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2017, vol. 71   Special Issue: Why 500 Years?

Review of Johann Cornies, Transformation on the Southern Ukrainian Steppe: Letters and Papers of Johann Cornies, Vol. 1, 1812-1835 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015)

by John D. Thiesen

John Thiesen is archivist at the Mennonite Library and Archives and co-director of libraries at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas.

Johann Cornies was probably the most important non-church leader in 19th-century Russian Mennonite history. Born in the Vistula Delta area in 1789, he migrated to Russia as a 16-year-old and died in 1848 in the middle of a very active life. He was an energetic promoter of economic development and innovation for Mennonites in Russia, and a deeply connected mediator between Mennonites and other social and political circles. In these roles he became decidedly polarizing.

This book contains translations of correspondence and other documents to and from Cornies. A large collection of Cornies documents and other Russian Mennonite archival materials was discovered in the regional government archives in Odessa in 1990. One of the editors, Harvey L. Dyck, was the primary person responsible for getting that collection microfilmed; the microfilms are available in several North American archives. The editors envision publishing a total of three volumes of Cornies translations. This one covers 1812-1835, according to the title, although actually it goes into 1836.

The editors state fairly clearly their selection guidelines for what was included in the volume. They selected documents that illuminate Cornies’ administrative practices, his and others’ religious views, influences on Cornies and his influence on his extensive social network, and information about Cornies’ personal life with family and friends.

The preface characterizes Cornies as “an ambitious, entrepreneurial, and energetic reformer.” The documents here definitively substantiate that description. Johann Cornies was not in any way locked into a closed Mennonite community. He had an enormous range of contacts outside Mennonite circles, especially closely with the Russian government agencies that administered colonies like the Mennonites’. At the same time, he clearly identified with the Mennonite community and wanted to see it become more secure economically and politically. Cornies showed a surprising level of religious toleration, even for Muslims, while at the same time operating from within his own Mennonite tradition.

The documents do not support a stereotype of a closed Mennonite community sitting isolated on the steppe. There was constant interaction with a broad network outside the Mennonite colonies on business and administrative/political matters. There was frequent local and regional, and even international, travel. For Cornies, with his high level of wealth and entrepreneurial spirit, these interactions were much more intense, but Mennonite embeddedness in a broader network clearly extended down into the colonies to the village level, especially on political and business matters.

What is the intended audience for this book? I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question, implying that the book shouldn’t have been published. It is worth considering the multiple audiences and what expectations they might have of the book. One audience would be academic researchers of the Russian Mennonite story (at present, this group might be counted on one hand). Another much larger group of readers would be those who are interested in and well-informed about the Russian Mennonite experience but are not active scholars of that story. For this group, a major question would be whether they have the determination to read through a huge collection of largely bureaucratic correspondence and reports without much of a narrative thread. A third group, strongly implied by the title, would be academics focused on 19th- century Imperial Russian history. This group also would not be large, especially in English-speaking countries.

For all three of these groups of potential readers, the rather limited annotation, identification, and explanation might pose a problem. It seems there are numerous names and events that, with a modest amount of research, could have been explained to readers rather than just passed over. An example of what should have been done is footnote 4 on page 168, where a church conflict is explained. (Unfortunately, no source is given for the explanation, thus preventing a reader from easily following up on the story.) On page 202, a note indicates a person could not be identified, giving a very useful signal to an interested reader that a major effort might be needed to get more information about the person. But these two examples are needlessly rare in the book; many more were needed. For just one example, “Hakenbudner” (183) could have fairly easily been identified as a proprietor of a small retail shop like a general store.

Unfortunately, there are a number of strange annotations and translation choices that undermine a reader’s confidence. “Métis” (132) is a strange word to see in a book about 19th-century imperial Russia. “Intercessor Johanni” (532) is a very odd expression that precedes an obvious reference to a verse in I John, so is blatantly erroneous. “Avowed wife” (87) is another quite strange expression, as is “linen cribs” (135). There appears to be a major typo (“Nogal” for “Nogai”) in the map on page 455. Abraham Hunzinger (1792-1859) is referred to as an “archivist” (263), but Hunzinger is not known as an archivist. (The profession and the term for it hardly existed before the mid-19th century.) Cases like this make one wonder how many other less obvious errors are occurring.

One might also ask whether the original documents and the translations could have been made available on a website, offering better searching and comparison capability.

For academic readers, this book (and its successors) will likely serve as sort of index, pointing to documents that might be better referenced in the original languages available on microfilm. For other readers, the primary gain will be to break down romantic, simplistic stereotypes about 19th-century Mennonite experience. I would invite other readers to join me in the long climb to the summit through the next two volumes. Why? Because it’s there.