new Mennonite Life logo    Spring 2007     vol. 62 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

Putting 'Russia' Back into Russian Mennonite History : The Crimean War, Emancipation, and the Molochna Mennonite Landlessness Crisis

by John R. Staples

John R. Staples is associate professor of history at SUNY Fredonia in Fredonia, New York. A German version of this article appeared as "Die Bedeutung des Krimkrieges, der Bauernbefreiung und der Landlosenkriese für die Mennoniten an der Molotschna" in the 2005 Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter, and a shorter English version in the December 2004 Preservings.

1836 Molotschna region map

The Molochna Mennonite landlessness crisis was a watershed event in Tsarist Mennonite history. By the 1860s a small minority of Mennonites owned land and were wealthy, while the majority leased land, or worked as agricultural laborers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, or merchants. In a bitter and divisive confrontation in the 1860s the landless demanded their fair share of community land. In 1867 the Tsarist state intervened to force a settlement, but the damage was done. The dispute left permanent scars on Mennonite society that were revealed in religious, economic, social, and cultural fissures. Or this, at least, is how the story is conventionally told.

Mennonite historians and churchmen have told and retold this story countless times, but even the best of them have told it as an exclusively Mennonite story. The landlessness crisis might just as well have happened in Kansas, or Manitoba, or Paraguay, so little does the broader context of Tsarist Russia intrude.

It is time to put Tsarist Russia back into this vitally important Mennonite story. What I would like to suggest is that the landlessness crisis is not a Mennonite story — or at least not exclusively or even primarily so. Mennonites were Tsarist subjects. Moreover — and this is a very significant element of the story — they were part of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-national southern Ukrainian region of the Tsarist Empire.(1) To understand the landlessness crisis, we must understand the history of the Molochna River Basin, the history of Ukraine, and the history of the Tsarist Empire. Turning this on its head, to understand the history of the Tsarist Empire, of Ukraine, and of the Molochna, we must also understand the history of the Mennonites — an assertion that places Tsarist Mennonite history in its proper place, as an important subfield of Russian, Ukrainian, and Soviet history.

My intention, then, is to reconstrue the outbreak of the landlessness crisis — a critical event in Mennonite history — as part of two critical events in Tsarist Russian history: the Crimean War of 1853-55, and the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. I will argue that the local economic effects of the war on Mennonites and their neighbors, combined with the broader effects of the emancipation of Ukrainian peasants to the north of the Molochna, coincided to provoke a crisis in the Molochna Mennonite Settlement.

1852 map of the Molotschna colony. Pink blocks are labeled "land divided for the Anwohner." Green sections are "land belonging to the estates (? Vorwerken)

Land and Landlessness in Mennonite Society(2)

The landlessness crisis had its roots in the unique land tenure arrangements of Mennonites. When they arrived in Ukraine they were allotted a fixed amount of land (about 123,000 desiatinas),(3) and each family was allotted a fixed 65 desiatina holding. A significant portion of land was held in reserve for future settlers, but only a relatively small portion was set aside to allot to the offspring of the first settlers. Because Mennonites were forbidden to subdivide their land allotments or periodically redistribute their land (as was the practice of neighboring Ukrainian peasants), this arrangement guaranteed that there would eventually be landless families. Already by 1834 almost half of all Mennonite families were landless, and by 1860, almost two-thirds were without land.

Land ownership was significant to Molochna Mennonites for several reasons. Most importantly, in the predominantly agricultural economy of mid-nineteenth-century Ukraine, owning land provided economic security. Although some landless Mennonites were wealthy merchants or tradesmen, most were dependent for their livelihood on agricultural labor and cottage industry. Owning a full land allotment was the one sure path to economic security.

A second important aspect of land ownership was rooted in Mennonite ethno-religious tradition. Mennonites called themselves the "quiet in the land," alluding to their religious ideal of withdrawal from secular entanglements. They possessed a foundation myth of agricultural life as the ideal expression of this withdrawal, because life in their agricultural villages permitted physical withdrawal to match the ideal of spiritual withdrawal. Mennonites who were not among the landowning minority faced the prospect that they were also not among the religious "elect."

Finally, landless Mennonites were politically powerless in their communities. Only owners of full allotments voted in the elections of village and district officials. The landed held a monopoly on political power, including decisions about who could obtain village and settlement land on the rare occasions when such land became available.

