Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Russian History 7: Alexander I

We began the Russian History series with the founder of the Romanov dynasty, Michael I, whose rule began in 1613, then moved quickly to the dynasty’s most significant early tsar and first emperor: Peter I, or Peter the Great (1682–1725). Our real interest lies, of course, with the Russian rulers from a later time, a time that began with Catherine II’s rule in 1762. Therefore, beginning with this post and continuing through the rest of the Romanov dynasty, we will use a timeline that reflects our main focus.

As far as the Romanov dynasty is concerned, we can limit our primary investigation to a mere seven tsars. We have already covered the first two: Catherine II and Paul I. This post begins our survey of the next tsar: Alexander I, who reigned from 1801 to until his death in 1825.

Before we turn our attention to Alexander’s life, it is worthwhile to recall his importance to our family. In short, Alexander I was tsar when our direct ancestors first settled in Russia. He was tsar in 1817, when Benjamin Buller, father of David (father of Peter D, father of Peter P, father of Grandpa Chris), settled in a Volynian village named Zofyovka; Alexander was also tsar in 1819, when Benjamin’s father, also named Benjamin, and other members of the Przechovka Mennonite community emigrated to Molotschna and there founded the village Alexanderwohl, named, of course, after the tsar and emperor of all Russia. In short, although Catherine II was the first Russian ruler to welcome Mennonites to Russia and her son Paul I formally decreed all the privileges that they were to receive, Alexander I was responsible for welcoming our family into the kingdom and thus played a significant role in our family history.

Who, then, was Alexander I? Alexander Pavlovich Romanov (note the custom of using the father’s first name as the son’s middle name) was born on 23 December 1777 and thus was twenty-three years old when his father was deposed and then assassinated in one fell swoop. He died slightly less than twenty-four years later, on 1 December 1825.

Alexander is most remembered as the tsar who defeated Napoleon, which is the subtitle of Marie-Pierre Rey’s engaging and authoritative 2012 biography of him. We need not detail those events here, but it is good to recount a few high points.

The Napoleonic wars extended from 1803 until 1815 and involved at least seven different coalitions formed against Napoleon and his powerful army. In 1812, Russian refusal to abide by the trade restrictions that Napoleon had imposed prompted him to invade Russia. Napoleon entered Russian territory in June with 450,000 troops. The Russian army engaged in a strategic retreat, leaving scorched earth behind them as they withdrew further into the Russian interior. Moscow was burned, and still Alexander and his forces retreated. Eventually Napoleon’s supply line failed and his troops began deserting in growing numbers. With the onset of winter in late October, Napoleon was forced to withdraw. By the time he left Russia in November, starvation, desertion, and Russian attacks had devastated his Grand Armée, which now numbered only 27,000 men.

Remarkably, Napoleon was not finished and soon rebuilt his army. Seizing the moment, Alexander formed an alliance with Prussia and then Austria, then stubbornly pushed this Seventh Coalition to pursue Napoleon deep into France until Napoleon surrendered on 11 April 1814. All of Europe hailed Alexander for his role in defeating Napoleon (although Napoleon would launch one final assault in 1815).

Alexander’s war with Napoleon probably had little direct effect on our family, since it appears that there were no conflicts near the Przechovka area, nor did the French or Russian armies pass directly through that locale. Nevertheless, Alexander’s defeat of Napoleon did have a profound effect on our family history. Precisely how Alexander shaped our family story will be taken up in the following post.


Work Cited

Rey, Marie-Pierre. 2012. Alexander I: The Tsar Who Defeated Napoleon. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press.


Sunday, February 9, 2020

Russian History 6: Paul I

By all accounts, Catherine II (the Great) did not intend to be succeeded by her son Paul; rather, she planned for Paul’s son Alexander, her grandson, to become tsar and emperor when she passed from this earth. However, after Catherine died, or so the story goes, Paul was first on the scene in his mother’s office and was able to locate and destroy her will and testament. 

