Change is never easy. Mennonites were forced to consider the benefits of starting over on the promise of an autocratic ruler in an alien land versus remaining in a choking environment in Prussia. Surely they already had enough experience with the whims of autocrats to know nothing was written in stone.
Ukraine had been settled by groups of Germans, Italians, Swedes, Greeks, Armenians, and Bulgarians for nearly thirty years when the first Mennonites began to show up. Thousands of migrants suffered the same months’ long journey to a new uncertain homeland, often over-wintering in some lonely outpost. What was happening in Europe to convince them life would be better in primitive Russia?
During the early 1800’s the Rhineland and southwest German states, were subjects of Napoleon. These districts were required to furnish men for his armies, give extensive financial support, and required to quarter the French troops. In addition the taxes, together with inclement weather, made conditions so unbearable for the peasants that many were eager to leave for Russia.
To make matters worse, Napoleon introduced civil laws which required the exercise of due process in the justice system and also forced the metric system on an unwelcoming populace. Most of the original German settlers to the Volga region “were refugees from the war-ravaged German states where religious strife and economic hardship had created a climate ripe for immigration.”
The average inhabitant of Central Europe, regardless of religious or political allegiance, was under extreme tax burden, constant threat of injury to person or property, and routine conscription into military service for one side or the other. For many, there was little cause to remain.
But for Mennonites there were additional factors considered:
According to H. Quiring and Prof. Unruh the principal reason for the emigration of the Mennonites from Danzig-West Prussia was the lack of space. In the centuries when they settled in West Prussia the Mennonites were accustomed to receive virgin land or, in part, swamp land for their progeny. However, when all the land on the river islands was apportioned and the possibilities of obtaining land in East Prussia were exhausted, many Mennonites took up a trade or craft. But the desire to possess a farmstead remained. Even though many emigrants professed to be craftsmen, tavern keepers, day-laborers, hired hands, servants etc., most of them were actually sons of peasants who were no longer able to acquire land of their own. In 1789 when the acquisition of new land was virtually forbidden to the Mennonites in view of the fact that acquisition also involved the obligation to military service (cantonal duty), the dearth of living space become even greater. The Mennonites were much attached to the Prussians, although for 200 years they themselves were regarded as ‘non-citizens’ and placed under ‘alien law’.
Concerning the emigration of the Mennonites from Danzig-West Prussia Professor Unruh remarks: “To be sure, the Mennonite Edict of 1789 had religious implications”, but he adds: “but there is no doubt that Catherine’s promises put any end to the negotiations between the Mennonites and the Prussian government in regard to their desire to remain in the country.” In the region of the Rhine (Palatinate, Alsace, North Baden) religious reasons are never mentioned.
Tsar Catherine needed people who would stay in one place, so she made the Mennonites an offer which was difficult to refuse: free land, religious freedom, tax freedom, interest free loans, no military service, self-government and she agreed to pay their travel expenses. Furthermore they were permitted to establish their own schools and teach in their own language, make their own beverages and control who owned taverns in their midst. They were not permitted to convert Russian Orthodox believers to the Mennonite faith. Furthermore, if someone left the colony, or married outside of the colony, all privileges were revoked. Except for that, it was an exceptionally good deal. Mennonites had proven to be hard workers and astute traders, but was her offer too good to be true? Time would tell.
There was more to it than simply free land and lifestyle. Mennonites in Prussia had changed from a fiercely communal society to a stratified class society where those who owned no land had no realistic hope of improving their lot. For them New Russia offered chance for a fresh start, for a social and economic reset. Now the poor could dream.
Prince Grigori Potemkin and his agent George Von Trappe gave special attention to the Mennonite colonies in Prussia, offering them twice as much land as other immigrant farmers received. In return, Mennonites were expected to be model farmers, setting the example for all others to follow. The lands which the Prince promised to the Mennonites were on the Dnepr River; they were rich and flat and reminded Höppner and Bartsch of their farms in the Vistula delta. The Dnepr River emptied into the Black Sea after winding more than 2000 kilometres across the heart of Russia. Here the two young Mennonite travelers believed was a future for their people.
