Russian German re-migrants’ and stayees’ belongings: Everyday food practices in Western Siberia

Anna Flack

Led by the central research question of which resources re-migrants and stayees use for the construction of belongings, in 2015 I conducted participant observation and topic-centered interviews at a three months field research in Western Siberia with Russian Germans. 1 According to the Russian Federation’s latest census by 20102, approximately one eighth of Russia’s dispersed German minority lives in the Altai region. Thus, I made my way to Barnaul, the capital of this region. Not, as one might expect, to the German national district (немецкий национальный район) with the village of Halbstadt as administrative center.

Source: Google maps.

As a cultural anthropologist/ European ethnologist3, I conceive belongings not as static as that implies an often essentializing understanding of culture. More precisely and differentiated, culture can be defined as the total of human practices, products and articulations. This includes, inter alia, individual and collective, theoretical and practical, historical and mythical expressions. Culture then means practices, objects and institutions.4 To be able to research cultural continuities and changes it is necessary to focus on concretely observable phenomena. Such phenomena are obvious, often unreflected everyday practices, e.g. concerning language, living, clothing, music, religion and last but not least food. By examining the everyday practices of food and drink, I realized a practice-oriented approach following Judith Butler’s concept of performative construction of belongings.5 Consequently, I understand belongings as a preliminary result of constant construction and negotiation processes.

Boršč – “typically Russian” soup with smetana (sour cream) and pickled cucumbers. Photo by the author.

In three case studies, I illustrate the parallelism and relation between cultural continuities and changes. Moreover, there can be shown the plurality, situativity and entanglement of, even contradictory, belongings. In the following, my findings will be summarized and illustrated by empirical data on three subjects called Marina, Kat’ja and Mrs Müller.6

In everyday life as well as on holidays still dominates a Soviet “conservatism of taste” (“Geschmackskonservatismus”).7 Continuing subsistence farming and eating salat oliv’e8 on holidays are examples that give proof of the persistent effectiveness of Soviet values, norms and action patterns until the present.

Subsistence farming in an allotment garden. Photo by the author.

The accompanying cultural changes can be conceived as, on the one hand, processes of detraditionalization and, on the other hand, processes of (re)traditionalization. In all my case studies a selective influence of a Western, globalized lifestyle can be observed. Examples include the consumption of coffee (instead of tea, the Russian national drink), pizza and sushi. This indicates an orientation along Western lifestyle and a detraditionalization of daily life.

Symbols of a globalized lifestyle. Photos by the author.

The retraditionalization that manifests itself in a return to ethnicity and/or religiosity can also be interpreted as an answer to Soviet and Russian hegemony. At the same time, retraditionalization can be a reaction to global cultural influences. Soviet/ Russian hegemony and the global cultural influences potentially compromise individuality and/or an ethnocultural belonging.

So called “national dishes“ (e.g. Strudel, Riebelkuchen) and Marina’s as well as Kat’ja’s choice of profession as German language teacher can be interpreted as an expression of their “symbolic ethnicity.”9 This means that they can feel a nostalgic ethnic belonging and be proud of their ancestors’ traditions without practicing these traditions (regularly) on their own. Much more important than the cultural everyday practices are ethnic symbols as e.g. consumer goods, especially food and drink.10

Strudel. Photo by the author.

In Kat’ja’s case the (re)traditionalization served the re-migrants’ reintegration into Russia. By adopting the Russian Orthodox faith and practicing fasting and praying, the subject reintegrated into Russian society. In the Russian perception, being Orthodox is equal to being Russian in an ethnocultural sense.11 The Russian Orthodox faith also gains special significance because Kat’ja became Orthodox by baptism just before the Aussiedlung12 to Germany. Thus, the baptism can be interpreted as a rite de passage.13 Baptism guarantees an emotional closeness to (Orthodox) Russia despite the territorial distance. Furthermore, the (re)traditionalization is rather an “invention of tradition”14 than a supposed return to a lost tradition.

Russian Orthodox icons above the dining table. Photo by the author.

Interestingly, Kat’ja’s great-grandmother has had “some kind of German faith, she even always prayed in German.” The subject then remembers that the great-grandmother’s congregation was Baptist. But what is most important here is the difference making and the demarcation of a “Russian” and a “German” faith.15

In Mrs Müller’s case reintegration was achieved the other way round, by a globalized lifestyle indicating detraditionalization. Food products (e.g. instant garden herbs, special fries salt, sweetener) brought to Russia by relatives living in Germany help the subject to compensate perceived limitations in her “new old home.”16 Hence, the subject copes with the undesired re-migration, which was initiated by her husband, and the inconveniences of life in the Russian countryside by consumption.

Self-made fries. Photo by the author.

The transforming of everyday food practices illustrates not only Russian Germans’ heterogeneity, but also the heterogeneity of belonging resources in general. Food and drink serve as a mirror of these different resources which are used for the conscious and unconscious construction of belongings. In interaction with other individuals there exists more than one belonging discourse. Belongings are manifold and fragmented. Therefore, they are constantly negotiated and situationally emphasized. In a postmodern society, apart from ethnicity subjects make use of and combine different resources, experiences, social imaginations, and orientation patterns to create a lifestyle that fits best their needs for belonging, individuality, and peculiarity.17


