Old Believers, meeting in secret during Tsar Peter’s reign, could not have foreseen through whom their first respite from persecution would come. It came through connections made by the “Antichrist,” Peter the Great, himself.
As a boy in Moscow, Peter had made friends with the Nemtsy (Germans) who lived outside the city. Years later, after he put away his first wife, he met an orphaned girl who had grown up in a German home. Her name was Marta.
A Lutheran pastor had found Marta when she was three years old. He and his wife had taken her into their home. They prayed much and read the Bible to her. Marta learned to talk German. But when she grew up, Peter saw her one evening and said: “I want that girl.”
At first Marta was terrified. She knew that Peter’s legitimate wife languished in the convent to which he had banished her. But Peter treated her well and the two became inseparable companions.
In 1703 Marta gave birth to her first child. Peter had her and the baby baptised into the Orthodox church and the priest renamed her “Catherine.”1 Nine years later Peter and Marta/Catherine got married, after which the Russians crowned her tsarina, Catherine I.
In spite of her position the new tsarina never forgot what her kind Protestant stepfather had taught her. When she traveled with Peter to Germany she slipped, disguised as a common woman, into the school of one of his friends, August Hermann Francke, at Halle.2 She told August Hermann about Russia, her secret longing to serve God, and he met Peter.
A most unlikely match, Peter the Great, the dreaded “Antichrist” of Russia, and August Hermann Francke, the pietist teacher, liked one another immediately. They respected one another and exchanged letters for as long as they lived.
August Hermann helped set up Russia’s first high school in St. Petersburg. On the tsar’s request he sent a director and teachers from Halle who translated for him Johann Arndt’s Wahres Christenthum (True Christianity). The Lord used its message to transform innumerable lives.3
While Catherine I ruled Russia (following her husband, Peter the Great), more and more nemtsy moved into St. Petersburg and Moscow. Then, thirty five years after she died, a young woman from Stettin4 in West Prussia—Catherine II—took her place on the throne.
Catherine II came to Russia a cheerful, round-faced, girl with blond hair. Only fourteen, the Russians brought her to marry their crown prince, also a Nemets (a German boy) named Peter. But the two decided at once they did not like each other.
Catherine made friends easily and liked Russia. She promptly learned the language. Peter hated everything about it. The match was impossible and they avoided one another’s company whenever they could.
Bored and embarrassed Catherine sat in the palace with nothing to do but read. There she got into trouble. She had a baby and named him Paul. Two more babies followed but none of them had Peter for their father. After he became tsar, Catherine plotted against him. With the help of another man whom she liked, she had him captured and shot. Then she took charge of Russia.
Catherine the Great
All Russia, all Europe—perhaps even Catherine herself—stepped back in surprise at what happened after her coronation festival in Moscow. With one of her lovers taking control of Poland she fought the Turks with another one, Grigory Potemkin, and won. Then she drove the Turks out of all of southern Russia.
In a few years, Catherine’s empire, from Kamchatka to the Polish border, from the Arctic Ocean to Turkey, Persia, and China, had grown yet much larger than that of Tsar Peter the Great. People, in fact, began calling her “Catherine the Great.”
Most Russians liked Catherine. Here and there she had to put down minor rebellions, but she made fair laws. She disapproved of serfdom (even though she could not stop it), torture, and persecution. “Everyone may do what the law does not forbid,” she said. “Officials must stop harassing the people. Only those laws made directly by the tsar (or tsarina) may be enforced, and the tsar cannot be under any law but God.”
Having grown up Lutheran, Catherine had nothing against the Old Believers and gave them freedom. Under her rule their communities along the Vyg river and throughout northern forests prospered undisturbed. The Spirit Christians prospered likewise, and within a year of coming to power, Catherine had made new laws permitting foreigners to settle in Russia with religious freedom.
Desperate to find people who would settle on the great open plains she won back from the Turks, Catherine and her supporters did what they could. In Estonia the wife of a Russian official began buying illegitimate babies and hiring wet nurses to raise them for colonists. In Italy a Russian ambassador tried to get the Mafia to come. In England law enforcers got a letter from Grigory Potemkin asking them to send criminals to Russia instead of to Australia. But in the end, nothing worked better than Catherine’s plan to attract more nemtsy. Among the first to come were five surveyors, twenty-five single brothers, seventeen single sisters, a widower and four married couples from the Moravian Brothers’ community at Herrnhut in upper Saxony.5
The Moravians settled just south of Tsaritsyn on the Volga, near the site of the old Tatar camp at Saray Berke. On river flats unsuitable for grain but excellent for raising vegetables they built a new community and named it Sarepta. From there they hoped to reach the wandering Kalmyk people—Buddhists—who roamed the plains.
