Russian Mennonite

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Russian Mennonites
Mennonite Family - Campeche - Mexico - 02.jpg
Mennonite family in Campeche, Mexico.
Total population
Regions with significant populations
America (notably Mexico, Bolivia, Paraguay, Canada, Belize and United States)
The Bible
Plautdietsch, Standard German, English

The Russian Mennonites (German : Russlandmennoniten [lit. "Russia Mennonites", i.e., Mennonites of or from the Russian Empire], occasionally Ukrainian Mennonites [1] [2] [3] ) are a group of Mennonites who are the descendants of Dutch Anabaptists who settled in the Vistula delta in West Prussia for about 250 years and established colonies in the Russian Empire (present-day Ukraine and Russia's Volga region, Orenburg Governorate, and Western Siberia) beginning in 1789. Since the late 19th century, many of them have emigrated to countries which are located throughout the Western Hemisphere. The rest of them were forcibly relocated, so very few of their descendants currently live in the locations of the original colonies. Russian Mennonites are traditionally multilingual but Plautdietsch (Mennonite Low German) is their first language as well as their lingua franca. In 2014, there were several hundred thousand Russian Mennonites: about 200,000 live in Germany, 74,122 live in Mexico, [4] 70,000 in Bolivia, 40,000 live in Paraguay, 10,000 live in Belize, tens of thousands of them live in Canada and the US, and a few thousand live in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil.


The term "Russian Mennonite" refers to the country which they resided in before their immigration to the Americas rather than their ethnic heritage. [5] The term "Low-German Mennonites" is also used in order to avoid this conflation. [6]


Origins in the Vistula Delta

Former Mennonite Church in Gdansk, Poland Gdansk. Kosciol Zielonoswiatkowy z pocz. XIX w. (w przeszlosci Kosciol Mennonitow) - panoramio.jpg
Former Mennonite Church in Gdańsk, Poland

In the early-to-mid 16th century, Mennonites began to flee to the Vistula Delta region in the Kingdom of Poland in order to avoid persecution in the Low Countries—especially Friesland and Flanders—seeking religious freedom and exemption from military service. They gradually replaced their Dutch and Frisian languages with the Low German language spoken in the area, blending into it elements of their native tongues to create a distinct dialect known as Plautdietsch. Today Plautdietsch is the distinct Mennonite language that developed over a period of 300 years in the Vistula delta region and south Russia. The Mennonites of Dutch origin were joined by Mennonites from other parts of Europe, including the German-speaking parts of the Swiss Confederacy.

In 1772, most of the Vistula delta was annexed by the Kingdom of Prussia in the First Partition of Poland. Frederick William II of Prussia ascended the throne in 1786 and imposed heavy fees on the Mennonites in exchange for continued military exemption. The remainder of the Vistula delta was annexed by Prussia in the Second Partition of Poland in 1793.

Migration to Russia

Catherine the Great of Russia issued a manifesto in 1763 inviting all Europeans to come and settle various pieces of land within New Russia (today Southern Ukraine) and especially in the Volga region. Mennonites from the Vistula delta region sent delegates to negotiate an extension of this manifesto and, in 1789, Crown Prince Paul signed a new agreement with them. [7] The Mennonite migration to Russia from the Prussian-annexed Vistula delta was led by Jacob Hoeppner and Johann Bartsch. Their settlement territory was northwest of the Sea of Azov, and had just been acquired from the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War, 1768–1774. Many of the Mennonites in Prussia accepted this invitation, establishing Chortitza on the Dnieper River as their first colony in 1789. A second larger colony, Molotschna, was founded in 1803.

Mennonites lived alongside Nogais—semi-nomadic pastoralists—in the Molotschna region of southern Ukraine starting from 1803, when Mennonites first arrived, until 1860, when the Nogai Tatars departed. [8] Mennonites provided agricultural jobs to Nogais and rented pasture from them. Nogai raids on Mennonite herds were a constant problem in the first two decades of settlement. [9]

Two Mennonite settlements on the Vistula near Warsaw, Kazuń Nowy and Nowe Wymyśle, came under Russian control after Mazovia was annexed by Russia at the Congress of Vienna (1815). Some of these families emigrated to the Molotschna settlement after it was established. Deutsch-Michalin near Machnovka was founded in 1787. [10] Many families from this settlement moved to nearby Volhynia in 1802. Swiss Mennonites of Amish descent from Galicia settled near Dubno, Volhynia province in 1815. Other Galician Mennonites lived near Lviv.

When the Prussian government eliminated exemption from military service on religious grounds, the remaining Mennonites were eager to emigrate to Russia. They were offered land along the Volga River in Samara Governorate and exemption from military service for twenty years, after which they could pay a special exemption tax. [11] Two settlements, Trakt and Alt-Samara (to distinguish it from Neu Samara Colony), were founded in 1853 and 1861 respectively.

By 1870 about 9000 individuals had immigrated to Russia, mostly to the Chortitza and Molotschna settlements which, with population increase, numbered about 45,000. Forty daughter colonies were established by 1914, occupying nearly 12,000 square kilometres (4,600 sq mi), with a total population of 100,000. [12]

Life in Russia


The colonists formed villages of fifteen to thirty families, each with 70 ha (175 acres) of land. The settlements retained some communal land and a common granary for use by the poor in lean years. Income from communal property provided funding for large projects, such as forming daughter colonies for the growing population. Insurance was also organized separately and outside of the control of the Russian government. [13]

Initially the settlers raised cattle, sheep and general crops to provide for their household. The barren steppes were much drier than their Vistula delta homeland and it took years to work out the proper dry-land farming practices. They grew mulberries for the silk industry, produced honey, flax and tobacco, and marketed fruits and vegetables for city markets. By the 1830s wheat became the dominant crop. [14]

