"Molochna-2004: Mennonites and Their Neighbours (1804-2004)": An International Conference, Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, June 2-5, 2004

By Letkemann, Peter | Mennonite Quarterly Review, January 2005 | Go to article overview

"Molochna-2004: Mennonites and Their Neighbours (1804-2004)": An International Conference, Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, June 2-5, 2004


Letkemann, Peter, Mennonite Quarterly Review


The year 2004 marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Molochna Mennonite settlement in southern Russia (present-day Ukraine). To mark this historic anniversary, scholars from eight countries on four continents gathered in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, from June 2-5 for an academic conference entitled "Molochna--2004: Mennonites and Their Neighbours (1804-2004)."

The first nine villages of the Molochna settlement were founded in the spring of 1804; by 1809 there were already nineteen villages. From 1819 to 1848 (the year of Johann Cornies' death) another twenty-seven villages were founded; between 1851 and 1863 another eleven were added--making a total of fifty-seven villages. The settlement also included a number of large private estates, including Juschanlee (J. Cornies, 1830), Steinbach (Klaas Wiens, 1812) and Felsenthal (David Reimer, 1820). By 1914, the settlement was the largest Mennonite colony in Tsarist Russia with a population of 27,127 covering an area of over 306,000 acres.

The conference was originally scheduled to take place in the city of Melitopol (pop. 200,000), located some 150 kilometers south of Zaporizhzhia and only a few kilometers south of the original Molochna Settlement. However, just two weeks prior to the opening a serious fire, accompanied by large explosions, at a huge munitions dump just thirty kilometers northwest of Melitopol--and a few kilometers across the Molochnaia River from the former Mennonite village of Lichtenau (Svietlodolinsk)--led to the shift of location from Melitopol to Zaporizhzhia. Another complication was the sudden illness of the main conference organizer, Harvey Dyck from the University of Toronto, who had to be flown back to Toronto for treatment in mid-May. Other members of the organizing committee, including John Staples, New York State University at Fredonia; Nikolai Krylov, University of Melitopol; Svetlana Bobyleva, director of the Institute of Ukrainian-German Studies at the National University of Dnepropetrovsk; Walter and Marina Unger, the travel coordinators, Toronto; and members of the Zaporizhzhia Intourist staff, led by Larissa Goryacheva, stepped into the breach. All arrangements for the last minute transition were taken care of efficiently. The conference ran smoothly and associated events took place as scheduled.

Scholars came from Austria, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Paraguay, Russia, Ukraine and the United States to explore all aspects of the history of the Molochna Mennonites and their interactions with their non-German neighbours. Unfortunately, there were no representatives from Bethel College, Canadian Mennonite University or Conrad Grebel College--all former centers of Russian Mennonite studies in North America.

The conference began on June 2, with a dinner in the newly renovated banquet room of the Intourist Hotel in Zaporizhzhia. Special guests and dignitaries included Nikolai Novichenko, first deputy chair of the Ukrainian State Committee on Religion; Anatolii Striuk, deputy chair of the Zaporizhzhia Oblast Administration; and Natalia Derkach, chief administrator of Nationalities, Immigration and Religion, Zaporizhzhia Oblast Administration.

John Staples, acting chair of the conference, presented the keynote address: "Putting 'Russia' back into Russian Mennonite History: The Crimean War, Emancipation and the Molochna Mennonite Landlessness Crisis." He began: "Mennonite historians ... have told and retold this story countless times, but even the best of them have told it as an exclusively Mennonite story. The landlessness crisis might just as well have happened in Kansas, or Manitoba, or Paraguay, so little does the broader context of Tsarist Russia intrude." Staples emphasized that the crisis was not only a "Mennonite" event, brought on by internal religious, social and political struggles, but rather part of a much larger economic and social crisis in southern Ukraine as a whole--brought on by external factors such as the Crimean War and the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. …

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