Land Distribution (Russia)

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Mennonites settled in colonies in Russia in principle were subject to regulations covering land ownership and land distribution outlined in a law of March 1765 which imposed a system of hereditary household tenure on all foreign colonists. All land was placed in the perpetual and incontestable possession of the colony as a corporate group, and could not be sold or mortgaged to outsiders. Each Mennonite colonist received a separate allotment of 65 desiatinas  (160 acres; 70 hectares) which they and their descendants could use in perpetuity. This allotment could not be subdivided, but, while the 1764 law specified that only the youngest son could inherit the property, Mennonites, through provisions granted in their 1800 Privilegium, could follow their own inheritance customs. Usually the eldest Mennonite son inherited the land and homestead, but he had to compensate his siblings for their portion of the estate.

Each allotment included areas of arable, meadow, pasture, and, if available, woodland. Also included was the house and garden plot of 1.5 desiatinas. The colony retained rights over wasteland, rivers and takes; the rest of the land was divided into village areas. At the time of settlement one sixth of the village land was set aside for future population increase (the surplus land) and a further area in the colony to establish new villages (the reserve land) once the surplus land was exhausted. A smaller area was reserved in the villages for the households of those who did not require farm land but who wished to pursue a craft or trade.

Although the colonists lived in compact villages, the land was divided among individual farmers, and their pasture portions were usually consolidated. Sometimes the farmer's land was further divided and shared out by the village assembly so that each received a similar portion where land quality varied. Land-use was also organized and rationalized by common agreement.

During the first half of the 19th century few farmers cultivated their full allotment. Large areas were given over to pasture for sheep and much of the reserve and surplus land was rented out for the same purpose. As the population of the colonies increased, as arable farming replaced sheep rearing in terms of profitability, demand for land increased. The problem of land shortage and the need to respond to the growing number of landless was recognized as early as 1840 but the crisis really emerged after 1860. Following the Crimean War (1853-56) inflation increased and many artisans wished to take up agriculture.

A period of bitter dispute erupted (landless) until the government ordered the remaining surplus and reserve land to be distributed. After 1866 the colonists could hold allotments of 32 desiatinas (half-farms of 80 acres or 35 hectares) and 12 desiatinas (quarter- or small-farms). The colony was made responsible for the settlement of future landless, a poll-tax was instituted, and areas were set aside for rent to raise capital to purchase land for new colonies. A number of these daughter colonies were founded after 1860 by the mother colonies of Molotschna and Chortitza and the system of land distribution in the new settlements usually followed that of the mother colony. Both landless and landowners who wished to better their position had access to land in daughter colonies although it is unclear exactly who was selected or rejected.

As colonies were founded outside European Russia after 1890, Mennonites who settled in Central Asia and east of the Ural Mountains in Siberia adapted to local conditions. Siberian colonists in the first decade of the 20th century received individual grants of 15 desiatinas (37 acres, 16 hectares), but Mennonites still attempted to settle in compact, closed communities.

The problem of landlessness, was never entirely settled. Arguments persisted in the colonies over access to pasture, the division of land, and the selection of settlers for new colonies.

After 1860 many Mennonites rented land from gentry outside the colonies on long-term leases, or they purchased land. Private land purchases had begun before 1860 by entrepreneurs who formed the vanguard of a new social group of estate owners. But individuals and particularly small groups who purchased land after 1860 often formed compact communities. Unlike in the colonies they were free to farm as they liked, to subdivide their land, and to buy and sell property.

All privately owned land was seized by the Soviet government and redistributed after 1921, although most private landholders had abandoned their land during the Civil War. In the colonies land was redistributed, each family receiving 12 desiatinas (30 acres, 13 hectares). This system prevailed throughout the years of New Economic Policy (1921-28), after which land was collectivized.


Rempel, David G. "The Mennonite Colonies in New Russia." Ph.D. diss., Stanford U., 1933: 102-112, 179-211, cf. Mennonite Quarterly Review 47 (1973): 259-308, and 48 (1974): 5-54.

Extensive correspondence on problems of land distribution can be found in the newspaper Odessaer Zeitung after 1862.

Author(s) James Urry
Date Published 1989

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MLA style

Urry, James. "Land Distribution (Russia)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 20 Jan 2019.

APA style

Urry, James. (1989). Land Distribution (Russia). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 January 2019, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 505. All rights reserved.

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