  1. My Ph.D. thesis has been submitted in March 2019 and therefore is not yet published.
  2. Cf. Institute of Demography of the national research university “Higher School of Economics”, Demoskop Weekly. URL: demoscope.ru/weekly/ssp/census.php (25.2.2016). According to official census data, in 1989 in the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic lived 842.295 Germans. 127.731 of them lived in the Altai region. In 2002 597.212 Germans lived in the Russian Federation. 79.502 lived in the Altai region. Cf. Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat), Census 2010. National composition of the population according to the subjects of the Russian Federation. [Национальный состав населения по субъектам Российской Федерации]. URL: http://www.gks.ru/free_doc/new_site/perepis2010/perepis_itogi1612.htm (12.6.2017). According to the 2010 census, there live 50.701 Germans in the Altai region. In overall Russia, 394.138 people stated a German ethnicity.
  3. In Germany, Europe and North America the disciplines underlied different influences, conditions and developments. Therefore, we do not always mean the same when using similar or identical terms. Cf. e.g. C. B. Brettell, “Theorizing Migration in Anthropology. The Cultural, Social, and Phenomenological Dimensions of Movement,” in C. B. Brettell, J. F. Hollifield, eds., Migration theory. Talking across disciplines. 3d edition (New York: Routledge, 2015), 148–197; C. Markom, “Geschichte der Migrationsforschung. Interdisziplinäre Verflechtungen,” in M. Six-Hohenbalken, J. Tošić, eds., Anthropologie der Migration. Theoretische Grundlagen und interdisziplinäre Aspekte (Vienna: facultas, 2009), 29–49.
  4. Cf. P. M. Hejl, “Kultur,” in A. Nünning, ed., Metzler-Lexikon Literatur- und Kulturtheorie. Ansätze – Personen – Grundbegriffe. 4th edition (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2008), 267; cf. A. Reckwitz, Die Transformation der Kulturtheorien. Zur Entwicklung eines Theorieprogramms (Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2006), 75; G. Hirschfelder, “Europäischer Alltag im Fokus der Kulturanthropologie/Volkskunde,” in S. Conermann, ed., Was ist Kulturwissenschaft? Zehn Antworten aus den „Kleinen Fächern“ (Bielefeld: transcript, 2012), 151; A. Hütig, “Dimensionen des Kulturbegriffs,” in J. Kusber, M. Dreyer, J. Rogge, A. Hütig, eds., Historische Kulturwissenschaften. Positionen, Praktiken und Perspektiven (Bielefeld: transcript, 2010), 116.
  5. Cf. J. Butler, Das Unbehagen der Geschlechter (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991); J. Butler, Körper von Gewicht. Die diskursiven Grenzen des Geschlechts (Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 1995); H. Bublitz, Judith Butler zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius, 2013).
  6. With the exception of Barnaul, places and persons are anonymised due to data security and research ethics. Cf. H. von Unger, “Forschungsethik in der qualitativen Forschung. Grundsätze, Debatten und offene Fragen,” in H. von Unger, P. Narimani, R. M’Bayo, eds., Forschungsethik in der qualitativen Forschung. Reflexivität, Perspektiven, Positionen (Wiesbaden: Springer 2014), 15–39.
  7. Cf. U. Tolksdorf,“Strukturalistische Nahrungsforschung. Versuch eines generellen Ansatzes,” in Ethnologia Europaea 9 (1976), 64–85; cf. U. Tolksdorf, “Das Eigene und das Fremde. Küchen und Kulturen im Kontakt,” in A. Wierlacher, G. Neumann, H. J. Teuteberg, eds., Kulturthema Essen. Ansichten und Problemfelder (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1993), 187–192.
  8. Russian Salad. Cf. I. Makoveeva, “Olive (Olivier),” in Tat’jana Ė. Smorodinskaja, ed., Encyclopedia of contemporary Russian culture (London: Routledge, 2007), 436.
  9. H. J. Gans, Symbolic ethnicity. The future of ethnic groups and cultures in America, in Ethnic and Racial Studies 2, 1 (1979), 1–20.
  10. Cf. ibid., 8–10.
  11. Cf. K. Rousselet, A. Agadjanian,“Pourquoi et comment étudier les pratiques religieuses?,” in Revue d’études comparatives Est-Ouest 36 (2005), 6; A. Agadjanian, Turns of Faith, Search for Meaning. Orthodox Christianity and Post-Soviet Experience (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2014), 18–20, 59; I. Hartwich, “Die Rolle der Religion in Russland. Von Atheisten zu gläubigen Christen”, in Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (bpb)), 3.2.2011. URL: http://www.bpb.de/internationales/europa/russland/47992/religion (4.9.2017).
  12. Aussiedlung means a migration regime introduced by the Federal Republic of Germany after World War II that allowed people of German descent living in the (former) Soviet Union, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia to migrate to Germany and to be recognised as German citizens. The basis is a personal confession to the German Volkszugehörigkeit. This implies a confession to the German descent, language, upbringing and culture. Cf. Federal Displaced Persons Act (Bundesvertriebenengesetz (BVFG)).
  13. Cf. A. van Gennep, Les rites de passage (Paris: Picard, 1981).
  14. E. Hobsbawm, T. Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  15. The significance of the Lutheran faith for a subject of the generation of experience is further regarded in A. Flack, “Methodische Überlegungen über Generationenunterschiede in einer nahrungsethnologischen Feldforschung in Russland. Erkenntnisgewinn durch Scheitern,” in S. Scholl-Schneider, M. Kropp, eds., Migration und Generation. Volkskundlich-ethnologische Perspektiven auf das östliche Europa (Münster: Waxmann, 2018), 193–222.
  16. Cf. A. Flack, “Hühnernudelsuppe, Pel’meni und Pommes frites. Ernährung, Identitäten und Lebensstile von remigrierten SpätaussiedlerInnen,” in Migration. Jahrbuch des Bundesinstituts für Kultur und Geschichte der Deutschen im östlichen Europa 24 (2016), 279–308.
  17. Cf. A. Appadurai, “Globale ethnische Räume,” in U. Beck, ed., Perspektiven der Weltgesellschaft (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998), 21; A. Appadurai, Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); O. Brednikova, “„Eigentlich bin ich Russe, aber manchmal trotzdem auch Deutscher“. Die deutsche Gemeinde in St. Petersburg,” in I. Oswald, V. Voronkov, eds., Post-sowjetische Ethnizitäten. Ethnische Gemeinden in St. Petersburg und Berlin/Potsdam (Berlin: Berliner Debatte Wissenschaftsverlag, 1997), 78–79; G. Hirschfelder, P. Pollmer, “Ernährung und Esskultur. Kulturwissenschaftliche Perspektiven,” in Aktuelle Ernährungsmedizin 43 (2018), 46.

