Education Among the Mennonites in Russia

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One of the rights granted the Mennonites by the Russian government at their immigration was the management of their own school system. From 1789 to 1881 Russian authorities concerned themselves little with the Mennonite schools. The Mennonites had brought with them from West Prussia the conviction that it is the duty of parents to provide for the elementary instruction of their children, and they tried to fulfill this obligation. Even though because of poverty they could not at once build schools, they nevertheless saw to it that their children received instruction. In the very first years, because of lack of space and teachers, it is possible that two villages united here and there to maintain a school; but as a rule each village had its own school from the very beginning. This was the practice of the Russian Mennonites always and everywhere, in the first mother settlements, Chortitza and Molotschna, and later in the many daughter colonies in Caucasia, Central Asia, in northeastern Russia, in Siberia, in Canada, and in the later settlements in Mexico, Brazil, and Paraguay.

The educational system of a country or people is to a large extent dependent on its economic situation and material prosperity. Higher culture can develop only where there is energy left over and above the requirements for existence. In the early days in Russia the educational system was primitive. Not until the 1870s, after various internal difficulties had been solved and the Mennonites had become prosperous through better agricultural methods and the introduction of winter wheat, did the schools receive a strong forward impetus; but by World War I they had reached a high state of development.

The Elementary Schools

The first schools were, like the time and circumstances, extremely primitive in teacher preparation, equipment, and methods. The first teachers were farmers who managed the schools in winter in addition to their farms, or craftsmen who carried on their trades besides teaching the children. Too often the schoolroom also served as a shop. It also occurred in the early period that young journeymen learning a trade, non-Mennonites, were engaged as teachers. As late as the 1820s there were still some Lutheran teachers in the Molotschna settlement. But on the whole the Mennonites tried to have only Mennonite teachers. And later, especially during the most intensive program of Russianization (1890-1905), the Mennonites always and sometimes successfully protested the engagement of a non-Mennonite teacher. The problem was simplified by the fact that the villages paid their own teachers.

Instruction consisted of reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. Much emphasis was placed on memorization (the Ten Commandments, hymns, etc.), on illuminated writing and penmanship; arithmetic was also thoroughly drilled, though quite mechanically.

German was the language of instruction. The Russian language was not generally taught until it became a compulsory subject in 1866 at the demand of the Fürsorge-Komitee, though some progressive teachers were giving instruction in Russian as early as the 1830s. In the 1890s Russian became the obligatory language of instruction for all subjects but German and religion, and remained so until the end of organized Mennonite life in Russia, about 1925.

The supervision of the schools was by law the responsibility of the elders and preachers. But in practice leadership in the educational field was always in the hands of outstanding teachers or other laymen in the community. In the early period the schools were usually the concern of the civil government of the Mennonites. Thus a school regulation (Schulverordnung) was issued on 26 January 1808, in the Molotschna, in the third year of the existence of the colony, which was to regulate school conditions in the villages. There was at that time no central organ to direct the educational system.

This was changed in 1843 when the Fürsorge-Komitee placed the management of the Mennonite schools in the hands of the Agricultural Association, which was founded in 1831. At its head was Johann Cornies. To the association with its extended authorization and to the first two chairmen, Johann Cornies and Philipp Wiebe, the Mennonite schools owe a great deal. The old, narrow schoolrooms were replaced by spacious, bright ones; a new general school regulation was passed to improve the relationship between the teacher and the community. The choice and examination of teachers was carefully supervised by the Association, and the inspection of teachers was more rigorously organized. Teaching was improved by rules concerning methods and the treatment of school children as well as by a unified curriculum. Compulsory attendance was more strictly enforced. General and local teachers' conventions were held.

Later the authority of the Agricultural Association was limited to its special agricultural task. At the instigation of a group of teachers the Molotschna Mennonite School Board (Molotschnaer Mennoniten-Schulrat) was organized, and was without hesitancy approved by the Fürsorge-Komitee. This board was for 50 years (1869-1920) the leader and protector of the Mennonite educational system. Under its well-informed leadership the schools made a long stride forward. Especially in the first 25 years of its existence was the school board very effective, due to the untiring efforts of such men as Andreas Voth, Johann Klatt, Peter Heese, Abr. Görz, and Heinrich Unruh.

