John Staples argues that the Molochna landless crisis of the 1860s constituted "a watershed event in Tsarist Mennonite history" but he suggests that accounts of the crisis to date have failed to contextualize the event properly in terms of Russian history. He identifies the impact of the Crimean War (1853-1855) and the emancipation of Russia's peasant serfs in 1861 as key factors that have not been identified by earlier writers. In the course of presenting his argument, Staples makes a number of critical comments on existing historical interpretations of the crisis, their moralizing tone as well as the bias of contemporary sources upon which these studies are based.1 As a consequence of these criticisms, he hints at -- but does not present -- a new interpretation of the crisis. He also identifies possible consequences of his broader view of the crisis in understanding the later development of Mennonite economy and society. His article therefore not only criticizes sources and later interpretations, but also raises questions about the importance of considering context, causation, and consequence in any interpretation and explanation of historical events.

First, let me briefly dispose of Staples' criticisms of existing scholarly interpretations of the landless crisis. He claims that "even the best of them" have dealt with the events as "an exclusively Mennonite story" with little consideration of "the broader context of Tsarist Russia." As one of those obviously included in these comments, all I can say is that I, and the late David Rempel whom he also mentions, both attempt to contextualize the Mennonite experience in Imperial Russia in our writings. More specifically, our accounts of the landless crisis are connected with larger circumstances preceding and following the Crimean War, especially the Great Reforms initiated by Tsar Alexander II that included the emancipation of the serfs.2 However, both of us also argued that other contextual issues need to be considered and neither of us suggests that the crisis can be understood exclusively in terms of localised events in Molochna.

In terms of David Rempel's and my own "moralizing tone," as quoted by Staples, our comments draw upon, in rhetorical fashion, the opinions expressed in earlier sources whose authors were directly in contact with the events. In my own case the comments rhetorically echo those of P. M. Friesen, also quoted by Staples, and in the case of David Rempel those of Bethel College's pioneer historian Cornelius Wedel, whose opinion predates those of Friesen.3 Rempel also had direct experience of a later clash between Mennonite farm owners and landless in Khortitsa when his father's attempts to assist local landless to obtain land under the Stolypin land reforms after 1905 resulted in the village's landowning farmers boycotting his father's store, an affair that nearly ruined the family's fortunes.4

Staples suggests that much of the historiography on the landless is based on "shaky foundations" as it is too often based on "statements made by participants," mostly the landless and their supporters, who had "clear vested interests" in a settlement in their favour. He singles out for criticism Franz Isaak, whose collection of documentary sources on a variety of religious and social conflicts in the Molochna have until recently been central to any understanding of the crisis. Isaak, who was dead by the time the collection was published by his son in 1904, was for a long time a minister of the Ohrloff congregation who appears to have possessed some expertise in legal matters. He was not a professional historian. What concerns Staples is that his selection of sources is biased because Isaak was a supporter of the landless. It is worth noting, however, that Isaak's son points out in his preface to the collection that his father recognized his partisanship and that is why he preferred to present original documents and let the reader judge for themselves.5 Of course Staples may well be correct that other key documents may have been excluded by Isaak, but he presents no evidence of this through a comparison with other sources. However, in passing, he dismisses one important new source on the crisis that has come to light in recent years: "[l]etters to newspapers." Readers might pass over this rather cryptic comment, but it requires further explanation especially for those who might be unaware of what Staples is referencing.

During the 1980s I discovered in the columns of the colonists' newspaper the Odessaer Zeitung (1863-1914), held on microfilm at the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg, a rich new resource for understanding Mennonite life in Imperial Russia. The paper contains news reports, letters, and other material written not just on Mennonites but more importantly by Mennonites on the affairs of their community and their engagement with current affairs. Among the earliest of these are a number of letters on and by those involved in the landless struggle in Molochna in the 1860s and extending into the 1870s and beyond, not available elsewhere. I used some of this new material in my book published in 1989, but the range and quality of the sources is much greater than I could use for my specific purposes at that time. In spite of my leaving a rough index of the newspaper at the Centre, including a listing of these items, not much use has been made of this material.6

