Siberia (Russia)

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Siberia, a part of Northern Asia and of Russia, lying between the Ural Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, consists of one third of the Asiatic continent, 4,887,223 square miles, with a population of 30,000,000 (1956). In the late 1950s it comprised seventeen divisions of the Russian Soviet Federated Soviet Republic, some of which are regions, some territories, some republics. The following are the most significant of them from the west to east: Perm, Tyumen, Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk, Kurgan, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Altai, Tomsk, Kemerovo, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Chita, Maritime Territory, Khabarovsk. Old Mennonite settlements are located in the Omsk (see Omsk Mennonite settlement) and Altai (see Slavgorod Mennonite settlement) regions. The Semipalatinsk region of the Kazakhstan, later Soviet Central Asia, was formerly also considered a part of Siberia, in which the Pavlodar Mennonite settlement is located.

In the 1950s Mennonites could be found in almost all of the regions, territories, and republics of Siberia. Exile and evacuation from the Mennonite settlements of European Russia, particularly the Ukraine, had scattered them over the older Mennonite settlements in Siberia as well as in most of the other regions and territories.

Opening Siberia

During the 14th century a Tatar kingdom called Sibir was located on the Irtysh River in Siberia. The Cossack Yermak subdued the Tatars in 1582, and Tobolsk became the capital of the established government. By 1875 the Russians had occupied all of Siberia including the island of Sakhalin and in the 1890's the Trans-Siberian railroad was built, reaching Vladivostok. Prior to that time, Russian population had been moved into Siberia, some of whom were political and religious exiles. With the coming of the railroad and a systematic plan of the government to populate this vast territory, Russian population, particularly from the Ukraine, was attracted by generous offers from the government. The Mennonites were among the first to follow this invitation and to establish daughter settlements in Siberia. As early as 1860, however, Martin Riediger and Bernhard Warkentin had made a trip to the Amur region, now Khabarovsk, in order to investigate settlement possibilities. At that time Crimea was opened for settlement, and as a result nothing came of the plans to settle in the Far East.

The first Mennonite to settle in Siberia was Peter J. Wiens from Schönau, Molotschna, who established a business enterprise in agricultural machinery in the city of Omsk in 1897. Others followed from the various settlements and established themselves along the Trans-Siberian railroad between Petropavlovsk and Omsk. This settlement became known as the Omsk Mennonite settlement.

Old Mennonite Settlements

In 1906 official announcements were made by the government about the availability of land in Siberia. A delegation representing the settlements of Zagradovka, Ufa, Samara, and Orenburg was sent to the Kulundian Steppes between the Irtysh and the Ob rivers in the Omsk region to investigate the land. They made a trip to Barnaul and some even continued the journey again to investigate the Amur region. They found the land near Barnaul more suitable. In 1910 the city of Slavgorod was established here and the settlement became known as Slavgorod Mennonite settlement. The delegates reserved 58,441 acres of land for 1,443 persons, with the following privileges: (1) reduced fare; (2) exemption from taxes for five years; (3) exemption from governmental services for three years; (4) loan of 160 rubles and a credit of 160 rubles. The land was free of charge.

In 1908 the settlement consisting of 59 villages on some 135,000 acres was finally established. The cities of Kameny and Pavlodar were each about 130 miles from the settlement. The city of Slavgorod was ten miles away and became the Mennonite business center. Barnaul was 250 miles away on the Ob River. Many of the non-Mennonite Germans and also Ukrainians settled on the Kulundian Steppes.

The Pavlodar Mennonite settlement was started in 1906 near the Irtysh River, some 15 miles from the city of Pavlodar which was later connected with the Trans-Siberian railroad to the north. The settlement consisted of 12 villages. The city of Pavlodar had a number of Mennonite enterprises. Under the Soviet regime the villages of the Pavlodar settlement became a part of Kazakh SSR in Soviet Central Asia.

The Minusinsk Mennonite settlement in the Province of Yenisei (now Krasnoyarsk Territory) was established in 1913, consisting of two villages, Rozovka and Krasnovka. During the Revolution of 1917 this settlement suffered so severely that it was gradually dissolved (see Yenisei).

The latest Mennonite settlement voluntarily established was the one in the Amur region in 1927. From here many Mennonites moved to Harbin in 1929 and later, from where they proceeded to the United States and South America. Of significance is also the Ob Mission established in northern Siberia circa l926.

Mennonite Exiles and Evacuees in Siberia

Thus far the story of Mennonite settlements established voluntarily has been related. The most recent chapter deals with the information pertaining to Mennonite movements to Siberia under the Soviet government mostly because of exile, forced labor, and the evacuation from the Ukraine, a practice introduced by Stalin. At that time thousands of men were exiled to northern parts of European Russia (see Vologda) and also Siberia and Soviet Central Asia.

This forced movement of the Mennonites to Siberia occurred primarily during the years 1931-32 and 1937-38, at the outbreak of World War II (1941), and again later when Mennonites who had been evacuated from the Ukraine by the German army were repatriated by the Soviet army (1945-46). It is estimated that 25,000 Mennonites were returned from Germany to Soviet Russia, many of whom were sent to Siberia.

