Orenburg Mennonite Settlement (Orenburg Oblast, Russia)
The province of Orenburg, its capital having the same name, is located on the Ural River in Eastern European Soviet Russia. The region had an area of 47,787 square miles and a population of 1,677,013 after World War II (124,000 square kilometers and a population of 2,179,551 in 2002). The city of Orenburg (renamed Chkalov between 1938 and 1957), established in 1735, is located on the railroad from Samara (Kuibyshev) to Tashkent; its population was 172,925 after World War II (approx. 548,800 in 2002). The population of the province consists of Russians, Bashkirs, Tatars, and many minority groups including Germans. The capital of Orenburg is a significant trading center between Asiatic and European Russia.
Beginning of the Settlement
In 1892-93 the Mennonites of the Chortitza Mennonite Settlement in the Ukraine sent a commission to the Deyev, landowning Russians, in the province of Orenburg, who had offered some land for sale. Since the commission made the visit during the winter they did not even see the land, which was located some 35-45 miles from the railroad station and about 50 miles from the city of Orenburg. The price per acre was 9 rubles. The land purchased amounted to 67,500 acres, to which 2,700 acres were added later. The purchase was made by the Chortitza Mennonite volost (administration) and the land was distributed among the landless Mennonites of the Chortitza Mennonite Settlement. Each farmer was to have not less than 110 acres and was to be exempt from payment on the land and taxes for two years. One of the Chortitza villages gave each of its families 200 rubles additional aid. The first settlers were already organized into five villages before leaving. They left on four trains from the station of Alexandrovsk (now Zaporizhia).
The Orenburg settlement is located on the Tchuran, Uran, and Gusicha rivers. At least 25 villages were established. Karl Fast reports that there were 28 before World War II. In 1894-1897 Chortitza, Petrovka, Kantserovka, Kamenka, Deyevka, Nikolayevka, Romanovka, and Feodorovka were established. Starting in 1900 the following additional villages were established: Pretoria, Suvorovka, Dolinovka, Rodnichnoye, Dobrovka, and Kitchkas. All of these were founded by settlers from the Chortitza settlement.
Starting in 1895 the Molotschna Mennonite settlement established the following villages adjacent to the Chortitza Mennonite villages: Kubanka, Klubnikovo, Stepanovka, Aliessovo, Karaguy, Kameshevoye, Chernozernoye, Zelenoye. Additional villages were Zabangul, Lyubimovka, and Pogornoye.
The Orenburg settlement never received an "official" name. Sometimes it was known as the Deyevka Mennonite Settlement and sometimes the Orenburg Mennonite Settlement. After 1917 the settlement was known as Uran Volost.
The first years of the settlement were very difficult. Many of the settlers returned to their mother settlements. Their reports did not raise the reputation of the new settlement. Poverty, long winters, poor soil, remote markets, theft by the surrounding nomadic population, and other factors made the beginning extremely difficult. Crop failures were frequent, but the mother settlement was unable or unwilling to make the necessary loans to give the settlement a good start. The cycle of crop failures was as follows: 1901, 1906, 1911, 1916, and 1921. The worst of all was 1906, when the mother and sister settlements helped by collecting food, clothing, and money for the settlers. Feed for the livestock had to be bought in the vicinity.
In 1907-1908 many of the Orenburg Mennonite settlers joined the Mennonites from the Ukraine in establishing the Slavgorod and Pavlodar settlements in Siberia. Some of the land of those who left the Orenburg settlement was distributed among those who remained.
Gradually the economic life of the settlement became more normal. A number of minor industries were established. About five mills powered by wind and water were operated to grind the necessary flour. One of the better-known water-powered mills was operated by Jacob A. Eckert. The necessary food oil was produced in the mill operated by Johann J. Löwen. In the carpenter and smith shops the necessary furniture and tools were made and repaired. Implement and machinery stores were operated by Jacob Bergen of Klubnikovo and others. Other business enterprises were set up in the villages of Pretoria, Klubnikovo, Dobrovka, and Deyevka. After the Revolution co-operative stores were introduced.
