In the small village of Ak-Mechet in the present-day Yangiarykskiy region of the Khoresm province, a small community of German Mennonites settled in the second half of the 19th century. How did this community appear in such a far-flung corner of the region? How did they survive, unaccustomed to completely new conditions which differed so much from their own previous lifestyles? These and other questions interest researchers today.

One cannot but agree with the opinions of researchers that the Mennonites differed from neighboring peoples in the character of their settlement, their religious affiliation, language, way of life, level of socio-economic development, and in their peculiar ethnic consciousness. The overwhelming majority of them were farmers, which they did as a way of following direction from the Bible--one of their religious peculiarities. Apart from their personal interpretation of Christian teachings, Mennonites adhered to strict moral principles, living isolated in their community. They preached a strict attitude towards work, unselfish participation in the work of the community, support for their fellow man, compulsory literacy, the refusal to serve in the military, and did not serve in any government affiliated services.

In this article we trace the story of the Mennonites of Ak-Mechet, a story full of adventures, difficulties, and tragedies.

A brief explanation of the appearance of the German Mennonites in Central Asia follows. The enactment of a series of reforms in Russia--and in particular the introduction in 1874 of compulsory military service, which in 1880 had to be extended to include Mennonites--necessitated a new Mennonite migration. Many Mennonites went to America. And in Russia, among part of the colonists there was a widespread conviction of the imminent coming of the Millenial Kingdom of God, according to A. Fitz. (Proponents of this view came to be called Khilisty in Russian, from the Greek khilia--millenium.) Moreover, this kingdom was to rise in the East, while punishment (i.e. ruin) awaited the Sinful West.

The Mennonites later decided to send delegates to the emperor in St. Petersburg with a request to grant them a place in the east of the country, where they would be free of compulsory military service. They sent delegates five times. Finally, they got lucky. The first Governor-General and Lieutenant-General of Turkestan, Constantine von Kaufmann was in St. Petersburg. Having been granted the emperor’s permission, he advised the Mennonites to settle their affairs quickly and to resettle in the Turkestan Kray1, having promised them all kinds of help. Kaufmann, on the one hand, apparently wanted to help his fellow countrymen, and on the other hand intended to create an exemplary farming community with their help.

After Kaufmann’s personal invitation, the first party--71 families, or 420 people--arrived in Tashkent in the fall of 1880, mostly from the provinces near the Volga river in Russia.2

On June 16, 1881, Turkmen newspapers published an official document--rules concerning conscription in the Turkestan Kray. Mennonites again applied for exemptions from conscription in Turkestan, but they were refused. After that, a more well-to-do group of Mennonites petitioned Governor-General G.A. Kolpakovskii with a request to permit them to settle in the domain of the Emir of Bukhar. They hoped that there they would not be required to carry out their military obligation in any form. Having permitted them to resettle, he warned them that they were losing the right to the advantages of serving as conscripts.3

Those 32 Mennonite families who had settled in Kaplanbek4 in August of 1881 moved to Bukhara territory. But having found out that there were still many Mennonites in Tashkent, the Emir of Bukhara refused to accept them, citing that there was little land in the emirate, that they could not spare the water, that the Mennonites did not know the language, that they did not know how to work the land, and that Mennonite women would go about with their faces uncovered, thereby setting a bad example for the Bukhara women. The Mennonites were deported to Zerabulak (near Samarkand), where they were permitted to spend the winter in saklyas5 and zemlyankas6 and where they suffered various deprivations and sicknesses.7 After that, 29 additional families resettled with them, having spent the winter in the city of Turkestan. These were refugees from the Novouzyonskii Uyezd8 of the Samarskii province. Of these, a number of Mennonites--60 families according to the council of Major General Korolkov--proceeded to the borders of Khiva with the permission of the Russian authorities.9

The Khan of Khiva, Said-Muhammad Rahim-Khan, on the other hand, permitted them to settle within his domain. At first the community was allotted land in the Kligan Province,10 near Lauzan (160 km from Khiva). However, the unfortified Mennonite settlements were constantly raided by Turkmen Yomuds, who quickly understood that the Mennonites were defenseless and could not put up any resistance (their faith did not permit it.) The Mennonites endured the raids for a long time until the Khan of Khiva found out that the Turkmen were harming them. Rahim-Khan understood that he needed to act and decided to settle them a bit closer to the capital. The Khan solved the problem of relations between the orthodox Muslims and the newcomers with the strange religion. In accordance with his decree, every Muslim who came to a German settlement was obligated to treat their religious customs with respect. Those who were intransigent to a different religion were advised not to go to the Mennonites in order to avoid conflict. However, as records from that time show, there was no further scandal--no bloodshed between the Muslims and the Germans was ever recorded.11 He selected 50 hectares of land in the settlement of Ak-Mechet for them and relieved them of all obligations for four years. Having resettled, the Mennonites quickly became accustomed to their new home and occupied themselves with their kitchen-gardens and professions--especially joinery, locksmithing, blacksmithing, repairing, and building windmills and so forth.