Expanding population and the associated pressure for more farmland became a problem by 1860. The terms of the settlement agreement prevented farms from being divided; they were required to pass intact from one generation to the next. Since agriculture was the main economic activity, an expanding class of discontented, landless poor arose. Their problems tended to be ignored by the village assembly, which consisted of voting landowners. By the early 1860s the problem became so acute that the landless organized a party that petitioned the Russian government for relief. A combination of factors relieved their plight. The Russian government permitted farms to be divided in half or quarters and ordered release of the village's communal land. The colonies themselves purchased land and formed daughter colonies on the eastern frontier extending into Siberia and Turkestan. These new colonies included Bergtal, Neu Samara Colony and the Mennonite settlements of Altai. [15]

As wheat farming expanded, the demand for mills and farm equipment grew. The first large foundry was established in Chortitza in 1860 and other firms followed. By 1911 the eight largest Mennonite-owned factories produced 6% of the total Russian output (over 3 million rubles), shipped machinery to all parts of the empire and employed 1744 workers. [16] The annual output of Lepp and Wallman of Schönwiese was 50,000 mowers, 3000 threshing machines, thousands of gangplows in addition to other farm equipment. Flour and feed mills were originally wind-powered, a skill transplanted from Prussia. These were eventually replaced with motor- and steam-driven mills. Milling and its supporting industries grew to dominate the industrial economy of the colonies and nearby communities.

Local government

Mennonite colonies were self-governing with little intervention from the Russian authorities. The village, the basic unit of government, was headed by an elected magistrate who oversaw village affairs. Each village controlled its own school and roads, and cared for the poor. Male landowners decided local matters at village assemblies.

Villages were grouped into districts. All of the Chortitza villages formed one district; Molotschna was divided into two districts: Halbstadt and Gnadenfeld. A district superintendent headed a regional bureau that could administer corporal punishment and handle other matters affecting the villages in common. Insurance and fire protection were handled at the regional level, as well as dealing with delinquents and other social problems. The Mennonite colonies functioned as a democratic state, enjoying freedoms beyond those of ordinary Russian peasants. [17]

In addition to village schools, the Mennonite colonies established their own hospitals, a mental hospital and a school for the deaf. They cared for orphans and elderly and provided an insurance program. By being largely self-sufficient in these local matters, they were able to minimize their burden on and contact with the Russian government.

Mennonites stayed out of Russian politics and social movements that preceded the Russian revolution. After the Russian Revolution of 1905 they did exercise their right to vote. Most aligned themselves with the Octobrist Party because of its guarantee of religious freedoms and freedom of the press for minority groups. Hermann Bergmann was an Octobrist member of the Third and Fourth State Dumas; Peter Schröder, a Constitutional Democratic party member from Crimea, was a member of the fourth Duma. [18]


At a time when compulsory education was unknown in Europe, the Mennonite colonies formed an elementary school in each village. Students learned practical skills such as reading and writing German and arithmetic. Religion was included as was singing in many schools. The teacher was typically a craftsperson or herder, untrained in teaching, who fit class time around his occupation.

In 1820 the Molotschna colony started a secondary school at Ohrloff, bringing a trained teacher from Prussia. The Central School was started in Chortitza in 1842. Over three thousand pupils attended the Central School with up to 8% of the colonists receiving a secondary education. [19] A school of commerce was started in Halbstadt employing a faculty with full graduate education. Those who wanted to pursue post-secondary education attended universities in Switzerland, Germany as well as Russia.

Religious life

Typically each village or group of villages organized an independent congregation. Cultural and traditional differences between Frisian and Flemish Mennonites were also reflected in those of their churches. They all agreed on fundamental Mennonite beliefs such as believer's baptism, nonresistance and avoidance of oaths. Pastors of Flemish congregations read sermons from a book while seated at a table. Frisian pastors stood while delivering the sermon. [20]

Pastors were untrained and chosen from within the congregation. Unpaid pastors were selected from among the wealthier members—large landowners, sometimes teachers—allowing them to make a living while serving the congregation. The combined effect of respect for their position and material wealth gave them substantial influence over the community.

Church discipline was exercised in the form of excommunication against those who had committed sins and refused to repent and ask for forgiveness. The most conservative congregations practiced "avoidance", which entailed cutting all business and most social ties with an unrepentant member, but members still had the obligation to help the shunned person if he was in grave need. [21] Because being part of a Mennonite congregation was required to enjoy the special benefits the Russian government provided to colonists, excommunication had broader implications. This was softened by the various internal factions, which allowed a person banned from one congregation to join another.

First wave of emigration

As nationalism grew in central Europe, the Russian government could no longer justify the special status of its German-speaking colonists. In 1870 they announced a Russification plan that would end all special privileges by 1880. Mennonites were particularly alarmed at the possibility of losing their exemption from military service and their right for schools to use the German language, which they believed was necessary to maintain their cultural and religious life.

Delegates were sent to Petersburg in 1871 to meet with the czar and appeal for relief on religious grounds. They met with high officials, but failed to present the czar with their petition. A similar attempt the next year was also unsuccessful, but were assured by the Tsar's brother Grand Duke Konstantin that the new law would provide a way to address the concerns of the Mennonites in the form of noncombatant military service. [22]

The most conscientious Mennonites could not accept any form of service that supported making war, prompting their community leaders to seek immigration options. In 1873 a delegation of twelve explored North America, seeking large tracts of fertile farmland. This group consisted of Leonhard Sudermann and Jacob Buller of the Alexanderwohl congregation representing the Molotschna settlement; Tobias Unruh from Volhynia settlements; Andreas Schrag of the Swiss Volhynia congregations; Heinrich Wiebe, Jacob Peters and Cornelius Buhr from the Bergthal Colony; William Ewert from West Prussia; Cornelius Toews and David Klassen of the Kleine Gemeinde and Paul and Lorenz Tschetter representing the Hutterites. [23] This group returned with positive reports of good land available in Manitoba, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.

The more conservative groups—those from Kleine Gemeinde, Bergthal and Chortitza—chose Canada, which promised privileges equal to those previously held in Russia and a large tract of land to reestablish colonies in Manitoba (East Reserve and West Reserve). The more liberal groups—those from Molotschna—and the Hutterites chose the United States. Entire communities such as Alexanderwohl and Bergtal prepared to move as a unit as well as many individual families from among the other Mennonite villages. They sold their property, often at reduced prices and worked through the red tape and high fees of procuring passports.