Reflections on Selective Immigration and Questions of Belonging

There is a strange thing about academia, namely, that once a book or article is published, one’s research has often moved to other topics. My research remains related to larger questions involved in my book about Mennonites and Mormons in Mexico, such as the relative power or weakness of the nation-state, and how and why a nation-state might include or exclude various minority groups, but no longer focuses on a group of people related to the topic of Anabaptism. More importantly, for the purposes of this short post, none of my recent research would help me write a post for this blog.

Then, last week, I received an invitation to speak about the work that led me to this blog in the first place, and I am reminded that while Mennonites are not the largest or most important group in Mexico (my area of study) let alone anywhere else, the questions that came up in my research for Liminal Sovereignty, remain relevant. The country where I live (the USA), the country I’m from (Canada), and the country I study (Mexico) are all trying to regulate who gets to come in.

I am particularly struck by the commonalities between my own experience as an immigrant to the United States, and those of early Mennonite immigrants to Mexico. I moved to the US for a job, and my current employer was willing to sponsor me to become a permanent resident. This process – which is inaccessible to millions of undocumented immigrants, and incredibly lengthy for people who immigrate for the purposes of family reunification – was remarkably easy for me. My employer has an office to do most of the work, to coach me for my interview, to make sure every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed. I also am white, middle class, educated and speak English in a way that makes people immediately realize these things about me.

I think again about the Low German Mennonites who migrated to Mexico. They also had “brokers” who dealt with the Mexican government to negotiate their initial immigration and “brokers,” like David Redekop, who could assist them with their dealings with Mexican officials once they arrived. I still wonder, though, how with all the troubles that these people face how they went about creating a new life, how they went about trying to understand the ways that Mexican agrarian reform would affect them, and how, in more recent years, their lives would be changed by drug trafficking.

All this wondering is because I want to understand who these people were, what they were doing, and why. Sometimes, the way the past resonates with our lives today can give us some indications.

Willi Peters (1940-2016), Siberian Mennonite Minister

William Yoder ( Gvardeysk/Moscow) and Dr. Lawrence Klippenstein (Winnipeg)

Introduction

The Chortitza and Molotschna Mennonite settlements in New Russia became the so-called ”mother colonies” of all the subsequent settlements in New Russia (later Ukraine). Their total population by the end of WWI is said to have reached about 110,000. They spread out widely in Central and southern Russia and began to look elsewhere in the search for more land.

They did not begin to settle in western Siberia until 1897. The first to do so, as far as we know, was the J. J. Hildebrand family who moved to Omsk in that year. They founded an agricultural machinery business there. Families seeking land for farming then followed and to make a long story short, began to establish settlements westward from Omsk along both sides, north and south, of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and to the southeast somewhat in another cluster of villages that were at first oriented toward the old city of Barnaul, and then, settling east and south shifted their attention more to the much closer and newer city of Slavgorod located on a southward stretching spur of the Trans-Siberian Railway. A later expansion of these village settlements took some thousands of persons to an area on the north bank of the Amur River, around Blagoveschensk. A settlement at Pavlodar west of Slavgorod sprang up also.

Eventually, all these areas came under Soviet control also, but the villages of these larger communities remained relatively free of physical damage resulting from World War II. Hundreds of persons were forcibly resettled to northern prison and work camps during the war, with many dying there, and others managing to return to warmer southern communities. Some were reunited with their families on their return, with others were deprived of reunions.

In this process of resettling, many found themselves in Siberian and Central Asian new and former urban areas to attempt more permanent resettlement and community reorganization. One of the sites which acquired a large new congregation of Mennonites, with membership ultimately over four hundred was the city of Novosibirsk. Bernhard Sawatzky was an early pastor of this congregation in the 1970s. It belonged to the so-called kirchliche (lit. church) branch of the larger Soviet Mennonite body in the USSR.

Minister Willi Peters (1940-2016) Novosibirsk, Siberia

Right: Minister Willi Peters and his son Andrei with Ben Falk, MCC volunteer at Neudachino, Siberia (1993). Photo : Lawrence Klippenstein

Willi Peters was born in the Ukrainian Mennonite colony of Chortitza on April 30, 1940. Times were highly volatile, so Willi had little chance of growing up in Ukraine. After the massive German attack of June 22, 1941, an edict of the Supreme Soviet issued on August 28 that year decreed that all ethnic Germans in western USSR would be deported eastward away from the approaching Wehrmacht.

By 1942, the year after the German attack, Willi’s family found itself in Tayshet in Central Siberia. This city is a critical junction of the Trans-Siberian Railway 245 miles east of Krasnoyarsk. Willi’s father, Jakob, had been forced into the Trudarmee (forced labor camp) and consequently spent years as a logger in the forests of Tayshet region. However, the family was exceptionally fortunate in one respect: Jakob’s wife Maria, nee Toews, with their children, were allowed to live with him in Tayshet.

The family remained subject to the Soviet military regime ((kommandatura) until its dissolution in 1956. At that time the family was permitted to move southeast-ward to the industrial city of Angarsk, founded in 1948 near Irkutsk. It was there that young Willi received his education as an electrician. He remained an electrician for the rest of his life.

Willi’s future wife, Maria Gunther was also born in Chortitza in 1941. Her family was among the 313,000 Germans overtaken by the German army moving into the Soviet Union before they were evacuated eastward. Maria, along with her brothers and sisters then fled westward along with the Wehrmacht now retreating, in 1943-44. Maria’s father disappeared during WWII and was never found.

According to the agreements at Yalta signed early in 1945, the USSR was permitted after the war to repatriate former citizens of the USSR from refugee camps in Western Europe. The 200,000 ethnic Germans forced to return eastward included Maria’s and siblings who had been waiting in a refugee camp in Yugoslavia. Maria’s mother was then forced to eke out a subsistence living for herself and her children working as a maid for military officers in Berdsk, south of Novosibirsk.

By the late 1950s, the Mennonites of Central Siberia knew the whereabouts of many members of their faith in the region. In the early 1960s, Willi Peters began a search for a spouse and ended up making repeated treks to Berdsk. Willi and Maria married in October of 1967; the couple immediately moved back east to Angarsk. Their three children were born there: Anna in 1967, Andrei (Heinrich) in 1970 and Katarina in 1974.