In the absence of any documentary evidence of Catherine’s wishes, Paul, as the only son of Catherine and her husband, Peter III, could logically and legally assert his claim to be the rightful Romanov heir to Russia’s throne. Fortunately for Paul, his son Alexander made no attempt to challenge this claim.

As is evident in the timeline, Paul’s reign was short-lived, lasting only from 1796 to 1801. The brevity of his rule was due largely to the tumult that characterized it. To put it nicely, Paul was eccentric and demanding of those whom he ruled; more bluntly, one historian describes him as a “wildly insane despot” (Lowe 1895, 3).

Paul clearly was a troubled individual. His mother Catherine had claimed that he was not really the son of Peter III; however, Paul’s physical and psychological resemblance to Peter left little doubt about his parentage. Still, having his own mother make such a claim publicly presumably increased the tension that already existed between them.

Another sign of familial dysfunction had been Catherine’s taking control of Paul’s sons, Alexander and Constantine. Shoving Paul to the side, Catherine raised and nurtured his two sons as she wanted. It should be no surprise, then, that Paul neither fit in well nor got along with others.

Paul’s reign came to a sudden and sad end when certain members of the nobility, military, and palace staff decided that enough was enough. On the night of 23 March 1801, the conspirators came for Paul in his bedroom—hearing them approach, he hid behind a curtain. When they spied him, they drug him out and, as Charles Lowe recounts, “forced him to abdicate—strangling him to death in the process” (1895, 4). Paul’s son Alexander knew of the planned coup but claimed afterward that he had no idea that the revolt would end in his father’s death. That might be true, but Alexander no doubt knew that his own grandfather Peter III had conveniently died in custody when Catherine removed him from power. In other words, he should have known how it would all turn out.

Although Paul reigned for only five years, he had a significant effect on the Mennonite experience in Russia. On 6 September 1800 Paul both formalized and expanded the promises that Catherine’s agent Potemkin had made to Mennonite settlers several decades earlier. Given the importance of this grant to Russian Mennonite history, it is worth quoting in full:

Charter of Privileges awarded to the Mennonites on September 8th, 1800.

We, Paul I, by the grace of God Emperor and Autocrat of aIl Russia.

Condescending to the petition of the Mennonites settled in the New Russian government, whose excellent industry and morality may, according to the testimony of the authorities, be held up as a model to the foreigners settled there and thereby deserve special consideration, now therefore with this Imperial Charter We most graciously wish not only to confirm aIl their rights and advantages specified in the preliminary agreement concluded with them, but, in order to stimulate their industry and concern in agriculture even more, to grant them also other advantages, as follows:

1. We confirm the liberty to practice their religion according to their tenets and customs as promised them and their descendants and most graciously permit them, when occasion demands it, to render the oath in courts according to their custom, consisting in a simple affirmation of the truth.

2. We confirm them in their incontestable and perpetually inheritable possession of the 65 desiatini of arable land assigned to each family, with the proviso, however, that under no condition may even the smallest portion of it be ceded to outsiders, sold, or any deeds be made in regard to it without the permission of the authorities set over them.

3. To aIl Mennonites now residing in Russia and to aIl those who come to Russia in the future, We most graciously grant permission to erect factories in villages and towns and to establish such trades as may be necessary for them; also to trade, to enter guilds and trade corporations, and to sell their products without hindrance according to the applicable laws of the land.

4. By right of ownership We permit the Mennonites to enjoy aIl the fruits of their land and fishing, to brew beer and vinegar, to distill corn brandy, not only for their own consumption, but also for retail sale on their land.

5. On the land belonging to the Mennonites We forbid outsiders to build boarding houses and taverns and leaseholders to sell wine and to operate saloons without their permission.

6. We assure them with Our Imperial word that none of the Mennonites now settled and those who may settle in the future nor their children and descendants will ever be taken and entered into military service without their own desire to do so.