Administration, Education, Health
The administration of the Settlement was the traditional one. Each village had a Schulze, and the Chortitza and Molotschna settlements each had an Oberschulze or Vorsteher. The Chortitza administration was responsible to the Bashkir volost in Akhmerovo, and the Molotschna villages to the Russian Abramov volost. At first the position of the Oberschulze was somewhat unique. He was not only a servant to the villages, but also to the mother settlement in the Ukraine, whose interests he had to represent since the settlement was sponsored by the Chortitza and Molotschna settlements. Later the Orenburg Settlement became more independent. Among the officeholders of the Chortitza villages at Orenburg were Dietrich Lepp, Joseph Friesen, David Froese, Anton Günther, and Isaak Penner. In 1913 under Isaak Penner the Chortitza villages received title of land ownership and thus became independent of the Chortitza Settlement. The officeholders of the Molotschna villages were Bernhard Matthies 1895-99, Abram Fast 1899-1907, and Johann Spenst 1907-17.
After the Revolution the 25 Mennonite villages were organized into an independent volost with its seat in the village of Kitchkas. H. H. Löwen became the secretary and Jacob W. Pries the Oberschulze. The volost was subdivided into smaller districts.
During and after the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Settlement underwent the same changes as other communities. In the immediate vicinity of the settlement the Bashkir and Kirghiz republics were created, the boundary between the two cutting across the Mennonite settlement. Both republics claimed the Mennonite settlement within their boundaries. The controversy between them was settled when the Bashkirs occupied the Mennonite settlement and took it over. The Mennonites were constantly open to exploitation under this arrangement until they were transferred to the Kirghiz Republic. Later developments have been the same as in the rest of Russia.
Other public activities of the settlement were the customary fire insurance, with separate divisions for the Chortitza and Molotschna villages, as well as the Waisenamt (i.e. orphanage office). Medical care was primitive in the early days. The usual midwives and bonesetters (Knochenarzt) took care of the basic needs. Among the midwives were Mrs. Jacob Giesbrecht and Mrs. Cornelius Kehler. Johann Braun, who settled in Orenburg in 1902, had some training and experience in the care for the sick and became known as "Dr. Braun." He did much to relieve suffering in the settlements. For a while he was assisted by Dr. Michel from St. Petersburg. After Braun's death in 1911 a Pole by the name of Yunovitch practiced medicine until the outbreak of World War I (1914). In 1922 Dr. Rudolph A. Klassen, under the sponsorship of American Mennonite Relief, served the community until he immigrated to Canada. He was succeeded by Dr. Lassmann. In 1925 the Soviet government opened a hospital in the Mennonite village of Rodnichnoye with Dr. Shostakov in charge.
The settlers established an elementary school in each village. Some of the teachers, e.g., Isaak G. Krahn, David H. Löwen, and Johann B. Mathies, had received a normal teacher's training. The annual salary of a teacher in the early days was 350-650 rubles. Some of the young boys went to the mother settlements for secondary school training. In 1919 twelve of the elementary schools had two rooms.
In 1907 a Zentralschule was established at Pretoria, a secondary school which helped to raise the educational and cultural level of the settlement. One of the outstanding leaders of the school board was P. P. Dyck. Among the teachers of this school were R. A. Riesen, Franz, F. Lehn, Dietrich J. Gossen, P. P. Sawatzky, Fr. F. Froese, P. P. Dyck, D. H. Loewen, D. H. Koslowsky, and F. F. Klassen. In 1918 and 1920 respectively the settlement established additional secondary schools in Deyevka and Klubnikovo. By 1925-26 all the schools were taken over by the Soviet government and administered according to the Marxian philosophy, which is vividly described by Karl Fast.
In 1923 a Bible school was established in Orenburg by an organization of 61 members. Isaak J. Töws was the chairman, Peter Paethkau secretary, and Gerhard Braun treasurer. Jakob Rogalsky was the first teacher and the instruction was given in the home of G. Derksen in Karaguy. During the second year the school had 47 pupils and Jakob Rempel and Peter Koehn were added as teachers. The instruction was given in the home of David Rempel of Kantserovka. During the third year (1925-26) 67 pupils attended the school and the instruction was given in the Mennonite Brethren Church of Kamenka. The pupils came from various other settlements besides Orenburg. The government closed the school in 1927.
