MCC in Russia: the first two months

[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The decision by Mennonite relief organizations representing diverse Mennonite churches to form a central committee in 1920 created a new approach to relief work among Mennonites. The material and physical devastation suffered by Mennonites during the Russian Civil War convinced existing relief organizations in the United States to pool their resources to help their co-religionists in Russia. The tragic situation of Mennonites in Russia dovetailed with a post-war commitment to relief aid within Mennonite communities. During the First World War, many young Mennonite men worked under the umbrella of the Red Cross and the Society of Friends to uphold the principle of nonresistance and to offer a proactive witness to peace during a time of suffering. After the war, a strong desire to establish a Mennonite-led international relief organization grew. The circumstances in Russia offered the opportunity for Mennonites to organize an independent relief effort on the international stage.

As many retellings of MCC’s origin story emphasize the famine relief of 1921-1922, after the Bolsheviks had established power, one can easily overlook that MCC started its work before the onset of famine conditions. The first two months of relief work in Russia demonstrate the challenges of MCC’s exploratory activities in a rapidly changing environment of civil war. When Orie O. Miller, Arthur Slagel and Clayton Kratz, the first group of MCC relief workers, arrived in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), chosen as the most accessible point from which to coordinate relief measures into Russia, they represented a very small organization seeking to access a territory with a complex political landscape.

During the First World War, many young Mennonite men worked under the umbrella of the Red Cross and the Society of Friends to uphold the principle of nonresistance and to offer a proactive witness to peace during a time of suffering. After the war, a strong desire to establish a Mennonite-led international relief organization grew.

Miller astutely navigated the political and bureaucratic conditions by connecting with American officials and relief organizations on the ground. Even though the group only arrived in Constantinople at the end of September 1920, by the beginning of October, Miller and Kratz were on their way into the Crimean Peninsula with four thousand dollars in their luggage on an American destroyer. As soon as they arrived, Miller reached out to Admiral Newton McCully, who was stationed in Sevastopol to gather intelligence for the United States. Using a letter of introduction procured during their short-stay in Constantinople, Miller received a warm welcome from the admiral, who promised help and support from American state officials, including an offer of moving small amounts of goods on American ships and the use of their radio system for sending messages. Most importantly, Miller obtained another letter of introduction, which helped him to connect with representatives of General Piotr Wrangel’s government. These contacts agreed to provide Miller and Kratz with free rail passes in territory controlled by Wrangel’s forces for themselves and their goods. They were also given a translator and letters of introduction for their journey. Travelling by train allowed them to arrive the next day in Melitopol, where they were greeted by local Mennonites and attended a service in the local Mennonite church. From there they would continue their journey, spending several days in Halbstadt before arriving in Aleksandrovsk (present-day Zaporizhzhia).

As Miller and Kratz surveyed the needs of the local population, they found that Mennonites still had access to food, at least for one more winter, but they had little of anything else. Miller reported to MCC officials in the United States that “the country is literally stripped of all that civilized people usually consider the necessities of life outside of food. There is no soap, no thread, no needles, no buttons, no shoes, no farming implements, no horses, etc.” Access to clothing constituted one of the direst needs. Most of their clothing had been stolen during the civil war and many people simply had the clothes on their backs. “Just think of wearing all your clothes all the time, probably washing them in the evening in cold water without soap, letting them dry during the night and then put[ting] them on again,” Miller wrote. To address these conditions, Miller and Slagel purchased 4,000 yards of flannelette, six Singer sewing machines, 50 cases of milk, 100 bars of soap and 1,000 yards of bed ticking. For their next trip into the region, Miller also proposed helping the local Mennonite hospitals and establishing an orphanage to help Mennonite children whose parents had died as a result of the civil war.

October 1922. American tractors arrived in Khortitsa, southern Russia, in October 1922. Photo shows the official opening of reconstruction work with government officials on the ground. MCC sent two shipments of 25 tractors to Mennonite settlements in southern Russia in 1922. As part of MCC’s rehabilitation work, Mennonites in southern Russia cultivated a considerable amount of rye and barley. (MCC photo)

These initial relief workers struggled to accurately assess the military situation. Before his first trip into Russia, Miller felt confident that General Wrangel, who commanded White Army forces against the Bolshevik Red Army, would maintain control of much of southern Russia (in present-day Ukraine). As Miller wrote to MCC’s executive secretary-treasurer, Levi Mumaw: “The Bolshevists probably have passed the high-water mark in their career and will never be able again to drive [General Wrangel] back, in which case lines to Halbstadt can be opened rather quickly with a little diplomacy.” This interpretation of the situation would prove to be wrong. Soon after Miller and Kratz arrived in Aleksandrovsk, the Bolsheviks pushed through the line, causing a harrowing evacuation from the city. In his diary, Miller described mortar shells exploding two hundred yards from their train car: “I still feel tingling nerves from the experience, not so much from fear for myself and my own body, as from what might have resulted to [my family] so far away, if bursting shrapnel would have severely wounded or killed me or should we have fallen into the hands of the Reds.” Miller managed to escape from Aleksandrovsk and return to Sevastopol, where he rented office space for their forthcoming relief work and left US$1,200 with the American Foreign Trade for Kratz, who had decided to remain behind and travel back to Halbstadt.

During Miller’s second trip to Crimea in mid-November, the entire operation quite suddenly became completely unfeasible. Although Wrangel’s troops had suffered defeats near the Mennonite colonies, no one had expected that the entire territory of the Crimea would fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks. As he arrived on the shores of Sevastopol, the evacuation of the city was fully underway. Miller had a mere five hours in the city to complete his tasks. Despite such setbacks, Miller showed a talent in reacting on the ground to rapidly changing circumstances. Instead of accepting the cessation of MCC’s work, Miller worked with a local Mennonite leader, Kornelius Hiebert, to devise a plan for work under Bolshevik rule. As Miller understood that it would take time to establish a new system by which MCC could move money and goods into the region, he proposed that Russian Mennonites should gather money among themselves and be issued promissory notes for these contributions which would be repaid once channels could be opened. This money would be used for the relief effort under the authority of Kratz. This idea, however, hinged on the appearance of Kratz. Since they parted ways in Aleksandrovsk, Miller had not heard from the 23-year-old. In fact, no one knew the location of Kratz after he was arrested by Bolshevik officials in Halbstadt. To this day, the fate of Kratz remains a mystery.

The victory of the Red Army forced MCC relief workers to devise a new approach for the region. Establishing a base in Crimea was no longer an option. Negotiations for access to the territory now had to be conducted in Moscow and in Kharkov, the capital of the new Ukrainian Socialist Republic, with Bolshevik officials. MCC humanitarian assistance to Mennonites and others in southern Russia would end up coming through the channels of the American Relief Administration led by Herbert Hoover.

Aileen Friesen is assistant professor of history at the University of Winnipeg.

Juhnke, James C. “Turning Points, Broken Ice, and Glaubensgenossen: What Happened at Prairie Street on July 27-28, 1920?” In A Table of Sharing: Mennonite Central Committee and the Expanding Networks of Mennonite Identity. Ed. Alain Epp Weaver, 66-83. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2010.

Miller, Orie O. The Orie O. Miller Diary, 1920-1921. Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2018.

Sharp, John. My Calling to Fulfill: The Orie O. Miller Story. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2015.

Toews, Paul, with Aileen Friesen. The Russian Mennonite Story:The Heritage Cruise Lectures. Winnipeg: Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies, 2018.

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