In 1862, landless Mennonites, supported by some influential Mennonite landowners and merchants, launched a campaign to force the more equitable distribution of Mennonite land, and therefore of political power. The landless and their supporters demanded that village authorities give them the small remaining supply of surplus land. Opponents and proponents of this proposal engaged in heated disputes in the German-language press as well as in a battle of appeals to the Russian state. Ultimately the crisis was resolved when the state ordered landed Mennonites to grant a number of concessions to the landless.

For Mennonites the crisis has long been seen as a black mark that challenges their perceptions of their own society as just and egalitarian. In this tradition, in the early 20th century the great Mennonite historian P.M. Friesen wrote: "Like a misfortune [the crisis] lies on the soul of the community because there has not taken place a thorough cleansing of the corporate body through conscious repenting."(4) More recently, Mennonite historians have come to regard the crisis as a watershed event after which social and economic differentiation within Mennonite society became dominant forces. Such historians have not escaped the moralizing tone of earlier writers. David Rempel, whose pioneering work in the 1960s-1980s revitalized the study of Russian Mennonite history, characterized the actions of the landed as "unconscionable." For other historians the landlessness crisis has been seized upon as a particularly clear instance of class conflict in an industrializing society. James Urry, whose None But Saints is the standard work on the first century of Mennonite settlement in Russia, writes that the "land struggles revealed the ugly and unacceptable face of the economic and social transformations that had occurred since first settlement in Russia."(5)

If we look at the sources upon which assessments of the landlessness crisis have traditionally been made, it quickly becomes evident that much of the historiography has very shaky foundations. Too frequently it is based on statements made by participants in the crisis who had clear vested interests in how it would be resolved. Letters to newspapers and petitions to the Guardianship Committee, written in the heat of the crisis, have been accepted as de facto confirmation of the claims of the landless, while isolated accounts of rapacious subleases of pasture land have been interpreted as evidence of widespread profiteering by all landowners.

One source has particularly influenced all subsequent interpretations of the crisis. Franz Isaak's Der Molotschnaer Mennoniten reproduces several key letters and petitions from disputants.(6) His account is invaluable because it preserves many documents that are not available elsewhere, but it is also very biased in favor of the landless. Der Molotschnaer Mennoniten tells the story almost exclusively in the words of the landless; it provides just two petitions from the landed, and these, introduced by Isaak as "slanderous letters" [Schmähschriften], show the landed position at its worst.

As a first step toward re-examining the crisis, it is necessary to question whether the terms by which the principals in the dispute are usually identified are accurate. Neither "the landed" nor "the landless" identifies any group in the Molochna with precision. The Molochna landless can be divided into two groups: the Einwohner (cottagers or renters) and the Anwohner (owners of houses but not agricultural land allotments). In 1860, 69 percent of the landless families were Einwohner and 31 percent were Anwohner. Although the petitions of the landless supposedly represented all of these people, it seems clear that the two groups did not form a united front. After all, the resolution of the crisis saw land allotted to the Anwohner only. The Einwohner, who come closest to representing a true proletariat in the Molochna, gained little or nothing. This seems to suggest that the Einwohner were at best junior partners in the alliance.

As for the landed, they too can be divided into two groups: estate owners, and owners of sixty-five desiatina fullholdings. The estate owners were the principle target of the landless; the right of the run-of-the mill fullholders to their basic sixty-five desiatina allotments was never challenged. Despite assumptions implicit in the Mennonite historical literature, there is no explicit evidence that the landed united as a corporate body to oppose the claims of the landless. Indeed, there is important evidence that implies quite the opposite. This evidence comes from Der Molotschnaer Mennoniten and it is a good example of how Isaak has distorted the record of the crisis. Isaak relates that a third important interest group in the Molochna, the merchants, largely supported the landless. Yet the petition he produces in support of this statement comes not just from merchants but from "merchants and landowners."(7) Because there is no record of the signers of the petition it is impossible to be certain who these landed were. Still, as this petition makes clear, this was not a crisis that pitted all the landed against all the landless; rather it was a dispute between a part of the landless and a part of the landed.

The landed who were most involved in the dispute were the wealthy estate owners. Here again it is necessary to be cautious; Philip Wiebe, Johann Cornies' son-in-law and one of the wealthiest estate owners in the Molochna, was a leading defender of the rights of the landless during the crisis. Still, the identifiable leaders of the landed, including most notably District Mayor Friesen and Chair of the Agricultural Society Peter Schmidt, were clearly from the wealthiest strata of Molochna Mennonite society.

