1836 Molotschna region map1836 Molotschna region map

The Molochna Mennonite landlessness crisis was a watershed event in Tsarist Mennonitehistory. By the 1860s a small minority of Mennonites owned land and were wealthy, while themajority leased land, or worked as agricultural laborers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, or merchants. In abitter and divisive confrontation in the 1860s the landless demanded their fair share of communityland. In 1867 the Tsarist state intervened to force a settlement, but the damage was done. Thedispute left permanent scars on Mennonite society that were revealed in religious, economic, social,and cultural fissures. Or this, at least, is how the story is conventionally told.

Mennonite historians and churchmen have told and retold this story countless times, buteven the best of them have told it as an exclusively Mennonite story. The landlessness crisis mightjust as well have happened in Kansas, or Manitoba, or Paraguay, so little does the broader contextof Tsarist Russia intrude.

It is time to put Tsarist Russia back into this vitally important Mennonite story. What Iwould like to suggest is that the landlessness crisis is not a Mennonite story — or at least notexclusively or even primarily so. Mennonites were Tsarist subjects. Moreover — and this is a verysignificant element of the story — they were part of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-nationalsouthern Ukrainian region of the Tsarist Empire.1 To understand the landlessness crisis, we mustunderstand the history of the Molochna River Basin, the history of Ukraine, and the history of theTsarist Empire. Turning this on its head, to understand the history of the Tsarist Empire, of Ukraine,and of the Molochna, we must also understand the history of the Mennonites — an assertion thatplaces Tsarist Mennonite history in its proper place, as an important subfield of Russian, Ukrainian,and Soviet history.

My intention, then, is to reconstrue the outbreak of the landlessness crisis — a critical eventin Mennonite history — as part of two critical events in Tsarist Russian history: the Crimean War of1853-55, and the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. I will argue that the local economic effects ofthe war on Mennonites and their neighbors, combined with the broader effects of the emancipationof Ukrainian peasants to the north of the Molochna, coincided to provoke a crisis in the MolochnaMennonite Settlement.

1852 map of the Molotschna colony. Pink blocks are labeled “land divided for the Anwohner.” Green sections are “land belonging to the estates” (? Vorwerken)1852 map of the Molotschna colony. Pink blocks are labeled land divided for the Anwohner. Green sections are land belonging to the estates (? Vorwerken)

Land and Landlessness in Mennonite Society2

The landlessness crisis had its roots in the unique land tenure arrangements of Mennonites. Whenthey arrived in Ukraine they were allotted a fixed amount of land (about 123,000 desiatinas),3 andeach family was allotted a fixed 65 desiatina holding. A significant portion of land was held inreserve for future settlers, but only a relatively small portion was set aside to allot to the offspringof the first settlers. Because Mennonites were forbidden to subdivide their land allotments orperiodically redistribute their land (as was the practice of neighboring Ukrainian peasants), thisarrangement guaranteed that there would eventually be landless families. Already by 1834 almosthalf of all Mennonite families were landless, and by 1860, almost two-thirds were without land.

Land ownership was significant to Molochna Mennonites for several reasons. Mostimportantly, in the predominantly agricultural economy of mid-nineteenth-century Ukraine, owningland provided economic security. Although some landless Mennonites were wealthy merchants ortradesmen, most were dependent for their livelihood on agricultural labor and cottage industry.Owning a full land allotment was the one sure path to economic security.

A second important aspect of land ownership was rooted in Mennonite ethno-religioustradition. Mennonites called themselves the quiet in the land, alluding to their religious ideal ofwithdrawal from secular entanglements. They possessed a foundation myth of agricultural life asthe ideal expression of this withdrawal, because life in their agricultural villages permitted physicalwithdrawal to match the ideal of spiritual withdrawal. Mennonites who were not among thelandowning minority faced the prospect that they were also not among the religious elect.

Finally, landless Mennonites were politically powerless in their communities. Only ownersof full allotments voted in the elections of village and district officials. The landed held a monopolyon political power, including decisions about who could obtain village and settlement land on therare occasions when such land became available.