7. We exempt aIl their villages and houses from all sorts of quartering, except when the troops march through, in which case they will observe the rules of quartering. We also discharge them from aIl crown labors, with the condition, however, that they properly maintain the bridges, ferries, and roads on their lands and also participate in the general maintenance of the mails.

8. We most graciously grant all Mennonites and their descendants complete liberty and authority to dispose of their personal property according to each one’s free will, with the exception of the land assigned to them by the crown. Should anyone, after having paid all his debts, wish to leave Russia with all his possessions, he then must pay three years’ taxes in advance for the property he has acquired in Russia, as declared upon conscience by him and by the village authorities. The property of a deceased whose relatives and heirs live abroad, which property according to Mennonite custom must be divided among those persons, is to be disposed of in a similar manner. The villages are given the liberty to appoint guardians according to their custom over the property of minor orphans.

9. We confirm the ten years’ exemption from taxes granted them previously, extending this privilege also to those who in the future may wish to settle in the New Russian government. In view of the fact, however, that an inspection found them in meager circumstances because of several years of crop failure and decrease of animals and because of their crowded condition in the Khortitsa region, it is proposed to transfer several families to other lands. Therefore, in consideration of their poverty and want We most graciously extend the former ten-year period of exemption for another five years to those who remain in the previous places and for another ten years to those who will be transferred. After the expiration of this period they shall pay for each of their 65 desiatini fifteen kopecks per year but be exempted from the payment of all other taxes. The loan extended to them, however, must he repaid in equal parts, in ten years by those who remain and within twenty years by those who are moved.

10. In conclusion of this Our Imperial Charter concerning the rights and advantages of the Mennonites, granted to them most graciously, We order all our military and civil authorities and government offices not only to leave these Mennonites and their descendants in unmolested enjoyment of their houses, lands, and other possessions, not to hinder them in the enjoyment of the privileges granted to them, but also to show them in all cases every assistance and protection. (Urry 1989, 282–84, modified)

History does not remember Paul I with much fondness or respect, but for Mennonites he proved to be a kind and consequential ruler who created the conditions for a century of prosperity on the Russian steppes.

Works Cited

Lowe, Charles. 1895. Alexander III of Russia. New York: Macmillan.

Urry, James. 1989. None but Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia 1789–1889. Winnipeg: Hyperion.



Thursday, February 6, 2020

Russian History 5: Catherine II and Mennonites

Catherine the Great (1762–1796) was, as observed in the previous post, one of the most consequential rulers in Russia’s history. Peter the Great (1682–1725), to be sure, turned Russia from a kingdom into an empire (see here); however, Catherine transformed that empire into domestic powerhouse and an international force. Thus it is no surprise to learn that Catherine’s influence extended far beyond those who were her subjects, even to encompass the Mennonites. In fact, Catherine’s foreign and domestic policies affected the lives of our ancestors and other Mennonites in at least two significant ways.

1. The Partitions of Poland

As noted earlier, Catherine was a key player in the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795). The First Partition was the most significant for our family, since it led to those Bullers living in the Przechovka vicinity to be transferred from Polish to Prussian rule. Most other Mennonites inhabiting Poland likewise came under Prussian governance at the same time.

This political shift did not lead immediately lead to change in the Mennonites’ daily lives; however, over time the Prussian authorities proved increasingly less sympathetic to the Mennonite refusal to take up arms against the enemies of the empire. This changing climate engendered a willingness among many Mennonites to consider leaving Prussia for a more welcoming location.

