When the Russian czarina, Catherine the Great invited German farmers to come and settle the wide, empty steppes of the Ukraine, she was trying to hold her claim to the land that Russia had seized, from the Turks during the Russo-Turkish war. A 176-acre homestead was offered to many settlers who were adventures enough to tame the wild land. The Russian Colonial Law guaranteed, among other things, permanent religious freedom and military exemption.
This greatly applied to the Mennonites in Prussia. Here they could worship as they pleased, operate their own schools in the German language, and run their own local government. This was also an opportunity for the many landless people. A ten-year tax break and monetary loans were among the ten proposed articles.
In 1786, two scouts, Jacob Hoeppner, and Johann Bartsch were sent to Russia to explore the land, meeting with Russian officials, including Catherine the Great herself. A year later they returned with promising stories. The government cooperative and the soil was fertile. The migration to the steppes of the Ukraine was soon under way. Two years after the scouts returned, 228 families were homesteading the wide, open plains. No ministers were among this group, so men appointed to read sermons to the others.
Taming the land required intense labor. There were new farming methods to learn. The industrious Mennonite farmers spread animal manure out over the fields instead of burning it like the Russian peasants did. During the early years in Russia, the children were needed at home and school came in second. Teachers were haphazardly picked. School was mostly centered around the Bible and the Katechismus (catechism).
Small villages with fifteen families living along a wide central street were started throughout the colonies. The farmers’ fields lay outside the village, as well as the communal pasture. Houses and barns were usually connected. A church or schoolhouses were in the center of the village. The first colony was Chortitza, hence, it referred to as “the old colony.” This is where the name Old colony Mennonites originates. By the turn of the century, eighteen villages were established in Chortitza, with 400 families farming thousands of acres.
Migration continued for the next fifteen years. The second wave of immigrants brought more well-to-do and educated people. Many were added. Molotschna became the largest colony with over 300,000 acres and fifty-eight villages. By 1850, the golden Age for the Mennonites in Russia had begun. Thousands of acres of hard red winter wheat were raised.
The steppes of the Ukraine became the bread basket of Europe. Bustling businesses manufacturing farm equipment and brick and tile were owned by Mennonites. Never before had the Mennonites enjoyed this much freedom and many became prosperous. Some of the wealthier ones owned large estates with thousands of acres.
This image is from Online Exhibits - From Far Away Russia
But not everyone lived in prosperity. Russian law forbade dividing the 176-acre homestead. Eventually, this caused a large group of people to be homeless. These families, known as Anwohner (marginal people), lived along the edges of the villages. Voting rights for the church and village issues were based on land ownership, so people without land had no influence and usually had no choice but to be landless workers. In 1865, the Molotschna Colony alone had 2,356 landless works and 1,384 farmers owning land. Later efforts were made to resolve the matter.
After Russia lost the Crimean war, efforts were made to “Russianify” the foreigners who were living in the country. Many native were irked at these prosperous German-speaking people. Some Mennonites couldn't even speak the Russian language, though they had lived their entire life in Russia. The Russian language was to be taught in the classroom. Threats were made to revoke the promise of permanent military exemption.
Many Mennonites became uneasy and could see no future for their people in Russia. In 1873 and 1874 about one-third of the Mennonites left Russia for North America. About 10,000 settled in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, while 8,000 from the more conservative Chortitza (Old Colony) were invited to Canada.
Much could be said about the Mennonites that remained in Russia—incredible prosperity , war terrors during the Bolshevik Revolution, young men who formed an army for self-defense, the terrible famine that followed, untold suffering during the social revolution, and mass migration to South America and other places. But the Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico today are mostly descended from the 8,000 conservative Chortitza Mennonites who left Russia for Canada before these sad events took place. Click here to continue reading Part three: Low German Mennonite History. From Russia to Canada.
Credits go to a beautifully written book (Called to Mexico.)