World War I and After
During World War I many of the men were drafted for forestry service and hospital work. In many instances the women had to do the work in the home as well as on the farm. In 1915 some six thousand German nationals were interned in the Mennonite and surrounding villages. The novel Das sibirische Tor by Hans Harder deals at length with this incident. After the war most of them returned to Germany. Only a few Mennonite girls married German nationals and went along to Germany.
During and after the Revolution the Orenburg Mennonites suffered severely, although not as much as some of the Mennonites of the Ukraine. Requisitions of property, grain, horses, etc., were common. In 1921 the Settlement experienced a crop failure and starvation set in. In some of the surrounding villages a large percentage of the population perished. The Mennonites organized a relief committee to collect food for distribution among the starving. An attempt was made to take clothing to Siberia in return for food, but it failed. Some help came in 1921 when the American Mennonite Relief reached Orenburg. D. R. Höppner reached Orenburg in March 1922 and supervised the distribution of relief until August 1924. Some fifteen carloads of food supplies were distributed, not only among Mennonites. In addition to this much was done to improve health conditions among the settlers. American clothing was distributed in 1923-24. American Mennonite Relief also established a tractor service to boost agriculture. Thus the crisis of 1921-22 was gradually overcome.
A great problem for the settlement during the Revolution and the years of civil war was the attacks made by the surrounding nomadic population. Some of the young Mennonites organized a Selbstschutz to defend their lives and property, although this action was officially condemned by the churches.
In the early days of the Soviets the Mennonites of Orenburg were permitted to do alternative service, supported by the settlement. In 1920-22 they worked on a large nearby estate. Later exemption from military service became impossible.
After the Revolution, during the NEP period, the Orenburg Mennonite settlement revived its economic and religious life (as is recorded in the pages of Unser Blatt and Der Praktische Landwirt). The results of the crop failures of 1921-22 and the following years were gradually overcome. In 1925 a co-operative was founded to raise the quality of the seed and livestock of the settlement. The co-operatives, which proved to be a success, established tractor stations, dairying, etc. From 1 January to 1 September, 36 tons of cheese were produced. Great progress was made in agriculture as well as in the cultural and religious activities of the communities. The total population of the Orenburg Mennonite settlement was 5,767 on 1 February 1926. In 1913 the congregations were centered in Deyevka (since 1899) with 1,103 members and 1,615 minor children, in Klubnikovka with 594 souls, and in Karaguy with 286 souls. The last two belonged to the Mennonite Brethren.
During the NEP period the elders of the Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Brethren Church, Heinrich Rempel and Kornelius Vehr, died and were succeeded by Isaak Krahn and David Janz. The relationship between the two churches improved. One writer states, "As never before the children of God are striving toward unity." Bible studies and song festivals were jointly conducted. Plans were under way to construct one large church for use by both groups. Soon the great change came and religious activities were suppressed and survived only in the hearts of individual believers. Rigid collectivization set in.
Some 300 persons migrated to Canada in 1926 under the leadership of Peter P. Dyck. On 9 September 1926 the group left Orenburg in nine freight cars, arrived at Moscow on 15 September, and at Riga on 18 September, and proceeded to Canada.
When the NEP period came to a close in 1928-29 and the new collectivization program was inaugurated many regretted that they had not left Russia. Among the thousands of refugees reaching Moscow in the fall of 1929 there were many from Orenburg. Most of them, however, were returned; some reached Paraguay and Brazil. Many of those remaining in Russia were exiled. Walter Quiring lists nineteen leading settlers, teachers, and ministers who were exiled at this time.
When the German army invaded Russia, the Orenburg Settlement, unlike most of the other Mennonite settlements of European Russia, was not evacuated. This, however, did not mean that the Settlement did not suffer. The exploitation of the settlers during the dark years of the Revolution continued. Again in 1951 the region of the Orenburg Settlement experienced a drought. All religious services were forbidden. In 1951 a letter says, "Religious funeral services cannot be conducted but we are permitted to sing. Nothing is offered to the children" (by way of spiritual life) (Mennonitische Rundschau, (30 July 1952): 5, 16).