N.S. Lykoshin, who had visited Ak-Mechet, described the life of the Mennonites in detail. He noted that the colonists brought to Khiva their manner of building and living closely, as if they were one family. In the colony there were only 24 farms. The authority rested in the hands of an elected elder, or Vorsteher, (confirmed by the Khan of Khiva and official publications that have been supplied). This elder ordered all of the affairs of the village and was the representative of the Germans to the Khivan subjects. All of the small houses in the German village were neatly kept, and in each house there was, without fail, a comfortably furnished living room. The elder himself would receive travelers as his own guests. One must think that the Khivan customs had been adopted among the Mennonites. The men would supply bread, tea, milk, and coffee on the table with which to properly treat their guests.

The Germans did not farm, as they did not have enough land for it. Each family had at their disposal a small plot for a kitchen garden. They worked the ground exclusively with an omach.12 By using the art of irrigation, they gradually learned to grow crops unfamiliar to the salty soil of the region: potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, and spices.13 The community kept a few head of cattle of the local Khiva breed, plus some sheep and goats.

However, the well-being of the Germans did not hinge on the livestock alone. All of them were good craftsmen: joiners, wood carvers, and carpenters.14 Many of them worked as tradesmen in the Khan’s court. All of the woodwork in the capital of the Khan was entrusted to them, and especially in buildings for the Khan himself. Nothing was lacking in their work; well-to-do Khivans who were building houses asked the Germans to build the doors, floors, and window frames. The Germans usually worked by contract; the co-op of workmen skillfully divided the work among themselves--each craftsman worked on the area of the house in which he specialized. The work of the Mennonites was visible everywhere in Khiva. Each one was sturdy, large, and totally identical to other things of its kind. Everything was made exactly and from the same template.

In the village, there was a neatly constructed church. The worshipers used an organ that was supplied by Rahim-Khan Bagadur. The Mennonites had their own school, but there was a constant problem with finding teachers. They made long and careful efforts to get permission to send for a real teacher from Germany, but they were never successful. The colonists in Khiva did not attach any importance to successful Russian-language instruction, since none of them spoke Russian. They spoke and wrote in their native German, and for dealing with the Khan they made efforts to learn Khoresani,15 practically without a teacher. The community subscribed to much religious literature and other kinds of literature from Germany.

There were traders among the Mennonites at the Ak-Mechet colony. Otto Toews - the Vorsteher--carried on a large trade in lumber. Riesen traded metal goods and supplied necessary metal items and cooking utensils for the Khan’s farm. The Khan respected Riesen very much, supplying him with things directly from Solingen and Berlin and, on a level with Khivan dignitaries, awarded Riesen a brocaded robe in the distribution of gifts on Muslim holidays. In general, Riesen was considered to be a Ket-Khuda, or an esteemed representative of all of the German colony at Ak-Mechet. The entire population of the colony took care to make sure that the profits from the earnings of the tradesmen in Khiva were distributed more or less evenly in the community, and when one of the entrepreneurs of the collective work reached a decided level of prosperity, the community asked him to send the work to another member of the colony. This evened out the profit in the colony and avoided one businessman having a monopoly.

Life was hard for young people in the colony. There were almost no marriageable girls since almost all inhabitants in the colony were related to one another. For brides they turned to the Auliatine Mennonite colony and from there brought back girls for forming new German families. In spite of the strict isolation of the community, its members nevertheless did not manage to avoid intermarriage, though rare. People who had lived in the colony for a long time remember how one young Khoresani who had worked in the German colony fell in love with a Mennonite. The young people married, but they were shunned by the community.

