As early as 1860 the Mennonites of European Russia sent a delegation composed of Bernhard Warkentin and Martin Riediger to investigate land along the Amur River for possible settlement. However, at that time the surplus Mennonite population found an outlet in the Crimea and soon (1873 ff.) in migration to America.
Some of the Mennonites opposed to any form of compulsory state service and influenced by a chiliastic movement of the day sought refuge in Asia beginning in 1880. One such group was led by Claas Epp of the Köppental-Ohrloff settlement (Am Trakt) in the province of Samara and the other by Elder Abraham Peters of the Molotschna settlement. Having obtained permission from the government in Moscow to establish a settlement in the Asiatic territory where there was not yet compulsory conscription, and having had the same confirmed by the governor of the province of Turkestan, von Kaufmann, they proceeded in several groups to Central Asia, starting in 1880. The first group, leaving the Trakt settlement 3 July 1880 and arrived in Tashkent on 18 October, after a very difficult and adventurous trip through the desert. This group was followed by a second one from Samara and a third under the leadership of Elder Abraham Peters from the Molotschna, and finally a group led by Elder Claas Epp arriving in the fall of 1881. Although the expectations of the return of the Lord and of finding a place of complete exemption from military service were not fulfilled, the group of Claas Epp established the settlement Ak-Mechet in the vicinity of the city of Khiva in 1884 and the group of Elder Peters settled near the city of Aulie-Ata, some 150 miles northeast of the city of Tashkent. Many of these settlers later came to America. After the religious and economic difficulties of the pioneer days were overcome, these two settlements obtained a measure of prosperity. All settlers of the Ak-Mechet settlement were exiled under the Soviet regime.
Individual Mennonites settled in Siberia as early as 1897. In 1899 a settlement near the city of Omsk, which was at that time the capital of Akmolinsk, originated. Among the early settlers were Johann Matthies, Franz Balzer, Julius Dick and Peter Dick from Ukraine, and Heinrich and Gerhard Ewert from Samara. During the same year the brothers Peter, Nikolai and Johann Friesen, with some 100 families, purchased land some 150 miles west of Omsk, and established the settlement Friesenov. But large-scale settlements did not start before 1907. At this time well-organized settlements were started on both sides of the Siberian railroad by Mennonite settlers coming from Chortitza and Molotschna and their daughter colonies. By 1914 more than 100 villages had been established by some 200 families from Chortitza and some 1,000 from the Molotschna.
In 1926 there were four major settlements in West Siberia. The largest of them was the Slavgorod-Barnaul settlement, located in what was at that time the province of Tomsk, some 10 miles (16 km) from the city of Slavgorod. Today Tomsk belongs to the Novo-Sibirsk District. In 1925 this settlement had a population of 13,173 in 58 villages. Before the Revolution new settlements consisting of from two to five villages originated in connection with the Slavgorod-Barnaul settlement. They were the following: Agatch, Svistunovo, Tchaystahi, Glyaden, Pashvya. Another settlement composed of 13 villages was located in three groups between Slavgorod and Pavlodar and known under the name Pavlodar settlement (Musdekul, Taldekuduk and Taskuduk). The Pavlodar settlement near Omsk, today a part of Kazakhstan, consisted of two villages located some 40 miles (65 km) north of the city of Omsk. The district of Omsk is now a part of Russia. West of the city of Omsk was located the settlement Perfileevka-Friesenov, composed of approximately 11 villages. Two more villages near Omsk formed the settlement Tchunayevka. In addition numerous estates could be found along the railroad. The fourth settlement located farther east was that of Minussinsk some 40 miles (65 km) from the city by that name. It was composed of only two villages. The fifth settlement was located northwest near the city of Tobelsk. Before the nationalization of the land the Mennonites owned 1,500,000 acres of land in these territories.
The Amur territory investigated by Mennonite delegates in 1860 again became the object of investigation in 1926, when the Soviet government was offering land for settlement purposes. While many Mennonites migrated to America in 1922-1926, some, especially those from West Siberia, became interested in the Far East. They were, however, soon joined by Mennonites from the various settlements of the Ukraine. Thus the last voluntary Mennonite settlement originated near Blagoveshchensk on the Amur River. A large number of these settlers later crossed the Amur River to Harbin in China whence they proceeded to America.
Since the days of the czars Asiatic Russia has been the "charnel house," as Dostoyevsky put it, of those elements not desired in European Russia. Revolutionaries, anarchists and other political offenders were sent to Siberia for 10-20 years or a life term. It was a measure of punishment that was continued under the Soviet government. Soon it was practiced on a gigantic scale thus far unknown in history. Millions of people were exiled to the North and Far East, not merely for punishment, but mostly for exploitation as slave labor. The threat of an attack on Asiatic and northern Russia was one of the reasons for this measure. At the same time the mass exile served as a means to break the resistance of the population and to speed up the industrialization and collectivization of the land. Millions of citizens were deprived of their rights and exiled to these slave labor camps. The Mennonites no doubt were affected by this measure more than the average Russian population. First of all they were people of deep religious convictions; then they belonged to the middle class; and they were of German background and thus suspected of cooperation with the invading enemy. Although the complete history of the exile of the Mennonites of Asiatic Russia is not available it is known that they were sent to all existing slave labor camps. Among these were Dalylag in the Far East, a concentration camp that used its manpower for fishing, forestry service and strategic building; Kolyma within the Arctic Circle in the Far East, a gold and silver mining industry, with strategic building and agriculture; and Sakhalin Island, off the Pacific coast, exploited for its oil and coal. Thousands upon thousands of slave laborers were employed to build by hand the North-Siberian Railroad north of the Baikal Sea to the east coast, near the towns of Kuznetskstroy, Magnitogorsk and Komsomolsk. How many Mennonites perished, who they were, how they suffered, how their life ended will never be fully known. But one thing is known—many of them kept their testimony even unto death.
Before and after the Revolution a considerable interest in mission work among the native and Russian population along the Ob River (see Ob Mission) originated among the Mennonites of Russia, especially in Siberia. Because of the antireligious attitude of the Soviet government the program could not be fully developed and maintained.
Anger, Helmut. Die Deutschen in Sibirien. Berlin and Königsberg: Ost-Europa-Verlag, 1930.
Bartsch, Franz. Unser Auszug nach Mittel-Asien. North Kildonan, MB: Echo Verlag, 1948.
Dailin, David J. and Boris I. Nicolaevsky. Forced Labor in Soviet Russia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1947.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 88 f.
Hildebrand, J. J. Sibirien. Winnipeg: J. J. Hildebrand, 1952.
Loewen, Abram and Abram Friesen, Die Flucht über den Amur: ein mennonitisches Dorf flüchtet (1930) aus dem sowjetrussischen Sibirien in die chinesische Mandschurei. Rosthern, SK: Echo Verlag, 1946.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 177-178. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Krahn, Cornelius. "Asiatic Russia." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 19 June 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/A7935.html.
APA style: Krahn, Cornelius. (1953). Asiatic Russia. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 June 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/A7935.html.