The Molotschna board worked out a new program for the village and secondary schools (Zentralschulen), which was approved by the national authorities in 1876, and which won state rights for the Mennonite schools, a matter of particular importance for the performance of the alternative service. In Halbstadt and in Chortitza special two-year teacher-training schools (Lehrerseminar) were established. The system of teacher conventions was also reorganized, making them a source of inspiration and training. The other Mennonite settlements also appointed school boards similar to the one in the Molotschna.

In 1881 the situation was radically changed, when the educational system was put under the national department of education. To the Russian school authorities the Mennonite school boards were unwelcome; but they were permitted to function for a number of years, though with decreasing authority. But in the 1890s the program of Russianization was so rigorously carried out, especially by the department of education, that the Mennonite school boards had to struggle for the very existence of these schools and for their own existence as a board, until finally they were no longer able to function at all.

The year 1905 brought a slight though only temporary relaxing of the situation. But the teachers still had the right to form associations, and they did this. These teachers' associations then assumed various functions of the former school boards, such as conventions, organization of general vocational courses, working out of syllabi and curricula, choice of textbooks and equipment, etc.

All the Mennonite schools were church schools. Religion had always been one of the principal subjects of instruction, and until the 1870s the Bible was a reader in the elementary schools. The students were at that time divided into three groups: Fibler (lower grade), Testamentler (middle grade), and Bibler (upper grade). The school deputation (Elder A. Görz, school board member A. Voth, and secondary school teachers H. Franz and H. Lenzmann) which was sent to St. Petersburg in 1876 on the matter of the new national program for the schools made the Mennonite position on this question very clear: "Both the village and secondary schools and also the teachers' seminary must have absolutely the character of church schools, and only if they are confirmed as such do they fulfill their purpose, since in these schools not only our teachers, who must also be the religious instructors of our children, but also our preachers and pastors must be trained. All schools under us must be so definitely founded on the Mennonite confession that the students can acquire a religious training that will qualify them to assume the office of a preacher or elder, for according to our organization and the Holy Scripture, these officials must be chosen from among the people" (A. Görz, 16).

The religious character of the Mennonite schools was then recognized by the Russian authorities, and was preserved even after the schools were placed under the national ministry of education in 1881; for this law contained the reservation that the religious and spiritual training of any group should be under the direction of the clergy of that group, and that the curriculum should provide enough time to preserve the principles and native tongue of the group. One third of the total time, or about 30 hours per week or 10 hours of class instruction, were considered adequate. This plan was maintained until the Revolution in 1917. The 10 hours were equally divided between religion and German. The five hours thus devoted to religious instruction must be considered generous. In the Zentralschulen a course in church history was added, and in the teacher-training school also Mennonite history, dogmatics, Christian ethics, etc. Instruction in German and religion were not under Russian supervision, but under the Mennonite ministerial body or the Mennonite school board.

Fresh motivation was received from Germany and Switzerland again and again, first through young teachers who came from there, such as Tobias Voth (immigrated in 1821), Heinrich Heese (1827), Heinrich Franz I (1834), Fr. W. Lange (1837), and Kaspar Adrian Hausknecht; and later, about 1870, by young people who were sent to Germany and Switzerland for advanced education. Some of the first to go abroad to study were Heinrich Franz II, Kornelius Unruh, and Peter M. Friesen, and many others followed. At first they went to Barmen and later to Basel. In the 1880s the Russian influence became predominant, and many a teacher made personal contacts with the leading Russian pedagogues, such as Ushinski, Baron Korff, Baranov, and Yevtuzovsky, whose works were also eagerly read. But about 1900, probably in consequence of compulsory Russianization, the German influence again became predominant. In the last 15 years before World War I, hardly any major German school reform idea was unknown in the Mennonite schools in Russia, be it Kerschensteiner with his idea of the Arbeitsschule, or E. Linde with his pedagogy of the personality, H. Scharrelmann with his "heartfelt (herzhaft) instruction," or Freud with his investigations in experimental psychology; they were all industriously and thoroughly read and found imitators with more or less skill among the Mennonite teachers.