Realizing that 40,000 of Russia's most industrious farmers were preparing to leave for North America, the Russian government sent Eduard Totleben to the colonies in May 1874. Meeting with community leaders, he exaggerated the difficulties that would be encountered in North America and offered an alternative national service that would not be connected in any way to the military. His intervention convinced the more liberal Mennonites to stay. [24]

Between 1874 and 1880, of the approximately 45,000 Mennonites in South Russia, ten thousand departed for the United States and eight thousand for Manitoba. The settlement of Mennonites, primarily in the central United States, where available cropland had similarity to that in the Crimean Peninsula, coincided with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.[ citation needed ] Others looked east, and in one of the strangest chapters of Mennonite history, Claas Epp, Jr., Abraham Peters and other leaders led hundreds of Mennonites to Central Asia in the 1880s, where they expected Christ's imminent return. They settled in the Talas Valley of Turkestan and in the Khanate of Khiva. [25] For those who remained in Russia, the military service question was resolved by 1880 with a substitute four-year forestry service program for men of military age. [26]

World War I

During the period of the 'Great War', the Mennonites in Russia were well advanced socially and economically. Many large agricultural estates and business entities were controlled by Mennonite interests. They had a reputation for outstanding efficiency and quality and were noted across Russia for their agricultural and organizational abilities. The precedent of non-resistant national service had been established years before and the Mennonites therefore had a system to handle military service requests at the outbreak of war. During World War I, 5000 Mennonite men served in both forestry and hospital units and transported wounded from the battlefield to Moscow and Ekaterinoslav hospitals. [27] The Mennonite congregations were responsible for funding these forms of alternative service, as well as supporting the men's families during their absence, a burden of 3.5 million rubles annually. During this time there was a progressive breakdown in the autonomy of the Mennonite colonies and social and financial pressure began to take their effect on the Mennonite people and their institutions. Property and possessions began to be confiscated for the war effort and certain industrial complexes turned to military production (some voluntarily). Much of the Mennonite hope at that time was based on the preservation of the existing Russian Provisional Government. However, as the war progressed, the social tide turned against the existing power structure and Russia began a march toward structural discord.

The chaos that followed the collapse of the Russian Provisional Government was devastating to much of Ukraine, including the Mennonite colonies. The Red and White armies moved through the region, confiscating food and livestock. Nestor Makhno's anarchist army generally targeted Mennonites because they were thought of as "Kulaks" and an entity generally more advanced and wealthy than the surrounding Ukrainian peasants. The Mennonites' Germanic background also served to inflame negative sentiment during the period of revolution. It is also rumored that Makhno himself had served on a Mennonite estate in childhood and harbored negative feelings based on treatment he received while employed there. Hundreds of Mennonites were murdered, robbed, imprisoned and raped during this period, [28] [29] and villages including (and around) Chortitza, Zagradovka and Nikolaipol were damaged and destroyed. Many more people died from typhus, cholera and sexually transmitted diseases, spread by the anarchist army warring throughout the colonies. [30] [31] [32] [33]

Based on the tragedy unfolding around them, some of the avowed pacifist Mennonites turned to self-defense and established militia units (Selbstschutz) to ward off raiding forces with the help of the German Army. While generally regarded as a failure of spiritual commitment by many within the community (currently and at the time), the forces initially achieved some military success in defending Mennonite colonies and families while the communities tried to escape and/or relocate. Ultimately the self-defence militia was overwhelmed once Makhno's anarchists aligned themselves with the Red Army early in 1919. While the resistance certainly helped defend Mennonite communities against initial attacks, it may also have served to inflame some of the atrocities that followed. After this period, many Mennonites were dispossessed and ultimately their remaining properties and possessions were nationalized (collectivization) by the Soviet authorities. [34] [35]

The impacts of the trauma experienced during World War I and the Russian Revolution had lasting impacts on Russian Mennonites. Even though Mennonites who emigrated to North America experienced drastically less violence and the privilege of land ownership, many still showed very high levels of psychological distress. First through third generation Mennonites in North America were found to have high levels of depression, hysteria, psychasthenia, post traumatic stress disorder, ego strength, anxiety, repression, and over-controlled hostility. [28] [29]


Mennonites of Molotschna sent a commission to North America in the summer of 1920 to alert American Mennonites of the dire conditions of war-torn Ukraine. Their plight succeeded in uniting various branches of Mennonites to form Mennonite Central Committee in an effort to coordinate aid.

The new organization planned to provide aid to Ukraine via existing Mennonite relief work in Istanbul. The Istanbul group, mainly Goshen College graduates, produced three volunteers, who at great risk entered Ukraine during the ongoing Russian Civil War. They arrived in the Mennonite village of Halbstadt in the Molotschna settlement just as General Wrangel of the White Army was retreating. Two of the volunteers withdrew with the Wrangel army, while Clayton Kratz, who remained in Halbstadt as it was overrun by the Red Army, was never heard from again.

A year passed before official permission was received from the Soviet government to do relief work among the villages of Ukraine (see Russian famine of 1921). Kitchens provided 25,000 people a day with rations over a period of three years beginning in 1922, with a peak of 40,000 servings during August of that year. Fifty Fordson tractor and plow combinations were sent to Mennonite villages to replace horses that had been stolen and confiscated during the war. The cost of this relief effort was $1.2 million. [36]

Second wave of emigration

As conditions improved, Mennonites turned their attention from survival to emigration. Though the New Economic Policy appeared to be less radical than previous Soviet reforms, thousands of Mennonites saw no future under the communists. After years of negotiation with foreign governments and Moscow, arrangements were made for emigration to Canada, Paraguay and Argentina. Because Canada had not recognized the Soviet government, Moscow would not deal with them directly. Emigrants bound for Canada were processed through Riga. Those who could not pass the medical exam—usually because of trachoma—were allowed to stay in Germany and Southampton in England until they were healthy. By 1930, 21,000 Mennonites had arrived in Canada, most on credit provided by the Canadian Pacific Railway. [37]

