Monday, June 12, 2006


I have recently been doing some research on the Mennonites in the USSR. This religious minority among the Russian-Germans constitutes an absolutely fascinating ethno-confessional group. Although less than ten percent of the Russian-German population of the USSR there is a disproportionately large amount of material on the group both in German and in English. Much of this latter scholarship comes from Canada where many Mennonites from the Russian Empire and USSR settled. Other Russian-German Mennonite communities established themselves in the US and various Latin American countries. There are significant Russian-German Mennonite settlements for instance in Mexico and Paraguay. Their self imposed separation from their host societies has allowed them to maintain their unique culture and communal autonomy in many instances. Hence the Mennonite villages in Mexico and elsewhere still speak dialects of low German and maintain customs that have not changed in centuries. Few other diasporas have managed to retain so much of their original culture over such a long period of time.

The first Mennonite settlers in the Russian Empire came in 1789 from the region around Danzig. The next wave in 1803 also came from the Vistula. The Mennonites arriving in the Russian Empire established communities based upon their unique religion and way of life. Mennonite religious beliefs included a strong commitment to pacifism, voluntary adult baptism, a priesthood of all believers and living every day according to the example set by Christ. Their separate villages allowed them to maintain their religious based communities into the 20th century. Economically many of these settlements became relatively prosperous compared to the Russian and Ukrainian villages around them. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Russian-German Mennonite settlements spread from Ukraine and the Volga to North America, South America, Siberia, Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Mennonite settlements even appeared in the Khanate of Khiva, a protectorate of Tsarist Russia in Central Asia, during the late 19th century. The Mennonites established religious centered communities isolated from the surrounding population in all these new locations.

Due to their rejection of most interaction with the secular world including a refusal to serve in the military and swear oaths to the state, they came under particularly strong pressure from the Soviet government. Even more so than other confessional groups among the Russian-Germans, the Mennonites suffered horrible losses at the hands of the communists. As a result of the 1941 deportations, special settlement regime and labor army an excess of 250,000 Russian-Germans or about 20% of their population in the USSR perished during the 1940s. Other estimates put the number at 300,000 or 25%. There is general agreement that the Mennonites lost a greater portion of their population than other Russian-Germans due to these causes. Out of 100,000 Mennonites some 30,000 or 30% perished as a result. This is a loss equal on a per capita basis with that Hitler inflicted upon the world's Jewish population.

In the summer and fall of 1941, the Stalin regime forcibly deported some 28,000 Mennonites from Crimea, the Volga, Ukraine and Caucasus to special settlements in Kazakhstan and Siberia. Some 35,000 managed to avoid deportation due to the rapid advance of the German military. Another 27,000 Mennonites in the Urals, Siberia, Kazakhstan and Central Asia found themselves conscripted into the labor army. Out of the 35,000 that initially avoided deportation, the Allies forcibly repatriated 23,000 back to the Soviet Union. Only around 12,000 managed to avoid this fate. They later immigrated to Canada and Paraguay. The remainder of the Mennonite population of the USSR remained confined to its Asian regions.

In the post-Stalin period, the Mennonites remained subject to considerable persecution on the basis of both their religion and being German by nationality. The Mennonite Brethern remained an outlawed religious denomination until 1967. Even after legalization they continued to suffer from signficant restrictions on their religious practices. Continuing persecution convinced the Mennonites like it did all other Russian-Germans that they had no future in the Soviet Union. After 1987, most of the Mennonite population of the USSR left to settle in Germany. In this matter they did not differ from the Lutheran majority or the substantial Catholic minority among the Russian-Germans. The once self-contained Mennonite villages speaking Plautdiitsch in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Central Asia have largely evaporated.


Vilhelm Konnander said...

How very interesting. I'm looking forward to reading more about this when you have come a little further on the subject.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Vilhelm: Thanks for the comment. I will post more on Mennonites in the USSR later. They wrote alot more about themselves than many other "repressed peoples" such as Meskhetian Turks or Balkars for instance. On the other hand the Soviet statistical documentation did not count Mennonites as a separate group from the rather large Russian-German population. Only in matters dealing with religious affairs do Soviet era government documents refer specifically to Mennonites. This makes figuring out statistical data on the group more difficult than it is for other peoples.

Vanessa said...

We have, or had Mennonites here in Arkansas. When I was about ten years old, I met some of them when they were staying with my grandparents. My grandfather owned and manufactured carriages and the Mennonites came to buy them once a year. My grandparents always put them up overnight when they came. We were fascinated with their culture. I didn't know their origination until now.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Vanessa: I am not sure of the origin of the Mennonites in Arkansas. The Mennonites as distinct religious sect. originated in Groningen, Holland where Menno Simons became the leader of a collection of Dutch, German and Swiss Anabaptists in 1537. Many of them then moved to the area around Danzig (modern day Gdansk) in the region of the Vistula. After 1772 they began to emigrate. Their refusal to serve in the military brought them into conflict with the Prussian state. Some went to the Russian Empire. This is the group that interests me.

Natalie said...

Hi! My parents are Mennonites and speak Mennonite Low German, which has recently become a hobby of mine (I've written some stuff about it in my blog). My uncle Peter Wiens is the director of the Plautdietsch (that's the name of our Low German) Friends Society and I've written some articles in his Plautdietsch magazine. All my relatives live in Germany.

Anyway, I am really glad to see some people interested in our group. How exactly did you get interested in the Mennonites?

Anonymous said...

My mother was one of these. She was born in Zaporozhye, Ukraine in 1928. Her people came from Danzig in the early 19th century, and had done very well there. Her grandfather introduced the stainless steel plow to the thick soil of the Ukraine, and was the first in the city to have an automobile. They lost everything in the Revolution. Her father was a professor of mechanical engineering and the designer of the first locally-made tractor in Zaporozhye, but as a German was always under suspicion. He was arrested in 1933 and became a zek, working on the Trans-Siberian Railway. She herself fled the Ukraine with her mother in 1944 when the German army retreated. She became a nurse in Bremen and emigrated to Canada in 1950 after her mother died.

She died in 2014, but wrote a memoir of life on the banks of the beautiful Dniepr, "In the Arms of the River" by Louise Redford. It's a Kindle book on Amazon if you're curious about this tragic and lost culture.