Relations with the Moravian Brethren (Herrnhuter) also are worthy of note. Tobias Voth, the first teacher of the Orloff Zentralschule (1822-1829), carried on a correspondence with them. When Andreas Voth as the president of the Molotschna school board opened the first girls' school (Mädchenschule) in Halbstadt in 1874, he called as the first teacher a young Herrnhut woman, Sophie Schlenker of Königsfelden, of whom P. M. Friesen says that all of his pedagogical ideas came from the Herrnhuters (through her). When Peter Braun, the teacher of the Halbstadt Zentralschule and later president of the normal school (Lehrerseminar), spent the summer of 1912 in Germany, he went to Niesky for a week in order to become acquainted with the Moravian Brethren school system.

Secondary Schools

One of the problems of the Mennonites of Russia was that of finding teachers for their schools. In the early period all the teachers were self-taught men, and even later not a few were of this type. Some of these were Johann Peters of Neuendorf, Johann Bräul of Rudnerweide, Peter Siemens of Münsterberg, Peter Holzrichter of Rosenort, Johann Bräul of Orloff, and David Dürksen of Margenau. Also the two elders who were teachers, Abr. Görz and Heinrich Unruh, who were also many years later successful members of the school board, were purely self-taught men.

Another way of preparing teachers was by the method of apprentice teachers, which also produced many a competent schoolman. Boys who felt a desire for teaching as a vocation went into an apprenticeship with approved teachers, in winter serving as their assistants and in summer taking courses in educational theory under these teachers. In this way Peter Siemens prepared many a young man for the teachers' examination.

These methods, which were feasible only for a few individuals, could not satisfy the need. The need of a higher school for this purpose soon became apparent. As early as 1820 the Christian School Association (Christlicher Schulverein) was formed in Orloff, which opened the Orloff Vereinsschule in 1822 to prepare teachers for the elementary schools, where the native language should be taught besides German. The soul of this association was Johann Cornies. The first teachers in the school were Tobias Voth 1822-1829, and Heinrich Heese 1829-1842, both of whom had received training in Germany.

In 1835 at the request of the Fürsorge-Komitee a district school was founded to prepare young men for service in the colony offices, which required a knowledge of the Russian language. In 1838 the private school in Steinbach was opened. In Gnadenfeld a Bruderschule was established. In 1842 Chortitza also acquired such a Fortbildungsschule.

All of these secondary schools, which were later commonly known as Zentralschulen, had to contend with all sorts of obstacles for a long time. The necessary understanding and interest were lacking among the settlers in general, and for many years there were very few students in these secondary schools. They were conspicuously not at all touched by the reforms introduced into the village schools by the Agricultural Association. P. M. Friesen says that until 1870 the Mennonite school authorities were unable to comprehend why two teachers should or could be employed at the same school at the same time! And so these schools usually had only one teacher, and instruction in the Russian language was usually rather weak. Nor did they prove to be teacher-training institutions, even though a number of successful teachers came from them.

The Zentralschulen finally achieved their proper organization as "general educational schools" under the administration by the school boards. The program worked out by the school board and approved by the ministry of education was planned for four years (for ages 13 or 14 to 17 or 18), and was adapted to the program of the Russian city schools. There were two classes, each of two years. In 1884 a school was opened in the Molotschna with three classes of one year each instead of the two classes with two years each. This type of school was also introduced by the daughter colonies of the Molotschna. But in 1912, when the city schools were converted into "higher elementary schools," with a four-year program, the Zentralschulen of the Molotschna type also went back to the four-class system. The Zentralschulen of Chortitza and the Chortitza daughter colonies always had the four-year course.

In the beginning the language of instruction was German, but by the middle 1880's Russian was the language of instruction for all courses but German and religion.

After the reform the Zentralschulen soon gained in importance in the public life and sympathy. They acquired a good reputation, and the enrollment increased year by year. Especially the Orloff Zentralschule under Kornelius Unruh 1873-1905, and Johann Bräul 1905-1917, and the Chortitza Zentralschule under Abr. Neufeld 1890-1905 enjoyed an excellent reputation.

