History > Famine > "In the Land of Tolstoi: Experiences of Famine and Misrule in Russia"
"In the Land of Tolstoi: Experiences of Famine and Misrule in Russia"

by Jonas Jonsson Stadling, Will Reason
London: James Clarke & Co. 1897. (pgs. 151-158)


Skilful Boatmen—Adventures in a Row-boat—The German Colonies—Their Prospering—and Decay—Mennonite Colonies—Their Principles—A Visit—An Oasis in the Desert—Peace and Plenty—A Miracle of Co-operation—Land for All—Successful Prohibition—A Wonderful Record of "Crime" —" No Priests, Policemen, Publicans, or Paupers"—Co-operation and Competition.

To get to some of the so-called German Colonies, where my business led me, I took one of the great Volga steamers from Samara to Volsk, having to complete the journey, some twenty-four miles, in a row-boat. I first took note of the great relief-work organised by Countess Schouvaloff on her large estate close by, and then went to a " contractor " to order a boat and two oarsmen to take me to the village of Basel, in the German Colonies. I had often heard of the skill of these Volga boatmen, and was looking forward with considerable anticipation to seeing it for myself during a pleasant ride on the bosom of "Mother Volga." When I came to the river I was unpleasantly surprised by finding a wretched-looking, half-rotten, wooden box of a boat, manned by two rowers whose looks inspired me with anything but confidence. I returned to the "contractor" and remonstrated, but was met with the eternal, ambiguous Russian expression " Nitchevo"! I had no time to try elsewhere, so decided to run the risk and trust to my swimming abilities if any calamity should occur.

On leaving the shore one of the rowers at once gave evidence of his incapacity; probably he had never touched an oar before. At every stroke he plunged his oars perpendicularly into the deep, at the same time half rising from his seat. The other, who plainly considered himself the "captain," gave up rowing altogether, took his seat opposite his "crew," and issued orders in terms more forcible than polite, smoking the while one cigarette after another. I should have lost all patience, had not the unusually strong current carried us of itself out into the open river, where it became almost imperceptible. Here a small breeze sprang up, and the captain dived under a seat and produced a bundle of rags. I asked what he was going to do, and he replied "Sail!"

An old oar was put up as a mast, with the boathook as sprit-sail yard. Amid much fuss and shouting the sail was hoisted, and, with another old oar the " captain " sat down aft to steer his craft. It was the most picturesque sail I have ever seen. Part of it reminded me strongly of the maps sometimes exhibited at missionary meetings, with " Darkest Africa " and other heathen lauds coloured black in irregular patches; for the rest, it resembled the loud " checks " favoured by a certain class of tourists more than anything else.

But my observations and comparisons were suddenly cut short, as an infant cyclone swept sail, mast, and all into the water. The "captain" now took the oars, and we managed to get to the other side of the stream, where the strong current had eaten away the sand bank; the miserable rowers not being able to keep the boat from the shore, we had a narrow escape of being sent to "Davy Jones's locker" by a landslip. I took the oars myself and pulled to our destination. Here the rowers wanted an extra rouble for their "hard work." I discovered that the "contractor" had given these poor men only a few copecks apiece, keeping the larger part of what I had paid him for his own share.

I visited almost every village in the German Colonies on the Volga. These have had a very interesting history. They date from the time of the Empress Catherine II., who invited German immigrants to make settlements, and endowed them with considerable privileges, her object being to erect a strong barrier of defence against the half-savage hordes then roaming over the steppes beyond the Volga. The colonists built their villages near one another on the fertile shores of the river, and soon entered upon a period of prosperity. Before the great famine they numbered about 350,000. Their large schoolhouses and churches, their well-built dwelling-houses, surrounded by trim gardens, all spoke of a considerable degree of thriving civilisation.

Unhappily, however, this prosperity must already be spoken of in the past tense. For one thing, their well-being had, as usual, attracted the hostile attention of a suspicious Government, and of late years every expedient has been employed to hamper their development. At one time tobacco-growing was a flourishing industry in these colonies; the authorities made the sale of this commodity a monopoly, with the result that their market was practically destroyed, and the industry killed. Nor have they been proof against the wiles of capitalism, both from without and within.