For Mennonites Angarsk had only house gatherings where they could worship, so the family chose to move to Berdsk in 1976. Almost immediately the Peters joined the large Mennonite congregation meeting in a renovated private house at Ulitsa Proyektnaya 13 on the western fringe of Novosibirsk. Here the minister at the time was Bernhard Sawatzky (savadskii). The congregation registered since 1967, had nearly four hundred members meeting in its chapel. The group was connected to forty smaller gatherings in Tomsk, Berdsk, Barnaul, and other sites throughout the region.

Church services in Novosibirsk took place on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Mennonite Brethren congregations were strong to the west of Omsk, but Novosibirsk was by far the largest gathering of kirchliche (lit. church) Mennonites in the area.

Willi first became involved in the congregation by singing bass in the Novosibirsk choir, with his son Andrei joining in 1983. After the choir director’s emigration westward in 1988, Jakob Dirksen succeeded him as leading minister, in Novosibirsk. However, the emigration to Germany had been in high gear since 1986, and Dirksen who already perched on packed suitcases accepted his new calling with reluctance. However, after Dirksen’s departure in early 1990, fifty-year-old Willi Peters was ordained and commissioned as the new leading minister in May. Since Willi had only begun preaching in 1986 and had not previously served as a minister, his appointment was not entirely without dissent.

Why did Willi and Maria not join the trek westward? “We saw staying as God’s calling,” Andrei explained briefly. “My parents were convinced that we had been called to remain here and serve others who had not left. We were not called to be where life was most comfortable, but where God wishes to use us.” Andrei believed that his father was called because of his wide acceptance as a convinced Christian. He thought it was easy for his father to get close to his people. He was a gifted counselor and knew how to converse with people. People felt the love of God in presence, Andrei pointed out.

Retired seminary professor Walter Sawatsky has noted that ninety percent of Russia’s Mennonites, roughly one hundred thousand persons, moved to Germany during the last great exodus. The movement was a nearly fatal blow for an ongoing Mennonite presence in Russia. Sawatsky added at the same time that immigrants to Germany formed numerous relief/mission agencies and church associations for Russia, which became the primary Mennonite support lasting until present times.

Sawatsky noted further that Mennonite church bodies in Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and MCC had long tried to walk alongside those who could not leave Russia. The Peters family had also served as a lightning rod drawing Mennonites who were seeking contact with brothers and sisters in Siberia.

Willi stopped working when his firm collapsed in 1990. After 1990, his family received support from family and church members who had left and settled in Bielefeld, Germany. He visited Germany several times after 1990. In January 1997, Willi made a most memorable trip when he and Nikolas Dueckman from the Evangelical /Mennonite Brethren congregation in Marianovka near Omsk, attended the Mennonite World Conference sessions in Calcutta, India.

When the Novosibirsk house caretaker moved to Germany in 2005, Willi, Maria, and Andrei had moved into the former church quarters. As of 2018 only daughter Katarina, who is single, remains in the family apartment in Berdsk. Anna and her two children have also moved from Berdsk to the Novosibirsk church home.

The end began to arrive for Willi when he suffered his first stroke. His son, Andrei, had been assisting him pastorally since 1997 and was consequently ordained as a second minister on September 29, 2000. Two additional strokes and a heart attack followed. Willi became less and less able to fulfill his ministerial duties. He continued to meet people in a friendly manner as he was able but passed away quite unexpectedly on April 20, 2016. After his funeral in Novosibirsk two days later, he was buried in Berdsk where his parents were also interred.

Through deaths and emigration, kirchliche Mennonite ministries have shrunk considerably in Siberia since 1990. Andrei continues to serve as leading pastor in the local congregation at Novosibirsk, also attempting at the same time to maintain with other smaller groups in Artyemsk, Barnaul, Grishevka, and Orsnyak.

The even smaller group in Neudachino lost its leading pastor, Gerhard Neufeld, when that entire family of two dozen or more persons moved to Germany also. This group remains independent, having virtually no contact with the Novosibirsk congregation, officially, and also does not relate significantly to the local Evangelical/Mennonite Brethren congregation. The sermons of the kirchliche remaining small group are read from a book by a member of the congregation.

That the entire Peters family should remain in Russia to carry on its life together and maintain their mission as found possible, is a very rare phenomenon. Willi’s sister (a second Maria Peters) and Maria’s sister, Anna Gunther, now reside in Bielefeld. A kirchliche Mennonite mission outreach ministry, directed from Bielefeld, remains active in the Orenburg area of the Urals region. Willi Peters’ devotion to his church, his Christian integrity, and sense of duty in good times and bad, and periods of illness and adversity, his refusal to abandon a Mennonite remnant of believers, remain the lasting testimony of his life.


A version of this story first appeared in the June 2019 issue of the Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta Chronicle. Learn about their work at mennonitehistory.org


Resources:

Harms, Wilmer A., ed. The Odyssey of Escapes from Russia: The Saga of Anna K (Hillsboro: KS , Hearth Publishing, 1998).

Klippenstein, Lawrence. A series of articles on Mennonites in Siberia in Mennonitische Post, 2011- 2013, Steinbach, Manitoba.

…… “The kirchliche Mennonites in the USSR,” Mennonite Historian, Vol. V. December, 1979, 1-2, and Vol. VI, March, 1980, 2-3.

Rahn, Peter, Mennoniten in der Umgebung von Omsk (Vancouver, B.C.: by the author, 1975).

Savin, A.I. and Paul Toews, comp. and ed. Ethno-Confession in the Soviet State. Mennonites in Siberia, 1920 – 1989. Annotated List of Archival Docunents. Translated by Olga Shmakina and Liudmyla Kariaka (Moscow and Fresno: Russian Academy of Sciences and Center for MB Studies, 2008).

Sawatsky, Walter, “From Russian to Soviet Mennonites,” in John Friesen, ed., Mennonites in Russia.1788-1988. Essays in Honour of Gerhard Lohrenz (Winnipeg, MB: CMBC Publications, 1989), 299-339.

