is so cold the bedding freezes to the walls. Jammed together the people cower in the unheated wagons which are locked and only opened now and then at the whim of their military escorts. No one is providing food. If you don’t have bread, you have to starve. Thirst is a constant unbridled torment. When they ask the guards to throw in some snow they answer: ‘Die you kulaks.’ En route children begin to die, many were already ill with the measles in Moscow. At one station the bodies of 35 children were carried out and stacked on the platform. It is impossible for their families to bury them. On one of the large Siberian transports the bodies of 60 children had to be taken off at the first stop: they literally froze to death in the arms of their mothers.[17]

red gate2

The Latvian border lies just ahead.

Germany quit stalling on November 29 and over the next two weeks nine crowded trains carrying those refugees who were still at the gates of Moscow arrived in Riga, Latvia. The 5,671 refugees, which included 3,885 Mennonites, were then transferred to three refugee barracks and over the next two years all found homes elsewhere: most went to Brazil (2,533) and Paraguay (1,572), even Canada reluctantly accepted 1,344 of the Moscow refugees.[18]




[1] Sixsmith, Martin. Russia, A 1,000 Year Chronicle of the Wild East. New York NY: The Overlook Press, 2011, page 248-9.

[2] Sixsmith, op. cit., page 251.

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://matveevkurgan.ru/region/history/, accessed November 18, 2016.

[5] How or when exactly is unknown, Gerhard doesn’t mention it.

[6] Komitee der Flüchtlinge, Vor den Toren Moskaus, Columbia Press, Yarrow, B.C., 1960, page 14.

[7] Sixsmith, op. cit., page 258.

[8] Н. Бем, Ставлення україньского селянства до ликвидації куркульства як класу та суцільної колективізації сільського господарства (1930-1931 рр.) (pdf), Проблеми Історіїї України факти, судження, пошуки, №9, 2003, сс. 227-243, see p. 230-231 quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causes_of_the_Holodomor, accessed September 14, 2017.

[9] Warkentin, Erwin,The Mennonites before Moscow: The Notes of Dr. Otto Auhagen, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Vol. 26, 2008, pages 205-6.

[10]Savin, Andrey I., The 1929 Emigration of Mennonites from the USSR:  An Examination of Documents from the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Vol. 30, 2012, page 45.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., page 46.

[14] Etnokonfessiia v sovetskom gosudarstve. Mennonity Sibiri v 1920-1930-e gg., 260, quoted in Savin, Andrey I., op. cit., page 48.

[15] Savin, op. cit., page 47.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Komitee der Flüchtlinge, op. cit., page 121, [my translation].

[18] Komitee der Flüchtlinge, op. cit., page 84, 136.

6 thoughts on “Ep. 28 Last chance

  1. My great grandfather was one of the siberian families that hounded the government in moscow to get out of the country, You should talk to my dad about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My Dad along with his parents and siblings travelled to Moscow, ultimately sailing from Hamburg in June of 1930 and arrived in Quebec City on June 26 1930.

    Liked by 1 person

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