A group of Mennonites from western Siberia who subsequently settled along the Amur in unrealized hopes of better living conditions, escaped over the frozen river to Harbin, China. A few hundred were allowed entry into California and Washington. The majority remained as refugees until the Nansen International Office for Refugees of the League of Nations intervened and arranged resettlement in Paraguay and Brazil in 1932. [38]

Those that remained in their home villages were subject to exile to Siberia and other remote regions east of the Urals. From 1929 to 1940, one in eight men were removed, usually under the pretext of political accusations, to labor camps from which few ever returned or were heard from again. [39]


With the onset of economic and agricultural reforms, large estates and the communal land of the Mennonite colonies were confiscated. The next step was to reduce the model farms by 60% and then another 50% percent—an insufficient size to support a family. The confiscated land was given to peasants from outside the Mennonite communities, often communist party members. These new villagers soon controlled the local government, further confiscating land and rights from the Mennonite majority by labeling landowners and leaders kulaks and sending them into exile. The government taxed the remaining landowners so heavily that they could not possibly produce enough to meet the obligation and their land was confiscated as payment. As collectivization proceeded, there was some hope that Mennonites could run their own collective farms, but with the introduction of Stalin's first five-year plan there was no hope that such a scheme would be allowed.

Starting in 1918 religious freedoms were restricted. Churches and congregations had to be registered with the government. Ministers were disenfranchised and lost their rights as citizens. Ministers could not be teachers, which was the livelihood of many Mennonite pastors. They and their family members could not join cooperatives or craft guilds. Because of these restrictions, ministers had a strong incentive to emigrate, and few were willing to replace them. Congregations could no longer do charitable work of any kind, which destroyed the well developed social institutions with the Mennonite colonies. Villages lost control of their schools; all religious content was prohibited. Sunday was abolished as a holiday.

During World War I the Russians had permitted Mennonites to serve in non-combat capacities in the military. This practice was not continued. [40]

Following the Russian withdrawal from World War I, the Russian Civil War ensued, with an ultimate Red victory. The Russian Mennonites, many of whom were also known as being part of the one million or so Volga Germans living in their own established communities, were approached by the Soviet authorities and issued new standards and expectations. Education was to be controlled according to these new directives by the State, and families were eventually to be separated, with children sent to various live-in schools, while parents were to be assigned according to State needs.

These directives were described by a Volga German teacher, Henry Wieler, who attended these State meetings and related the events in his detailed Journal, Tagabook, which today is partially translated but available in the published book, The Quiet in the Land, [41] by Henry Wieler.

World War II to the 21st century

In 1937 and 1938 the NKVD carried out ethnically motivated purges of German descendants and German language speakers, including Mennonites. [42] As Stalin fomented cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church in World War II, Mennonites and Protestants were seen as more dangerous. [42] During the Holodomor in Ukraine, there was active persecution of German-speaking people as a potential threat to the state, and a ban on organized religion. The hostilities of World War I had increased tensions with ethnic Ukrainians, and Mennonites with family members living abroad were targeted during the Great Purge.

Having suffered persecution by the Stalinist regime, many Mennonites came to identify with Adolf Hitler, who opposed Stalin and saw the Jews as being mainly responsible for the Communist crimes. This view has gained support over recent years as the Jews occupied a disproportionately large percentage of the upper echelons of the Soviet political hierarchy in comparison to the percentage of the Soviet population they comprised at the time. As pacifists within an increasingly military regime under Stalin and then (after invasion of Ukraine and parts of Russia by Hitler) the Nazis, and as "Volga Germans" whose abuse Hitler had used as a pretext to invade, Mennonites were subject to special pressure to join military units. Mennonites played a central role in managing the labor force at Stutthof concentration camp, and some, recruited into SS units, served as guards at concentration camps or carried out shootings of prisoners. [43] Other Mennonites were conscripted by force into German units as support and shock troops and some participated in anti-partisan operations. Most history of this period is anecdotal and based on family memoirs [44] and letters from the Gulags. [40]

Peter Letkemann of University of Winnipeg characterizes the casualties and abuses of this period as "victims of terror and repression in the Soviet Union during the 40-year period from 1917-1956." [45] This would overlap somewhat with the "Siberian Germans" deported to that region who have lost touch entirely with the Mennonite mainstream worldwide. [46]

Between 1987 and 1993 about 100,000 persons of Mennonite origin emigrated from the USSR to Germany. [47] Today in Ukraine there are three Mennonite communities in Zaporizhzhia Oblast and Kherson Oblast and a Mennonite community in Ternopol Oblast. [48]

North America

After 1870 about 18,000 Russian Mennonites, fearing conscription into military service and state influence on their education systems, emigrated to the Plains States of the US and the Western Provinces of Canada. The more liberal went in general to the US where the majority over a period of several decades assimilated more or less into the mainstream society.

Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church near Goessel, Kansas Alexanderwohl-church.jpg
Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church near Goessel, Kansas

Russian Mennonites settled much of South Central Kansas, which owes its reputation as a wheat-producing state in large measure to its early Mennonite settlers. Winter wheat was introduced to Kansas in 1873. The following year the Mennonites, who had experience with dry land farming in Russia, quickly took advantage of its characteristics, resulting in rapid expansion of the milling industry in the state. [49] It is planted in the fall and harvested in June and July of the following summer, and is therefore ideally suited to cold winters and the hot, dry Kansas summers. Kansas remains a top producer of wheat in America to this day. [50]

The more conservative Old Colony, Bergthal Mennonites and Kleine Gemeinde went to Canada which promised privileges equal to those previously held in Russia (no conscription into military service and German language private schools) and a large tract of land divided into two "Reserves". The Mennonites settled mostly in Manitoba in areas east and west of the Red River, called East Reserve and West Reserve. [51]

They brought with them many of their institutions and practices, especially their traditional settling pattern which meant that they settled in vast exclusively Mennonite areas where they formed villages with German names such as Blumenort, Steinbach and Grünthal. [52]

Mennonites on New River, Belize Mennonites on New River, Belize detail.jpg
Mennonites on New River, Belize

The more conservative faction of the Manitoba Mennonites decided to leave Canada after World War I and moved to Mexico mostly in the years 1922-1927 and to Paraguay in 1927. The main reasons were compulsory attendance at public schools and anti-German sentiments because of the war. Some latercomers went to Mexico in 1948. [53] [54] After the more conservative fraction had left for Mexico, most of the remaining Mennonites quickly assimilated into the mainstream society.