While living in the Khiva Khanate, the members of the Mennonite community remained primarily citizens of Russia for 20 years. Then by request16 after many years of correspondence, those who had resettled in Khiva from Samar and Tavrik Provinces in 1904 were dismissed from the citizenship of Russia and accepted as Khivan nationals.17

In the very beginning of the 20th century and by order of the last Khan of Khiva Isfariyar, the local architects, the Ak-Mechet craftsmen and architect A.N. Roher invited from Moscow jointly built the palace complex Nuryuly-baya. The Germans developed the ornamental designs for 10 tiled ovens installed on the premises. The tiles were prepared by special order at the Emperor Farforov Factory (now the Lomonosov Factory in St. Petersburg.) The Ak-Mechet craftsmen were sought out to do the joinery work at Kubla-Toz-Bag--the summer residence of Madraim-Khan II. In one of his halls a decorated ceiling was preserved on which the Mennonite artists painted a landscape which evoked memories of their distant homeland--the green banks of the Volga and a mill. Under the supervision of A.P. Rupp the German Mennonites built two European-style buildings: a post office (in 1910) and a hospital (from 1911 to 1913).

The monumental architecture described above has now been restored. The work of A.N. Ropp and of the Ak-Mechet craftsmen is on a level with local master craftsmen and has entered into the treasury of the culture of Uzbekistan. The conclusion of the restorer R. Tokhtaev is that the parquet floors in the Nuryuly-baya Palace complex have artistic and historical value and are a monument to the history of interior design in Central Asian construction. The restorer R. Beshirov found that all aspects of the décor and subjects of the palace’s interior appointments have historical value, and part of them (the tiled ovens)--artistic value.

Wilhelm Penner (a member of the community at Panor-Bobo) taught the Khivan Khudaibergen Divanov the art of photography and gave him his first lessons in the Russian language. A picture made in and preserved since the 1920s, depicts Wilhelm Penner and the first Uzbek photographer and film pioneer Khudaiberegen Divanov.

In 1929, the only collective farm in Uzbekistan was organized with 52 family farms of the Germans in Ak-Mechet. The collective farm was distinguished among others by its productivity and income. The colonists usually did not participate in compulsory labor organized by the regional authorities, but they used the workers from the native population for these projects.

In the middle of the 1940’s, the Ak-Mechetian colony was absolutely untouched by Soviet influence.18 First, no one participated in the work of the Congresses of Soviets, in this way fulfilling the will of the community. Women did not take place in community meetings and did not have the right to vote. Two authorized representatives for cotton and other trade affairs were chosen to conduct relations with the representatives of the Soviet authorities.

The small community school continued to be supported by the colony. Government subsidies were refused on principle. Education of the children was conducted exclusively by old methods and on the insistence of the prosperous upper crust of society categorically denied to conduct lessons by the Soviet textbooks. Any kind of interference in the learning process of the Department of People’s Education was decisively rejected. The law of God was taught 6 days a week. Class was conducted in their native language. With the parents’ agreement, teachers punished students with the belt, hand, and ruler.

It must be said that the German school in the village of Ak-Mechet was preserved thanks to those acting on the national policy at the time, which was to educate minority peoples. In 1919 the German Central Bureau was created in Turkestan. With its cooperation, 13 schools with instruction in the German language were opened, 3 workers clubs, and 3 libraries. In 1922, 8 German schools and work houses remained in the Republic of Turkestan.19

After the constitution was accepted in 1936, the Mennonite community did not want to submit to the laws of others, now not agreeing to give the surplus of their profits from the management of the collective farm to benefit the government. As a result, the community was deported on a winter night in 1937.

For a long time, the residents of the kishlak20 did not have any idea where their neighbors had gone to so suddenly. In the 1970s in Khiva, a few tourists from Germany arrived--former natives of Ak-Mechet, who had not yet totally forgotten the Uzbek language. A few Mennonites from Tajikistan also visited. As it turned out, the basic part of the Mennonite community was deported to Beshkentskaya valley in Tajikistan. A few families resettled in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.21 As the researcher L.I. Zhukova has noted, the Mennonites--both the immigrants from Khiva and their descendants--are presently in Tajikistan.

In summary, we note that for the case of the Ak-Mechetian Mennonites we investigated the story of a small religious community which in over half a century made its mark on the history of Khorezm.22 The Mennonites made a marked contribution to the development of agriculture and culture of the Khoresani Khivans, which adopted their useful skills of tilling new kinds of plants in their market-gardens and caring for livestock. Thanks to the Germans, new kinds of household items appeared in the lives of the Khivans: tables, chairs, stools, cupboards, window frames, and doors. With their diligence and their tolerant attitude toward the native population, they were able to win goodwill and respect. And today, the population living in this place remembers them kindly. And most importantly, in spite of the difficulties and the reversals of fortune (the pressure exerted on them by the Soviet-era authorities), they did not change and they did not abandon their identity, founded on their unshakable faith. Research into this continues, since the author is interested in knowing what happened to the descendants of the Ak-Mechetian Mennonites.