By the time Bartsch and Höppner returned to Prussia, several eager Mennonite families were already on their way. Agents representing Russia had stirred the dreams of the people hoping for a place where they could live according to their chosen lifestyle. Prussian authorities were not so willing to let wealthy landowners take their fortunes and run, so in the beginning it was only the poorest Mennonites who were allowed to leave with their meagre possessions. “Passports were … denied to all prospective emigrants who had property, and granted only to the poor. By the fall of 1788 two hundred and twenty-eight families, nearly all from the poorer working classes of Danzig [arrived in Dubrovna].”
For this group it was a trying and testy trip for three reasons. First, they had gotten a late start and now were forced to winter in Dubrovna in temporary shelters awaiting an uncertain future. Second, the group comprised of two groups of Mennonites who differed ever so slightly in their beliefs they could not get along; intermarriage between the groups was punished with excommunication. Thirdly, because of their lowly economic status, there were no preachers in the group and so their spiritual wellbeing suffered.
Things did not improve a great deal in spring when the barges were loaded and the settlers floated more than a thousand kilometres down the meandering Dnepr River.
Great was the disappointment of the weary colonists, when upon their final arrival at Khortitsa, in July of 1789, they first sighted the bare and hilly waste that was to be their new home, their promised land. What they saw instead of the flat fertile fields, like those of their own Vistula delta, such as the deputies [Höppner and Bartsch] had promised them was a wide, rocky barren steppe, cut through with deep gullies, filled at that season of the year with patches of dried up grass; no sign of a living thing anywhere…
Such was the disappointment of these lonely home-seekers that a small group, the most discontented, refused to unpack their goods…
This disappointment wasn’t Höppner and Bartsch’s fault at all. Potemkin informed them that due to the Turkish War still raging to the south, they could not have the land on the southern delta of the Dnepr but would have to accept the Khortitsa territory 200 kilometres upstream. But Höppner and Bartsch still got the blame. Many of these settlers were not farmers, but labourers from the city, and the trying conditions overwhelmed them. Feelings boiled over when Höppner and Bartsch built lavish homes for themselves which no one else could afford. Believing their scouts had used money meant for the colony, both men were kicked out of the Flemish branch of the church and Höppner’s enemies had him arrested and imprisoned.
Bartsch, after making the customary confession required by the church of its backsliders, was again reinstated into full membership in his congregation. Höppner was not so easily satisfied. He affiliated himself with the Frisian branch of the church and became a citizen of the nearby city of Alexandrovsk [today Zaporizhia].
Sixty-eight years after Bartsch’s death and on the centennial anniversary of founding the colony, grandchildren of Bartsch’s then-enemies erected a marble column to his memory at his burial place. It goes to show not only does time heal wounds but also guilty consciences pass from generation to generation.
The Center for Volga German Studies at Concordia University, http://cvgs.cu-portland.edu/history/why_to_russia.cfm accessed May 29, 2016
Stumpp, Karl, The Emigration from Germany to Russia in the Years 1763 to 1862, (digital edition), American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 1996, pg 19
More than twice the land the original German settlers received according to http://kommentare.zeit.de/user/rowisch/beitrag/2007/10/26/die-geschichte-der-deutschen-russland. Accessed March 3, 2016
Everyone else was fair game though.
 Not to be confused with The Sound of Music.
Smith, C. Henry, The Story of the Mennonites 3rd ed., revised and enlarged by Cornelius Krahn, 1950, General conference of Mennonites, Board of Publication, page 387.
These deep gullies would come into play again during the Second World War as the German army raced to extricate itself from the Soviet offensive.
Smith, op. cit., page 390.
Ibid, page 393.