Descendants of Manitoba Mennonites today form the majority of Conservative Mennonites in Latin America, counting more than 200,000. Because many of these Mennonites from Canada still hold Canadian passports-there was and still is a steady flow back to Canada fed by the high birth rates of conservative Mennonites. These emigrants strengthen the Russian Mennonite element in the Canadian Mennonite churches. [55]

With the Russian Mennonites came separate denominations previously unseen in North America, such as the Mennonite Brethren. [56]

A second wave of Russian Mennonites came out of Russia after the bloody strife following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and a third wave in the aftermath of World War I. [28] [29] These people, having lost everything they had known, found their way to settlements in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, British Columbia and Ontario and in many regions of the United States.[ citation needed ] Some joined with previous Mennonite groups, while others formed their own.[ citation needed ] A key figure negotiating with the government on behalf of 20,000 of the Mennonite immigrants at this time, and mediating among the Mennonites themselves, was David Toews, founding chairman of the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization. [57]

Latin America

Mennonite children in San Ignacio, Paraguay San Ignacio.jpg
Mennonite children in San Ignacio, Paraguay
Mennonite children selling peanuts to tourists near Lamanai, Belize Menonite Children.JPG
Mennonite children selling peanuts to tourists near Lamanai, Belize

The emigration from Canada to Mexico and Paraguay in the 1920s was a reaction to the introduction of universal, secular compulsory education in 1917 requiring the use of the English language, which the more conservative Mennonites saw as a threat to the religious basis of their community.

The first colony in a Latin American country was established by Mennonites from Canada between 1922 and 1925 in Mexico in the state of Chihuahua near the city of Cuauhtémoc. The next country was Paraguay, where Menno Colony was formed 1927 by Mennonites from Canada, whereas Fernheim and Friesland Colonies were formed in the 1930s by Mennonites from the Soviet Union who were fleeing starvation (Holodomor), persecution of religion and Collectivization under Stalin. [58] Neuland and Volendam Colonies were founded 1947 by Mennonites who fled the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. All other Mennonite colonies in Latin America were formed by Mennonites who settled in North America since 1870, partly via Mexico and Belize.

Beginning in 1954 conservative Mennonites settled in East-Bolivia, in the Santa Cruz Department. Bolivia soon became the refuge for Mennonites who wanted to flee the influences of modern society. In 2006 there were 41 Mennonite colonies in Bolivia. [59] Old Colony Mennonites went from Mexico to Belize in 1959 [60] and to Argentina in 1986.

As of 2017, the population of Mennonites living in Mexico has declined sharply, according to some estimates. Worsening poverty, water shortages and drug-related violence across northern Mexico have provoked large numbers of Mennonites living in the Mexican states of Durango and Chihuahua to relocate abroad in recent years, especially to Canada and other regions of Latin America. Between 2012 and 2017 alone, it is estimated that at least 30,000 Mexican Mennonites emigrated to Canada. [63]

A distinguished writer and historian about the Russian Mennonites in Latin America, especially in Paraguay, was Peter P. Klassen. [64]


Church of God in Christ, Mennonite

The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, commonly referred to as Holdeman Mennonites after the founder of the church, is a theologically conservative plain dress denomination founded in the United States but made up primarily of descendants of Russian Mennonites, including many former members of the Kleine Gemeinde. [65] In 2013 the church had 24,400 baptized members. [66]

General Conference

The main body of Mennonites continued to be congregational in organization until 1882 when the General Conference of Mennonite Congregations in Russia was formed. Cooperation among Mennonite congregations throughout the empire became necessary for dealing with common interests such as publishing a hymnal, adopting a confession of faith, preserving the German language, education and running the forestry service, an alternative to military service. The conference adopted the motto Unity in essentials, tolerance in non-essentials, moderation in all things. [67]

The Russianization program of Stolypin required the conference to publish its proceedings in Russian, certify all delegates with the imperial government and allow a government representative to attend all sessions. The conference found itself devoting more time to dealing with changing government policies and protecting the special privileges of Mennonites. An important task was to convince the government that Mennonitism was an established religion and not a sect, a label applied to small religious groups who were regularly mistreated within the Russian empire.

The group that immigrated to North America called itself the General Conference Mennonite Church. Today, the main branches of the former General Conference Mennonite Church has split into the Mennonite Church Canada (since 2000) and the Mennonite Church USA (since 2002).

Kleine Gemeinde

Klaas Reimer and a group of eighteen followers broke from the main group and formed the Kleine Gemeinde (small congregation). Reimer's main complaint was that Mennonite leaders were straying from their traditional nonresistant stance when they turned lawbreakers over to the government for punishment while at the same time church leaders were lax in enforcing spiritual discipline. In 1860 a portion of this group moved to Crimea, adopted baptism by immersion and became known as the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren. Today, the largest group of Kleine Gemeinde are located in Mexico. The majority of the Canadian congregations became theologically evangelical in the mid-20th century and are now called the Evangelical Mennonite Conference.

Mennonite Brethren

Pietistic influences, introduced earlier among the West Prussian Mennonites, were transplanted to the Molotschna colony. The pastor of a neighboring congregation, Eduard Wüst, reinforced this pietism. Wüst was a revivalist who stressed repentance and Christ as a personal savior, influencing Catholics, Lutherans and Mennonites in the area. He associated with many Mennonite leaders, including Leonhard Sudermann.

In 1859, Joseph Höttmann, a former associate of Wüst met with a group of Mennonites to discuss problems within the main Mennonite body. Their discussion centered on participating in closed communion with church members who were unholy or not converted and baptism of adults by immersion.

