Searching for Common Ground: Muslim-Mennonite Encounters

In the last number of years, Mennonite churches and institutions in North America have paid particular attention to their relations with Muslims. They have sought to dispel suspicion and hostility between communities; terms like “friendship, hospitality, and dialogue” regularly accompany organized events that seek to create a common ground by emphasizing the values shared by Muslims and Christians. Rarely, however, do these events reach into the past to acknowledge the collective history of Muslims and Mennonites. In the Russian empire, these groups were neighbors: in Molochna, Crimea, Kuban, Terek, Ufa, Neu-Samara, Orenburg, Slavgorod, Pavlodar, and Aulia Ata, Mennonites settled next to established Muslim communities, who practiced a variety of nomadic, semi-nomadic, and settled lifestyles.1

—A Kumyk family (left) and a Russian Mennonite family (right)

The Russian empire expanded at the expense of Muslims on its periphery. This was particularly the case in the Caucasus. By the mid-nineteenth century, Russia’s military conquest had transformed the Caucasus “from a contested frontier zone into a borderland of the Russian empire.”2 The violence that secured Russian rule left an indelible mark on the region, which would haunt relations between the state and the indigenous peoples as well as influence the lives of settlers. In the Caucasus, the Russian state’s actions initiated a clash between a colonial Christian empire and a local population increasingly united by a shared Muslim identity. Even though the local population at the time was incredibly diverse and highly fragmented (as it remains today), the interpretation of Russia as a Christian empire aggressively and without mercy annexing territories lingered in the region, arguably influencing relations on the ground.3

Mennonites decided, in the early twentieth century, to move right into the heart of this maelstrom, purchasing 66,950 acres of land from Princes Aleksandr and Konstantin Lvov for nearly a million rubles. This land was located between the river Sulak in the south and the river Aktash in the north. A map showing the ethnicity of the population in 1913 confirms the isolation of Mennonites. Located in the far reaches of the Terek province, near the Caspian Sea, Mennonites established a small enclave surrounded by various groups of Sunni Muslims, such as the Nogai, the Kumyks, and a little further away, the Chechens. Mennonites, however, were not the only Christians in the Khasavyurt district, as other German and Russian settlers also established villages.4 As Terry Martin has noted, Mennonites debated the decision to purchase this land on the basis of economic and health concerns; it did not cross their minds that Mennonite properties and lives might be jeopardized by their neighbors.5 This showed, perhaps, a strong belief in their own resourcefulness, or maybe they sincerely believed that the Tsarist state could keep them safe: either way, they were mistaken. My grandmother, who was born in Khartsch (village #2), could vividly recall the day her family fled their home, as her mother carried loaves of raisin bread to the wagon in her apron. Through the eyes of a child, this was an adventure—to her mother, a stressful event, as she frantically packed her children and belongings. My grandmother’s family, as well as the majority of the Mennonite settlement, fled in beginning of 1918, as anarchy spread through the region with the collapse of authority after the overthrow of the Provisional Government by the Bolsheviks.

It is important to interpret Muslim-Mennonite interactions through the lens of settler colonialism to show how the structure of settlement benefited Mennonites at the expense of the local population. It is equally as important to focus on the ways in which both Mennonites and Muslims participated in and instigated violence against each other, as they asserted control over land and property. In case of the Mennonites, this violence, at least initially, was performed by others on their behalf; however, as raids on their villages intensified,  some Mennonites chose to participate directly. As Martin notes, the Terek settlement foreshadowed the difficult choice that Mennonites would soon face in Ukraine: fight or submit humbly to the violence.6 In the Terek, they chose to both fight and flee.

Yet this is not the full story. Amid this chaos, there were moments when the values of friendship, hospitality, and dialogue joined Mennonites with their Muslim neighbors. As the raids on Mennonite villages intensified during 1918, Mennonites not only prayed for God’s mercy, they also approached some of their Muslim neighbors (the Kumyks) living in the villages of Kazi-Yurt and Kostek for help. The Kumyks sent representatives to a meeting held at the Mennonite Brethren Church in the village of Talma (village #3) to discuss the situation. They brought a detachment of the militia, which travelled to the neighbouring Nogai and Taulin villages to confiscate goods stolen from the Mennonites.7 These militiamen were then billeted in Mennonite villages overnight. When it became apparent that the settlement could not be saved, Mennonites fled to Kazi-Yurt and Kostek where they were welcomed by the local population and extended significant hospitality.8 Those who could not make it to these villages were helped by Muslim acquaintances to safety through alternative routes.9

These short vignettes are only snippets of a complicated story that has yet to be fully told. Despite the fact that this help saved Mennonite lives, Mennonites felt betrayed as their protectors asked for compensation. While I have no evidence, I’m sure that Muslims felt shocked by the ingratitude of Mennonites, who appeared to place the same value on their property as they did on their lives. Nonetheless, the example of the Terek settlement shows that even amidst violence, anarchy, and competing interests Mennonites relied on and benefitted from the kindness of their Muslim neighbors.

