Searching for Common Ground: Muslim-Mennonite Encounters

Image

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. 

Mennonite Agriculture in Siberia: Past and Present

In the summer of 2015, I travelled to Siberia as a part of Royden Loewen’s Seven Points on Earth project. My task was to explore how Mennonites in Russia related to the land through interviews and archival research into the history of the village of Apollonovka (formerly Waldheim), located over 100 kilometres from the regional centre of Omsk and 35 kilometres from the nearest railway station. The village was established by Mennonite settlers to the region in 1911, after the tsarist state opened Siberia to agricultural settlement. The search for land propelled hundreds of Mennonite families to undertake the long trek from various parts of the empire to this new frontier.

planting-2

Late seeding after a wet spring

In the Russian empire, Mennonites showed a strong inclination to adapting their agricultural methods to address the challenges of the local environment. As David Moon has demonstrated, Mennonites performed an important role in the development of agriculture on the steppe, as they successfully planted trees to create shelter for their crops and protect the soil1 along with establishing irrigation methods to address the region’s semi-arid climate.2 In Siberia, Mennonites faced new challenges to adapt to local conditions, especially the shorter growing season. Initially, only some Mennonite farmers employed the four crop rotation method used in southern Russia; eventually most adopted this technique.3

It would be difficult to argue that Mennonites demonstrated adaptability in their agricultural practices out of a concern for the environment born out of their religious conviction. Instead of exemplifying a dedication to sustainable practices, this adaptability arguably reflected a strong commitment to efficient use of the land, rigorous hard work, and a quiet compulsion for wealth without excess materialism.

cows.JPG

Cows returning home from for evening milking

Over a hundred years later, the Low German-speaking population of Apollonovka continues to live by the tenets of faith, family, and farming and shows many of the same characteristics despite the intervening years under the communist regime. In spite of current economic difficulties in Russia, locals expressed a strong belief in the future of their children and faith community. In addition to working for one of the three agricultural firms in the village, many have build small barns where they raise pigs for market. Like their ancestors, the inhabitants of Apollonovka have shown resilience and innovation, building local businesses that support the continuation of community life.


  1. David Moon, The Plough That Broke the Steppes: Agriculture and Environment on Russia’s Grasslands, 1700-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 176. 
  2. Ibid., 210. 
  3. Petr Epp, Ne ischezli po milosti Gospoda: Waldheim-Apollonovka, 1911-2011 (Steinhagen: Samenkorn, 2011), 83.