Conditions changed considerably in 1955. Reports reached relatives in America about conversions, religious revivals, and worship services. Not only did the surviving ministers start to preach, but also many of the converted but unordained young men began to conduct meetings and preach. Worship services and Bible study was conducted in the homes and barns of the various villages. It even became permissible to teach some German in the elementary schools. Baptismal services were held. One report stated that 98 persons from eight villages were baptized at one time in the village of Petrovka. Numerous ministers were ordained. The writers were enthusiastic about the privilege of worshiping again.
A letter published in Der Bote (4 January 1956: 7) reported that a group met regularly for worship services and that the congregation was growing. Abram Dyck was the leading minister. Another letter published in the Mennonitische Rundschau (1 February 1956: 6) reported that a group met regularly for worship in the home of Heinrich Unruh at Kubanka and that David Günter was the minister. During the mid-1950s none of the former meetinghouses had been reopened for worship services. In Romanovka the former schoolhouse became a clubhouse and the church was converted into a schoolhouse.
The economic life changed and improved considerably after World War II. All farming was done on a collective basis. One of the letters of 1955 reported that women did not need to work outdoors during the winter. An old couple by the name of Peter Braun was supported by the collective. A letter published in Der Bote (12 October 1956: 8) stated that three men had married Russian women, that they had enough food and clothing, and that they had just received electric lights and radios. The correspondence showed that the young men were drafted into the Russian army. There were no indications that this was not taken for granted. -- Cornelius Krahn
The Mennonites of the Orenburg (Kitchkass) and the old Neu Samara (Pleshanov) settlements were not dislodged and permanently relocated as had been the case with most other Mennonites who lived west of the Volga River before World War II. All the farming communities had been collectivized, of course, and sovietization was carried forward in other aspects of community life as well. The churches were all closed in the Stalin era, and the majority of adults and young people had to join the Trud Armia (labor army) during the war.
The repressions of the late 1940s and early 1950s gave way temporarily to a period of recovery and reconstruction after the death of Stalin in 1953. The end of the special regime (Spetskomandantura) restrictions for all Germans came two years later. Most of those who left the Orenburg communities during the preceding decade, if they had survived, were able to return to their home villages in this region.
Revivals, which had begun here as early as the late 1940s, were renewed about this time when the arrested church leaders were released. Small groups were able to meet for worship and fellowship once more. There were, however, more arrests in 1958-62. In 1965 those from the Pleshanov region of the former Neu Samara settlements were freed and church life could be organized here once again.
In April 1972, the Donskoi congregation requested registration, but was not granted the privilege until four years later. Construction of a house of worship began immediately, and in the ensuing years this group had become the largest congregation of the area. Daniel Janzen was the leading minister (Ältester [elder]) for most of this period. The congregation numbered about 400 members in 1987.
Among the dozen or more older Mennonite villages of this area there were now registered Mennonite Brethren congregations not only in Donskoi, but also in Podolsk and Ischalka, with unregistered groups active in Klinok, Kahan, Kuterlja, Krassikova, Lugovsk, and Totz Koe. The total Mennonite Brethren membership of this area was around 1,000 baptized members in 1987. Some Kirchliche Mennonites lived in these villages also.
Most of the Kirchliche Mennonite congregations in the Orenburg settlements were located in villages once established by Chortitza families from Ukraine. The Ältester of the total body, Diedrich Thiessen, led his own registered congregation at Kitchkass (No. 12) until his emigration to West Germany. This group had about 100 members. Registered congregations were also found in the villages of Chortitza (No. 1), Petrovka (No. 2), Kanzerovka (No. 3), Zhdanovka (earlier Deyevka) (No. 5), Nikolaevka (No. 6), Fejodorovka (No. 7), Sol-Iletzk (south of Orenburg), and Stepanovka. Unregistered congregations were active in Dolinovka and Pretoria. Seven of these congregations had their own church buildings, and the total membership was around 700 (1987).