In Sarepta the Moravians held their things in common and worked hard, raising mustard seed and cotton. They made candles, and ran a sawmill. Gaily coloured cotton cloth, woven and sold at low prices, became popular among peasant women and girls all over Russia.
The Moravian settlers prospered, and large numbers of immigrants (mostly Lutherans and Roman Catholics) from southern Germany, Switzerland, and Prussia followed them. These newer settlers built colonies along the lower Volga with names like Schaffhausen, Glarus, and Zürich. Then, from where no one expected, came another Christian community.
A Palace, a Count, and Three Plain Men
Catherine the Great cut no corners, decorating her winter palace in St. Petersburg. She called artists from Italy and France. From all over Europe she called architects, sculptors, designers and painters to build a yet more elaborate palace complex, Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar’s village) outside the city. “I have numberless rooms,” she wrote to a friend, “and all of them are full of luxuries!” But one thing Catherine could not change: St. Petersburg’s weather.
All winter terrible storms blew St. Petersburg full of snow. The Neva froze and its residents could do nothing but huddle around their fireplaces wishing to be warm. Then, all summer long great clouds of mosquitoes rose from surrounding swamps. Catherine got tired of it. She began to spend part of the year with one of her noblemen, Peter Aleksandrovich Rumyantsev, governor of Little Russia (Ukraine) in what she began to call her “summer palace” far to the south on the Desna River above Chernigov.
The Rumyantsev family owned much land. They called their estate Vyshenka. But the Count could not spend as much time on it as he would have liked. Large parts of the estate lay idle for, besides being governor, he was also a general in the army.
When a new war broke out with the Turks in 1770 Catherine sent Count Rumyantsev to command Russian troops in Turkish-held Walachia. There he met three nemtsy with beards and dressed in very simple home-made clothes. Their names were Hans Kleinsasser, Josef Müller, and Jörg Waldner.
The three men and the people with them, were part of a fuse that would ignite and explode in a great new light—another resurrection of the “underground church” in Russia.
The fuse went back to Tsar Peter the Great’s friend, August Hermann Francke, and his school at Halle.
Thanks to August Hermann and his promotion of Johann Arndt’s book about true Christianity, seekers for the truth throughout German and Austrian lands began to read their Bibles and pray. Everywhere men and women wept for their sins and turned to Christ. One group of seekers, Roman Catholics in the Austrian province of Kärnten, began to meet in their homes to seek the Lord together. They decided to become Protestants, since that was what August Hermann Francke and Johann Arndt had been.
This brought persecution.
Catholic Austrians, urged on by Jesuits, drove the little group (two hundred and seventy people) from Kärnten through Hungary into Transylvania.6 There the government tolerated Protestants. The Austrian empress, Maria Theresa, promised to give them land in Transylvania if they would swear allegiance to her. But the Kärnten seekers had problems. First, they did not believe they should swear. Second they did not like the Protestant (Lutheran) church they now became part of.
Protestants at close range did not seem at all like the books from Halle. For all their “piety” they looked to the Kärnten seekers like so many worldly people with religion in their mouths.
Was this the best one could expect? Was this living with Christ?
The more Matthias Hofer, Hans Kleinsasser, Jörg Waldner and the other new Christians from Kärnten became aware of Christ, the more they hoped not. Conscious of Christ, they could not live like the worldly Protestants nor remain in fellowship with them. “Come out from among them!” “Follow me!” The call of Christ struck them to the heart—then they met some strange people in a village called Alwinz (now Vintu de Jos, Romania).
Their contact began with the swearing problem. Since they would not swear the oath of allegiance they got no land in Transylvania. They had to work as day labourers and Jörg Waldner found employment in Alwinz. The people he met there were the last remnant of what had been the great Anabaptist movement of Austria, Moravia, and Hungary. They had dwindled from thousands on thousands in dozens of communities to nineteen people in one village. Even those, after centuries of persecution, had nearly lost what they believed.
At first the seekers from Kärnten merely found the Anabaptists, here called Huttrische Brüder (Hutterian Brothers) interesting. But the more they talked with them, and once the Alwinz brothers began to pull old books from their hiding places, their interest knew no bounds. Night after night the Kärnten people sat with the old men from Alwinz, asking questions, studying the Bible, reading by candle light from hand-written manuscripts, and learning songs they had never heard before.
It caught like fire. “This is it!” the Kärnten families agreed. “This is the way of Christ! Let us walk in it!”
Even though the people at Alwinz had lost many of their distinctive practices, the “new Anabaptists” turned at once to complete separation from warfare and materialism, the baptism of believers, life in community, and more.
This brought persecution in earnest. Now the Protestants joined the Catholics in hating them, threatening to take their children, and throwing them in jail. In 1767 all of the Kärnten believers fled across the Carpathian Mountains into Turkish-held Walachia.