Yoder, William, News releases from Moscow for the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ca. 2000-2019. See especially release of news dated November 14, 2018.

Suspended Movement

It was originally my intention to study Anabaptists as religious refugees during the first few decades of the Reformation. Though the notion of early modern religious refugees is well-developed, for a long time it was largely a reference to the itinerant ‘Calvinist international’ that Calvin himself wrote into existence from his position in Geneva.1 Though recent works have advocated for an expansive and inclusive re-imagining of the term, the traditional tripartite structure of Reformation scholarship still lingers–and narrows our focus to those identifiable as Catholics, Lutherans or Calvinists. I wanted to think about what it would mean for “Anabaptists” (broadly construed) to be included in this expanding concept of early modern religious refugees.

Yet in seeking to capture the movement of groups who are visible, in the early modern bureaucratic sources that I use, which reflect only in moments of stasis, it was pointed out to me that I was thinking more about the meaning of potential movement rather than movement itself. As I sorted through evidence in the archives of Westphalia and East Frisia, I often found Anabaptists immersed in legal negotiations about economic conditions–resisting or contesting their own dispossession, and negotiating the extra taxes they bore. Though these are often hostile sources, they illuminate the precarities and practicalities of material survival for marginalized religious groups during the early modern period.

I took my first archival trip in the summer of 2016 to visit Emden, in East Frisia, and to follow the work of Timothy Fehler.2 Dr. Fehler had included a reference to Mennonites paying Schutzgeld (literally “protection money”) in Emden, and I was eager to see what I might glean from these registers of “Mennoniten.” To give a brief glimpse into the scale of these documents: in 1601, there were 166 individuals or families who paid Schutzgeld.The total amount collected is given as 943 gulden, 8 schap and 10 witten. A later entry indicates that an additional sum of 400 gulden was paid for the Mennonites’ share of the protection of the city, and sent directly to the city treasurer–bringing the final amount remitted to 1343 gulden, 8 schap and 10 witten.4 In comparison, the chief preacher of the Große Kirche, Menso Alting, had received a generous annual salary of 600 gulden in 1595.5

Of those listed in the 1601 account, seven are Jews–denoted by the simple appellation “the Jew” after each of their first names. The seven Jewish men are scattered throughout the various collection groups, and pay obligations which appear to be calculated in the same manner as those of the Mennonites. If the collection units denote neighborhoods, then the possibility of Jews and Mennonites living together is certainly intriguing. Yet, as both were required to pay this extra protection money to live within the city, it is possible that this relationship was more of a bookkeeping convenience than anything else. In any event, the fact that these two groups were combined on bureaucratic lists speaks to a developing sense of a religious ‘other’ in the minds of Calvinist city leaders.

Of course, Jewish communities in the Holy Roman Empire had been subject to violent expulsion campaigns for hundreds of years. Michael Driedger has emphasized the need to think about commonalities between early modern Anabaptist and Jewish experiences during the upheaval of reform, and much work remains to be done.6 As I continue to work on Schutzgeld, the idea of suspended, potential movement continues to animate my thinking, especially as I consider the Mennonites and Jews in East Frisia who needed to negotiate, and pay, to stay in their Emden homes.

  1. Heiko Oberman, “One Epoch – Three Reformations,” in The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications, trans. Andrew Colin Gow (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994); Heiko Oberman, “Europa Afflicta: The Reformation of the Refugees,” in John Calvin and the Reformation of the Refugees (Genève: Librairie Droz S.A., 2009). More recent studies advocate for, or operate on, an expansion of terms: Geert H. Janssen, The Dutch Revolt and Catholic Exile in Reformation Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Nicholas Terpstra, Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  2. Timothy Fehler, Poor Relief and Protestantism: The Evolution of Social Welfare in Sixteenth-Century Emden (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing House, 1999).
  3. Stadtarchiv Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 54-72.
  4. Ibid., 66.
  5. Fehler, Appendix, 292.
  6. See Michael Driedger, “The Intensification of Religious Commitment: Jews, Anabaptists, Radical Reform, and Confessionalization,” in Jews, Judaism, and the Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Germany, edited by D.P. Bell and S.G. Burnett (Leiden: Brill, 2006), and “Crossing Max Weber’s ‘Great Divide’: comparing early modern Jewish and Anabaptist histories,” in Radical Reformation Studies: Essays presented to James M. Stayer, edited by Werner O. Packull and Geoffrey L. Dipple (Brookfield: Ashgate, 1999), 157-174.

Mennonites and Empire

Every Mennonite in the small town of Goessel, Kansas knows the date 1874. It is emblazoned on the “Turkey Red Wheat Palace,” erected on the centennial of Mennonites’ migration to the Great Plains from Imperial Russia. Having spent the first years of my life in Goessel, I happen to take 1874 as a historical benchmark. When I recently was back in the area to give a talk on religion and race, I did some reading on the Kaw (or Kanza) people, for whom my home state is named. White settlement pushed the Kaws south into Oklahoma, where their Nation is located today. The story of the Kaws’ removal from Kansas seemed a bit darker for having occurred in 1873.1

Image 1

“Turkey Red Wheat Palace 1874-1974,” Goessel, Kansas.

There a common belief among the Mennonites with whom I grew up that our faith has a particular affinity with liberal democracy. This idea owes much to a still-influential 1942 essay, The Anabaptist Vision, by the churchman Harold Bender. “There can be no question,” Bender claimed, “but that the great principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion, so basic in American Protestantism and so essential to democracy, ultimately are derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period.”2

It would be hard to write a more misleading sentence about Mennonites. In the centuries prior to the Second World War, which was raging when The Anabaptist Vision appeared, the global Mennonite Church was by far a greater beneficiary and product of empire than of democracy. Bender wrote his landmark essay at a time when he and other peace church leaders were seeking to maintain alternative service options for conscientious objectors.3 Aligning Anabaptism with democracy made strategic sense at a time when the United States was at war with fascism.