Philip Wiebe with daughter (name unknown), son Johann (left) and
son Philip (right)

Peter Schmidt (1817-1876)

This brief analysis of Mennonite sources about the crisis should alert us to weaknesses in traditional Mennonite interpretations. What I would like to suggest is that one of the reasons that the Mennonite landlessness crisis has been misconstrued as a deep divide in Tsarist Mennonite history is that Mennonites have misunderstood it as a purely internal Mennonite problem, and therefore they have sought an explanation for it exclusively in the closed Mennonite social and religious world. Placing the crisis in its larger Tsarist context serves to make clear that the root problem was not Mennonite, but Tsarist. If the crisis is not construed as Mennonite, then we are no longer stuck with the prevailing paradigm of post-emancipation Mennonite society as a society in crisis. This opens the door to a total reconsideration of the basic nature of Tsarist Mennonite society after emancipation. But that is another subject: for the present, let us be content to reconsider the causes of the crisis itself.

The Crimean War and the Landlessness Crisis

It will come as no surprise to students of Tsarist Russian history that the Crimean War provides a starting place for this reconsideration. That war exposed the fundamental weaknesses of the Tsarist state. In its wake, Russia's role in the international community, its ability to maintain domestic stability, and its economic policies were all brought into question. It is one of the basic weaknesses of Mennonite historiography that it has remained so utterly oblivious to this watershed event.

The economic problems created by the Crimean War were vitally important for the Molochna region. Beginning in the 1830s, Mennonites, other German-speaking colonists, and Ukrainian peasants in the region had begun to shift from a pastoral to a grain-based economy. Only the large Nogai Tatar population had resisted the trend.

Photo from the Mennonite Library and Archives collection with
handwritten note on the back in German: "2 Tatars in Ekaterinoslav

In 1847-48 a livestock epidemic decimated Nogai herds, and plunged the Nogai into crisis. Left without sheep, but unwilling to become grain growers, many Nogai instead became landlords, and by the eve of the Crimean war significant tracts of Nogai land were being leased by the increasingly numerous Mennonite landless. This should not be misconstrued as Mennonites taking advantage of Nogai hardships. In fact, landless Mennonites paid considerably higher rent for Nogai land than they did for Mennonite land, and until 1853 it seems likely that market forces worked in the favor of the Nogai landlords.

The Crimean War changed this equation. Wartime demand for grain, and rapid inflation after the war, drove grain prices sharply upward. Mennonite renters, who held long-term, fixed-price leases on Nogai land, consequently enjoyed a brief, remarkable golden era of high prices and low rents. Nogai landlords, of course, had the opposite experience: they found themselves in the position of having to buy grain, grown on their own land, at prices that exceeded their rental income.

I would like to particularly reemphasize the situation of landless Mennonites in this period. Past interpretations of the landlessness crisis have taken it for granted that the crisis reflected deep-rooted, long-term, socio-economic divisions in Mennonite society. There has never been evidence of any such divide before the crisis itself, but because everyone knows that crises cannot emerge out of nothing, the landlessness crisis itself has been employed as proof of the pre-existing divisions. This assumption of a pre-existing crisis is patently untrue. The reason that there is no explicit evidence of such a crisis is that it did not exist. Landless Mennonites entered the 1860s in very good economic shape. The crisis would arise, not out of internal struggles, but due to external forces. When the crisis came, it was a product of problems in the neighboring Nogai community. While landless Mennonites, as renters, certainly contributed to that problem, at heart it was rooted in the specific circumstances of the post-Crimean War Tsarist economy.

The economic problems of the Nogai Tatars, and more broadly of the Crimean Tatars, led to the great Tatar exodus of 1860. That summer, some 35,000 Nogai abandoned their land and fled to Turkey. By October 1860 only 105 Nogai remained in the entire region.

This could have been good news for landless Mennonites. Certainly Molochna Mennonite leaders immediately applied to the state to have the newly-vacated land — much of it already leased by landless Mennonites — formally ceded to the Mennonite settlement. But of course, the Nogai exodus came in the midst of one of the greatest social engineering projects of the nineteenth century: the emancipation of the serfs. As with the Crimean War, this seminal event in Tsarist history has gone almost completely unmentioned by historians who focus narrowly on Mennonite history. Clearly this will not do.