At least they thought it was Turkish-held. In actual fact Walachia (a Greek Orthodox state, now southern Romania) was in a state of anarchy. The Turks still tried to keep order but uncontrollable bands of marauders rampaged the countryside. From the east it faced a Russian invasion.
The Kärnten believers settled first at Choregirle, near Bucharest, but disease and robberies drove them to Presetchain. From there repeated plunderings drove them into the hills and surrounding woods. In this condition Russian soldiers found them and their hearts were moved. The children were starving. A Russian commander gave them a yoke of oxen and a wagon and pointed them east. There, in the main camp near the Moldavian border, they sent their elder Hans Kleinsasser, their community steward, Josef Müller, and Jörg Waldner, their schoolteacher, to speak with the field marshal, Count Peter Aleksandrovich Rumyantsev.
East and West Meet
Count Rumyantsev, having spent much time with Catherine the Great and her friends, spoke German fairly well. That was good, for the three Anabaptist brothers from Kärnten had much to explain.
“Are you Catholic?”
“Are you Lutheran or Calvinist?”
“Well, what do you believe?”
While the three men explained their walk with Christ, Count Rumyantsev remembered his vast empty estate on the Desna and a plan took shape in his mind.
“Would you like to farm?” he asked them. The men’s eyes lit up. They talked and plans progressed speedily, until by August 1, 1770, four months and six hundred kilometres (under friendly military escort) later, a new community of believers stood at Vyshenka, near Chernigov.
The brothers and sisters at Vyshenka set to work at once. Other Anabaptists, fleeing Moravia through Herrnhut in Germany (with passports issued by a Moravian friend, Ludwig von Zinzendorf) joined them.7 They farmed and set up a mill. They began to make pottery, hats, shoes, and furniture. Some worked with metal and others tanned hides. But every evening work stopped when they met to pray, to sing, and to read from the treasure of Anabaptist writings they had smuggled out of Austria.
Not far from Vyshenka sat the Old Believer community of Slisnov, also tolerated by Count Rumyantsev. In it the Waldners, the Kleinsassers, and others from Kärnten first received the bread and salt of Russian Christian hospitality. Even though they could talk little and their cultures differed much, the Old Believers and the Kärnten Anabaptists found fellowship in their common poverty and hope in Christ. In them the “underground” church of the east met the “underground” church of the west—and this was only the beginning.
For both communities their time in fresh air and sunlight would be short.8
Count Rumyantsev’s happiness with his Anabaptist colony had direct and far-reaching consequences. By now a member of Catherine’s imperial council (her inner circle of advisors) he took her, Grigory Potemkin, and other officials to see the brothers at Vyshenka. All of them liked what they saw and began to discuss what it could mean for the vast, empty steppes south of Kiev.
“What we need is more settlers like this,” Count Rumyantsev declared. “And I know where to find them. In West Prussia!”9
Catherine remembered them. In marshy lowlands along the Baltic Sea, not far from where she had grown up, she remembered seeing their flat, well-drained fields of wheat and rye. “You are right,” she agreed. “And I know how to make them come. Because they will not fight they are always in trouble and pay heavy taxes to the Prussian government. Let us promise them freedom from military service and free land! They are good workers. They like to farm. You watch, I’ll make them an offer they can’t possibly refuse!”
True to her word, Catherine sent a message to Peter Epp, a Mennonite elder in Danzig. (People called the Anabaptists in the Netherlands and Prussia Mennonites, for Menno Simons.) She promised to give 65 dessyatins (182 acres) of land to every family that would move to Russia. She promised the Mennonites freedom from military service and permission to run their own churches and schools “forever.”
Her message had its desired effect. Within two months, Jakob Höppner and Johann Bartsch, two West Prussian brothers met Grigory Potemkin in Dubrovna on the Dnepr to see the land. The following spring they met Count Rumyantsev, Catherine the Great, and a group of tsarist dignitaries at the Kremenchug fortress near Poltava. They gave Catherine a letter signed by a long list of Mennonites ready to come. All they yet needed to know was when and where.
Catherine decided to look at “Taurida” (the territory between Kiev and the Black Sea just reconquered from the Turks) herself.
Like a queen out of the Arabian nights she set out with Grigory Potemkin in a fleet of flower-decked boats and barges. Musicians played. Everywhere she travelled down the Dnepr people celebrated with their best foods and wine. To impress her even further, Grigory (it is said) erected portable villages along the way and hired people to stand before false house and shop fronts to wave. But the flotilla of barges that followed less than two years later was not gaily decorated and no one waved from the shore.
Even the people were plain and poor.