In 1862, landless Mennonites, supported by some influential Mennonite landowners andmerchants, launched a campaign to force the more equitable distribution of Mennonite land, andtherefore of political power. The landless and their supporters demanded that village authoritiesgive them the small remaining supply of surplus land. Opponents and proponents of this proposalengaged in heated disputes in the German-language press as well as in a battle of appeals to theRussian state. Ultimately the crisis was resolved when the state ordered landed Mennonites to granta number of concessions to the landless.

For Mennonites the crisis has long been seen as a black mark that challenges theirperceptions of their own society as just and egalitarian. In this tradition, in the early 20th century thegreat Mennonite historian P.M. Friesen wrote: Like a misfortune [the crisis] lies on the soul of thecommunity because there has not taken place a thorough cleansing of the corporate body throughconscious repenting.4 More recently, Mennonite historians have come to regard the crisis as awatershed event after which social and economic differentiation within Mennonite society becamedominant forces. Such historians have not escaped the moralizing tone of earlier writers. DavidRempel, whose pioneering work in the 1960s-1980s revitalized the study of Russian Mennonitehistory, characterized the actions of the landed as unconscionable. For other historians thelandlessness crisis has been seized upon as a particularly clear instance of class conflict in anindustrializing society. James Urry, whose None But Saints is the standard work on the first centuryof Mennonite settlement in Russia, writes that the land struggles revealed the ugly andunacceptable face of the economic and social transformations that had occurred since firstsettlement in Russia.5

If we look at the sources upon which assessments of the landlessness crisis havetraditionally been made, it quickly becomes evident that much of the historiography has very shakyfoundations. Too frequently it is based on statements made by participants in the crisis who hadclear vested interests in how it would be resolved. Letters to newspapers and petitions to theGuardianship Committee, written in the heat of the crisis, have been accepted as de factoconfirmation of the claims of the landless, while isolated accounts of rapacious subleases of pastureland have been interpreted as evidence of widespread profiteering by all landowners.

One source has particularly influenced all subsequent interpretations of the crisis. FranzIsaak’s Der Molotschnaer Mennoniten reproduces several key letters and petitions from disputants.6His account is invaluable because it preserves many documents that are not available elsewhere, butit is also very biased in favor of the landless. Der Molotschnaer Mennoniten tells the story almostexclusively in the words of the landless; it provides just two petitions from the landed, and these,introduced by Isaak as slanderous letters [Schmähschriften], show the landed position at its worst.

As a first step toward re-examining the crisis, it is necessary to question whether the termsby which the principals in the dispute are usually identified are accurate. Neither the landed northe landless identifies any group in the Molochna with precision. The Molochna landless can bedivided into two groups: the Einwohner (cottagers or renters) and the Anwohner (owners of housesbut not agricultural land allotments). In 1860, 69 percent of the landless families were Einwohnerand 31 percent were Anwohner. Although the petitions of the landless supposedly represented all ofthese people, it seems clear that the two groups did not form a united front. After all, the resolutionof the crisis saw land allotted to the Anwohner only. The Einwohner, who come closest torepresenting a true proletariat in the Molochna, gained little or nothing. This seems to suggest thatthe Einwohner were at best junior partners in the alliance.

As for the landed, they too can be divided into two groups: estate owners, and owners ofsixty-five desiatina fullholdings. The estate owners were the principle target of the landless; theright of the run-of-the mill fullholders to their basic sixty-five desiatina allotments was neverchallenged. Despite assumptions implicit in the Mennonite historical literature, there is no explicitevidence that the landed united as a corporate body to oppose the claims of the landless. Indeed,there is important evidence that implies quite the opposite. This evidence comes from DerMolotschnaer Mennoniten and it is a good example of how Isaak has distorted the record of thecrisis. Isaak relates that a third important interest group in the Molochna, the merchants, largelysupported the landless. Yet the petition he produces in support of this statement comes not just frommerchants but from merchants and landowners.7 Because there is no record of the signers of thepetition it is impossible to be certain who these landed were. Still, as this petition makes clear, thiswas not a crisis that pitted all the landed against all the landless; rather it was a dispute between apart of the landless and a part of the landed.