The newspaper reports, however, are not the only sources available on the landless to assess a charge of bias in Isaak's selection and to interpret the events of the crisis in a new light. There is, for instance, at least one contemporary diary of events from the perspective of a Molochna Mennonite who later immigrated to the United States.7 Another very important source not mentioned by Staples is the account by the government official Alexander Klaus who was directly involved in the affair, and which is available in both Russian and in a nineteenth-century translation into German by a person of Mennonite descent.8 There is also a careful consideration of the larger legal context by another official, Johann von Keussler. 9 In addition, sources collected by David Rempel in the 1960s in the Leningrad archives, which have been available on microfilm for some years, contain material on the landless, including government reports and other material.10 These also include new sources on Abraham Thiessen whose efforts to seek justice for those Mennonites who did not receive land in the "settlement" of the original crisis in the 1860s resulted in his exile from the colonies and eventually his resettlement in the United States.11 During his lifetime Thiessen published a number of pamphlets, wrote letters to Mennonite and non-Mennonite newspapers in Russia and America, and generally provoked the ire of government officials, especially upon a return visit in the 1880s.12

Instead of engaging these sources and other secondary literature, Staples proceeds to raise questions about the factions involved in the crisis, their membership, motives, and solidarity. He questions the "unity" of the landless and their supporters although no one has ever suggested that they formed a solid front with exactly the same motives and aims. His argument at times reads like an apology for the colony officials who attempted to suppress the appeals of the landless and their supporters as well as support for the rump of Mennonite landowners who, according to contemporary accounts, opposed any redistribution of land and an extension of the rights they enjoyed as landowners to the landless. Staples provides no real new evidence to sustain his argument and it is made in spite of the overwhelming condemnation of the administration and landowners by the Russian officials who investigated the crisis.13 More importantly, Staples again misrepresents existing scholarly interpretations. For instance, he suggests that "[d]espite assumptions implicit" in the literature "there is no explicit evidence that the landed united as a corporate body" to oppose the landless. I cannot recall anywhere in the scholarly literature that anyone has argued that all landowners were united against the landless or that they formed a corporate group -- a social entity that most social scientists require to be named, have clear rules of membership, and to persist through time.14 Instead the crisis involved what might best be termed a variety of interest groups, loosely formed and in no way corporate.15 And it was recognized by contemporaries -- and by later scholars -- that not all landowners were opposed to some of the claims of the landless and that their supporters included people with other interests, such as merchants who were suffering financial problems with a shortage of credit in the inflationary, post-Crimean War world.16

Staples asserts that in my own interpretation of events I have "seized upon" the land crisis as "a particularly clear instance of class conflict in an industrializing society."17 In fact in my book I do not use the term "class" in my discussion of the dispute but instead raise issues about the impact of increased social inequality in Mennonite society.18 Social inequality was present among Mennonites from the outset of their settlement in Russia as it was present in their Prussian homeland where the terms Einwohner/Anwohner and Vollwirt were already part of a social vocabulary closely tied to land ownership, residence, occupation, and, of course, wealth. Indeed, one contemporary correspondent to the Odessaer Zeitung drew a comparison between the situation in Prussia, including social attitudes and conflict, and the Russian situation.19 Ownership of a farm and land reflected social status; an absence of land and being forced to work as a labourer for Mennonite landowners lowered a person's status. As more land was brought into cultivation in the Mennonite colonies and demand for labour increased, the interests of some landowners in keeping a pool of cheap, local Mennonite labour available meant also denying their Mennonite workers land and keeping them subservient. This was not a new problem nor would it be the last time that such a situation would occur. Shortly after Mennonites emigrated from Russia to Manitoba in the 1870s, the issue of labour and attitudes of the wealthier in the Mennonite community to their poorer brethren was commented upon by an outside observer:

Even the charity of the Mennonites has its dark side. The poorer brethren are assisted by the richer, but the richer take care lest the poorer should be so well paid as to grow independent and make their own terms. Rich Mennonites are thoroughly convinced of the advantage of employing cheap labour.20

And similar situations would remerge as descendants of Mennonites from Russia settled in Mexico and South America and shortages of land and labour became apparent.21

The issues involved in the landless crisis in Molochna, however, went far beyond concerns over land and labour or the misuse of land intended for other purposes than intensive cultivation or subletting. The issues included, just to cite the nearly contemporary account of the independent Russian official Alexander Klaus, landless Mennonites being overcharged rent for land, refused access to common pasture, being forced to pay the head-tax ("soul tax") at the same rate as full-farm owners but without the same income, being excluded from voting in village and community elections, and finally being forced to contribute to the communal grain stores in quantities similar to those of full farmers. Klaus also states that the landless who complained about injustices were persecuted by Mennonite officials: they were arrested, fined, and sentenced to forced labour. He also notes that false accusations were made against the landless as being "idle" and finally that many congregational ministers failed to deal equally with their members and favoured the landowners.22 A careful consideration of these wider social and political issues involved in the crisis is beyond the scope of this reply, but readers are directed to the sources and later interpretations by people like David Rempel and me.

