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Die Siberiendeutschen im Sowjetstaat 1919-1938

Book review by James Urry

Die Siberiendeutschen im Sowjetstaat in Journal of Mennonite Studies, pp 235-238. vol. 20. New Zealand: University of Wellington, 2002.


The story of the mass migration of Mennonites to Siberia prior to World War One and their fate after the revolution has not attracted much scholarly attention in Mennonite studies. The pioneering works by J.J. Hildebrand (Sibirien, Winnipeg, 1952) and Gerhard Fast (In den Steppen Sibiriens, 1957) provide important overviews while John B. Toews has pulished an important article on the region ("The Mennonites and the Siberian frontier (1907-1930)." Mennonite Quarterly Review, 47 (1973), 83-101). There are also memoirs written either by the descendants of the original settlers or by the many Mennonites banished to Siberia under the Soviets. Such memoirs are often rich in human pathos but they lack an understanding of the context in which Mennonites existed. In recent years a number of important articles and books have appeared written by Soviet scholars of Mennonite and non-Mennonite descent who have had access to the rich archival sources in Siberia. Such scholarship began before the fall of the Soviet Union as Siberian academics often had more freedom in research and writing than their colleagues on the other side of the Ural Mountains. In recent years a number of significant works have appeared in print by, among others, Larissa P. Belkovec, Victor I. Brul' [Bruehl], Olga A. Gerber, Lev M. Malinovski and Petr P. Vibe [Wiebe]. Much of this work is in Russian, but the recent revival of research on Russian-Germans in Germany has seen an increasing number of their articles translated into German and, along with work by German scholars, published in the annual journal Forschungen zur Geschichte und Kultur der Russlanddeutschen.

This book, however, is the first major study of the relationship between the Siberian Germans and the Soviet state. It is written by a young Russian scholar in Siberia, Andrej Savin, in association with the leading German academic from Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf, Detlef Brandes. The book draws largely on unpublished material from the regional state archives of Altai, Novosibirsk and Omsk, supplemented by contemporary published books, pamphlets and periodical articles. It represents an important contribution to our understanding of the fate of the Siberian Russian-Germans under the Soviets prior to the Second World War and contains significant references to the Mennonites in the region.

The basic structure of the book is chronological starting with the Revolution and Civil War. At first many Russian-Germans welcomed the idea of change through revolution but the early attempts by the Bolsheviks to enforce their authority and the chaos of grain requisition and forced taxes during and after the Civil War alienated the early support. The chapters then move through the New Economic Policy, Collectivization, dekulakization, famine and finally the Great Terror. The last period, however, is not dealt with in as much detail as the 1920s and early 30s. The first five chapters are largely the work of Savin who obviously has considerable knowledge of the archival sources. Within the chronological structure a number of key issues are examined. These include religious policy, education and youth affairs, control of local government, economic reconstruction and the impact of attempts to emigrate abroad. In all these areas Mennonites feature prominently.

The discussion of the work of foreign Mennonite relief agencies in Siberia during the famine in 1923 and 1924 and the reaction of Soviet authorities presents new information and perspectives on this period (62-81). The use of German and Austrian communists to convince Mennonites of the benefits of the new regime proved unsuccessful. Chapter Three is devoted entirely to the Siberian work of the Moscow-based Allrussischer Mennonitischer Landwirtschaftlicher Verein (AMLV). This was one of the two important Mennonite organizations formed in the USSR following the Civil War, the other being the Verband der Bürger Holländischer Herkunft in Ukraine. Both organizations continued Mennonite strategies established in Tsarist times to maintain a high degree of Mennonite autonomy, not just in religious matters, but also in economic, social and cultural affairs. Their existence is perhaps unique in the early Soviet period but somewhat inevitably the VBH was closed in 1925 and the AMLV in 1926. At the local level the book shows that the AMLV continued to operate in Siberia into 1930. The activities of the AMLV are dealt with in detail on the basis of Siberian sources but the organization's own records, seized by the Soviets, have been located by Professor Terry Martin of Harvard University in the State Archive of the Russian Federation in Moscow.

In economic matters relations between the AMLV and the state were amicable. The book provides details on the work of cooperatives and the economic reconstruction of Mennonite settlements. But the AMLV's wide-ranging activities had obvious political overtones. In fact its leaders were skilled in dealing with Soviet officials in order to gain advantages for Mennonites. In the Soviet environment of the 1920s this led to increasing suspicion. By 1926 the Central Committee of the Soviets was told the AMLV was more than a simple cooperative venture and in reality it operated as a religious-nationalist organization working against Soviet power and was in control of the property owning, kulak strata of Mennonite society (124). The fact that its title included the name of a religious leader — Menno Simons — revealed its sectarian nature (136). There were also problems with Mennonite attempts to maintain their non-resistant status and conscription to the military.