The landed who were most involved in the dispute were the wealthy estate owners. Hereagain it is necessary to be cautious; Philip Wiebe, Johann Cornies’ son-in-law and one of thewealthiest estate owners in the Molochna, was a leading defender of the rights of the landlessduring the crisis. Still, the identifiable leaders of the landed, including most notably District MayorFriesen and Chair of the Agricultural Society Peter Schmidt, were clearly from the wealthiest strataof Molochna Mennonite society.

Philip Wiebe with daughter (name unknown), son Johann (left) and son Philip (right)Philip Wiebe with daughter (name unknown), son Johann (left) and son Philip (right)
Peter Schmidt (1817-1876)Peter Schmidt (1817-1876)

This brief analysis of Mennonite sources about the crisis should alert us to weaknesses intraditional Mennonite interpretations. What I would like to suggest is that one of the reasons thatthe Mennonite landlessness crisis has been misconstrued as a deep divide in Tsarist Mennonitehistory is that Mennonites have misunderstood it as a purely internal Mennonite problem, andtherefore they have sought an explanation for it exclusively in the closed Mennonite social andreligious world. Placing the crisis in its larger Tsarist context serves to make clear that the rootproblem was not Mennonite, but Tsarist. If the crisis is not construed as Mennonite, then we are nolonger stuck with the prevailing paradigm of post-emancipation Mennonite society as a society incrisis. This opens the door to a total reconsideration of the basic nature of Tsarist Mennonite societyafter emancipation. But that is another subject: for the present, let us be content to reconsider thecauses of the crisis itself.

The Crimean War and the Landlessness Crisis

It will come as no surprise to students of Tsarist Russian history that the Crimean War provides astarting place for this reconsideration. That war exposed the fundamental weaknesses of the Tsariststate. In its wake, Russia’s role in the international community, its ability to maintain domesticstability, and its economic policies were all brought into question. It is one of the basic weaknessesof Mennonite historiography that it has remained so utterly oblivious to this watershed event.

The economic problems created by the Crimean War were vitally important for theMolochna region. Beginning in the 1830s, Mennonites, other German-speaking colonists, andUkrainian peasants in the region had begun to shift from a pastoral to a grain-based economy. Onlythe large Nogai Tatar population had resisted the trend.

Photo from the Mennonite Library and Archives collection with handwritten note on the back in German: “2 Tatars in Ekaterinoslav Gouvernement”Photo from the Mennonite Library and Archives collection with handwritten note on the back in German: 2 Tatars in Ekaterinoslav Gouvernement

In 1847-48 a livestock epidemic decimated Nogai herds, and plunged the Nogai into crisis.Left without sheep, but unwilling to become grain growers, many Nogai instead became landlords,and by the eve of the Crimean war significant tracts of Nogai land were being leased by theincreasingly numerous Mennonite landless. This should not be misconstrued as Mennonites takingadvantage of Nogai hardships. In fact, landless Mennonites paid considerably higher rent for Nogailand than they did for Mennonite land, and until 1853 it seems likely that market forces worked inthe favor of the Nogai landlords.

The Crimean War changed this equation. Wartime demand for grain, and rapid inflationafter the war, drove grain prices sharply upward. Mennonite renters, who held long-term, fixed-price leases on Nogai land, consequently enjoyed a brief, remarkable golden era of high prices andlow rents. Nogai landlords, of course, had the opposite experience: they found themselves in theposition of having to buy grain, grown on their own land, at prices that exceeded their rentalincome.

I would like to particularly reemphasize the situation of landless Mennonites in this period.Past interpretations of the landlessness crisis have taken it for granted that the crisis reflected deep-rooted, long-term, socio-economic divisions in Mennonite society. There has never been evidenceof any such divide before the crisis itself, but because everyone knows that crises cannot emergeout of nothing, the landlessness crisis itself has been employed as proof of the pre-existingdivisions. This assumption of a pre-existing crisis is patently untrue. The reason that there is noexplicit evidence of such a crisis is that it did not exist. Landless Mennonites entered the 1860s invery good economic shape. The crisis would arise, not out of internal struggles, but due to externalforces. When the crisis came, it was a product of problems in the neighboring Nogai community.While landless Mennonites, as renters, certainly contributed to that problem, at heart it was rootedin the specific circumstances of the post-Crimean War Tsarist economy.

