Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by the German-Russians in the Soviet State (Part 3)

Verweigerung, Protest und Widerstand der Russlanddeutshen im Soqietstatte (Teil 3)

Krieger, Dr. Viktor. "Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by German-Russians in the Soviet State (Part 3)." Volk auf dem Weg, April 2007, 14-16.

This translation from the original German text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

Independent Mennonite Cooperative

A passport for the membership of the "Agricultural Association of Citizens of Dutch Descent in Ukraine," made out to the name of Isaak Schellenberg from the Ignatiyevo colony not far from the central settlement of New York in the Ekaterinoslav Gouvernement, also called the Donezk Region of Ukraine. In 1931 Isaak Schellenberg was "de-kulak ized," i.e., dispossessed and forcibly resettled to the Urals area. On December 31, 1937 he was arrested in Nizhni Tagil (Sverdlovsk Region) and was shot on October 22, 1938. In July of 1958 he was officially rehabilitated.
During the early 1920s the Bolshevik leadership was still dependent on foreign organizations in fighting the famine, and was interested in the economic recovery of the starving agrarian area. It was for this reason that the resulting contacts between some ethnic and church groups and their countrymen and brethren in faith in European and American states were tolerated for a while.

In addition to thoughts about economic aspects, some higher party representatives entertained a strong degree of hope that just that "socio-Communist" inclination of certain Protestant "sects" - which, besides the Mennonites, included such Free Churches as the Duchobores, Molokanes, Baptists, Adventists, among others - might make it ease their members' transition to the desired Communist order.

The Mennonite communities in particular, which had become well organized during earlier times, took advantage of the favorable hour and were able to effect the establishment of independent agricultural associations, specifically the "Landwirtschaftlicher Verband der Buerger Hollaendischer Herkunft in der Ukraine [Agricultural Association of Citizens of Dutch Descent in Ukraine]" (LVBHH, 1922 - 1926) and the "Allrussischer Mennonitischer Landwirtschaftlicher Verband [All-Russian Mennonite Agricultural Association ]" (AMLV, 1923 - 1928).

The first association comprised 14,511 farming operations in 173 village settlements, and they were sub-organized into seven branches. Initially the administrative headquarters was in Orloff on the Molochna, but in 1924, due to pressure from the government, it was transferred to Charkov, the then capital city of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic.

The AMLV at the beginning of 1926 counted 5,478 farming operations, or 73% of the Mennonite population of a total of 44,334 living in the Russian Federation. This association, with headquarters in Moscow, was made up of 19 branches representing the most important settlement areas of the Mennonites: Kuban (North Caucasus), Omsk, Alexandertal (Samara), Crimea, Davlenkanovo (Bashkir), Slavgorod, Pavlodar, and others.

Locally, numerous consumer and other associations or unions emerged. They concentrated on selection of state lands, pure breeding specific kinds of cattle, and intensive agricultural activity on the land. The associations were among the very first among farmers in the Soviet Union to employ tractors and other modern technical equipment, and nearly every other branch had several machine associations and provided classes in mechanization. The desire was to establish an integrated network of Mennonite associations to cover the entire production process, from the preparation of the land to producing economic products in their own agricultural operations to finally selling the wares.

In addition to purely economic concerns, cultural and societal concerns of the membership were definitely in the foreground. They included not only material assistance to teachers and schools, but also to institutions supporting continuing education for the colonists. The associations also provided legal assistance during disputes between the associations or individual members and the authorities, including freeing up the youth from military obligation.

Another area of activity was the matter of emigration. The LVBHH of Ukraine in particular organized regular, scheduled emigration for thousands of Mennonites - an activity that during the first half of the 1920s was, even if not deemed a desirable, but still a legal activity.

The high activity of the Mennonite associations, their apparent economic successes, their effective operations, receipt of assistance goods and credits from abroad, contacts with European and North-American brethren in the faith, made their communities relatively resistant to Sovietization and to being taken in by ideology.

They were a thorn in the side of the regime in its planned path toward total spiritual control and economic dependence on the State. The secret police, the OGPU, local Soviet and party officials defamed them as anti-Soviet, accused of being speculators, and their activities in general were designated as harmful for the matter of building up Socialist structures. Privately, it was admitted that the party had practically no authority among the Mennonites, that anti-religious propaganda was failing its aim, that the youth was not enrolling in the Komsomol (Communist youth association), and that the solidarity among the communities was preventing the [Soviet] class struggle.

Peter Froese, president of the Central Board of the All-Russian Association; Cornelius Klassen, a member of the Board; and Secretary Ewert (his first name is unfortunately not available) had decided to take a courageous step: In a written position paper of April 23, 1926, they refuted with convincing foundation and concrete data from the State relevant accusations. They described a series of efforts of the Association in assisting relatively less prosperous members, as well as the active participation of the latter in the Association's efforts and, in conclusion, they stated (with a degree of ironic understatement): "As you can see, the activity of the majority of the Mennonite farmers is immense, and any assumptions that anyone might paralyze their activities are simply curious." Of course it was clear to these men that it was really a matter of "paralyzing" the Bolshviks' activities ...

Still, in a continually intensifying internal political climate, there was soon no more room for independent organizations, and objective arguments became less and less effective. The two central associations were disbanded, in 1926 in Ukraine, and in 1928 in the Russian Federation, and agricultural associations in Mennonite settlements were merged into the general net of State-dependent organizations.