2. Emigration to Russia

Catherine’s greatest contribution to and influence on the Mennonite community was to provide that location where these people of faith could live in peace and prosperity. To be clear, Catherine did not focus her attention on the Mennonites above all others. In fact, her first invitation for new settlers was made to anyone who wished to relocate within Russia. She opened Russia’s borders shortly after she came into power, in 1762 and then again in a more broadly circulated manifesto in 1763. The latter document explained (see here for additional background and the translation of the full manifesto):

We, Catherine the second, by the Grace of God, Empress and Autocrat of all the Russians … As We are sufficiently aware of the vast extent of the lands within Our Empire, We perceive, among other things, that a considerable number of regions are still uncultivated which could easily and advantageously be made available for productive use of population and settlement. … I. We permit all foreigners to come into Our Empire, in order to settle in all the governments, just as each one may desire.

The manifesto goes on to describe the process that foreigners were to follow to enter and settle within Catherine’s empire, then follows with a series of privileges that those who relocated to Russia would enjoy:

1. We grant to all foreigners coming into Our Empire the free and unrestricted practice of their religion according to the precepts and usage of their Church. … On the other hand, everyone is hereby warned not to persuade or induce any of the Christian co-religionists living in Russia to accept or even assent to his faith or join his religious community, under pain of incurring the severest punishment of Our law.
2. None of the foreigners who have come to settle in Russia shall be required to pay the slightest taxes to Our treasury, nor be forced to render regular or extraordinary services, nor to billet troops. Indeed, everybody shall be exempt from all taxes and tribute in the following manner: those who have been settled as colonists with their families in hitherto uninhabited regions will enjoy 30 years of exemption….
3. All foreigners who settle in Russia either to engage in agriculture and some trade, or to undertake to build factories and plants will be offered a helping hand and the necessary loans required for the construction of factories useful for the future, especially of such as have not yet been built in Russia.
4. For the building of dwellings, the purchase of livestock needed for the farmstead, the necessary equipment, materials, and tools for agriculture and industry, each settler will receive the necessary money from Our treasury in the form of an advance loan without any interest. The capital sum has to be repaid only after ten years, in equal annual installments in the following three years.
5. We leave to the discretion of the established colonies and village the internal constitution and jurisdiction, in such a way that the persons placed in authority by Us will not interfere with the internal affairs and institutions. In other respects the colonists will be liable to Our civil laws. …
6. To every foreigner who wants to settle in Russia We grant complete duty-free import of his property, no matter what it is, provided, however, that such property is for personal use and need, and not intended for sale. …
7. The foreigners who have settled in Russia shall not be drafted against their will into the military or the civil service during their entire stay here. Only after the lapse of the years of tax-exemption can they be required to provide labor service for the country. …
8. As soon as the foreigners have reported to the Guardianship Chancellery or to our border towns and declared their decision to travel to the interior of the Empire and establish domicile there, they will forthwith receive food rations and free transportation to their destination. …

Catherine’s open-door policy prompted a significant number of Germans to emigrate to Russia, but few, if any, Mennonites were found among them. Presumably the temporary nature of the exemption from military service (thirty years, per term 2) discouraged Mennonites from accepting the offer. That all changed two decades later, when Prince Potemkin, representing Catherine, and the Mennonite representatives Johann Bartsch and Jacob Höppner negotiated special privileges for Mennonites who wished to relocate to Russia:

1. Free transportation and board from the Russian border to the settlement area.
2. The right to settle anywhere and pursue any occupation.
3. Loans to build houses and factories or purchase farm equipment.
4. Perpetual exemption from military and civil service.
5. Tax exemption for periods that varied with occupation and place of settlement.
6. Freedom of religion, except to establish monasteries.
7. The right to proselytize among the Muslims, but not among Christian subjects.
8. The right of self-government in agricultural communities.
9. The right to import family belongings duty-free.
10. The right to buy serfs and peasants for those who established factories with their own money.
11. The right to negotiate other terms with the Russian authorities. (Rempel and Carlson 2002, 263)

Obviously the terms given the Mennonites were largely the same as those granted to all foreign settlers. The one significant difference is the granting of perpetual exemption from military and civil service.

