Government of Mennonites in Russia

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The governance of Mennonites in Russia had two aspects, viz., the administration of all foreign settlers by the Russian government in Russia, and the self-government of the Mennonite settlements.

Administration of Foreign Settlements

On 22 July 1763 the Russian government established a Bureau of Guardianship (German, Pflegschaftskanzlei) of the foreign colonies with its center in St. Petersburg. This office was established long before any Mennonites considered migrating to Russia and was intended for all foreign settlers. On 20 April 1782, when Russia was divided into provinces, the foreign settlements were placed under the jurisdiction of the provincial and local authorities. On 4 March 1797 a government Department of Economy (Expedition der Staatswirtschaft . . .) was created in St. Petersburg to supervise the settling of foreigners and help them become successful. In 1800 a Bureau was created in the Ukraine with its center at Novorossisk (later Ekaterinoslav). The "Instructions" of this bureau were to give the settlements suggestions for self-government and for their economic life.

On 22 March 1818 the Bureau was changed to "Guardians' Committee" (Fürsorge-Komitee) of the Foreign Colonists in the Southern Regions of Russia and was subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior. The seat of this Guardians' Committee was at first at Kherson and later at Ekaterinoslav with branch offices at Ekaterinoslav, Kherson, and Bessarabia. In 1821 the seat of the Guardians' Committee was transferred to Odessa, where it remained until its dissolution in 1871. In 1837 the Guardians' Committee became subject to the Ministry of the Royal Estates newly created at St. Petersburg. In 1871, when the Guardians' Committee was abolished, the Mennonite settlers became directly subordinated to the local and provincial Russian authorities. The maintenance cost of these various institutions was placed upon the settlers themselves in 1845, each one having at first to pay 21 kopeks and later 33 kopeks.


According to the Manifesto of 1763 all foreign settlers in Russia were to enjoy complete autonomy in the administration of their own internal affairs forever. In 1800 Paul I issued a series of measures which included the introduction of uniform forms of local self-government based on Prussian forms of local government. Every village had an assembly consisting of a Schulze (mayor), two Beisitzer (assistants), and a Schreiber (clerk). The Schulze and Beisitzer were elected by majority vote of the village assembly for a period of two years. Originally only landowners were eligible to vote and to occupy these offices. The clerk was a hired official. The functions of a constable were performed by several dyessiatski. The Schulze represented the village in the district assemblies and before higher government officials. He was responsible for the economic and the cultural welfare of the village. It was his duty to bring about peaceable settlement of disputes between the settlers, or, if this was impossible, to impose public work or fines. He was to prohibit the sale of liquor to villagers who were addicted to drunkenness and he was to enforce simplicity of life, i.e., to prevent the outlay of too much money for the household and entertaining visitors too frequently. The "Instructions" of 1800-1801 include a large number of detailed prescriptions which he had to enforce. With the right to interfere in every sphere of the settlers' activity and private life, he could easily become a dictator if the assembly failed to check him. However, since the Schulze was a servant of the assembly, his power was held in check wherever the assembly used its authority effectively. The assembly elected village and district officials, levied taxes, elected schoolteachers, maintained a fire department, regulated the organization of fire insurance and fire prevention rules, matters of inheritance, the care of the aged, etc. All village elections had to be ratified by the Guardians' Committee.

A number of villages comprised a district or volost. A district assembly or volost consisted of one or more representatives from each village. The competence of this body was quite the same as that of the village assembly except that it applied to a larger area. The district office consisted of the Oberschulze (district mayor), several assistants (Beisitzer), and a clerical staff. The Oberschulze received a token salary. He was responsible for all meetings and for the maintenance of peace and order and exercised police power in the district, and imposed sentences, such as fines, incarcerations, or public labor, but only with the consent of the local Schulze. With the consent of the Guardians' Committee he could even inflict corporal punishment. He and his assistants formed the court of second instance for the prosecution of civil cases.

During their first decade (1874-1884) the Mennonites of Manitoba followed exactly the pattern of self-government established in Russia. It was gradually adjusted to the Canadian environment and practices until it finally disappeared. In the mid-20th century the Mennonites of Paraguay still followed the old practice which was developed and established among the Mennonites of Russia.

In self-government the problem of nonresistance was lifted out of the realm of theory and principles and put into practice in daily living. It is one thing to believe in these principles and when an extreme case turns up hand it over to a "worldly" authority to settle and wash one's hands of it, and another thing to have to handle it. Here it was thrown right into their laps. They had to solve their own problems. This chapter of Mennonite history furnishes an opportunity for Mennonites everywhere to make a case study as to how workable the principle of nonresistance has been and is, if tested in this manner.

Another aspect which is worth examining is the relationship between this Mennonite self-government and the local church authority. There is here within the Mennonite fold an example of solving the problems pertaining to the relationship of "state" and "church" within the group. Usually there was intimate and harmonious cooperation between the two authorities. At times there were great difficulties. Sometimes the church seemed to be dominating and again the "secular" authorities seemed to be leading. This again brings to light the question regarding the relationship between spiritual and secular authorities even in a Mennonite community based on its traditional principles of separation of state and church.


Ehrt, A. Das Mennonitentum in Russland. Berlin, 1932.

Isaac, Franz. Die molotschnauer Mennoniten; ein Beitrag zur Geschichte derselben. Aus Akten älterer und neuerer Zeit, wie auch auf Grund eigener Erlebnisse und Erfahrungen dargestellt. Halbstadt: H. J. Braun, 1908.

Rempel, David G. "The Mennonite Colonies in New Russia." PhD dissertation, Stanford University, 1933.

Author(s) Cornelius Krahn
Date Published 1956

Cite This Article

MLA style

Krahn, Cornelius. "Government of Mennonites in Russia." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 16 Jul 2024.

APA style

Krahn, Cornelius. (1956). Government of Mennonites in Russia. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 16 July 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 556-557. All rights reserved.

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