At the same time, the authorities began to liquidate a great number of what they called "Sham and kulak organizations," because they allegedly consisted only of prosperous farmers and did not correspond to the goals of the Socialist agrarian order. By 1928 there were arrests and court sentences of the active members of former Mennonite associations; their persecution individually lasted with very differing intensity and over a span of several years.

Farmer Unrest during the Years of Radical Change

Passport of the Membership of the "All-Russian Mennonite Agricultural Association " made out to the preacher Heinrich Epp of the rural county of Slovgorod/Altai (which for a time was part of Omsk Gouvernement). The OGPU arrested him in December of 1929 and exiled him on April, 1930 to permanent residence in the Far North, the Turuchansk Region (where Stalin had been sent during Tsarist times).
From 1927 on, the Stalin regime pursued a direction emphatically away from a market economy. After unrestricted purchase and sale of grain was banned, there followed, with increasing forcefulness, acquisition or requisition campaigns, a steep increase in taxation on the so-called kulak economy, the tying of farming economy to the State's requisitions by way of granting credits and decidedly preferential supplies with the State's goods and agricultural equipment.

The transition - two years later - to the final forced collectivization of heretofore independent farming estates and, particularly, the extremely brutally implemented wave of deportations of families branded as "kulaks" led to an increase in farmer protest actions. This included spontaneous "ganging-up" by village residents, not seldom by women, who would plunder grain storage bins or simply take their confiscated cattle back from the collective, or sabotage of the transport into banishment of kulak families, or even the beatings of local activists.

Similarly to happenings in Russian and Ukrainian villages, in German villages there occurred the so-called "Weiberaufruhre" [unrests by women]. In the Soviet State, women were considered immature and controlled beings, but on which no penal measures normally intended for men could be used.

On February 28, 1930 in the Kandel settlement in the Odessa district, more than 200 women gathered around the village council and demanded the dissolution of the collective economy and the return of "socialized" property. Two days later as many as 600 women stormed the administrative seat and tore from the walls all political placards and images of the Soviet leader. At the same time they demanded the return of banished and otherwise arrested kulaks, and the restoration of religious instruction in the schools.

These unrests expanded to the neighboring colonies of Selz, Elsass and Mannheim: several dozens of women there attempted unsuccessfully to free 20 countrymen who had been newly arrested and not yet condemned. In Elsass, Kuhfeld, Secretary of the Executive Committee of the rayon, was beaten up, and two militia men were disarmed. Only a troupe of railroad guards was able to restore order.

As a consequence, the secret police arrested 17 "ringleaders" in Kandel and Elsass and sentenced them to several years in prison.

Later, Stalin would attempt to play down these kinds of conflicts by speaking of the circumstances, that were simply initial "minor misunderstandings with the farmers - it was about the cow."

Similar unrest occurred on Crimea, in the Volga region and in Siberia - in short, everywhere one found settlement regions of the Germans. It is especially important to point to massive protests that erupted in more than 30 villages and lasted several weeks, taking place in largely Catholic villages, of the Cantons of Kamenka and Frank in the Republic of Volga-Germans, and in which women also took an active part.

The unrest in Mariental was characterized by unusual toughness and decisiveness. For nearly a month, from December 26, 1929 to January 21, 1930, the village was under control of the insurgents. They expelled the village council, the militia and party members, dissolved the collective and demanded the return of various countrymen and new elections for village councilmen... Residents several times defended themselves against attempts by the local militia to reoccupy the village. It was a special unit that would make it possible for the OGPU to retake control of the situation. More than 60 farmers were involved in court proceedings. Even the Central Committee of the Bolshevist Party was worried about the remarkable events and demanded a detailed report with an accounting from the Regional Committee of the Volga Republic.

The spirit of resistance would remain alive even in exile. Here is an excerpt from an OGPU report in the Urals: "A group of 20 persons, all of them former owners of large land tracts and kulaks from Crimea with canceled voting rights, for the most part Germans, formed a community of the banished and stated a series of demands: they must receive bread, be sent to warmer regions, and be given land."

At the station of Turinsk, 260 km [just over 150 miles] north of Sverdlovsk, Germans made contact with other persons of similar fate, including Tatars, Ukrainians and Cossacks. As a consequence, 950 "colonists" - a designation from the jargon of the secret police, commonly given to all exiles, regardless of nationality - on January 10, 1930, decisively rejected being taken to a remote forest area where they were to engage in the felling of trees.

The arrest of about 100 activists by the local secret police unleashed a powerful uprising. A gigantic mass of people finally obtained the release of those arrested, and in the village numerous rallies "with anti-Soviet slogans" took place. The unrest lasted a week before an operational unit of the OGPU, along with a military unit, brought the situation under their control. The exiles, under very strong guard, were then transported to the forest regions that had been intended for them.

Among the 15 "ringleaders" sentenced to death were Wilhelm Eisenbraun, Arthur Kaise, Wilhelm Meister, and Gottlieb Prinz.

By 1931 there were hardly any further protest actions by farmers. By then, the terror apparatus was beginning to function too perfectly, and the villagers were too worn down by the State's repressive policies. Instead of active resistance there would now be passive resistance. The unwilling participants in the collectives tried to adapt as much as possible and to get used to the inevitable. Still, that did not prevent occasional individual or spontaneous protest actions.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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