Because of Catherine’s granting of these privileges and protections, a significant body of Mennonites  (over two hundred families, according to Urry 1989, 54) moved from West Prussia/Poland to New Russia (modern Ukraine) in 1788–1789, and the first colony of Mennonites, the Chortitza colony, was established in 1789. Our family was not among that group; however, three decades later Bullers walked through the door she had opened and became subjects of the Russian Empire. Catherine was, without doubt, a pivotal and transformative figure in the histories of both Mennonites in general and our family in particular.

Works Cited

Rempel, David G., with Cornelia Rempel Carlson. 2002. A Mennonite Family in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, 1789–1923. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Urry, James. 1989. None but Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia 1789–1889. Winnipeg: Hyperion.


Monday, February 3, 2020

Russian History 4: Catherine II

Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, also known to history as Catherine II but better known as Catherine the Great, was without doubt Russia’s most significant female ruler, not to mention one of Russia’s most successful rulers of either gender. Given her important place in Russia’s history, it is a little surprising to discover that Catherine was not Russian by birth.

Sophie (she did not become Catherine until 1744) was born in 1729 in the Polish town Alt-Stettin (modern Szczecin), but she was not Polish either. In fact, she was born into a family of German nobility, and her father Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, held the rank of general within the Prussian government.

Despite their high status, Sophie’s family was not affluent, so, like many people of that time, they sought to improve their situation by marrying a child to someone of both stature and wealth. With Sophie, they succeeded admirably. As a result of political maneuvering by others and her own personal charm with the Russian empress Elizabeth, Sophie converted to Eastern (Russian) Orthodoxy, took the name Catherine, and, in 1745 married Charles Peter Ulrich, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp.

Catherine’s husband Peter was not merely the grandson of Peter the Great through his mother Anna Petrovna; he was also the nephew and designated heir to Empress Elizabeth. Therefore when Elizabeth died in January 1762, Peter (III) became tsar over all Russia.

Unfortunately for Peter, his rule was short-lived. Peter and Catherine’s relationship had never been close or intimate, and both partners had been regularly unfaithful. To make matters worse, Peter was by most accounts unpleasant and demanding, if not outright mean. Seeing an opportunity, Catherine and her loyalists executed a coup and forced Peter to sign abdication papers; conveniently, Peter died eight days later while in the custody of Catherine’s guards.

Catherine was now firmly in control of Russia. Regardless of what one might think of her tactics in seizing power or her personal morality throughout her life, one cannot dispute the fact that during her reign the Russian Empire was at its height. This was, in fact, the golden age of imperial Russia, a time of peace at home and power abroad, a period during which the application of Enlightenment ideals led to legal reform, economic growth, and state-sponsored expansion of education and the arts.

Catherine’s reign was also a period of steadily expanding international influence, which is where her significance for our family and other Mennonites comes most into play. We could write a great deal about Catherine’s achievements in this area, but we will limit our attention to only a few.

First, in 1768, just six years into her reign, Catherine took advantage of growing instability within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to assume control over the land and people of that kingdom. Her control was technically a protectorate, which means that she allowed some level of independence and local governance; the Commonwealth did not cease to exist. Nevertheless, Catherine maintained ultimate power and served as the final authority in any and all matters of import.

Not long after, in 1772, Catherine exercised that power by cooperating with the Prussians and the Austrians to take permanent control of certain areas of Poland-Lithuania. This First Partition of Poland allowed Russia to seize a significant amount of territory (36,000 square miles) from Poland’s eastern flank; Austria’s share was somewhat smaller in size but held a larger population than Russia’s acquisition. Prussia received the smallest portion but secured the greatest benefit. Not only was its new territory, which became the province West Prussia, more highly developed than the other areas; it also connected Prussia proper with its holdings in East Prussia.