The Mennonite Brethren Church formally broke with the main church on January 6, 1860 when this growing group of dissenters presented a document to the elders of the Molotschna Mennonite Churches which indicated "that the total Mennonite brotherhood has decayed to the extent that we can no more be part of it" and fear the "approach of an unavoidable judgment of God." [68] The Mennonite Brethren movement spread throughout the Mennonite colonies and produced many distinguished leaders, particularly in Molotschna. By breaking religious and cultural patterns that had become a hindrance to Mennonite society, the contribution of the Mennonite Brethren allowed all Mennonites groups to pursue a more wholesome Christian life. [69]

Old Colony

Not to be confused with Old Order Mennonites, who are primarily of Swiss-German origin, the name Old Colony Mennonites (German: Altkolonier-Mennoniten) refers to part of the Russian Mennonite movement that is descended from colonists who migrated from the Chortitza Colony, as opposed to the slightly newer Molotschna colony, in Russia and are theologically conservative. [70] Old Colony Mennonites consist of a number of groups that are still quite conservative, including Sommerfelder, Reinlander, and Old Colony, as well as groups that are no longer as conservative such as the Christian Mennonite Conference (formerly the Chortitzer Mennonite conference), which is evangelical in doctrine.


Most ethnic Russian Mennonites no longer reside in Russia, with the majority being spread across the Americas. [71] Russian Mennonites are diverse in terms of theology and dress, while many have assimilated into larger American, Canadian, or Mexican culture. Still shared by many Russian Mennonites, assimilated or not, is the Plautdietsch language, certain dishes Mennonite cuisine such as vereniki, zwieback, and farmer sausage [72] and certain common surnames such as Reimer, Friesen, Penner and dozens of others. [73] Russian Mennonites, particularly in Canada, have also written many well known works of literature. [74]


Many Mennonites, particularly in Western Canada, use the term "Russian Mennonite" as term of culture or ethnicity referring to their Dutch and Prussian ancestry and heritage, even if they never lived in Russia themselves. [75] The term, does not, however, mean that they are ethnically Russian, but refers to the country they lived in before immigrating to the Americas. [76] "Low-German Mennonites" is also used in order to avoid this conflation.

Russian Mennonites can be further divided into several groups and labels based on immigration history. The term "Kanadier" refers to Russian Mennonites who came to Canada in the 1870s, some of whom later moved to Mexico. [77] The label "Russlander" refers to Russian Mennonites who came to the Americas in the 1920s. [78] The term "Aussiedler" refers to Russian Mennonites who stayed in the Soviet Union throughout the 20th century before leaving for Germany or the Americas following the collapse of the Soviet Union. [79]