A dozen or more Mennonite Brethren congregations were located in these villages also. At least eight of them built new meetinghouses during the 1970s and 1980s. Each congregation had its own Ältester, and the total membership was more than 1,500. Groups were registered in the following locations: Chortitza, Petrovka, Kanzerovka, Kamenka, Zhdanovka, Fejodorovka, Suvorovka, Pretoria, Kubanka, Stepanovka, lisovo, and Susanovo. Hundreds of former Mennonites found their way into nearby Baptist congregations, notably those in the city of Orenburg itself.
During most of the 1980s emigration had not affected the Orenburg communities as it had the Mennonites of western Siberia and Soviet Central Asia, e.g., Kazakhstan and Kirgizia. The whole area was opened to tourists and other travelers, so that east-west exchanges increased significantly during the late 1980s. However, during the late 1980s and the 1990s, the majority of the Mennonite inhabitants of the Settlement immigrated to Germany. -- Lawrence Klippenstein
Der Bote: 10 February, 7 April, 12 May, 1954; 17 August, 21 September, 12 October, 1955; 4 January, 11 January, 18 January, 22 February, 25 April, 2 May, 1956; 23 January, 1957.
Brucks, J. H. and H. Hooge. Neu Samara am Tock. Clearbrook, BC, 1964.
Courier 2, no. 1 (1987): 1-3.
Derksen, Wilma. Mennonite Reporter (11 November 1985): 2.
Dyck, Peter P. Orenburg am Ural. Yarrow, 1951; 2nd ed. Meckenheim, Germany: Warlich-Druck und Verlagsgeselschaft, m.b.H., 1993.
Ehrt, Adolf. Das Mennonitentum in Russland. Berlin, 1932.
Fast, Karl. Gebt der Wahrheit die Ehre. North Kildonan, 1950.
Fast, Karl. Orenburg: die letzte mennonitische Ansiedlung in Osteuropa. Winnipeg: Das Bunte Fenster, 1995.
Hamm, Abram and Maria Hamm. Die Wege des Herrn sind lauter Gate. Gummersbach: Verlag Friedensstimme, 1985.
Harder, Hans. Das sibirische Tor. Stuttgart, 1938.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. III, 308.
Hiebert, P. C. and Orie O. Miller. Feeding the Hungry. Scottdale, 1929: 353 ff.
Hildebrand, Olga. "Die Orenburger Ansiedlung, 1920-1970." Der Bote (8 January 1986): 5, 8.
Klippenstein, Lawrence. "An Unforgotten Past: Recent Writings by Soviet Emigre Baptists." Religion in Communist Lands, 14, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 17-32.
Mennonitische Rundschau: 9 June, 1948; 18 January, 1950; 18 April, 1951; 6 February, 30 July, 6 August, 1952; 14 April, 12 May, 4 August, 15 September, 29 September, 15 October, 1954; 15 April, 27 April, 18 May, 22 June, 27 July, 10 August, 27 August, 24 August, 12 October, 23 November, 7 December, 1955; 1 February, 7 March, 11 April, 18 April, 30 May, 18 July, 8 August, 24 October, 1956; 9 January, 30 January, 1957.
Der Praktische Landwirt (Moscow, 1926): No. 1, p. 10 ff.; No. 10-11, p. 14.
Redekop, David E. "Gemeindeleben in Russland 1985." Mennonitische Rundschau (27 November 1985): 18-22.
Rempel, J. Der Sowjet Hölle entronnen. Kassel, 1935).
Sawatsky, Walter. "Mennonite Congregations in the Soviet Union Today." Mennonite Life 33 (March 1978): 12-26.
Unser Blatt I (1925): 44; II (1926): 23; III (1927): 91 and 146.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 75-79; vol. 5, pp. 664-665. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Krahn, Cornelius and Lawrence Klippenstein. "Orenburg Mennonite Settlement (Orenburg Oblast, Russia)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 18 June 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/O753.html.
APA style: Krahn, Cornelius and Lawrence Klippenstein. (1989). Orenburg Mennonite Settlement (Orenburg Oblast, Russia). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 June 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/O753.html.