The consequence of this was that they were unable to stand against a succession of bad years, and famine broke out in their midst. I found, during my investigations, that these colonists of German extraction, being accustomed to a higher-standard of living than the mushik, fell much easier victims to starvation than the latter. Typhus, also, had made terrible havoc among them; the death-rate had in some villages gone up as high as 180-200 per 1,000. From these causes, and especially on account of the hostile attitude of the Government, emigration to America has set in on a large scale.

The Mennonite Colonies, usually included by name among the "German" colonies, but really of Dutch origin, form a very pleasing and instructive exception to the general misery and starvation. During the famine, not only have they not suffered themselves, but they have been both able and willing to give much aid to the needy round about their borders. The ancestors of the present colonists shared in the invitation of the Empress Catherine II. mentioned above, and received from her the privilege of maintaining both their religious faith and practice, and their communal ownership of land. They were also exempted from military service, as contrary to their religious belief, and received instead the obligation to plant trees; a most excellent substitution. After overcoming the natural difficulties, which occupied them some years, they flourished greatly, and have continued to do so ever since. At one time the sapient authorities attempted to curtail their privileges, and large numbers emigrated to America, both to the United States and the Southern Continent, but of late they have been comparatively free from molestation.

The cause of the wonderful success of these colonists in the face of considerable disadvantages is undoubtedly their practical Christianity, i.e., the steadily applied principles of brotherly love in their communal life.

To give the reader a clear idea of these colonies we invite him to share our visit to one of them.

It is a very hot summer day, and we have a covered carriage to protect us against the scorching rays of the sun. A few hours' ride over the treeless, waterless steppe brings us within view of an oasis in the desert, conspicuously green. It is the Mennonite Colony of Halfstaal, in Southern Russia, which we are about to visit. The nearer we approach the more vivid is the contrast between it and the surrounding country. All round is the dreary, flat, and sun-scorched steppe, unrelieved by a single tree. Here, in the midst, is a tract of charming verdure, grassy meadows, and luxuriant foliage. At one of the outskirts rises a three-storied building of handsome dimensions; it is the school for deaf and dumb, supported by all the Mennonite Colonies in common, and used for the instruction of their deaf-mutes of both sexes. The methods of teaching and all the arrangements are in accordance with the latest improvements in Europe. There is perfect order in the school, as in the colony generally, testifying to the high moral and intellectual development of the inhabitants. Snug and roomy houses on both sides the broad street peep cosily out from the green gardens, which always form an essential part of a Mennonite home. Here are no abominations of terraced houses, in which, as Maarten Maartens somewhere observes, the central inhabitant has only to read the newspaper aloud, and all the others in the street may save their pennies; each home is surrounded by a spacious plot of land of its own, with separate well for both drinking and irrigating purposes. Behind the house is always a kitchen-garden, beyond a well-built cowshed and storehouse. Scrupulous cleanliness and order is a conspicuous feature of all within the borders of these demesnes. The large common well is in an open spot on one of the outskirts of the village, supplied with a spacious cattle-trough.

The Mennonite colonies are, as a rule, of moderate size only, mostly consisting of from fifteen to fifty farms. The land is owned by the community, and each member has a right to cultivate 65 hectares (about 160 acres) of this communal land. He may, of course, if he please, purchase more land outside the bounds, but this happens very seldom. On marriage, a young couple is provided, if they desire, with these sixty-five hectares, a house, implements, and stock from the communal fund; in return, they must cultivate the land properly, keep it in good condition, and pay their yearly quota to the communal fund. Every farm is a small agricultural centre, perfectly independent as regards the use made of it, just as an owner of the soil would be, except that, it is not permissible to let it run to waste or in other ways become impoverished.

The Mennonite Colonies of Russia are standing miracles of the triumph of human co-operation. Out of the dry, treeless steppes there have arisen, as if by occult forces, flourishing groups of homesteads, with fresh spring water in abundance; large plantations of fruit and the common forest trees; fields made fruitful by laborious culture ; numerous herds of splendid cattle and horses. In this village district alone the number of trees amounts to about twelve millions. Each colony has its own school and a large storehouse for cereals, kept filled in case of failure of crops. Besides these, the Mennonite denomination as a whole has several high-schools. Out of the common fund they also support physicians, midwives, and hospitals. They also form their own fire insurance company, independent of all Government control. No premium besides the ordinary contribution is paid, but in each case the loss is borne by the entire community, and payment made from the common fund without delay.

The quota paid by each colonist to this communal exchequer is proportional to his income, and the burdens of taxation (to the Government) are divided among all able-bodied persons of both sexes between the ages of fourteen and sixty. Their own common fund is administered by responsible trustees, who receive no pay for their services, but regard it as a position of honour and trust. No defalcations have been known among them.

