Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Height, Joseph S. Paradise of the Steppe: A Cultural History of the Kutschurgan, Beresan, and Liebental Colonies, 1804-1972. Bismarck, North Dakota: Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 1973.
Joseph Height, who was born in 1909 in Saskatchewan, Canada, focuses on the Catholic Kutschurgan, Beresan, and Liebental colonies in this book. (Twenty-three percent of the Germans living in South Russia were Catholic.) He goes into detail about the turmoil that made the Czar's invitation most welcome to the farmers and craftsmen of Germany and France in the 1760s. Harsh, constantly-shifting policies destabilized the people in and around Alsace, the Palatinate, Baden, and Wurttemberg. People who fled foreign armies in fear were punished as traitors a short time later. The Czarina Catherine's representatives who entered this scene spun a good line. Their promise of free land and assurance of wonderful freedoms tugged at the people's dreams.
Height follows the settlers on the often disastrous journey to Russia and through the difficult early years when colonists first tilled the iron-hard soil and brought the snake and wolf populations under control. Cossack soldiers patrolled the borders to prevent the colonists from returning to Germany, and few would risk becoming victims of their brutal treatment. The Colonists' Welfare Committee, led by forward-looking men such as the Duc Armand de Richelieu, who was also the governor of Odessa, kept the reluctant pioneers afloat and goaded them to plant fruit trees and vineyards. An Odessa greenhouse created at Richelieu's behest provided stock!
He describes the founding of the seminary at Saratov and of the Tiraspol Diocese, which was in existence only long enough to have five bishops. The priests, first Polish then sons of the colonists, ministered to the people and enriched their lives with ritual and music and religious organizations. They cared for the sick and indigent. Even young men who did not stay through ordination proved of great value. They became teachers, civic leaders, and the village intelligentsia. They provided the stimulation that kept the colonists from becoming as backward as their peasant neighbors.
Height has accumulated appealing information: festivals, songs, sayings, language, letters home, and pictures of lovely churches. There are town plats of Kutschurgan, Beresan and Liebental villages. Those whose families originally settled there may find their forebears' names in little rectangles on town maps. He deals with the out-migration as large numbers left for the Americas and with the devastation of the villages and the deportation of the people to the north and east by the Communists. This book is a good choice if you are curious about the layout of homes, about the education system, what triggered all the migrating, and finally what became of the many who stayed under Stalin.