Emancipation and the Landlessness Crisis

The Tsarist administration had no intention of handing large tracts of land over to what it justifiably identified as a prosperous Mennonite community. Instead, it designated the vacated Nogai land for reassignment to more needy peasants, and in particular, to Bulgarians. The important point is that not only did Mennonites not gain ownership of the Nogai land; Mennonite renters of that land were evicted to make way for the new settlers.

If this sudden reversal were not enough to provoke a crisis, a further unintended consequence of the emancipation would almost immediately exacerbate the problems of the Mennonite landless. In the wake of emancipation, the Molochna region was inundated with Ukrainian peasants. Such peasant migrants did not wait for the terms of the emancipation to take effect: they reacted to the promise of freedom by spontaneously abandoning their homes and heading south, pursuing their own dreams of acquiring vacated Tatar land. Between 1861 and 1864, 10,000 peasants arrived in Berdiansk Uezd. Upon arrival, they competed with the Mennonite landless for jobs and for land. As a consequence, wages fell and land prices rose.

It would be a miracle indeed had the combined effects of losing their leased land and the sharp increase in competition for land and jobs not provoked a crisis for the Molochna Mennonite landless. I have elsewhere written about the ways that Mennonites reacted to this crisis. This is a large subject that demands a full study of its own, but briefly the elements of the resolution of the crisis that have traditionally been most emphasized are: 1) the redistribution of Mennonite land; 2) the state's controversial role in imposing this redistribution.

Land redistribution was the first priority of the landless in the 1860s, and despite the fact that only a small amount of relatively poor land was actually distributed (and this to the Anwohner only), this distribution must be counted as a victory for the landless. Whatever its real benefit in the acquisition of land, it was symbolically important, for it assured the landless that hope remained for them to eventually enter into the fraternity of Mennonite landowners.

This land redistribution was, of course, far less "revolutionary" than Mennonite accounts of the crisis have traditionally claimed. Indeed, it was little more than a formalization of the already well-tested system of splitting allotments into "shared farms" that had begun in the 1840s. Of more practical significance to the landless than land redistribution was the creation, starting in the 1870s, of daughter colonies. This provided far more land to landless Mennonites than did redistribution of existing supplies. Of course, this too had a precedent dating from well before the landlessness crisis: such new colonies were advocated by Johann Cornies in the 1840s and pioneered in the 1850s in the Judenplan experiment.

It is important to note that what placated the landless was not an end to the Mennonite system that placed such great emphasis on land owning, but rather their hope of inclusion in that system. In essence, this was a vote by the landless for the continuation of the system in a modified form. It is equally important to note that the solutions were fully in keeping with policies toward the landless that were already well-established before the crisis occurred.

The role of the state in forcing these reforms cannot be dismissed lightly. Many Mennonites clearly saw this as a dramatic violation of traditional Mennonite internal autonomy, and it caused great unrest in Mennonite society. But here, too, there is cause for caution, for the state did not force Mennonites into an economic straightjacket. Rather, while the state forced the Mennonites to act, the solutions were modelled on Mennonite experience dating back to the time of Johann Cornies. And of course, Cornies himself had never operated free of state intervention. The Tsarist state had always set strict limits on Mennonite independence, and it is a tribute to Cornies that he found so much room for flexibility within those limits.

New Directions in Research

Looking past specific reactions to the crisis, I would like to speculate briefly on other possible consequences. I say "speculate," because these are not yet the product of research; but they point the way to research that I think might be very revealing for historians concerned with the common history of Tsarist Russia and the Mennonites.

One important avenue for research is into the industrialization of southern Ukraine. This region, of course, was at the forefront of Russia's industrial growth in the nineteenth century, and Mennonite historians have justifiably asserted that Mennonites took a leading role in the process. There is already a body of work on wealthy Mennonite industrialists, and Ukrainian historians are actively pursuing important new work in this area.(8) An important unanswered question is about the nature of capital accumulation and investment. There has been some speculation about how Mennonite inheritance practices, and the indivisibility of land allotments, affected accumulation and investment, but it bears close investigation whether or not the events that precipitated the landlessness crisis were also central to this process. After all, from 1853-1860 landless Mennonites experienced large profits, and suddenly, in 1861, they had to find new outlets for their economic activities. To what degree did this dynamic of growth and crisis contribute to industrialization? And by corollary, to what extent was Mennonite economic success a consequence, however unintended, of the Tsarist state's policies? Put another way, is not the economic history of Mennonites in southern Ukraine a topic in the history of the Great Reforms?