But part of the context driving The Anabaptist Vision—Bender’s desire to ensure Mennonites’ exemption from military service—was itself a legacy of the Church’s long entanglement with imperial states. Beginning in the late sixteenth century, Mennonite communities found tolerance in European empires, often guaranteed in formal documents known as Privilegia. These enumerated special rights and duties available to Mennonites, including certain financial and judicial freedoms as well as non-participation in armed conflict.

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Mennonites immigrants from Imperial Russia in Goessel, Kansas, 1896. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.

In the 1870s, when 18,000 Mennonites emigrated from the Russian Empire to Canada and the United States, they were largely responding to the institution—contrary to their Privilegium—of universal military conscription. While this has been remembered in places like Kansas as the dictate of an autocratic regime, nineteenth-century drafts were often democratizing events, intended to remove social inequalities by consistently mandating national service. Many Mennonites grasped this dynamic. In Germany, some offered to renounce voting rights to keep the old system.

What drew Mennonite migrants from European empires to North America in the 1870s was not an affinity for democracy, but a desire to settle in new, expanding imperial states. Indeed, some settlers explicitly identified democracy as a draw-back of coming to the United States. What they sought was cheap land, relative freedom from legal strictures, and state protection from indigenous Americans. Records show that some migrants fleeing military conscription were willing to use weapons against natives.4 Today, narratives of dangerous Indians still suffuse white Mennonite memory.

Scholars have recently engaged in ambitious efforts to retell Anabaptist history from beyond single nations. These accounts have made impressive use of “global” and “transnational” analysis. Indicative of the former is the wonderful Global Mennonite History Series, which outlines the story of the Church in five volumes: Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. This series has shed key light on the world-wide reach of Anabaptism. But with the subject divided by continent, readers miss specificity regarding exactly how Mennonites globalized.5

The outstanding new history of Mennonites from a transnational perspective is Roy Loewen’s Village among Nations, about the hundreds of thousands of conservative Low German-speaking Mennonites scattered from Argentina to Canada. Loewen’s book stresses the separatism of these groups, explaining how they live in states “without pursuing either social or cultural citizenship in them.” For Loewen, “They were thus not Mexican Mennonites or Paraguayan Mennonites as much as Mexico Mennonites and Paraguay Mennonites, a subtle, but significant, difference.”6

But here, too, a transnational approach can elide exactly how these Mennonites have moved through the world—or what citizenship they did hold. The answer in many cases: British. This may seem surprising unless one considers Anabaptist history from an imperial standpoint. It was to the British Empire that most “Swiss” Mennonites moved when they came to colonial America. The founding of the United States led some to relocate to British Canada as “liberty’s exiles.”7 And across the twentieth century, British bureaucrats kept tabs on their Majesties’ Mennonite subjects.8

Image 3

Part of a letter to Australia from G.D. Klassen of Mexico, 1927. Source: National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

Why did migrants arrive at certain destinations? The archives of empire are revealing. In 1916, Mennonites in Imperial Russia, unhappy with restrictions imposed during the First World War, considered moving to the British dominion of South Africa. Holding affinity for the Afrikaans-speaking Boer settlers, some Mennonites described themselves as “Russian Boers.”9 Although South African officials ruled that “no obstacle will be placed in the way of these people,” war hindered migration.10 When it finally commenced in 1923, settlers went to the British dominion of Canada.

Australia, another dominion, was less accepting. Mennonites in North America approached Australia in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s, often responding to calls for white settlers. In 1927, G.D. Klassen of Mexico wrote to Australian officials after reading a propaganda pamphlet entitled “Australia: The Land of the Better Chance.” He inquired about the quality of available land, and whether Mennonites would be given military exemption and educational freedom. Klassen also wanted to know “if there are many niggers living in your Country.”11 Australian officials, however, consistently opposed group settlement.

Empire mattered. It seized land for settlement. It provided a global set of destinations. It enabled communication and transportation. It said yes, sometimes no. And it persisted. In the late 1950s, British Honduras (later renamed Belize) offered Mennonites a Privilegium and moved 1,700 individuals from Mexico.12 Empire also changed the ethnic and cultural composition of the Church. The first Mennonite mission fields were all located in colonies or territories opened by imperialism: the Dutch East Indies, Indian reservations in the American West, British India, China, and the Belgian Congo.13

Image-4-smaller

Mennonite missionaries—including my great-great-great uncle Peter Penner (center)—at a leper station in British India, ca. 1903. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.

From the Reformation to today, Anabaptist history is inconceivable without robust consideration of empires and imperialism. Even those of us, like Harold Bender, who prefer to think of the Church as a bastion of democratic principles must come to terms with the deep imbrication of Anabaptism and imperialism. You, too, are shaped by empire. This may take on innumerable different forms—whether as someone who inhabits stolen land, or as someone whose own land was taken, or perhaps both. Acknowledging and reckoning with these histories is a task for us all.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.


  1. On the history of the Kaw Nation until 1873, see William Unrau, The Kansa Indians: A History of the Wind People, 1673-1873 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971). A brief history of Mennonite-Indian relations is available here
  2. On Bender and the Anabaptist Vision, see Albert N. Keim, Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 306-331. 
  3. On Mennonites’ navigation of the tensions between Christian pacifism and US nationalism in the mid-twentieth century, see Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). 
  4. For example, John Gering, After Fifty Years: A Brief Discussion of the History and Activities of the Swiss-German Mennonites from Russia who Settled in South Dakota in 1874 (Freeman, SD: Pine Hill Printery), 1924, 42-43. 
  5. Consider the critique of “globalization” as a historical analytic in Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 91-112. For a full-length study of world history through an imperial lens, see Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). 
  6. Royden Loewen, Village among Nations: “Canadian” Mennonites in a Transnational World, 1916-2006 (Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 5. 
  7. This was part of a much larger exodus of British loyalists in the wake of the American Revolution. See Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Vintage Books, 2011). 
  8. For example, see correspondence regarding Mennonites of British citizenship in Mexico during the 1930s: FO 723/271, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom, hereafter TNA. 
  9. See James Urry, “Russian Mennonites and the Boers of South Africa: A Forgotten Connection,” Mennonite Historian 20, no. 3 (1994): 1-2, 9. 
  10. Acting Under Secretary for the Interior to Principle Immigration Officer, June 2, 1916, BNS 1/2/19 A629, National Archives and Records Service of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa. 
  11. G.D. Klassen to Development and Migration Commission, August 26, 1927, CP211/2 53/61, National Archives of Australia, Canberra, Australia. For an earlier discussion of possible Mennonite migration to Australia, see James Urry, “Bishop Bugnion, the Mennonites and Australia: The Immigration-That-Never-Was, 1873-1880,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 175-209. 
  12. “Note on Mennonite Communities in British Honduras,” July 30, 1959, CO 1031/2769, TNA. 
  13. Here, too, colonial-era archives provide insight into the mechanics of missionary expansion. For example: “Grant of land to Revd. J.A. Ressler of the American Mennonite Mission at Dhamtari in the Raipur District, Central Provinces,” 1902, Revenue & Agriculture, Land Revenue, 39-40, National Archives of India, New Delhi, India. 

