Ep. 9 Mennonites teach economics to the Nogai peoples


Johann Cornies - Mennonite Church USA Archives, North Newton, KSI wonder how many settlers thought about what might happen when an arguably more technologically sophisticated culture is transplanted in the midst of a peasant/serf culture. With the best of intentions, Johann Cornies, the Tsar of the Mennonites, had a vision for the Nogai, the indigenous people of the region – they would become capitalists just like the Mennonites. All they needed was a start, and he would give them that.

By the early 1820s Cornies had not only inherited his father’s 175-acre farm but had saved enough money from retailing vegetables and other produce to purchase a large estate. On his estate he bred horses, pastured cattle and raised sheep. His imported sheep produced merino wool which was valued at five times the value of the wool produced by the Nogai kurdiuch sheep.

Cornies convinced the Nogai to sign four-year share-pasturing contracts with him and other Mennonite farmers. For his part, he provided 45 ewes, five female lambs, and half the cost of a ram. The Nogai guy provided pasture and feeding for four years, paid half the cost of a ram, kept the merino sheep separate from the kurdiuch sheep and fed and watered them. After four years Cornies would receive 45 ewes, five female lambs, fifty per cent of the wool produced and fifty per cent of the remaining herd, leaving the Nogai sheep herder with fifty percent of the wool and fifty percent of the sheep born during the period of the contract.

Conditions Cornies incorporated into the new project involved fundamental changes to the way the Nogai supervised their herds. In effect he was trying to transform Nogai animal husbandry from a pastoralist tradition that emphasized the cultural value of livestock into a regulated market-oriented system.[1]

Only the well-off Nogai could afford a contract like this which required a fresh-water well and the care and feeding of the herd until Spring before any returns could be realized.

In three years Mennonites contracted 4,000 sheep to the Nogai in 21 communities. It seemed like a success but most of the sheep were held by a small minority of prosperous Nogai. As time went on the Nogai focused more on raising sheep and less on cattle and horses and conditions in the villages (except for the model village Akkerman) actually deteriorated. “…the concentration of merino sheep in the hands of a small elite meant they had little significance for most Nogais.”[2]

In the 1840’s nearly a hundred Mennonites share-pastured with the Nogai. For the  overcrowded colony of Molochna, share pasturing provided an agricultural investment opportunity for the landless. For example, Peter Loewen of Altonau owned no land  but share-pastured 978 sheep.[3] The wool market was declining, but the  Nogai still made more money with merino wool at its lowest than they ever did raising kurdiuch wool.[4]  As profit margins became narrower, so did the ethical approach of the Mennonite contractors.

Mennonite contractors began subtly manipulating the terms of contracts to their own advantage. They gradually increased the proportion of lambs included in contracts from 10% to over 19%, thus reducing wool production and, because ewes could not safely be bred before the age of 2.5 years, also reducing reproductive potential. At the same time they began supplying some male lambs in place of female lambs. A herd of 50 ewes – the standard contract amount – needed only one ram, so for Nogais the 10 – 15 male lambs that began to be included in some contracts were superfluous while the corresponding reduction in female lambs reduced the reproductive potential of the herd. Moreover, male sheep were less valuable wool producers because, while they produced more total wool, they produced less clothing wool, which brought a far higher price on international markets.[5]

Sheep shearers, Flanders, from the Grimani Breviary c. 1510

Sheep shearers, Flanders, from the Grimani Breviary c. 1510

As wool prices dropped, astute Mennonite farmers began to move from pasturing to cultivating wheat and other grains. As Mennonites moved from sheep to grain, share-pasturing allowed them to use their own land for more profitable grain growing while still maintaining herds of sheep without paying for land rental, fodder or labour. Share-pasturing contracts with the prosperous Nogai began to squeeze out the traditional cattle grazing on the common pastures.

Then disaster struck them all. A livestock epidemic in 1847-49 killed 46 per cent of all livestock.[6] In the Mennonite districts 85,692 horses, 505,577 cattle and 678,583 sheep died[7] and that was the end of the share-pasturing period. Nogai could no longer meet their obligations and began to simply rent out their most productive land in order to pay their taxes.

Many landless Mennonites took advantage of the opportunity to grow grain on the Nogai lands signing long term contracts. Mennonites also made share-cropping agreements with the Nogai. The Nogai provided land, Mennonites supplied and planted seed; Nogai harvested and retained fifty percent of the harvest while Mennonites received the other half of the harvest.

The final straw in the demise of the Nogai among the Mennonites was the advent of the Crimean War 1853-56. This was the war that invented Florence Nightingale and was also the first time Canadian fighting men set foot on Russian soil.[8] Gerhard’s great grandfather Abram would have been a middle-aged man and his grandfather Franz would be eleven years old. We don’t know what if any contribution was made by Abram Wall, but generally everyone in the area contributed something to the war effort. Nor do we know whether this assistance was considered by the congregations as a compromise of their pacifism or as the normal obligations of citizenship. “… the Molochna authorities were required to supply one wagon for every ten farms in the colony. Some wagons were loaded with troops, others with supplies, and in the autumn of 1854 4,000 wagons loaded with hay travelled from Molochna to the Crimea.”[9] One wonders where Mennonite leaders drew the ethical borderline between killing and helping others to kill.