The four freedoms of 1905—speech, the press, meetings, and associations—stimulated a growing social consciousness in all classes of the Russian people. Among the Mennonites it found expression, first of all, in the building of new schools. In the decade 1905-1914 twice as many secondary schools were opened as in the century before, and throughout the settlements as far as Siberia.

After the Zentralschulen were no longer thought of as teacher-training institutions, which they really had never been, special schools had to be created for this purpose. In 1878 a two-year pedagogical course was added to the Zentralschule in Halbstadt, Molotschna, with a practice school. In 1890 such courses were created in the Chortitza school, and increased to three years in 1911. For admission, graduation from a Zentralschule was required.

These two institutions thereafter furnished the teaching staff for most of the Mennonite schools throughout Russia. It is to their credit that the teachers they produced maintained the closest contact with Mennonite society, faith, and life, and at the same time gave thorough teaching in the Russian language and literature. But it was not until 1917 that the Russian school authorities permitted these schools to become independent, full teacher-training schools.

When the pedagogical courses were opened, another lack in the Mennonite school system became apparent. Not all the graduates of the Zentralschule wanted to become farmers or teachers. Of those interested in higher education only a small fraction were able to attend a university in a foreign country; and those who wanted to attend a Russian university first had to attend a Russian Gymnasium (or Realschule). This route was expensive and difficult, because the Zentralschulen were not integrated into the Russian pattern. In addition many parents were very reluctant to send their young sons into a Russian city, where they were exposed to all sorts of danger and might easily be harmed in soul or body. How could this handicap be removed? The simplest and surest way was to open a Realschule in a Mennonite center.

In 1908 a Mennonite Realschule was opened in Halbstadt, which continued the work of the Zentralschulen. But since this school was hard to maintain under the direction of the ministry of education, it was after a year changed into a four-year business college (Kommerzschule) because the ministry of commerce permitted its schools a greater degree of independence. Graduates of the Zentralschulen were admitted to the fourth or fifth class of the business college without examination. In order to provide a corresponding education for girls, the Halbstadt Mädchenschule (girls' school) was gradually developed into a full eight-year girls' Gymnasium.

This was the final status of the Mennonite attempt at education in Russia, a closed school system (elementary school, Zentralschule, teachers' training school or business college or girls' Gymnasium), which admitted to the Russian universities.

During World War I Mennonite schools were not greatly affected. Teachers' associations were abolished, but the schools remained in operation, and the German language was not prohibited.

After the February Revolution of 1917 new hopes inspired the peoples of Russia. The Mennonite school boards were reorganized, the teachers' associations were reconstituted, and it was commonly believed that a time of new growth and joyous work had dawned.

But this was not to be the case. For three years the civil war raged, ending in October 1920 with the Soviet government in control in all of Russia. Thereby a hoarfrost fell on the thriving school system of the settlements, and destroyed it. All schools came under state control, and the Mennonite schools soon lost their Mennonite character and influence. After 1920 there were some schools which used the German language, but no Mennonite schools. There was a brief revival of the old school system during the German occupation of the Ukraine in 1941-1943.


Elementary Schools

With a total population of about 110,000, the Mennonites of Russia had about 450 elementary schools in 1920 (village and farm schools) with about 16,000 pupils. The elementary schools had a seven-year course, but it happened frequently that a child dropped out after six or even five years of school. But it is not likely that a mentally normal child of Mennonite parents remained illiterate. All the elementary schools were co-educational. Most of them (about 350) had only one teacher. The maximum number of pupils assigned to a single teacher was set at 60, but such instances were rare. Most schools with 50 pupils had 2 teachers. There were a total of 85 two-room schools, 9 three-room, and 5 four-room elementary schools.

Five of the elementary schools were town or city schools: Berdyansk, Melitopol, Ekaterinoslav, Davlekanovo, and Slavgorod; two were charity schools: Berezovka near Davlekanovo, and Halbstadt; and one for orphans at Grossweide. In addition there was a five-room school for the deaf in Tiege with about 50 pupils.

There were about 570 Mennonite teachers in these schools, about 70 being women.