An Anomalous Defense of Anabaptist Mobility

The Zurich government’s efforts to end the long-term presence of an Anabaptist minority in their territory in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries focused on the control of nonconformists’ physical mobility. The council’s anti-Anabaptist decrees, provoked in part by the movement of Hutterite missionaries in the city’s lands, obliged middling officials to collaborate in a project to segregate, enclose, or banish local dissidents from parishes across rural jurisdictions.1 Periodically, Anabaptist community members were barred from using the commons, incarcerated, or expelled. By imposing these sanctions, Swiss Reformed authorities joined governments across early modern Europe who saw in the restriction and control of movement a means to force members of religious minorities and other marginalized groups to conform.2 Their stated objective was the restoration of subjects’ obedience and communal wholeness. The violence inherent in this approach marked the everyday lives of Anabaptists living in the region over a period of decades. The more systematic implementation of this punitive regime in the 1630s and 1640s helped to permanently eliminate an Anabaptist religious culture from Zurich’s territory.

Plague Image

The burial of three victims of plague in the church yard of Zurich’s Grossmünster, 1582. From the chronicle of the Zurich canon Johann Jakob Wick, Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Handschriftenabteilung, Wickiana, Ms. F 30, Fol. 11r.

In this context, it is difficult to imagine that these same authorities would forward an argument in favor of the free movement of Anabaptists through imperial territory. Yet, in a November 1612 letter to Ernst Georg, the Duke of Hohenzollern residing in Krauchenweis, this is precisely what Zurich’s burgomasters and council did.3 This piece of incongruous reasoning stemmed from the arrest and incarceration of a group of five travelers traveling east between Mengen and Rüdlingen in the duke’s jurisdiction, among them one citizen and one subject of Zurich, one of them a barber surgeon, and three Anabaptist men from Moravia, who were journeying home.4 After being held for several days, the Swiss officials reported, the party’s members had been relieved of a significant sum of money, more than two hundred ducats, before being expelled from the German territory upon the swearing of an oath not to return. The travelers’ misfortune was regrettable, the Zurichers explained, because they had only had cause to traverse Ernst Georg’s lands after being summoned by the doctor Bastian Herber to aid in his efforts to treat victims of an outbreak of plague, which had devastated the city’s territory over the previous year.5 Herber—and, putatively, the assistants he had called for—had “behaved kindly towards us,” using his God-given medical arts and enduring great personal danger. His collaborators were now returning home along a familiar route connecting Zurich and Moravia, carrying with them significant monies bequeathed to them by grateful patients.

The letter’s authors expressed some understanding for the punitive instincts of the duke’s agents. The Swiss officials themselves had been dismayed when circumstances had forced them to welcome wrong-believing adherents of Anabaptism into their territory, where they were not usually tolerated. They also knew the content of the Constitutiones of the Holy Roman Empire, under whose stipulations they assumed that the travelers had been detained and relieved of their possessions. Nevertheless, under the same legal code, the officials contended, if an Anabaptist were to pass through a German territory without spreading error, without coercing those with whom he came into contact, without transporting his property, while remaining quiet (sich still haltend), there was no cause to judge him an evildoer. Under such conditions, even a Jew or Turk could not be treated as the travelers had been. Thus, the officials requested that the confiscated money be returned to the Anabaptists and sought assurances that citizens of Zurich would have no more reason to submit further grievances.

This curious episode warrants attention, first, because it provides yet more evidence of the deep integration of Anabaptists into professional networks of medical practitioners in Swiss territories.6 These networks included local nonconformists and those living well outside the region, whose reputation and ability warranted temporary toleration of their presence in Zurich during times of desperation. Long-distance connections within this network remained viable, it seems, because of the groundwork laid by Hutterite missionaries and Swiss migrants’ ongoing need to settle outstanding financial concerns.7

Second, this case shows that authorities had no obligation to restrict and control the mobility of nonconformists. A variety of options between hospitality and open hostility remained open to them. Under certain circumstances, officials drew on available legal resources to make countervailing arguments, even in an environment in which their coercive approach, and the justifications that buttressed it, appeared to have ossified. Repeated determinations to segregate, enclose, and expel were made deliberately, despite the variety of other paths open to the territory’s governors.


