Ukraine, pt. 2: The Steppe

Note: The following piece was written in 2013 while I was researching the history and geography of the land north of the Black Sea where my Mennonite ancestors sojourned before migrating to North America. This is the land Russia is trying to take back from Ukraine.

Photo from the Mennonite Library and Archives collection with handwritten note on the back in German: “2 Tatars in Ekaterinoslav Gouvernement.”

The Steppe

It would have been a natural development for the Slavs to occupy the steppe and cultivate it—as indeed they repeatedly attempted to do-but the steppe was a place of terror as well as beauty.  Its flatness and the luxuriance of its grass made it a highroad of invasion by fierce, nomadic tribes from central and eastern Asia, who had been pouring into it since the dawn of history.

                                                                   Robert Wallace, Rise of Russia[i] 

In 1237 a vast army of Mongol horsemen left their grassland bases on the Qipchaq steppe to the north of the Black Sea and raided the principalities of Kievan Rus’.  The Russians were too weak and internally divided to resist, and in the course of the following three years every major Russian town, with the exception of Novgorod, had fallen to the Mongol hordes.  For the next 250 years Russia was ruled, albeit indirectly, by the Mongol  khans.  The Mongols did not occupy the central Russian lands.  They settled with their horses on the fertile steppelands of the south and collected taxes from the Russian towns, over which they exerted their domination through periodic raids of ferocious violence.

                                                                               Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance[ii]

The steppeland north of the Black Sea seems such an exotic, unlikely place for a practical, prosaic people like the Mennonites to choose to settle.  This was a land long ruled by people from Central Asia, horse culture people, nomadic warrior societies shaped by the vast open grassland that stretched thousands of miles across the Eurasian continent, a grassland they used as a highway on which to move their huge herds of sheep and horses, a terrain that allowed them to regularly raid the villages, towns and cities of the Middle East and Central Europe, raids in which capturing the human inhabitants to sell to the Ottoman Turks as slaves was a prime objective.    Historian Charles King states that “as many as 200,000 Slavic Christians were captured in the first half of the seventeenth century alone.”  He adds that it is “no exaggeration to say that, until the eighteenth century, the entire economy of Crimea … rested on the commerce in people.” 

This “slave harvesting “ was carried on by the Crimean Khanate well into the eighteenth century, and it effected a huge drain on the Russian economy.  It has been estimated that as much as six million rubles in ransom and taxes were paid to the Crimean Khanate from Muscovy state coffers in the first half of the seventeenth century alone, “the equivalent of the funds necessary to build some 1,200 small towns.”  King goes on to say that “Russia’s retarded urbanization and economic backwardness in the early modern period was in no small measure a result of the depredations of the Horde’s successors in Crimea and on the steppe.”[iii]

The Mennonite people came into the steppe as part of Russia’s massive effort to incorporate this land into her domain, make it part of Russia.  She not only wanted to end the raiding and slave-taking, she desperately wanted to reach the Black Sea, to finally have an ice free port near the mouth of the Dnieper River that allowed her year-round access to the world’s maritime trade.  She also wanted the steppeland, a land she saw as potential farmland.  Russia needed the food that land could provide, but she also needed that land occupied by people loyal to the Czar and the Empire.  Until that happened she did not really own the land, she remained vulnerable to incursion by land-hungry neighbors.

The Mennonites were part of Russia’s strategy for occupation of the Black Sea steppe.  They would not have seen that large scale plan.  What they saw was land and opportunity to both provide for their families as well as preserve their faith culture, preserve themselves as a distinct people.  They probably had no idea that they were part of an incursion of European people into land that had for centuries been part of the Muslim Middle East.  When they arrived in the land allotted to them, though, they would quickly have found that they had neighbors who wore turbans and lived in yurts, Nogai, a Turkic people with brown, weathered faces and dark brown hair, people who looked very different from the people of the Baltic coast from where they came—people who were neither Catholic nor Orthodox nor Protestant, people who made no claim at all to Christian identity.  Muslims, the ancient feared enemy of Christendom.