Secondary Schools

As a continuation of the elementary schools, the Zentralschulen were founded. There were ultimately 25 of these. In 1920 the Zentralschulen were almost without exception four-year schools and adapted to the Russian "higher elementary schools" in their curriculum. Of these Zentralschulen 19 were boys' schools, 4 were girls' schools, and 2 were coeducational (two schools were called Handelsschulen—business schools). In addition there were two schools (Ministerialschulen), in Köppental and Alexandertal on the Volga, sponsored by the Department of Education. These latter schools had the same rights as the Zentralschule, but were on a different plane. The total number of pupils in the Zentralschulen was about 2,000, with a teaching staff of about 100 teachers.

The most advanced schools were (1) the two teacher-training schools (Halbstadt and Chortitza), each with a three-year course, which trained the elementary teachers and were considered continuations of the Zentralschulen. In normal times each of these schools had an enrollment of about 60 students. (2) An eight-year business school for boys, located in Halbstadt, whose graduates were admitted to the state university. In normal times its enrollment was about 300. (3) An eight-year girls' Gymnasium, also in Halbstadt, with the complete curriculum of the state gymnasium; its enrollment was about 150.

In all of these schools, with the exception of the school for the deaf (where for technical reasons only German was taught), the German and Russian language and literature were taught in equal amount. The school of commerce had as an additional requirement a choice of either French or English.

The Teaching Staff

About 15 per cent of the elementary teachers had no certificate, being only students at the Zentralschulen or self-taught. These teachers usually worked in the new schools opening year by year in new settlements and large estates. Of the remaining 85 per cent about one half had a regular pedagogical education from Halbstadt or Chortitza. The others were students at Zentralschulen or self-taught to the extent that they were able to earn the state teachers' diploma. The teaching staff in the Zentralschulen was composed of (a) those who had graduated from Russian teachers' institutes, (b) those who had a secondary-school education and had a corresponding teacher's certificate, (c) those who after a few years of teaching in an elementary school passed an examination for one or more subjects qualifying them to teach in Zentralschulen.

The religious instructors of the Zentralschulen were commonly elementary schoolteachers who had attended some institution or university in a foreign country; for German they had as a rule a teacher's certificate.

The average salary of the elementary teachers, often paid in kind, was perhaps 500 roubles annually with lodging. Zentralschule teachers received an annual salary of perhaps 1,200 roubles, also with rooms. (At that time a rouble was equivalent to 50 cents.)

All the schools, with the exception of the two Ministerialschulen (Samara) which were supported by the district (Zemstvo), were built and maintained by the Mennonite communities, but were under state supervision.

A late attempt to establish a theological school was frustrated by the chaotic conditions after the Revolution. Four Bible schools were established: Friedensfeld (1907-1910), and in the period 1923-1926 Davlekanovo, Tchongrav, and Orenburg.


Braun, Peter "Educational System of the Mennonite Colonies in South Russia." Mennonite Quarterly Review 3 (1929): 168-182.

Braun, Peter. "Der Molotschnaer Mennonitische Schulrat." Unpublished manuscript.

Enns, D. P. "Die Mennonitischen Schulen in Russland." Mennonitisches Jahrbuch (1950).

Friesen, Peter M. Die Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Brüderschaft in Russland (1789-1910) im Rahmen der mennonitischen Gesamtgeschichte. Halbstadt: Verlagsgesellschaft "Raduga", 1911.

Friesen, Peter M. The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia (1789-1910), trans. J. B. Toews and others. Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature [M.B.], 1978, rev. ed. 1980.

Froese, Leonhard. "Das pädagogische Kultursystem der mennonitischen Siedlungsgruppe in Russland." Doctoral dissertation, Göttingen, 1949.

Görz, Abr. Die Schulen in den Mennoniten-Kolonien. Berdyansk, 1882.

Harder, M. S. "The Origin, Philosophy, and Development of Education Among the Mennonites." Ph. D. dissertation, University of Southern California, 1949.

Neufeld, A. Die Chortitzer Zentralschule. Berdyansk, 1893. Includes a cut of the Halbstadt Zentralschule.

Author(s) Peter Braun
Date Published 1956

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MLA style

Braun, Peter. "Education Among the Mennonites in Russia." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 12 Apr 2024.

APA style

Braun, Peter. (1956). Education Among the Mennonites in Russia. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 12 April 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 153-157. All rights reserved.

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