See also


  1. "Ukrainian Mennonite General Conference – GAMEO". 1926-10-08. Retrieved 2012-11-13.
  2. "January 7, 2005: Service celebrates Ukrainian-Mennonite experience". MB Herald. Retrieved 2012-11-13.
  3. Staples, and, John R.; Toews, John B. Nestor Makhno and the Eichenfeld Massacre: A Civil War Tragedy in a Ukrainian Mennonite Village.
  4. "Mexico colony census brings surprises". 27 October 2022.
  5. "Russia". 2011-02-02. Retrieved 2018-12-28.
  6. "Russia". Mennonite DNA Project. 2017-01-20. Retrieved 2020-08-04.
  7. "Catherine's Manifesto and Paul's Mennonite Agreement". Retrieved 2012-11-13.
  8. "Mennonite Life". 2004-06-03. Retrieved 2012-11-13.
  9. ""On Civilizing the Nogais": Mennonite-Nogai Economic Relations, 1825-1860". Retrieved 2012-11-13.
  10. Goertz, Adalbert, Deutsch-Michalin Mennonites
  11. Smith, C. Henry, Smith's Story of the Mennonites (1981), p. 260.
  12. Smith, C. Henry, p. 261.
  13. Jonas Stadling (1897). In the Land of Tolstoi. p. 155 via Project Runeberg.
  14. Smith, p. 263.
  15. Smith, p. 265-7.
  16. Smith, p. 305.
  17. Smith, p. 268.
  18. Smith, p. 302.
  19. Smith, p. 270.
  20. Smith, p. 273.
  21. Smith, p. 274.
  22. Smith, p. 285.
  23. Kaufman p. 78.
  24. Smith, p. 291.
  25. Ratliff, Walter Pilgrims On The Silk Road p.??, ISBN   978-1-60608-133-4
  26. Urry, James (2010). "The Mennonite Commonwealth in Imperial Russia Revisited". Mennonite Quarterly Review. 84: 229+ via GALE.
  27. Smith, p. 311.
  28. 1 2 3 Klassen Reynolds, Lynda (1997). "The Aftermath of Trauma and Immigration: Detections of Multigenerational Effects on Mennonites Who Emigrated From Russia to Canada in the 1920s". PhD Dissertation from California School of Professional Psychology via Research Gate.
  29. 1 2 3 Enns, Elaine L. (2016). "Trauma and Memory: Challenges to Settler Solidarity". Consensus. 37.
  30. Smith, p. 314-315.
  31. The Makhnos of Memory: Mennonite and Makhnovist Narratives of the Civil War in Ukraine, 1917-1921 by Sean David Patterson pages 4-5
  33. Historian Mennonite] A PUBLICATION OF THE MENNONITE HERITAGE CENTRE and THE CENTRE FOR MB STUDIES IN CANADA, Eichenfeld Massacre Revisited by Sean Patterson page 2
  34. Smith, p. 316.
  35. Krahn, Cornelius & Al Reimer (1989). "Selbstschutz, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online". Archived from the original on 2010-02-02. Retrieved 2013-03-21.
  36. Smith, p. 320.
  37. Smith, p. 324.
  38. Smith, p. 335-336.
  39. Smith, p. 336.
  40. 1 2 "Mennonite letters survived Stalin's reign of terror". 1933-10-08. Retrieved 2014-05-28.
  41. Wieler, Henry (2005). The Quiet in the Land. Trafford. p. 127. ISBN   978-1-4120-4786-9.
  42. 1 2 "Lecturer tells the story of Mennonites in Siberia | FPU News". Archived from the original on 2014-05-29. Retrieved 2014-05-28.
  43. "Mennonites and the Holocaust". Archived from the original on 2014-05-29. Retrieved 2014-05-28.
  44. "Mennonites in The World". Mennonite Heritage Village. Retrieved 2014-05-28.
  45. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-05-29. Retrieved 2014-05-28.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  46. "Orientation - Siberian Germans". Retrieved 2014-05-28.
  47. Historical Roots of a Post-Gulag Theology for Russian Mennonites
  48. Mennonites: German diaspora in southern Ukraine
  49. Origins of winter wheat in Kansas (Kansas State Historical Society)
  50. "Crop Profile for Wheat in Kansas" (PDF). Regional IPM Centers - National IPM Database. NSF Center for Integrated Pest Management located at North Carolina State University. Retrieved August 31, 2016.
  51. C. Henry Smith, PhD, Professor of History at Bluffton College (1920). "The Mennonites: A Brief History of Their Origin and Later Development in Both Europe and America". Berne, Ind., Mennonite book concern. The Manitoba settlements, composed of colonists from the Chortitz, Bergthal and Fuerstenthal communities and a group of Molotschna Kleingemeinder, form a group by themselves and deserve a separate description. As already stated, they were granted by the Canadian Government two reserves (later increased to three) of twenty-six townships, in the fertile Red River valley south of Winnipeg in Manitoba near the Dakota line.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  52. Edward M. Ledohowski (2003). "The Heritage Landscape of the Crow Wing Study Region" (PDF). Historic Resources Branch. Manitoba Culture, Heritage & Tourism. Most of the villages in both the East and West reserves have disappeared over the years. Today, in the former East Reserve, communities such as Kleefeld, New Bothwell, Grunthal and Blumenort are still in existence, but the traditional 'Strassendorf' community plan no longer survives... The Steinbach village became the commercial centre for the East Reserve villages...
  53. Maxico at GAMEO.
  54. Paraguay at GAMEO.
  55. "Old Colony Mennonites". Retrieved 11 January 2018.
  56. Smith, C. Henry (1981). Smith's Story of the Mennonites (Revised and expanded by Cornelius Krahn ed.). Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press. pp. 280–281. ISBN   0-87303-069-9.
  57. Josephson, Harold (1985). Biographical Dictionary of Modern Peace Leaders. Connecticut: Greenwood. pp. 948–9. ISBN   0-313-22565-6.
  58. Antonio De La Cova (1999-12-28). "Paraguay's Mennonites resent 'fast buck' outsiders". Retrieved 2012-11-13.
  59. Romero, Simon (21 December 2006). "Bolivian Reforms Raise Anxiety on Mennonite Frontier". The New York Times . Retrieved 11 January 2018.
  60. "Belize - GAMEO". Retrieved 11 January 2018.
  61. "Mexico colony census brings surprises". 27 October 2022.
  62. le Polain de Waroux, Yann et al.: “Pious Pioneers: The Expansion of Mennonite Colonies in Latin America.” Journal of Land Use Science, December 15, 2020, 1–17.
  63. "A Century Ago, Our Families Left the Prairies and Moved to Mexico. Now We are Coming Home". National Post. 2017-07-27. Retrieved 4 November 2019.
  64. The 'Green Hell' Becomes Home: Mennonites in Paraguay as Described in the Writings of Peter P. Klassen, Mennonite Quarterly Review 2002
  65. Blankman, Drew; Augustine, Todd (17 April 2010). Pocket Dictionary of North American Denominations: Over 100 Christian Groups Clearly & Concisely Defined. InterVarsity Press. p. 41. ISBN   978-0-8308-6706-6.
  66. "Where we are". Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. Archived from the original on September 16, 2016. Retrieved August 30, 2016.
  67. Smith, p. 301.
  68. Smith, p. 280.
  69. Smith, p. 281-282.
  70. Kraybill, Donald B.; Johnson-Weiner, Karen M.; Nolt, Steven M. (June 2013). The Amish. JHU Press. p. 421. ISBN   978-1-4214-0914-6.
  71. Cameron Dueck (2020). Menno Moto. Biblioasis.
  72. "A celebration of food and faith". Canadian Mennonite. 17 August 2011. Retrieved July 24, 2020.
  73. "Surnames". Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta. Retrieved October 15, 2022.
  74. "How a meeting of Mennonites resulted in an all-time bestselling book" . Retrieved July 24, 2020.
  75. "Russia". 2011-02-02. Retrieved 2018-12-28.
  76. "Russia". 2011-02-02. Retrieved 2018-12-28.
  77. "Return of the Kanadier". University of Winnipeg. Retrieved October 15, 2022.
  78. "The Russlander Exhibit". Mennonite Heritage Village. Retrieved October 15, 2022.
  79. "The Aussiedler". Mennonite Heritage Village. 13 May 2021. Retrieved October 15, 2022.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mennonites</span> Anabaptist groups originating in Western Europe

Mennonites are groups of Anabaptist Christian church communities of denominations. The name is derived from the founder of the movement, Menno Simons (1496–1561) of Friesland. Through his writings about Reformed Christianity during the Radical Reformation, Simons articulated and formalized the teachings of earlier Swiss founders, with the early teachings of the Mennonites founded on the belief in both the mission and ministry of Jesus, which the original Anabaptist followers held with great conviction, despite persecution by various Roman Catholic and Mainline Protestant states. Formal Mennonite beliefs were codified in the Dordrecht Confession of Faith in 1632, which affirmed "the baptism of believers only, the washing of the feet as a symbol of servanthood, church discipline, the shunning of the excommunicated, the non-swearing of oaths, marriage within the same church", strict pacifistic physical nonresistance, anti-Catholicism and in general, more emphasis on "true Christianity" involving "being Christian and obeying Christ" however they interpret it from the Holy Bible.

Plautdietsch or Mennonite Low German is a Low Prussian dialect of East Low German with Dutch influence that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Vistula delta area of Royal Prussia. The word Plautdietsch translates to "flat German". In other Low German dialects, the word for Low German is usually realised as Plattdütsch/Plattdüütsch[ˈplatdyːtʃ] or Plattdüütsk[ˈplatdyːtsk], but the spelling Plautdietsch is used to refer specifically to the Vistula variant of the language.

