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 The book draws largely on unpublished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.