Mennonites did not want to be in harm’s way in times of war, and they certainly had no desire to kill anyone, at this point in their history at any rate, but that did not mean they remained uninvolved. The wagons returning from the Crimea were loaded with sick and wounded soldiers which Mennonites welcomed in their homes and nursed back to health, at one point close to 7,000 wounded were recovering in the Mennonite colonies. [10] Mennonites registered little opposition to their participation in the war and in fact exhibited “a discernable patriotic enthusiasm.”[11]

The exact number of casualties due to fighting and disease is unknown, but a recent estimate suggests that between 406,000 and 450,000 Russians died as a result of war between 1853 and 1856.[12] But not many Mennonites.

Hermann A. Niebuhr

Hermann A. Niebuhr

From the Mennonite perspective this war was the best thing that could have happened to them. First, they were not required to fight so no chance of dying in battle, and second, soldiers needed to eat and they loved to eat bread. “Hermann Niebuhr, the Khortitsa mill owner, recalled the war as the first ‘golden age of milling,’ as the high prices paid for flour helped secure his family’s fortune.”[13] But for the Nogai people it was the end. Demand for wheat went through the roof along with prices. And Mennonites had plenty of wheat grown on their own land as well as on Nogai land rented at low pre-war rates. The Nogai were also required to provide wagons and other resources for the war effort, but now they could not even afford to buy the wheat grown on their own land.

In 1859 there were 35,149 Nogai wintering in the Molochna region, by 1860 there were 102 and by 1862 there were just twenty Nogai.[14] En masse and destitute the Nogai returned to their nomadic roots, travelled south to Sevastopol and shipped to Turkey where the vast majority still reside.

The story of Mennonite-Nogai economic relations has several important lessons for historians of Mennonites in Russia. First, Mennonites were neither isolated from surrounding populations nor simply paternal benefactors to backward neighbors. Whatever Cornies intended, Mennonite-Nogai relations soon came to be governed by pragmatic economic considerations, with Nogais providing a significant avenue for Mennonite investment. Some Nogais grew rich in consequence but most grew poor, and by encouraging animal husbandry to the exclusion of arable husbandry in contradiction of shifting market demand, Mennonites unintentionally set up the Nogais for a fall.[15]

There may have been some among the landless Mennonites who considered the withdrawal of the Nogai as a potential windfall, but those hopes were quickly dashed when the Russian government allocated the land to Russian and Ukrainian peasants and Bulgarian settlers.



[1]“Pravila neobkhodimye k sobliudeniiu, pri ustroistve iz Nogaiskoi derevni akerman v obraztsovuiu ili primernuiu koloniiu,” 1842, PJBRMA, file 818, quoted in On Civilizing the Nogais”: Mennonite-Nogai Economic Relations, 1825-1860 by John R. Staples, Mennonite Quarterly Review, April 2000, accessed March 22, 2016.





[6]Druzhinina, E. I., Iuzhnaia Ukrainia v period krizisa feodalizma 1825-1860 gg. (Moscow: Nauka, 1981), Table 6, p. 65; Table 9, p. 77; and Table 12, p. 90, quoted in Staples, op. cit.

[7]“Otchetov Tavricheskikh Gubernatorov,” 1846, RGIA, fond 1281, opis 4, delo 50-1846; quoted in Staples, op. cit.

[8] Canadians were fighting on behalf of the British, French and the Ottoman Empire to keep Russian expansion in check.

[9]Friesen, Autobiography, 9; on the quantity of hay see Philipp Wiebe, “Ueber den Zustand der Molotschna Mennoniten Colonie im Jahre 1855,” Mennonitische Blaetter 4 (18561, 52, and Alexander Petzholdt, Reise Westlichen und suedlichen eurpaeischen Russlandim Jahre 1855 (Leipzig, 1864), 183 quoted in “Mennonites and the Crimean War 1854-1856“ by James Urry and Lawrence Klippenstein, Journal of Mennonite Studies, vol. 7, 1989, accessed March 24, 2016.

[10]Mennonite-Ukrainian Relations 1789-1945 by G.K. Epp Journal of Mennonite Studies, page 135.

[11]Epp, George K., Geschichte der Mennoniten in Russland. Band II. Die Gemeinschaft zwischen Fortschritt und Krise 1820-1874 (Lage: Historische Kommission, Logos Verlag, 1998), 96-100, quoted in Mennonites and the Crimean War (1853 – 1856): Three Eyewitness Accounts, Lawrence Klippenstein, 2012, page 18, http://spirit-wrestlers.com/2012_Klippenstein_Mennonites-Crimean-War.pdf accessed September 5, 2017.

[12] Curtiss, John Shelton, Russia’s Crimean War (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1979), page 470.

[13]Epp, David H., The Emergence of German Industry in the South Russian Colonies,  (ed. & transl. by John B. Toews), Mennonite Quarterly Review, LV (1981) 320-21 quoted in Mennonites and the Crimean War 1854-1856 by James Urry and Lawrence Klippenstein, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Vol. 7, 1989, accessed March 24, 2016.

[14]Sergeev, A. A., Ukhod Tavricheskikh Nogaitsev v Turtsiiu v 1860 gg, Izvestiia Tavricheskoi Uchenoi Arkhivnoi Kommissii 49 (1913), quoted in Staples, op. cit. Accessed March 24, 2016.

[15]Staples, Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Ep. 9 Mennonites teach economics to the Nogai peoples

  1. So. I love this study. One leetle question tho: between 1847 – 1849: It says here that 505,577 cattle and 678,583 sheep died. My parents (engleesh) were accountants. They would ov been very impressed at the exact count. As you know, it is often hard to know when one sheep dies and another is born. Or shorn.

    Liked by 2 people

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