II Life in Russia

Life In Russia – Chapter 2The Czarina Katherina granted greater privileges to the Mennonites than anything she had ever offered her own peasants. She needed these frugal, industrious people for her own wheat fields and she promised them one hundred years of military freedom. This was truly a god-send to the Mennonites.Men were sent to Russia to “”spy out”” the land and verify the conditions of the pact with the Russian government. They returned with glowing reports. Soon farmers sold their land in Prussia, packed their belongings, and started on the hazardous journey to Russia. The 800 overland miles were traveled by horse-drawn vehicles oxcarts, and some people walked.The first families left for Russia in 1788. Travel was difficult; they stopped o rest after 300 miles, Another 300 miles later, winter overtook them at Dubrona. The first settlement of 400 families was made on the Chortitza River – a tributary of the Dnieper. (1 Dyck, p 130)Many disappointments came to them. The land was bare and hilly, not like the fertile land of Prussia. The promised help from the government was continually delayed. Illness and death plagued hem during the harsh winter and there was disunity among the Mennonite leaders. Funds and food were meager and housing primitive. Horses were stolen for lack of fences. But in spite of all hardships, more settlers came from Prussia to claim their ‘piece of land.’Offsetting all these problems were the blessings of freedom from military service. They held documents to prove it. The Russian officials gave hem freedom to govern their own communities with little interference. They enjoyed tax exemptions and were able keep their own family customs and traditions with Platt-Deutch spoken in their homes. Since they had lost the written “”mother-tongue”” in Prussia, they established German schools for their children.The first schools were inadequate with teachers appointed in a haphazard manner. The curriculum consisted of ‘reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic’ with Bible study. Each Sunday, they met for worship, but sermons were read because they had no ministers.Small villages were established along the river to provide water and traveling facilities. Houses were built on each side of the road with yards large enough for gardens orchards and livestock. The farmlands stretched out behind the houses. By 1800, four hundred families, most with married children were established in 15 villages with almost 90,000 acres of farmland.By 1803, a new tract of land along the Molotschna River was available for those still coming from Prussia. These newcomers wintered in the Chortitza villages before claiming their land. They learned better ways for new beginnings in Russia. By 1835, some 1,200 families, including married sons and daughters, settled in the the Molotchna colonies in 50 or more villages to farm 324,000 acres of land. (2Dyck, p 130)By now Prussia realized they were losing their best farmers on account of severe government restrictions and excessive taxes. These were eased and emigrants were taxed 10 percent of their worth. Although this slowed the move to new freedoms, wagon trains still moved across Poland to join earlier settlers to Russia.With time, life eased for the Mennonites in Russia. Ministers came from Prussia to call for spiritual renewal. The new settlers included teachers and schools began to improve. Wheat lands yielded their harvests and Russia bought all the wheat the Mennonites could spare. New orchards bloomed and brought fruit to their tables.Soon all available land was settled and still people came. The latecomers were called “”Anwohners”” or “”Anhalters”” without land available for farming. These were the teachers, cobblers, blacksmiths, carpenters, or painters. Since only landowners held voting rights, the Anwohners were second-class citizens in their communities.Without strong church leadership and easier living conditions the Mennonites drifted into spiritual apathy. Ministers were appalled about the life of “”so-called”” church members. They were a worldly lot. This is reflected in a narrative poem written by Jacob Becker entitled: The Going Out and the Going On of the Mennonite Brethren Church.Once each year Russian officials came to visit each village. This was ‘show-off’ time for the Mennonites with white-washed houses and swept yards. They proudly displayed their growing families at their own front gates. This seemed to be the only contact they had with the Russian government or its people except when young Russian people worked for the Mennonites.As a people the Mennonites were not interested in Russian politics, their customs, or their language. There were some barnyard words (profanity) young boys learned from Russian farmhands and the Mennonite cooks, borrowed new recipes from young Russian girls who worked in their kitchens. Otherwise, there was very little communication between Mennonite and Russian people. for almost one hundred years the Mennonites lived, more or less, under their own rule. Ten changes came that disrupted the peace of these villages along the Chortitza and Molotschna Rivers.Czarina Katherina died. Her son Paul became the Tsar. He and his officials decided the Mennonite youth would begin to serve in the armies in spite of the promises of a prior treaty. All schools would be closely supervised and the Russian language would be taught…even in the Mennonite schools. Since these Mennonites lived on Russian soil, they ought to be a part of Russia in all their ways. The Tsar had spoken and no delegation of Mennonite leaders could change his mind. (4 Leonard Suderman, In Search of Freedom, translated by Elmer F. Suderman, Steinbach: Derksen, 1974, p1).After three centuries and three countries, the Mennonite leadership met once more to find a way to maintain their principles of faith and peaceful existence. Their pleas to the Tsar went unheard. Since God had always listened to their prayers, they went to a higher power. If they could find a place of freedom.Delegates were sent to a new country called America. They returned with glowing reports. America was ready and willing to receive farmers of Dutch descent…farmers who had been Prussians and Russians for three hundred years.The migration began in 1873, and swelled to great numbers until Russian farms could be bought for a song. Many sacrificed their comfortable homes, almost gave away their possessions, to pack their personal belongings for the long and hazardous journey to this new land called America.