|From Russia to America: In Search of Freedom (Deputationsreise
von Russland nach Amerika vor vierundzwanzig Jahren)
Book review by Marion Mertz
Sudermann, Leonhard. From Russia to America: In Search of Freedom (Deputationsreise von Russland nach Amerika vor Vierundzwansig Jahren). Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada: Derksen Printer, 1974.
At a meeting in his home in Berdyansk, Russia, on August 1, 1872,
Leonhard Sudermann, minister of the Berdyansk Mennonite congregation,
urged the Mennonites of his church and the Alexanderwohl church
to consider leaving Russia, to escape Tsarist repression. Nearly
a century earlier the Mennonites, because of their expertise in
farming, had been invited to Russia by Catherine II to cultivate
the lands of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, being granted, in
exchange, religious freedom, self-government, and exemption from
the Russian military. However, an imperial order in 1870 revoked
these privileges. The Mennonites, who had remained culturally German
though living on Russian soil, felt their future was jeopardized
and decided to send a delegation to America in search of a new homeland.
Their need for religious freedom was great.
They had heard that America was “a haven for criminals”
and that “one needed a pocket full of loaded revolvers...to
live there." However, necessity forced them to consider the
move. Jacob Buller and Sudermann were chosen to head a delegation
to investigate. Sudermann was fifty-two years of age at the time.
Paul and Lorenz Tschetter and Tobias Unruh were included in the
In a meticulously organized account of the journey, Sudermann records
fastidious notes on the beauty of the terrain, of the flowers, the
trees, the shrubs, and the river, but becomes very practical in
recording the temperature, the rainfall, the condition of the soil,
the grasshopper plagues, the buffalo, the antelope, and the growth
of wheat, oats, and vegetables.
It is interesting to see the Midwest through the eyes of an early
Mennonite: “...our eyes were locked in the vision that the
New World had opened to us." Interspersed among the comments
on the terrain and the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, are pleas
and prayers for God's help.
Twenty-four years after his trip of 1873 Sudermann notes that Mennonites
had settled in Manitoba, Kansas, Minnesota, Dakota, and Nebraska.
He recognizes the help of a merciful God and ends with, "Praise
be to his glorious name!" Sudermann died in 1900.
The book is translated into English by Elmer F. Suderman, who is
not related to Leonhard Sudermann. It is reprinted as a paperback
with rather small print but is well-spaced.