It is interesting, however, to consider Staples' arguments concerning the larger context that he considers central to any understanding of the crisis. These involve the impact of the Crimean War and the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Unfortunately, he is rather vague about how these are directly connected to the specific events in Molochna. In referring to the Crimean War (into which Mennonites were directly drawn) he mentions economic factors and the post-war exodus of the Nogai Tatars, issues which, along with the war itself, he claims have "gone completely unmentioned by historians who focus narrowly on Mennonite historians" (my emphasis). In fact both Rempel and I mention these along with other scholars and also older Mennonite commentators.23

I have already mentioned that modern scholars locate the landless crisis in the context of the Great Reforms that includes the emancipation of the serfs, but Staples does not mention the fact that this area of New Russia, and especially the province of Tavrida in which Molochna was located, contained a far larger proportion than other provinces of state peasants to serfs. The changes in the legal status of state peasants, in which social category Mennonites were included, occurred during the events of the crisis. Staples states that administrative area in which Molochna was located was flooded by 10,000 peasants between 1861 and 1864, but unfortunately he provides no source for his statement and does not identify whether these peasants were freed serfs or state peasants. At the period in question, passport restrictions were still in force and indeed one of the accusations levelled against Molochna officials was that they denied Mennonite landless persons passports, thereby forcing them to seek work in the colony.

By identifying these particular influences, Staples moves rather rapidly from an argument about context into arguments about cause. Indeed he asserts that the key contextual features he identifies were not just contextual but also causal, as they "coincided to provoke a crisis in the Molochna" (my emphasis). I would suggest that what we have here is a confusion of context with cause in an attempt to conflate context with cause in a rather simplistic manner. Questions arise therefore over which contexts might be relevant to an understanding of the landless crisis in Molochna, what the causes involved might be, and how context and cause might best be related.

In any historical interpretation and explanation arguing for the significance of context is a matter that must be handled with care. A whole range of more immediate contexts besides those Staples suggests could be considered as equally important in understanding the landless crisis. In economic terms, for instance, global developments in demand and production for agricultural trade goods in the second quarter of the nineteenth century can also be associated with technological changes in transportation that allowed new production centres in distant lands to meet the increasing demands for produce in Western Europe and these could be considered as contextual. Certainly such economic developments affected the prosperity of the Mennonite pastoral industry in southern Russia and hastened diversification in agriculture with a subsequent development of grain production, particularly of wheat, for European markets. The wheat trade would become the major source of income for Mennonite farmers in southern Russia until the outbreak of the First World War. These changes that began in the 1840s rapidly altered land use and increased the demand for and value of land. In turn this meant a greater need for farm labour and in time the cost and limited availability of labour would encourage the rapid adoption of agricultural machinery. Demand for such machines would eventually help build and sustain a Mennonite agricultural machine industry. Increased wheat production, associated with other technological advances, also built a Mennonite milling industry. All these economic changes would help produce the prosperity upon which the social and institutional life of the Mennonite Commonwealth was built in late Imperial Russia.24

One could argue for other contexts such as the political, social, and judicial situation which launched and sustained the Great Reforms. These reforms were in many ways a continuation of earlier attempts at reform in the reigns of Nicholas I, Alexander I, Catherine the Great, and reaching right back to Peter the Great. The political context in Europe could also be considered, including the growing power of Prussia which would eventually form the German Second Reich, a situation which threatened Russia's western borderlands and further encouraged the modernization of the economy, society, and military forces.

But to understand the relationship between context and cause in the landless crisis of the 1860s in Molochna -- as opposed to general problems about land and landlessness in Russian society and among other colonists including Mennonite colonists -- any analysis in the final instance has to return to the local situation. It must use local sources, carefully consider their value, and construct an explanation of the events, measure their causes and consider their contexts, past and present.

