Articles on Central Asia: The history of Mennonites
Short historical overview. In 1763 Czarina Catherina II issued a manifest which invited foreigners to settle in Russia. They obtained a citizenship, range of privileges and rights (freedom of religion, immunity from compulsory military service, permissions to own lands etc.). That was a beginning of massive migration of Germans to Volga River and Black Sea regions. In 1874 Czar Alexander II issued a law in which several privileges of Mennonites, as immunity from compulsory military service, were abolished. Thousands of German Mennonites migrated to Canada and USA. Several groups of Mennonites wanted to escape from increasing influence of the government on its communities and were looking for new safe destinations. The decision was found. One community’s leader had a meeting with the governor of Turkestan who promised to provide tax and military service immunity to Mennonites for 25 years if they settle in virgin lands of Turkestan.
Mennonites got a permission to move to Turkestan and first groups moved to Central Asia to Syr-Daria region. Many of them died during the trip, a small group couldn’t attain the aim and found another place of living. In autumn of 1880 families of Mennonites in Sary-Agach were living in 20 kilometers north from Tashkent and temporarily occupied empty shops at the market’s square. Unhygienic conditions and cold led to mass diseases. Administration of Turkestan had to force an accommodation of Mennonites in suitable regions. In March of 1881 families of Mennonites received almost 3000 acres of lands in Talas valley. But not all Mennonites agreed to move. 73 families under the leadership of Abram Peter established several settlements here: Nikolaipol, Gnadental, Koeppenfeld and Gnadenfeld. Within next 10 years many families from Volga regions moved here. Settlers built houses, churches, schools, workshops, mills and were involved in agriculture and cattle breeding. Their villages had paved streets full of trees and soon became a blooming oasis in the desert.
Nevertheless an amount of landless Mennonites was increasing in Talas and in 1925 several families were given land in 60 kilometers from modern Bishkek where they set a village of Gruenfeld. In 1927-1928 migrants got more lands by Gruenfeld and named it as Bergtal. As well as in Talas Mennonites constructed here houses, mills, school etc. In summer of 1881 31 families moved from Tashkent to Samarkand with further destination to Bukhara and further to avoid problems with lands. Bukharian government refused to provide land justifying that the Emirate has not enough lands and water. However in 1884 khan of Khiva allowed Mennonites to occupy lands of Ak-Mechet region and secured their tax immunity. They started vegetables planting, weaving and agricultural machinery manufacturing. Besides this they started to build wind mills and houses which preserved up to this date. Community of Ak-Mechet was relatively small. In February of 1899 it counted 140 people (36 families), in December of 1906 155 people, in 1929 – 280 people (62 families).
Several members of the community participated in designing of Nurulla bay in Khiva and summer residence of Tosa-Bog Khan. Gala halls of both castles were made in modern European style. Professional German masters made a parquet floor, windows’ framings and ceiling. Many fragments preserved in the original condition. And after the establishment of Soviet Union they became Soviet citizens. Some families of Mennonites couldn’t stand life difficulties and migrated to USA and Canada. Turkestan’s community had schools for its children. School played a role of pray houses on Sundays. Children had been raised in accordance with German traditions. Mennonites were not ready to use Soviet school-books and tried to avoid a Soviet intervention in their education system. Religion lessons had been held 6 times a week. Teachers could punish pupils (hand shock by ruler). Parents were tolerant with this.
Mennonites had good relations with locals. They were familiar with local language, culture, traditions and almost didn’t use Russian language. In Soviet period Mennonites were persecuted by religious and national reasons. Massive repressions were held during the Second World War as local state executives were recognizing them as Germans. Mennonites were registered as special migrants and their civil rights were restored only in 1950s.
Emigration of Mennonites from Central Asian states had a negative influence on economy of these countries.
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