Ep. 38 Life in the kolkhoz

kolkhoz life2

A posed photo complete with billboard showing the idyllic life on the collective farm.

Gerhard was accepted into the collective and worked in the fields. Increasingly he believed his survival was the result of divine intervention. How else to understand his own survival when so many around him had died? He came to see his arrest and incarceration as a stroke of luck provided by God.

GERHARD I give the Lord Jesus glory. He led me so wonderfully. I am one of the luckiest people to have survived 1937. There are very few who avoided the deportations. I am thankful I was not at home during 1937 even though it was not pleasant to go to jail for five years when I was guilty of nothing. But I also learned a lot. I learned how difficult life can be when a godless system takes power with no concern for fairness or justice.

 Now I was in the collective working as Friedrich Ratzlaff’s helper on the Caterpillar tractor. My job was to make sure the plough was doing its job. We made our quota and were even written up on the Red Honour Board as a good example for others to follow.


Sowing crops on collective farm, Ukraine

Sowing on a collective farm on the steppes of the Ukraine, USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). Image date: ca. 1930-1940. Gerhard worked on machinery like this.

The collective had an “employee-of-the-month” system to motivate workers. Those who exceeded their quotas of work had their names posted on the Red Honour Board and malingerers, laggards and those who did not fulfill their quota were named on the Black Board of Shame.

the red board

Red Honour Board

GERHARD In the Spring of 1941 I was promoted to manager of the granary and was responsible for all the grain produced in the collective. We had several granaries for our grain but the combine harvesters did not clean the grain well enough so it was left in large piles out on the fields. Everything was done according to the Plan, but we were always late, the grain was seeded but it was seeded too late. The harvested grain was left in piles and had to be processed through a hand-operated cleaning mill to separate the wheat. One person had to turn the cleaning mill and another person pour in the unclean grain by hand.

 When a field was harvested in one or two weeks, the new grain was dumped onto the older grain. The grain pile was huge, and it was late and then it rained and the grain in the pile germinated and started to grow in layers five centimetres thick. You can imagine how much grain was spoiled. Then grain was transported by oxen and horses to the railroad station. But there were no granaries there, so it was dumped under the bright sky, and again thousands of tons were spoiled. What can you do if there aren’t enough granaries?

I put as much grain as I could into my granaries. The Russian manager of the collective liked me.

 I noticed how things operated; the manager of the collective told me to throw an extra sack of flour into his wagon but gave me no receipt for it. I had experienced such practices when I was in the gulag as the accountant for the supply depot; that’s how it works in Russia. Several weeks later the GPU man told me to lay a sack of flour and some butter and other things on his wagon, but there was no receipt.

 There was much more grain in my granaries than I was supposed to have. The workers were supposed to record when they completed their quota, but they didn’t do it, so I always had much more grain than I was supposed to have.

 My sister Mariechen also worked at the collective. She was 17 years old and had to milk 12 cows in the morning, 12 cows at noon and 12 cows in the evening. And then she had to care for the calves. If a calf was sick or died it was deducted from her production.

Brining in the harvest on the eastye

Bringing in the harvest in eastern Ukraine.

* * * * *

The gulag’s appetite for victims was insatiable and religious persecution continued unabated. In Russia, Jews and Muslims had been persecuted for years but in the new Soviet Union however, Russians became equal opportunity persecutors: not just Jews, Muslims, Lutherans and Baptists, but all religions were to be banished, especially the state Russian Orthodox Church. All church property was expropriated, and more than a thousand priests, including 28 bishops, were executed in the first five years of Soviet government. In 1937 over 85,000 priests were shot.[1] Of the 54,000 Russian Orthodox parishes in existence before World War One, only 500 remained by 1940.[2]

Over 41 million Soviet citizens were imprisoned from 1923 to 1953. By 1954 a million children were in internal exile. There were 20,000 mosques in Soviet Central Asia in 1917, and fewer than 4,000 in 1929. Six years later there were less than 60 in Uzbekistan, which held half of the Muslim population of Central Asia.[3]

The antireligious press identified believers in the ranks of top soviet scholars by name. This labeling led to the 1929–1930 purge of the Russian Academy of Sciences, where 100 scholars, their assistants and graduate students were arrested on forged charges and given sentences that range from three years of internal exile to the death penalty.[4] Most of them later perished in camps or in prison. This purge aimed to eliminate the church’s intellectuals and to convince the public only backward people believed in God.[5]

A twelfth of Russian Orthodox priests were still functioning by 1941.[6] All Mennonite churches were closed but believers still gathered to study the bible and pray.

In the next episode Gerhard tells a story of religious persecution.



[1] The Globe and Mail (Canada), 9 March 2001 – Why father of glasnost is despised in Russia by Geoffrey York quoting Alexander Yakovlev’s new book, Maelstrom of Memory.

[2] Curtis, Glenn E., ed. Russia: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1996, on-line version of book previously published in hard copy by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress as part of the Country Studies/Area Handbook Series sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Army between 1986 and 1998. Accessed at http://countrystudies.us/russia/ on February 17, 2017.

[3] Ahmed Rashid, “The Fires of Faith in Central Asia,” World Policy Journal (Spring 2001);  page 47 quoted in Froese, Paul. “I am an atheist and a Muslim’: Islam, communism, and ideological competition.” Journal of Church and State 47.3 (2005), page 489, accessed online at http://www.baylorisr.org/wp-content/uploads/froese_atheist.pdf on November 20, 2017.

[4] Dimitry V. Pospielovsky. A History of Soviet Atheism in Theory, and Practice, and the Believer, Vol. 2: Soviet Antireligious Campaigns and Persecutions, St Martin’s Press, New York (1988) p. 43 quoted in Wikipedia contributors, “Persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Persecution_of_Christians_in_the_Soviet_Union&oldid=810509556 (accessed November 20, 2017).

[5] Ibid.

[6] D. Pospielovsky, The Russian Orthodox Church under the Soviet Regime, Vol. 1, p.175 quoted in Wikipedia contributors, “Persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Persecution_of_Christians_in_the_Soviet_Union&oldid=810509556 (accessed November 20, 2017).