The economic problems of the Nogai Tatars, and more broadly of the Crimean Tatars, led tothe great Tatar exodus of 1860. That summer, some 35,000 Nogai abandoned their land and fled toTurkey. By October 1860 only 105 Nogai remained in the entire region.

This could have been good news for landless Mennonites. Certainly Molochna Mennoniteleaders immediately applied to the state to have the newly-vacated land — much of it already leasedby landless Mennonites — formally ceded to the Mennonite settlement. But of course, the Nogaiexodus came in the midst of one of the greatest social engineering projects of the nineteenthcentury: the emancipation of the serfs. As with the Crimean War, this seminal event in Tsaristhistory has gone almost completely unmentioned by historians who focus narrowly on Mennonitehistory. Clearly this will not do.

Emancipation and the Landlessness Crisis

The Tsarist administration had no intention of handing large tracts of land over to what it justifiablyidentified as a prosperous Mennonite community. Instead, it designated the vacated Nogai land forreassignment to more needy peasants, and in particular, to Bulgarians. The important point is thatnot only did Mennonites not gain ownership of the Nogai land; Mennonite renters of that land wereevicted to make way for the new settlers.

If this sudden reversal were not enough to provoke a crisis, a further unintendedconsequence of the emancipation would almost immediately exacerbate the problems of theMennonite landless. In the wake of emancipation, the Molochna region was inundated withUkrainian peasants. Such peasant migrants did not wait for the terms of the emancipation to takeeffect: they reacted to the promise of freedom by spontaneously abandoning their homes andheading south, pursuing their own dreams of acquiring vacated Tatar land. Between 1861 and 1864,10,000 peasants arrived in Berdiansk Uezd. Upon arrival, they competed with the Mennonitelandless for jobs and for land. As a consequence, wages fell and land prices rose.

It would be a miracle indeed had the combined effects of losing their leased land and thesharp increase in competition for land and jobs not provoked a crisis for the Molochna Mennonitelandless. I have elsewhere written about the ways that Mennonites reacted to this crisis. This is alarge subject that demands a full study of its own, but briefly the elements of the resolution of thecrisis that have traditionally been most emphasized are: 1) the redistribution of Mennonite land; 2)the state’s controversial role in imposing this redistribution.

Land redistribution was the first priority of the landless in the 1860s, and despite the factthat only a small amount of relatively poor land was actually distributed (and this to the Anwohneronly), this distribution must be counted as a victory for the landless. Whatever its real benefit in theacquisition of land, it was symbolically important, for it assured the landless that hope remained forthem to eventually enter into the fraternity of Mennonite landowners.

This land redistribution was, of course, far less revolutionary than Mennonite accounts ofthe crisis have traditionally claimed. Indeed, it was little more than a formalization of the alreadywell-tested system of splitting allotments into shared farms that had begun in the 1840s. Of morepractical significance to the landless than land redistribution was the creation, starting in the 1870s,of daughter colonies. This provided far more land to landless Mennonites than did redistribution ofexisting supplies. Of course, this too had a precedent dating from well before the landlessnesscrisis: such new colonies were advocated by Johann Cornies in the 1840s and pioneered in the1850s in the Judenplan experiment.

It is important to note that what placated the landless was not an end to the Mennonitesystem that placed such great emphasis on land owning, but rather their hope of inclusion in thatsystem. In essence, this was a vote by the landless for the continuation of the system in a modifiedform. It is equally important to note that the solutions were fully in keeping with policies toward thelandless that were already well-established before the crisis occurred.

The role of the state in forcing these reforms cannot be dismissed lightly. Many Mennonitesclearly saw this as a dramatic violation of traditional Mennonite internal autonomy, and it causedgreat unrest in Mennonite society. But here, too, there is cause for caution, for the state did notforce Mennonites into an economic straightjacket. Rather, while the state forced the Mennonites toact, the solutions were modelled on Mennonite experience dating back to the time of JohannCornies. And of course, Cornies himself had never operated free of state intervention. The Tsariststate had always set strict limits on Mennonite independence, and it is a tribute to Cornies that hefound so much room for flexibility within those limits.