  1.  For more on this issue, see my article in the 2016 issue of Preservings. 
  2.  Michael Khodarkovsky, Bitter Choices Loyalty and Betrayal in the Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), 10. 
  3.  Ibid., 17. 
  4.  Arthur Tsutsiev, Atlas of the Ethno-Political History of the Caucasus, trans. Nora Seligman Favorov (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 56. 
  5.  Terry Martin, “The Terekers’ Dilemma: A Prelude to the Selbstschutz,” Mennonite Historian XVII, no. 4 (1991): 1. 
  6.  Ibid., 2. 
  7.  C. P. Toews, The Terek Settlement: Mennonite Colony in the Caucasus, Origion [Sic], Growth and Abandonment, 1901-1918, 1925 Memoirs, trans. Isaac A Dyck (Yarrow: Columbia Press, 1972), 54–55. 
  8.  Ibid., 57. 
  9.  Ibid., 59. 

1 thought on “Searching for Common Ground: Muslim-Mennonite Encounters

  1. With regard to Mennonite/Muslim contacts, the connections between Mennonites and Nogai Tatars in Molochna during the first half of the nineteenth century are of great interest. Not only did Mennonites settle of lands previously utilised by Nogai, but they also drew on Nogai expertise with horses, shepherding and even folk medicine. Nogai were also used as labour, particularly with tending flocks of sheep.

    However, there is also evidence of intellectual interest among some Mennonites in the Nogai way of life and their customs, interests not usually associated with those who emphasise Mennonites as an insular people. The important Mennonite reformer Johann Cornies (1789-1848) wrote an account of the Nogai that was published in Russian in the important journal Teleskop. The origins of Cornies text may be a report he wrote for the Head of the Guardian’s Committee, Andrei M. Fadeev (1790- 1867). Cornies’ account, based on a copy in the so-called Peter Braun Archive, appears in a recent work edited by Harvey L. Dyck, Ingrid I. Epp, and John R. Staples, Transformation on the Southern Ukrainian Steppe: Letters and Papers of Johann Cornies Volume 1: 1812-1835. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015, 457-93. The editors speculate (p. 158 note 3) that a Swiss missionary Daniel Schlatter (1791 -1870) drew on Cornies for his own account of the Nogai.

    Schlatter stayed with Cornies in the1820s and continued to correspond with him after he returned to Switzerland. Schlatter’s objective was to convert the Nogai to Christianity but he appears to have become fascinated with their customs and learned their language having lived among them as a menial servant. His account of the Nogai (and of the Mennonites) can be found in his Bruchstücke aus einigen Reisen nach dem südlichen Rußland, in den Jahren 1822 bis 1828. Mit besonderer Rücksicht auf die Nogayen-Tataren am Asowschen Meere. St. Gallen, Huber und Comp. 1830.

    While Schlatter undoubtedly drew on the Mennonite’s knowledge of the Nogai, his mission work brought him into close contact with them. The city archives in St Gallen in Switzerland contain part of a Nogai dictionary Schlatter drew up illustrating his close knowledge of the language. Heinrich Dirks (1842-1915), the Elder in Gnadenfeld and himself a former missionary in Indonesia among people of Muslim faith, noted in 1906 and Schlatter had left extensive linguistic material behind in Molochna (“Aus den Aufzeichnungen eines Alten. Mennonitisches Jahrbuch 1906. p.98). Schlatter also corresponded with Nogai after he returned to Switzerland (see Ursel Kälin, “Die St. Galler Kaufleute Daniel und Abdullah Schlatter in Südrussland”. In Monika Bankowski, Peter Brang, Carsten Goehrke and Robin Kemball eds, Fakten und Fabeln: Schweizerisch-slavische Reisebegegnung vom 18. bis zum 20. Jahrhundert. Basel, 1991, pp 335-63).

    Both Schlatter and Cornies could draw on earlier studies, particularly an account on the Nogai in the Molochna area written by someone called de Gouroff, published in 1816 entitled De la civilisation des Tatars-Nogais dans le midi de la Russie européenne in Kharkov (subsequently translated into German and republished in Dorpat in in the journal Beiträge zur Kenntniss Russlands und seiner Geschichte, 1 (2), 1818, pp. 435-60 as “Ueber die Ansiedelung der Nogaien im Sueden des europaeischen Russlands.”) Here the author is identified as Anton Antonsvich Degurov. De Gouroff was a pseudonym for Antoine Jeudy Dugour (1765-1849), who in 1803 as a French émigré came to Russia and obtained a post in the library of the University of Kharkov and later in St. Petersburg. Dugour changed name to Anton Antonovitch Degurov and published a number of interesting works on the history, sociology and ethnography of Russia.

    Cornies’ account is mentioned by Finnish linguist Andreas Johan Sjögren (1794-1855) and the expert on Arabic and Turkic languages, Christian Martin Fraehn (1782- 1851) in their research into Turkic languages in Russia, especially the Caucasus (mentioned in a communication from the linguists in “Ethnographie: Peuples du Caucase.” Published by the Academie Imperiale des Sciences de Saint-Petersbourg, in 1837).

    James Urry, New Zealand


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