It very rarely happens that anyone neglects his duty of contributing his annual share to the common fund, or of cultivating the land he occupies. If such a case should occur, the delinquent is put under discipline, mostly of a moral kind; they have the power of expulsion, in the worst cases.

Each colonist has his hind adjoining his house, and not in different parts of the settlement, as frequently happens under the bad system of the Russian Government. It is not compulsory to take up this portion of land. Some prefer to work for others, or engage in some industrial occupation. They have a few manufactures, but obtain most articles of this description in exchange for their farm produce. They practise co-operation very largely in the disposition of such goods as are destined for the market, and not for home consumption. It is obvious that the right to become farm-holders on their own account entirely prevents that mischievous, unequal pressure, resulting in the forced sale of one's labour for a miserably inadequate return, that is lauded among Western nations as a " beneficent freedom of competition." The members of the community who live outside the colonies, e.g., teachers, many of whom find positions in large cities, retain their rights of membership by the annual payment of their due quota, reckoned on their income. These duly qualified persons can always take refuge from the competitive storm of the capitalistic world, should they find its buffetings too severe, in these havens of co-operative helpfulness, and either take up their portion of land or fill any other position for which they are qualified, at their option.

When the Government grants of land were found insufficient, the community bought other tracts, so as to provide the minimum holdings guaranteed to each member.

The Mennonites are not communists in the complete sense of the word, but recognise private property in all but the land, and even there only that is communal that belongs to the community and is used for the guarantee described above.

All buildings, trees planted, and improvements generally made on a farm by the occupier rank as private property, which is inherited by his heirs, who must be paid a just value by the new occupant of the farm. In this inheritance women share equally with men, as they have an equal responsibility for the Government taxes.

It was one of the privileges granted to the Mennonites, when they first arrived in 1789, that no one should be allowed to open liquor shops within their borders. This practice is maintained, and here at least the advocates of Prohibition may find an instance of its success. The police authorities have light work so far as the Mennonites are concerned, even with the manufactured crimes so dear to the hearts of Russian officials. Here are some figures giving the complete list of misdemeanours and crimes as recorded in police archives, in one case for a population of 12,121 during thirty-seven years, in the other in a population of 6,000 during ten years :—

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It will be seen that many of these would disappear altogether from English police-lists, and others would be transferred to the civil branch of the law. But did all these figures represent real crimes it would be a wonderful record, considering the number of years and the population. It is a testimony as to the efficacy of good economic conditions in the reduction of crime that cannot be gainsaid, for other communities have had as much religious faith as the Mennonites, but cannot show so clear a record from roguery and theft. Moreover the children born to religious parents are not necessarily religious; at least, it is not generally found so in other lands. But all born into these communities are allowed to remain, if they think fit, with privileges independent of religious confession. It is surely because the religion of these people is logically applied to their economic and social arrangements that we find this most extraordinary freedom from crime.

We therefore sum up this brief sketch of the Mennonite Colonies by repeating that, on the testimony of every impartial observer, they practise the gospel of brotherly love in truth and reality, not simply in word and doctrine. They do not seek to eat up, but to help each other and the neighbouring people. Usury is unknown. Their religious concerns are under the care of unpaid elders ; the only clergy they support being of the missionary order. In a word, co-operation is the keynote of their life, not competition, and it is allowed to govern their economic and social as well as their religious relations. As a result they have no need of priests, prisons, policemen, publicans, or paupers.

The contrast between these communities and the Orthodox Russian villages in their neighbourhood, on the steppes, is the sharpest imaginable. In the latter are no trees—("they don't grow," say the mushhiks. "Because you do not plant them," I used to add)—no schoolhouses, no hospitals, no decent dwellings, but plenty of ignorance, drunkenness;, dirt, poverty, disease, and misery of every kind. The fundamental cause is the absence of true, practical Christianity in the relations between man and man."

The same contrast is also to be found, although not so glaring, between the Mennonite Colonies of other lands and their neighbours, e.g., in the United States and South America. In the last-named, for instance, the Mennonites are on one side of the River La Plata, and the Swiss, with a large sprinkling of Italian, on the other. Prosperity and happiness are to be found among the former; with the latter, who practise competition and its resulting forms of cheating and jugglery, there is poverty and misery.