New Directions in Research

Looking past specific reactions to the crisis, I would like to speculate briefly on other possibleconsequences. I say speculate, because these are not yet the product of research; but they pointthe way to research that I think might be very revealing for historians concerned with the commonhistory of Tsarist Russia and the Mennonites.

One important avenue for research is into the industrialization of southern Ukraine. Thisregion, of course, was at the forefront of Russia’s industrial growth in the nineteenth century, andMennonite historians have justifiably asserted that Mennonites took a leading role in the process.There is already a body of work on wealthy Mennonite industrialists, and Ukrainian historians areactively pursuing important new work in this area.8 An important unanswered question is about thenature of capital accumulation and investment. There has been some speculation about howMennonite inheritance practices, and the indivisibility of land allotments, affected accumulationand investment, but it bears close investigation whether or not the events that precipitated thelandlessness crisis were also central to this process. After all, from 1853-1860 landless Mennonitesexperienced large profits, and suddenly, in 1861, they had to find new outlets for their economicactivities. To what degree did this dynamic of growth and crisis contribute to industrialization? Andby corollary, to what extent was Mennonite economic success a consequence, however unintended,of the Tsarist state’s policies? Put another way, is not the economic history of Mennonites insouthern Ukraine a topic in the history of the Great Reforms?

A second question regarding industrialization pertains to labor markets. LandlessMennonites, of course, would provide labor for Mennonite industry, but as we know from laterindustrial records, the bulk of laborers in Mennonite industry by the end of the nineteenth centurywere Ukrainian peasants. What effect did the large influx of Ukrainian peasants followingemancipation have on this market? Did this new supply of cheap labor stimulate investment? And,by corollary, could Mennonite industrialization have succeeded so astonishingly without theprocess of emancipation? Again, is not the economic history of Mennonites in southern Ukraine atopic in the history of the Great Reforms?

Beyond the contribution of the Tsarist state and Ukrainian peasants to Mennonite industrialsuccess, the acknowledgment of a significant economic arena of interaction between Mennonitesand their neighbors also raises important questions about the evolution of Mennonite religiousbeliefs. This is, after all, precisely the period when the Mennonite Brethren crystalized into animportant new Mennonite movement. But it is also a period in which some Ukrainian peasants inthis region began to explore alternatives to Orthodoxy. To what extent was Mennonite religiousferment and Ukrainian religious ferment the product of a common leavening?


Putting the Crimean War and the emancipation of the serfs together, the outcome for MolochnaMennonites was: a brief period of prosperity and attendant hope for the landless; a sudden loss ofland, prosperity, and hope; sharp competition for the remaining land, aggravated by an influx ofUkrainian migrants; sharp competition for jobs, also aggravated by the influx of Ukrainianmigrants; and a sharp drop in real wages. As I have suggested, it is very difficult to conceive of away that this confluence of circumstances might not have provoked a crisis.

But if we accept that the crisis was stimulated, to a significant degree, by forces outside theMennonite community, then we open the door to the possibility that the result was not exclusivelydivisive, or exclusively negative. Mennonites bemoan state interference; but this presupposes thattheir problems were internal, and susceptible to internal solutions. In fact, the landlessness crisiswas a state problem, arising out of war and emancipation, and too large for Mennonites to handle;state intervention was necessary. This emphasizes the point that Molochna Mennonites were a partof the state, affected by its policies — and affected by the actions of other state subjects such asNogais and Ukrainian peasants — whether they liked it or not. The actions of Nogais and Ukrainiansand Mennonites and the state caused the crisis. Meanwhile Mennonites helped cause the actions ofNogais and Ukrainians and the state. The crisis itself forced the state to formulate polices regardingreligion, land ownership, and ultimately things like military service, and such policies affectedNogais and Ukrainians and Mennonites. In the end, this is one history; and it is not a Mennonitehistory, but a history of many peoples living together in Tsarist Russia. To try to understand it inany other way is to misunderstand it.