It isn’t just the history of wave after wave of invasion by people from Central Asia or having turban wearing Muslim Nogai as their neighbors that made the steppeland foreign, alien to the Mennonites.  It was the land itself, a land utterly different from their previous home in the wet delta where the Vistula River meets the cold Baltic Sea.  Anthropologist James Urry, in his book, None but Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia 1789-1889, has a beautiful description of the land the Mennonites found at the end of the long trek from the North Sea to the Black Sea steppeland:

New Russia was a very different environment from the Mennonites’ Prussian homeland.  The first settlers were confronted with what at first sight appeared to be a desolate wilderness.  To the traveler, the open steppe beyond the wooded regions of central Russia had few natural features to distinguish land from sky …. In spring, wild scented flowers covered the ground and by summer the flat plains were covered in luxuriant vegetation.  Wild grasses, taller than a person, resembled a vast, rippling ocean when the winds blew.  But on closer examination the colonists soon discerned subtle variations of topography and vegetation—small areas of scrub sheltered in hollows and here and there indications of the earlier inhabitants of the region.[iv]         

It would have taken a long time, though, for the Mennonites arriving on the steppe to see any beauty in it.  What they saw when they arrived was barren land “ … no tree, no bush, only tall, dry, bitter grass and prickly camel fodder” growing on “dry, cracked ground.”[v]  The land that was to be the settlers’ new home was definitely not a land flowing with milk and honey. It was not an Eden.  They had come from a landscape in which water was over-abundant to one in which water was scarce, a precious commodity.  And it wasn’t just meager rainfall, (400 millimeters a year/ 15.748 inches), it was heat and hot winds that dried the land and desiccated vegetation.  Summer windstorms could last weeks, stir huge dust storms the settlers called “black blizzards” that destroyed crops and sucked the nutritive value from fodder grass (9)[vi].    Vast open grasslands are harsh climates, land where wind meets no barriers, neither the hot winds of summer nor the winter blizzards bringing killing cold that could decimate the settlers’ livestock.

The Mennonites did learn how to work with the steppeland. They eventually built prosperous farms and tidy villages filled with fruit trees and flowers, and they helped make the Ukraine “the bread basket of Europe.”[vii] They learned to love the land and see its beauty. When they left, it was with regret. When my aunts asked my Grandmother Willems what her village on the Dnieper looked like, she simply said, It was beautiful. Her family didn’t want to leave, but they smelt trouble, serious trouble, and they were right. They left Ukraine in 1903. World War I started in 1914. The land became a battlefield followed by famine and disease and massive deaths. What the Mennonites had built on the steppe would be destroyed. They would become simply p[art of the history of the land north of the Black Sea, a people and culture to be studied like the Sythians and other people and cultures who had ieft traces of their presence on the land.

~ ~ ~

© Loretta Willems, September 2013

[i] Robert Wallace, Rise of Russia, (NY: Time-Life Books, 1967), p. 16..

[ii] Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, (NY: Henry Holt & Co., 2002), p. 366.

[iii] Charles King, The Black Sea: A History (Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 11, 142, 223.

[iv] James Urry, None but Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia 1789-1889 (Canada: Hyperion Press, Ltd., 1989), p. 83.

[v] Heinrich Goerz, The Molostschna Settlement, trans. Al Reimer and John B. Toews (Winnipeg: CMBC/Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1993), 28.  Quoted in Staples, p.3.                        

[vi] John R. Staples, Cross-Cultural Encounters on the Ukrainian Steppe: Settling the Molochna Basin, 1783-1861, (University of Toronto Press, 2003),  pp., 8-9.

[vii] Cornelius J. Dyck. A Popular History of the Anabaptists and the Mennonites, 3rd ed. (Herald Press,  1993), p. 174.