If the relationship between context and cause needs to be carefully considered, so too must the relationship between cause and consequence in relation to new, emergent contexts. The immediate consequence of the intervention of Russian officials involved a redistribution of land to some -- but not all -- the landless in Molochna and moves to settle other issues concerning their status. However, I do not think anyone has ever claimed, as Staples suggests, that the redistribution was "revolutionary" in terms of earlier experiences with the resettlement of the expanding populations of the colonies. As Staples points out in relation to the experiment associated with the Judenplan, the long term "solution" to the landless problem after 1870 through the foundation of daughter colonies in many ways resembled earlier efforts to found new settlements, although the Mariupol Mennonite settlement (more commonly known to Mennonites as the Bergthal Colony) settled by Khortitsa Mennonites might be a better example than the Judenplan.25 In context, however, the daughter colonies established after 1870 occurred in a very different political and legal environment than that which existed before the Great Reforms, irrespective of events in Molochna.

Although the Molochna crisis was highly influential for all colonists in terms of the development of ways of dealing with growing populations and increasing demand for land, it did not settle disputes over land, even in the Mennonite colonies.26 In Molochna the crisis persisted long after the land was redistributed in the 1860s, particularly with regard to the legal status of the new landowners, a matter complicated by wider legal changes in the status of colonists, state peasants, and landownership in general. The most bitter conflicts involved the right of the new landowners to access the common pasture land of a village; these arguments dragged on for years and required further official intervention and law changes.27 And, one might note in passing, the daughter colonies did not settle disputes over land between landowners and the landless in both mother and daughter colonies as conflict shifted to issues concerning who had rights to settle in the new colonies with accusations that the children of landowners were often favored.28

Staples speculates that perhaps the most significant consequence of the Molochna landless crisis involves the industrialization of southern Russia in late Imperial history and the role Mennonites were to play in this process. What is surprising in this regard, as with the earlier foundation of "daughter-like" settlements, is that Staples does not discuss the importance of the Old Colony, Khortitsa, in this process. In fact he makes no mention at all of Khortitsa in his article, in spite of the fact that it too had landless problems with conflict over land although neither on the scale nor of the same bitterness as in Molochna.29

Mennonite industrialization is in many ways a Khortitsa more than a Molochna story. All the major modern industrial factories and mills were established in or close to Khortitsa, by members of the colony or by Mennonites connected with the colony.30 By comparison with the Old Colony's massive industrial development after 1870, Molochna became a prosperous agricultural backwater with a few small industries but nothing of the scale or complexity of Khortitsa and its region. The reason lies in Khortitsa's strategic position on the transport routes of the Dnieper River and later as a crossing point for the railroads which, following the discovery of iron and coal in the surrounding region, would bring essential raw materials and sources of power to feed the factories and the mills.

Finally, let me return to Staples' initial statement that the landless crisis in Molochna constitutes "a watershed" in Russian Mennonite history of the Imperial period. I am not sure whether anyone else has suggested such a thing, but quite different historical watersheds have been proposed. For members of the Mennonite Brethren, the watershed is the establishment of their breakaway movement in 1860; for many descendants of the migrants to North America in the 1870s, it is what they see as the withdrawal of the non-resistant protections of the Mennonite Privilegium and the threat of the introduction of compulsory military service. While some have attempted to link the establishment of the Mennonite Brethren with the landless struggles, most modern scholars do not see a direct causal relationship.31 Interestingly, the first generation of Mennonite immigrants to North America from Molochna would refer to the landless crisis, including at least two who returned later to visit their old homeland.32 But this does not make it "a watershed event in Tsarist Mennonite history."

Perhaps the great watershed of the nineteenth century for the Mennonites in Russia involves the context identified by Staples but, as I have indicated above, a situation that must be seen in an even larger context than that which he suggests, mainly Russia's Great Reforms subsequent to the Crimean War. In fact, in spite of differences in other areas of interpretation, all the major scholars on Mennonites in Imperial Russia agree that the defining watershed in Mennonite history is this period of reform.33

The proposed military reforms and other changes that were part of this larger reform process and which proved unacceptable to some Mennonites provoked the great move from Russia to North America in the 1870s and subsequent years. In fact, I have argued that the Reforms also had a major influence on the establishment of the Mennonite Brethren as a distinctive "church" as the Reforms of the 1870s forced some loosely affiliated groups formed during the religious crises of the 1860s to reassert their membership in a Mennonite world defined by new legal identities in order to gain the new privileges that came with the reforms, especially freedom from military conscription.34

The one point perhaps that Staples and I agree upon is that the landless crisis in Molochna needs to be reconsidered.35 New sources need to be researched, its causes examined, and its consequences measured. This would necessarily require the crisis to be re-contextualised in terms of the history of the Russia of the period. Any study, however, must begin with a reconsideration of the existing known sources and previous interpretations and I think it is unwise to dismiss them without proper consideration.