The Evangelical Mennonite Conference is a conference of Canadian evangelical Mennonite Christians headquartered in Steinbach, Manitoba, with 62 churches from British Columbia to southern Ontario. It includes people with a wide range of cultural and denominational backgrounds.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mennonite Brethren Church</span>

The Mennonite Brethren Church is an evangelical Mennonite Anabaptist movement with congregations.

Chortitza Colony was a volost Yekaterinoslav Governorate granted to Plautdietsch-speaking Russian Mennonite for colonization northwest of Khortytsia Island and is now part of Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Chortitza was founded in 1789 by Mennonite settlers of Dutch ancestry from the Vistula delta and consisted of many villages. It was the first of many Mennonite settlements in the Russian Empire. Because the Mennonites living in these villages emigrated or were evacuated or deported at the end of World War II, or emigrated after the collapse of the Soviet Union few Mennonites are living in the area today.

Johann(es) Cornies was a Prussian Mennonite settler in the Russian Empire, who became an important agricultural and architectural reformer for the Mennonites, Hutterites and other minorities in the Russian Empire.

Molotschna Colony or Molochna Colony was a Russian Mennonite settlement in what is now Zaporizhzhia Oblast in Ukraine. Today, the central village, known as Molochansk, has a population less than 10,000. The settlement is named after the Molochna River which forms its western boundary. The land falls mostly within the Tokmatskyi and Chernihivskyi Raions. The nearest large city is Melitopol, southwest of Molochansk.

The forestry service was a form of alternative service offered to German speaking Mennonites in lieu of military service in Russia from 1881 to 1918. At its peak during World War I, 7,000 men served in forestry and agricultural pest control in Ukraine and South Russia. The program ended in the turmoil of the Russian Revolution.

The Bergthal Colony is a former Russian Mennonite settlement in what is now Ukraine.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mennonites in Mexico</span> Ethnic group in Mexico

According to the 2012 estimates, there were 100,000 Mennonites living in Mexico, the vast majority of them, or about 90,000 are established in the state of Chihuahua, 6,500 were living in Durango, with the rest living in small colonies in the states of Campeche, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí and Quintana Roo.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mennonites in Belize</span>

Mennonites in Belize form different religious bodies and come from different ethnic backgrounds. There are groups of Mennonites living in Belize who are quite traditional and conservative, while others have modernized to various degrees.

Kleine Gemeinde is a Mennonite denomination founded in 1812 by Klaas Reimer in the Russian Empire. The current group primarily consists of Plautdietsch-speaking Russian Mennonites in Belize, Mexico and Bolivia, as well as a small presence in Canada and the United States. In 2015 it had some 5,400 baptized members. Most of its Canadian congregations diverged from the others over the latter half of the 20th century and are now called the Evangelical Mennonite Conference.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mennonites in Bolivia</span> Religious denomination in South America

The Mennonites in Bolivia are among the most traditional and conservative of all Mennonite denominations in South America. They are mostly Russian Mennonites of Frisian, Flemish, and Prussian descent. As of 2013, there were about 70,000 Mennonites living in Bolivia, that population has grown to around 150,000 as of 2023.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mennonites in Paraguay</span>

Mennonites in Paraguay are either ethnic Mennonites with mostly Flemish, Frisian and Prussian ancestry and who speak Plautdietsch or of mixed or Amerindian ancestry like the vast majority of Paraguayans. Ethnic Mennonites contribute heavily to the agricultural and dairy output of Paraguay.

The name Old Colony Mennonites is used to describe that part of the Russian Mennonite movement that is descended from colonists who migrated from the Chortitza Colony in Russia to settlements in Canada. Theologically, Old Colony Mennonites are largely Conservative Mennonites.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mennonites in Uruguay</span>

Mennonites in Uruguay have been present since 1948. The Mennonites of Uruguay are made up of ethnic Plautdietsch-speaking Russian Mennonites, who are descendants of Friesian, Flemish and Prussian people, as well as Spanish-speaking Uruguayans of all ethnic backgrounds, that converted responding to the missionary efforts of the immigrants.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mennonites in Argentina</span>

Mennonites in Argentina belong to two quite different groups: conservative and very conservative Plautdietsch-speaking group of Russian Mennonites who are descendants of Frisian, Flemish and Prussian people, and converts to the Mennonite faith from the general Argentinian population. The Russian Mennonites are the third largest community of Mennonites in South America, with six colonies in Argentina. While Russian Mennonites have their own language and customs and live in colonies, converts to the Mennonite faith normally live in cities and speak Spanish and do not differ much from other Protestants in Argentina. Conservative ethnic Mennonites normally do not engage in missionary activities but look for a quiet and remote place where they can live according to their tradition. More liberal Mennonites are engaged in worldwide missionary work like other North American Protestant denominations. About one third of Mennonites in Argentina are conservative ethnic Mennonites who belong to the Altkolonier branch.

Nehrungisch is a subdialect (Mundart) of Low Prussian, belonging to the Low German language variety. It was spoken in East Prussia and West Prussia, in the region around the Vistula Spit near Gdansk. The easternmost locality where this variety was spoken was Narmeln, and it was spoken from Narmeln to Krakau (Krakowiec). The dialect survives in Chortitza-Plautdietsch, a dialect of Low Prussian brought to Ukraine by migrants from the Vistula region. Nehrungisch shares features with Eastern Low Prussian.

Werdersch is a subdialect of Low Prussian, which itself is a subdialect of Low German. This dialect is spoken in Poland and was spoken in the former province of West Prussia. Werdersch is closely related to Nehrungisch and Plautdietsch.

The Eichenfeld massacre was a 1919 attack against the Mennonite colonists of Eichenfeld by the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine. Rising tensions between the native Ukrainian peasantry and Mennonite landowners had culminated with attacks on the latter, as insurgents took control of southern Ukraine and began carrying out reprisals against those that had collaborated with the Central Powers and the White movement.


Further reading