Because of renewed fighting with the Turks and Tatars, the Mennonites who followed Catherine down the Dnepr could proceed no further than a squalid nomad camp at a place called Kichkas. They were very unhappy.
“What do you mean, great fertile plains?” they asked Jakob Höppner and Johann Bartsch. “All we can see is bare rocky land and hills. On top of that it is not empty. Who are these people here at Kichkas?”
Jakob and Johann tried to explain that the people who had swarmed around the Mennonite camp (taking what they could when no one looked) were not farmers but herdsmen who only appeared now and then. The Mennonites were not so sure. Some refused to build, but when fall came and no other options appeared they dug sod houses up from Kichkas (renamed Einlage) and at places they called Kronsweide, Neuenburg and Khortitsa-Rosenthal. This last and largest village became the centre of their colony.
Nothing went well. The Mennonites ran out of food and their clothes wore out. Their few animals began to die and to plough the unbroken grasslands was almost impossible. Grigory Potemkin’s men brought them old rye flour to bake and make soup with. But it tasted horrible.
Worst of all, many of the settlers had fallen a long way from the spiritual life of their Anabaptist ancestors. No church leader had come with them. The men complained and quarrelled. Some set up a drinking place on the colony and in a fight one Mennonite got killed. When Jakob Höppner and Johann Bartsch tried to keep order the colonists (by now with an elder ordained through a letter from Prussia) excommunicated them and had Jakob put in jail.
In spite of their spiritual poverty, the Mennonites’ crops eventually did better. More settlers came until six thousand lived in Khortitsa and along the Molochna (milk river) to the south. Every year the number of their farms and villages increased, yet material prosperity did nothing to satisfy the longings of those who saw their condition before God.
“We are lost!” Klaas Reimer, elder Peter Epp’s son-in-law, began to cry out. “Let us repent and find the way again!”
Throughout the Mennonite villages—particularly along the Molochna where Klaas Reimer lived—those who longed for peace read their Bibles and dug old Anabaptist books from their chests. For the first time in two hundred years men and women, even young people and children, read the Bible, the Martyrs Mirror, and Pieter Pietersz’ Weg na Vreden-stadt (Way to the City of Peace)10 as if their lives depended on it. Some saw visions and had remarkable dreams. Others spoke of the Antichrist. So desperately did many colonists seek deliverance that they wandered the streets crying out loud to God in the dead of winter.11 One boy prayed in the snow until he froze.
Repentance even though misguided or unbalanced brought with it a great fear of God, and to some people an awareness of Christ the King. Young people stopped drinking and playing cards. Foolish laughing and joking died away. Those who followed Klaas Reimer, Kornelius Janzen, Heinrich Wiebe and other awakened leaders12 returned to living with the barest necessities and dressing in the simplest clothes. They detached themselves from worldly things to walk with Christ—like their neighbours who worshipped around . . .
1 Russian Orthodox priests were legally responsible for the naming of everyone they baptised. In the case of converts they gave new names.
2 In this German town northwest of Leipzig, seat of the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in which he was a theology professor, August Hermann Francke began a school for poor young people, an orphanage, a clinic, and a publishing house in the late 1600s.
3 The book deeply moved Tikhon Zadonsky, quoted in chapter six.
4 now Szczecin in Poland
5 The Moravians were a pacifist Christian group with links in the early 1400s to the Waldenses and other nonconformed believers. They patterned their communities after the teachings of Christ. They loved and served Christ with unusual devotion and by the late 1700s they had carried the Gospel to nations around the world.
6 the northern part of modern Romania
7 A Czech-speaking brother from Herrnhut risked his life to visit the Anabaptists in Hungary and tell them of the new refuge on the Desna Rviver in Russia. Many escaped, trying to get there, but many also fell into the hands of the authorities who hauled them back.
8 When Count Rumyantsev died his sons threatened to take over the Hutterite community and make them serfs. They moved first to Radichev, nearby, then to the southern Ukraine. But as official harrassment increased both Hutterites and Old Believers had to leave Russia.
9 During the Seven Years’ War, beginning in 1756, Count Rumyantsev as commander in chief of Russia’s cavalry units had spent his winters in West Prussia.
10 Pieter Pietersz was the elder of Anabaptist congregations at De Rijp and Zaandam in the Netherlands where he wrote his book around 1625. He loved Christ and deplored disunity and worldliness in the church. His book is a description of life’s journey to the heavenly Jerusalem where “unity of Spirit is found under palms of peace.” It seems to have been known by and may have inspired John Bunyan who wrote a similar work, Pilrim’s Progress, fifty years later.
11 “So dasz einige im Winter im Graben und Schnee lagen und laute Bußgebete sprachen,” according to a contemporary report.
12 the fellowship that became known as the Kleingemeinde (little community)