A second question regarding industrialization pertains to labor markets. Landless Mennonites, of course, would provide labor for Mennonite industry, but as we know from later industrial records, the bulk of laborers in Mennonite industry by the end of the nineteenth century were Ukrainian peasants. What effect did the large influx of Ukrainian peasants following emancipation have on this market? Did this new supply of cheap labor stimulate investment? And, by corollary, could Mennonite industrialization have succeeded so astonishingly without the process of emancipation? Again, is not the economic history of Mennonites in southern Ukraine a topic in the history of the Great Reforms?

Beyond the contribution of the Tsarist state and Ukrainian peasants to Mennonite industrial success, the acknowledgment of a significant economic arena of interaction between Mennonites and their neighbors also raises important questions about the evolution of Mennonite religious beliefs. This is, after all, precisely the period when the Mennonite Brethren crystalized into an important new Mennonite movement. But it is also a period in which some Ukrainian peasants in this region began to explore alternatives to Orthodoxy. To what extent was Mennonite religious ferment and Ukrainian religious ferment the product of a common leavening?


Putting the Crimean War and the emancipation of the serfs together, the outcome for Molochna Mennonites was: a brief period of prosperity and attendant hope for the landless; a sudden loss of land, prosperity, and hope; sharp competition for the remaining land, aggravated by an influx of Ukrainian migrants; sharp competition for jobs, also aggravated by the influx of Ukrainian migrants; and a sharp drop in real wages. As I have suggested, it is very difficult to conceive of a way that this confluence of circumstances might not have provoked a crisis.

But if we accept that the crisis was stimulated, to a significant degree, by forces outside the Mennonite community, then we open the door to the possibility that the result was not exclusively divisive, or exclusively negative. Mennonites bemoan state interference; but this presupposes that their problems were internal, and susceptible to internal solutions. In fact, the landlessness crisis was a state problem, arising out of war and emancipation, and too large for Mennonites to handle; state intervention was necessary. This emphasizes the point that Molochna Mennonites were a part of the state, affected by its policies — and affected by the actions of other state subjects such as Nogais and Ukrainian peasants — whether they liked it or not. The actions of Nogais and Ukrainians and Mennonites and the state caused the crisis. Meanwhile Mennonites helped cause the actions of Nogais and Ukrainians and the state. The crisis itself forced the state to formulate polices regarding religion, land ownership, and ultimately things like military service, and such policies affected Nogais and Ukrainians and Mennonites. In the end, this is one history; and it is not a Mennonite history, but a history of many peoples living together in Tsarist Russia. To try to understand it in any other way is to misunderstand it.


1. Ukrainian scholars of Mennonite history are particularly active in reinterpreting the Mennonite story as evidence of a tolerant multi-national Ukrainian past. See, e.g., Katherina Lyakh, "Institut pokazovikh gospodariv sered nimets'kikh kolonistiv pivdnia Ukraini (druga polovina XIX st.)," paper presented at the conference Molochna 2004: Mennonites and their Neighbours (1804-2004), 3 June 2004; Natalia Ostasheva Venger, "The Mennonite Industrial Dynasties in Dnepropetrovsk," Journal of Mennonite Studies 21 (2003), 89-108; Marina V. Belikova, "The Mennonite Colonies of Southern Ukraine, 1789-1917" (Ph.D. Diss., Zaporizhzhe State University, 2005).

2. The following discussion is based largely on John R. Staples, Cross-Cultural Encounters on the Ukrainian Steppe: Settling the Molochna Basin, 1783-1861 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003).

3. 1 desiatina = about 1.1 hectares or 2.7 acres.

4. Peter M. Friesen, The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia (1789-1910) (Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1978), 855.

5. James Urry, None But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia, 1789-1889 (Winnipeg, MB: Hyperion, 1988), 207.

6. Franz Isaac, Die Molotschnaer Mennoniten: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte derselben (Halbstadt: H. J. Braun, 1908), 63-64.

7. Isaac, 56.

8. In particular, Venger, "Mennonite Industrial Dynasties," and Belikova, "Mennonite Colonies of Southern Ukraine."