In the early Soviet period Mennonites claimed that the Tsarist times they, like some other sectarian groups, had been a persecuted social group (83-84). Ironically the designation "sect" had been something Mennonites had fiercely resisted in the late Tsarist period; now it proved a useful political ploy. At first this argument met with some sympathy among old Bolsheviks, but following the dismantling of the Orthodox Church the Soviets reverted to their ideological opposition to all religion. The "sectarian" nature of Mennonite life threatened Soviet efforts to banish Religion. This became a problem in the struggle to control young people and secure the future generation in the name of communism or Mennonitism. Young Mennonites failed to join Soviet organizations and instead were active in religious youth groups organized by ministers often disguised as choirs (166). A central issue concerned the schools, an area over which Mennonites had developed a degree of control in Tsarist times. After the Revolution Mennonites supported Soviet laws which declared a strict separation of church and state. By appealing to this principle they suggested that schools should be a neutral territory where neither religion nor atheism was taught. This position was first formulated in 1924 by the Kommission für Kirchenangelegenheiten (KfK), although Brandes and Savin seem unaware of this. In Siberia this argument was reasserted in 1926 in a remarkable "Memorandum" addressed to the Soviet authorities by Johann F. Dirksen, leader of the Mennonites in the Slavgorad region (181-83: 447). Unfortunately, like a similar resolution which was submitted to the Soviet leadership by the KfK leaders meeting in Moscow in 1926, it appeared that Mennonites were setting conditions under which they would cooperate with the authorities.

The Mennonites believed they had something to bargain with. First they were leaders in the economic reconstruction of Siberia, ably assisted by the extensive economic support from the AMLV. Secondly the threat of mass emigration, as in the 1870s, might gain concession from the government. Brandes and Savin reveal that the emigration movement was a matter of major concern to the authorities. But as the AMLV was closed, emigration abroad was forbidden and the collectivization of private land began, the Mennonites suddenly realized they had nothing to bargain with. The rush of hopeful emigrants to Moscow in 1929-30, 73% of whom were Mennonites (297), and the international attention this attracted, has been known for some time. But here its impact at the local level in Siberia is discussed in detail for the first time. One official, noting the Mennonite's love of biblical citations, reported how they compared their position to that of the Jews, trapped in Pharaoh's Egypt (355). The Soviets, hoping to find an explanation for the desire to emigrate, carried out a careful analysis of the class origins of those involved (288-91). The figures reveal that all classes were involved, including poor Russian-Germans who according to ideology were supposed to support the Soviet state. The Soviets seemed puzzled by the continuing strength of religion and cultural identity among Russian-Germans and a lack of proper class-consciousness.

The emigration movement soon became connected with protests towards collectivization and dekulakization. This involved acts of mass resistance by Russian-Germans including a "strike" where farmers refused to plant grain. "Non-resistant" Mennonites were reported to be the strongest group involved in such protests (348) leading them to be described as "fanatics" (337-38). One group of Mennonites resorted to taking GPU officials hostage in an attempt to get a Mennonite "kulak" released from prison. Other Mennonites, however, accepted leadership positions on collective farms and one even became the head of the local NKVD.

Mennonite acts of resistance, combined with their extensive links with Mennonites living abroad, increased the suspicions of Soviet officials (390) and many were arrested. As famine followed collectivization and aid from abroad flowed in, Soviet distrust intensified. By now the Soviets had abandoned any hope that revolution would soon sweep the world and felt threatened by both capitalist countries and the rise of fascist states. The Nazi accession to power in 1933 sealed the fate of many Mennonites, whether they cooperated with the Soviets or not. In 1934 a series of purges in the Russian-German communities based around accusations of allegiance to fascist Germany (the alleged "Hitler-Hilfe" (389-406) and acts of sabotage. This resulted in a marked increase in arrests, imprisonment and executions (406). Even so, these purges were not on the scale of those which were to follow in 1937/38. These purges impacted on all sectors of Soviet society but fell more heavily on the Russian-Germans, including Mennonites, because of their alleged class background, resistance to Soviet power and suspicions of their links to Nazi Germany. The authors report that during this time the number of Russian-Germans executed in Siberia was proportionately almost twice that of the Russian-Germans in Ukraine (424).

The book has an excellent subject and person index. The latter includes brief biographical details on a number of individuals, Soviet and Russian-Germans. A large number of Mennonite names are included and the fate of many makes for sad reading. Many Mennonites will find friends and relatives recorded. This is a very fine account of the fate of the Russian-Germans, including Mennonites, who pioneered the Siberian lands before the Revolution only to suffer so terribly under the Soviets.

Reprinted with permission of Journal of Mennonite Studies.

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