How many Mennonites had been exiled and evacuated from European Russia and how many of them were located in Siberia in the late 1950s? No exact answer was possible to this question at the time. There were some 100,000 Mennonites in Russia when the German army invaded the Ukraine (1941). We proceed with the assumption that approximately one fifth, that is, 20,000, had been exiled by that time. The German invasion of the Ukraine was the reason for an evacuation of all people of German background. Stalin succeeded in evacuating a large percentage of the Mennonite population of the settlements which were close to the front. This involved about one fourth of the total population, making it about 25,000. Some 35,000 were taken along by the retreating Germans in 1943 of which the Red army repatriated nearly 25,000, who were sent primarily beyond the Ural Mountains into Asiatic Russia, including Siberia. This makes 70,000 uprooted or exiled and evacuated Mennonites out of a total population of 100,000. Of these remaining 30,000 some 6,000 were found in the Orenburg settlement and some 4,000 in the Pleshanovo settlement, which were the two major settlements of European Russia which were not completely disintegrated and uprooted during the war. The remaining 20,000 Mennonites who stayed in their homes and settlements were found in the Slavgorod, Omsk, Pavlodar, and Amur settlements of Siberia. According to these figures 30,000 Mennonites were still in their former homes and 70,000 were living in dispersion.

We proceed with the assumption that of these 70,000 Mennonites no longer living in their home communities some 20,000 lived in European Russia, particularly in the Vologda and Arkhangelsk regions from which they were exiled but also in many other parts of Russia particularly since many had obtained permission to move about more freely. Some had even returned to their former homes. Adding to this number the 7,500 who had remained in their communities it can be assumed that there were some 27,500 in European Russia.

Of the remaining 50,000 Mennonites who had lost their homes we can assume that half were in Siberia and half in Soviet Central Asia. Many of these Mennonites who had come to Siberia under the Soviet government had found their way to the Mennonite settlements of Slavgorod, Omsk, and Pavlodar. Most of them, however, were located in regions in which until the late 1950s no Mennonites were found. A great number were found in the regions of Perm (formerly Molotov), Tyumen, Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk, Akmolinsk, Aktyubinsk, Kurgan, Novosibirsk, Altai, Tomsk, Karaganda, Alma Ata, Stalinabad, Tashkent, Frunze, and other industrialized areas in the far south of Central Asia.

What did the Mennonites do and how did they live in these areas in the 1950s? Those who were exiled mostly worked in mines in the Ural Mountains, forestries, railroad and other building projects, and agricultural units. Living conditions were extremely difficult and many thousands perished. The complete record is not available and what is available has not been investigated and systematically used. Of the 76 labor camps in Asiatic Russia listed by Dallin and Nicolaevsky 68 were located in Siberia, many in the Ural Mountain area. Even if the inhabitant of a camp survived the 10-20 years of slave labor his record did not permit him to move freely. In 1955-56 changes had come about. This is clearly recorded in the correspondence coming from Russia, and was reported by Bender and Wiens as a result of their trip to Russia in 1956. Many had left their place of labor and moved to other places in order to improve their living conditions and above all in order to unite with their family members and relatives. By the late 1950s a considerable number lived in and around Karaganda.

The fate of the evacuees of 1941 and those repatriated by the Red army in 1945-47 was probably not as severe as that of the exiles; nevertheless they too endured severe hardships between 1945 and 1955. However, their conditions also seemed to improve by the late 1950s. According to a study made of letters, the Mennonites were located in rural areas as well as in large cities. They followed almost any occupation. They were tractorists on collective farms, students in agricultural and medical schools, workers in factories, engineers, etc. The children attended public schools and were often unable to speak German except some Low German. Intermarriages with non-Mennonites were frequent, although not as frequent as one could expect after all the movements and shifts of the population. The general revival of interest in religious life was noticeable in Siberia as at other places.

Bibliographical Information

Siberia is "a dark chapter" in Mennonite research. The settlements originated just before World War I and were far removed from the cultural centers of the Mennonites in the Ukraine. Occasional reports or letters are the major sources of information. P. M. Friesen (Mennonitische Brüderschaft, 1911) contains little information about the settlements in Siberia. Some information is contained in the annual reports (Jahresbericht) of the forestry service in Russia compiled for taxing Mennonite property. The almanacs, such as Mennonitisches Jahrbuch, edited by H. Dirks and D. H. Epp (see 1913), Christlicher Familienkalender, edited by A. Kröker, and the Haus- und Landwirtschafts-Kalender (Odessa) contain lists of villages and other statistical information up to 1914.

The two periodicals, Der Botschafter and Die Friedensstimme, contain announcements about the planned settlements in Siberia, the movements of the Mennonites to Siberia, the beginning and pioneer experiences, and the developments up to the time that the papers ceased publication during World War I. After the Russian Revolution, the Siberian Mennonite settlements were in touch with the Allrussicher Mennonitischer Landwirtschaftlicher Verein and were visited by representatives of this organization and reported regularly. These reports have been preserved in the A. A. Friesen Collection of the Bethel College Historical Library and some were published in Der Praktische Landwirt. The reports about the cultural life and religious activities, such as song festivals, baptismal services, visits by ministers from other Mennonite settlements, appeared regularly in Unser Blatt from 1926 on, which was discontinued in 1928. From there on, there was silence. Otto Auhagen published some letters from Siberia in Die Schicksalswende des russlanddeutschen Bauerntums in den Jahren 1927-1930 (Leipzig, 1942).

