Russian Revolution and Civil War

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Many Mennonites, especially younger people, greeted the resignation of the Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, in February 1917 with consent and considerable relief. The tremendous anti-German pressures of the war years had taken their toll even among former patriots, while the strident voices calling for fundamental changes in Russian society had found ears in Mennonite communities as well. Others realized, to be sure, that violent revolution, if it came, would exact a heavy price of all people in Russia. Mennonites would be no more exempt than any others.

The overthrow of the provisional government, led by Alexander Kerensky, in October 1917, quickly bore out the truth of this analysis. In only a few months Halbstadt and other villages of the southern Ukrainian Mennonite settlements came to feel the full impact of terror and bloodshed that would soon engulf the entire country. Outlying estates were attacked and burned while their owners fled to the safety of the main Mennonite colonies nearby. The first village soviets (revolutionary councils) were formed and the requisition of foodstuffs began throughout the area.

The German invasion of Ukraine and the entry of these troops into the Mennonite settlements in April 1918 seemed to promise a great change for the better. Churches were opened, and properties were restored, and normal community life began to function again. But the respite was short-lived. By the fall of that year the occupying forces needed to leave as the armistice officially ended World War I and the Germans had to retreat. They deposited weapons in the colonies for the villagers to use to defend themselves, and in the surrounding countryside Ukrainian peasants under Nestor Makhno prepared to move in.

In a desperate effort to help themselves during the absence of central governing authority, the majority of Ukrainian Mennonite settlements set up military self-defense units (Selbstschutz) to protect their families and homes from attacks by Makhno's forces. In the view of some this move saved the Molotschna villages at least from more serious damage. Others felt, however, that there were then and would be later negative consequences, and that this decision was a serious tactical error. In any case, it was hardly consistent with the traditionally pacifist Mennonite faith.

By now restorationist White armies had gathered energies to counterattack. Admiral Kolchak, in eastern Russia, and the generals Denikin and Wrangel in the Caucasus and the Ukraine, hoped to stall the Red takeover of the country, and to squelch the revolution as such, if possible. Civil war became a brutal and all-engulfing sequel, then, to the revolution in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and Moscow. For a time it seemed that the Leninist-inspired thrust to the south, southeast, and other parts of the country would be pushed back.

Many young Mennonite men, often those from former Selbstschutz units, volunteered for service in the White army. Others were conscripted, and fought with these forces as long as they could. Several fronts of the Red-White military clashes moved back and forth between the Mennonite villages, resulting in further property destruction and loss of life. This was less true in such areas as Orenburg or Slavgorod/Omsk where the Whites moved through some of the settlements but serious battles tended to be fought outside Mennonite communities, or not at all.

The final defeat of the White armies under Wrangel in the fall of 1920 terminated all effective opposition to the revolution. A number of Mennonites who had fought with the Whites were evacuated from Crimean ports to Constantinople at the end of the war. They made their way eventually to the United States. Russian Mennonites now were forced to come to terms with the new regime.


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Author(s) Lawrence Klippenstein
Date Published 1989

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Klippenstein, Lawrence. "Russian Revolution and Civil War." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 3 Jul 2022.

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Klippenstein, Lawrence. (1989). Russian Revolution and Civil War. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 3 July 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 781-782. All rights reserved.

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