  1. See, for example, “Verbot des Täufertums (1585 [1612]),” in Zürcher Kirchenordnungen, 1520-1675, ed. Emidio Campi and Philip Wälchli (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2011), 429-35. Astrid von Schlachta has argued that concerns raised by the activities of Moravian missionaries shaped the 1585 mandate. Hutterische Konfession und Tradition (1578-1619): Etabliertes Leben zwischen Ordnung und Ambivalenz (Mainz: Von Zabern, 2003), 352-53. 
  2. For a broader study of this phenomenon, see Nicholas Terpstra, Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016). 
  3. The following account draws from this missive, found in Staatsarchiv Zurich, B IV 71, 519-22. 
  4. Leonhart Rützensdorffer was the citizen of Zurich and Conrad Bentz, from the Rumstal west of Winterthur, the city’s subject. The scribe did not record the names of the Anabaptist travelers. It is possible that the party included a man referred to as “one of our doctors” in the Hutterite Chronicle. The Chronicle reports that in 1612 an unnamed medical practitioner “had been in the city of Zurich and Swabia for over a year. God had blessed his work, and he had rendered good service to many prominent people with his medicines, especially during the epidemic in Zurich when eight thousand people died within a short time.” The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, Volume I, ed. and trans. Hutterian Brethren (Rifton, N.Y.: Plough Publishing House, 1987), 598. 
  5. Otto Sigg’s study of records from the rural parish of Ossigen in Zurich’s lowlands suggests that between 35-44% of the population perished in the twelve months preceding the authorities’ letter. “Die drei Pestzüge in Ossingen, 1611/12, 1629/30 und 1636,” Zürcher Taschenbuch 99 (1979): 107. 
  6. For more on this phenomenon, see Hanspeter Jecker, “Im Spannungsfeld von Separation, Partizipation und Kooperation: Wie täuferische Wundärtze, Hebammen und Arzneyer das ‘Wohl der Stadt’ suchten,” Mennonitica Helvetica 39 (2016): 21-33; Roland Senn, “Wer war (Hans) Jacob Boll? Die Geschichte Zweier Täufer aus Stein am Rhein,” Mennonitica Helvetica 37 (2015): 11-44. 
  7. Given the location of the travelers’ arrest, it is likely that they were following a path well-established by Hutterite missionaries and the hundreds of migrants they recruited in Zurich’s territory. Travelers left Zurich’s territory through the northern lowlands, skirted Schaffhausen to the east, walked overland to Ulm, and then contracted water transportation downriver on the Danube. For more on this route, see von Schlachta, Hutterische Konfession, 355-56. Long after they left for Moravia, Swiss migrants returned to Zurich to address outstanding debts and claim inheritance. The Chronicle’s account of Hutterite participation in the provision of medical care highlights the fact that, because of their doctors’ faithful service to the Swiss citizenry, “the lords at Zurich [allowed] more than usual of the money inherited [by the brothers from Switzerland] to go out of the country to the church [in Moravia].” Chronicle, 598. 

Re-Shaping the Chaco

In early 1930, 1500 Russian Mennonite refugees arrived in the Gran Chaco—a semi-arid, lowland region of dense bush on Paraguay’s western frontier.  While their new home may have seemed far-removed from the conflict that had characterized their lives in post-revolutionary Russia, only two years later these pacifist Anabaptists found themselves at the center of the largest inter-state conflict in twentieth century Latin American history. 

Anabaptist Historians readers are invited to read the complete article, “Reshaping the Chaco: Migrant Foodways, Placemaking and the Chaco War,” which explores the strategies that these Russian Mennonite settlers employed to solidify their tenuous claim to an unfamiliar and highly-contested landscape (Instructions for accessing the article are available at the bottom of this post).

Mennonite colonists engaged in a range of seemingly contradictory place-making practices—from the agro-environmental and the political, to the spiritual and the cultural.  Ideas of food security, seen in terms of both production and consumption, linked these diverse exercises. In the Paraguayan Chaco, these former Russian wheat farmers experimented with new crops and foodways. Although pacifists, they supplied the Paraguayan military efforts and provided food aid to wounded soldiers even as they also sent symbolic shipments of their new crops to Nazi Germany. Finally, as an ethnic group practicing endogamy and seeking isolation from their neighbors, they unexpectedly initiated a campaign to evangelize the Chaco’s indigenous population centered, in part, on reforming the latter’s ‘deficient’ diet.

These diverse practices are evident in the pages of Mennoblatt, the small German-language newspaper that colonist Nikolai Siemens published and distributed to his fellow settlers in Fernheim colony.  In Mennoblatt, colonists debated issues from the mundane to the dramatic.  An article advocating for bread produced from varying portions of sorghum or manioc flour would appear next to a reflection on Mennonite’s place in the global Volksgemeinschaft.  A discussion of the Chaco’s intense heat and the recent cotton or peanut harvest might follow an account of military troops passing through the colony or a report on the status of Mennonite’s new mission work among the Enlhet, a local indigenous group.

Published in the Journal of Latin American Studies, this article also seeks to bring the experience of Latin American Mennonites (a rapidly growing community of over a quarter of a million) into greater dialogue with Latin American history. Mennonites arrived in Latin America at times, and in places, that provide a compelling window on agro-environmental change, food security and state formation. Over the last century, they settled in frontier zones like the Gran Chaco on lands that governments considered of ‘marginal’ agricultural value. While the Russian Mennonites in question arrived in Paraguay immediately prior to the outbreak of the war, Canadian Mennonites settled the frontiers of Mexico and Bolivia in the wake of national revolutions and along Belize’s contested border with Guatemala as that small nation gained independence.

In those regions, Mennonites formed endogamous, isolated and ‘traditional’ colonies, but also became ‘model producers’ for domestic economies. In doing so, they consolidated and successfully leveraged a form of agricultural citizenship to sustain a conspicuous autonomy characterized by religious, educational and military exemptions. By turns considered ‘Russians’, ‘Canadians’, ‘Dutch’ or ‘ethnic Germans’, Mennonites benefitted from a racialized ideology of immigration as ‘whitening,’ even as their settlement was conditional upon a legally sanctioned refusal to assimilate into national society. They also maintained strong connections to their brethren throughout the Americas and Europe. This simultaneous engagement with a dispersed diaspora and distinct national identities might have represented an untenable paradox for earlier scholars of an assimilationist paradigm. Recently historians have adopted a more fluid approach to the complex, but often complementary, transnational–national negotiations among Latin American migrant communities. Finally, as one of the earliest Mennonite settlements in Latin America, the experience of Chaco colonists remains critical to understanding this evolving state–settler bargain as Mennonites—and their accompanying foodways—expanded across Latin America.

Instructions for Interested Readers:

Published by the Journal of Latin American Studies and currently available on Cambridge Core’s First View the article can be accessed for free at the link below.

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