Of some significance are scattered reports written by non-Mennonites. Jakob Stach, who was serving the Lutheran churches of Slavgorod, Pavlodar, etc., immediately after the Russian Revolution, reported about it in his books, Meine Feuertaufe (St. Gallen, 1924) and Das Deutschtum in Sibirien, . . . bis in die Gegenwart: Geschichte und Selbsterlebtes (Stuttgart, 1939). The novelist Edwin Erich Dwinger, in his Zwischen Weiss und Rot (Jena, 1930) (reportage), relates that the retreating White army stayed overnight in one of the Mennonite villages which he describes vividly. The cultural life of the Mennonites of the Slavgorod Mennonite settlement is described in greater detail in the novel Beata (Heilbronn, 1935) by Ernst Behrends. In this book Jürgen, a German soldier, who became a prisoner of war and was sent to Siberia, met Daniel Hooge of Rheinfeld, who took him home to his parents, where he fell in love with Daniel's sister Beata. However, Jürgen returned to Germany and Beata married someone else. Later Jürgen met her, a widow with three children, in the refugee camp in Mölln, Germany. This novel describes in a sympathetic and accurate way the cultural traits of the Mennonites of Slavgorod.

Of descriptive nature is H. Anger, Die Deutschen in Sibirien. Reise durch die deutschen Dörfer Westsibiriens (Berlin and Königsberg, 1930), who presents valuable information about the German settlements including the Mennonites. Walter Quiring in "Die russlanddeutschen Flüchtlinge in China" (in Der Wanderweg der Russlanddeutschen, Stuttgart, 1939) relates the story of the escape of the Mennonites of the Amur settlement to Harbin, China. The story of the Amur settlement has been related in greater detail by A. Loewen and A. Friesen, Die Flucht über den Amur (Steinbach, 1946).

The first attempt to present the story of the Mennonites in Siberia in general was made by J. J. Hildebrand in Sibirien (Winnipeg, 1952). His book is subdivided into two parts, the first one dealing with Siberia in general and the Mennonite settlements of Omsk and Slavgorod, and the second part specifically with the Mennonite group under the leadership of Hermann Peters known as Apostolische Brüdergemeinde, which is the most detailed account found anywhere on this subject. This part also contains the author's account of his effort in trying to help young men of Siberia establish the status of conscientious objectors to war during the years following the Revolution.

Another book dealing with the Mennonites of Siberia was compiled and edited by Gerhard Fast under the title In den Steppen Sibiriens (Rosthern, 1957). Numerous accounts of eyewitnesses and participants in the early settlements in Slavgorod were collected and edited which contain more information on this subject than any other source. The Omsk, Pavlodar, and Amur settlements are sketched only briefly.

Many hundreds of letters have been published in Der Bote (Rosthern) and Mennonitische Rundschau (Winnipeg). Virginia Claassen, Peter Neufeld, and Vern Q. Preheim, in a Mennonite Seminar of Bethel College under the direction of Cornelius Krahn (1947), checked this correspondence and prepared an alphabetical index including names, locations, economic, cultural, religious, and occupational conditions, etc., of the Mennonites of Russia as portrayed in the correspondence. The findings were presented in "Glimpses of Mennonites in Russia 1948-57." To a large extent, this information which originated in Siberia and Soviet Central Asia was made use of in this and other articles written for this Encyclopedia.

The only eyewitness who has visited a part of the Mennonite settlements of Siberia (Slavgorod) since World War II is Klaus Mehnert, who gave illustrated accounts in Christ und Welt (Stuttgart, 21 June 1956), Quick (Munich, 7 July 1956), and Bote (5, 12, 19, and 26 September 1956).

The account of the relief activities among the Mennonites of Slavgorod was presented by Alvin J. Miller in Feeding the Hungry (Scottdale, 1929, p. 312 and following). M. B. Fast reported about his visit in Siberia in Geschichtlicher Bericht . . . (Reedley, 1919). The best studies on forced labor and concentration camps in Siberia and other parts of Russia are those by David J. Dallin and B. I. Nicolaevsky, Forced Labor in Soviet Russia (New Haven, 1947), and B. Yakovlev, Concentration Camps in U.S.S.R. (Munich, 1955). Siberia in general is treated by Juri Semjonow in Sibirien, Eroberung und Erschliessung der wirtschaftlichen Schatzkammer des Ostens (Berlin, 1954), which presents a very valuable bibliography, and by Donald W. Treadgold in The Great Siberian Migration (Princeton University Press, 1957).

Author(s) Cornelius Krahn
Date Published 1959

Cite This Article

MLA style

Krahn, Cornelius. "Siberia (Russia)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 25 Jul 2024.

APA style

Krahn, Cornelius. (1959). Siberia (Russia). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 July 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 517-521. All rights reserved.

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