While Catherine was carving up Poland, she was also in the process of expanding her territory to the southwest. Over the course of the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–1774 Catherine’s forces inflicted decisive defeats on the Ottoman Empire, so much so that the latter had to accede to Russia’s terms of peace. In addition to paying a hefty sum in reparations, the Ottoman Empire gave up control of the Crimean Khanate (not only Crimea but also land on the continent immediately to the north), the seaports Azov and Kerch, and the land between the Dnieper River and the Southern Bug (a major Ukrainian river west of the Dnieper), among other territories.

Finally, Catherine also played a crucial role in the Second and Third Partitions of Poland in 1793 and 1795, respectively. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth continued to experience unrest after the First Partition, and Polish troops engaged the Russian army at the outset of the Russo-Turkish War and then again in 1792. Frederick II of Prussia exploited the opportunity to propose another land grab at the expense of Poland; Russia agreed. As a result, Prussia seized 22,000 square miles, and Russia took another 97,000 square miles. Two years later, Russia, Prussia, and Austria agreed to dissolve the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth entirely and to divide the remaining land among themselves.

In November of the following year Catherine suffered what was diagnosed as a stroke; she passed away the following day, on the evening of 17 November 1796. Her thirty-four-year reign was the longest of any of Russia’s female rulers. Her influence on Russia’s domestic life and the international balance of power are obvious, but Catherine’s actions also affected the Mennonite community at large and our own ancestors. We will briefly detail Catherine’s importance for both in a subsequent post.


For Further Reading

Alexander, John T. 1989. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. New York: Oxford University Press.

Catherine, Empress of Russia. 2006. The Memoirs of Catherine the Great. Translated by Mark Cruse and Hilde Hoogenboom. New York: Modern Library.

Madariaga, Isabel de. 1990. Catherine the Great: A Short History. Haven: Yale University Press.

O’Neill, Kelly. 2017. Claiming Crimea: A History of Catherine the Great’s Southern Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Russian History 3

The last post established the basic framework for our exploration of Russia’s history by dividing four centuries, from roughly 1600 through 2000, into two broad periods based on the governing authority (see timeline below). The first period (1613–1917) was a time of tsarist rule (blue), specifically the Romanov dynasty of Russian tsars; the second period (1917–1991) saw the ascendance of socialist power and the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (red). 



Now that we have a working framework in place, we are ready to add pertinent details, albeit without becoming lost in the weeds of minutiae. We will organize those details by filling out the timeline we already have—with one change: for our own visual ease, we will rotate the timeline 90 degrees so we can add meaningful labels to each new subdivision. In other words, instead of the timeline moving from left to right, it will now go from top (1613) to bottom (1991).

We will not reproduce the entire timeline each time but will focus on a significant section within each post. Our real focus will begin with Catherine II, the Great, who ruled from 1762 to 1796 and under whom the first Mennonites settled in Russia, but the following example on 1600–1750 shows well how we will proceed.

A traditional approach would simply list the earliest Romanov tsars in order and offer a comment or two about each.

Michael I, 1613–1645
Alexis, 1645–1676
Feodor III, 1676–1682
Peter I (the Great) and Ivan V, 1682–1696
Peter II, 1696–1725
Catherine I, 1724–1727
Peter II, 1727–1730
Anna, 1730–1740
Ivan VI, 1740–1741
Elizabeth, 1741–1762
Peter III, 1762

As useful as that might be for preparing to take an exam on Russian history, it really does us little good, since most of these tsars are of little interest for Mennonites in general or Bullers in particular. (If you do wish to learn more about these tsars, see the excellent Star Media series on the Romanovs, available on Youtube here.) For this century and a half, only Michael I and Peter I, aka Peter the Great, merit our notice.

Michael I, 1613–1645

The first Romanov tsar’s full name was Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov; similar to the practice seen in our own and other Mennonite families, Michael’s middle name was based on his father first name: Feodor. Although Michael came from a high-ranking and powerful family, he was the first Romanov to rule as tsar over all Russia.

The word tsar (alternative spellings are tzar, czar, and csar), interestingly, is derived from the Latin word caesar. Various Slavic rulers adopted the title tsar to claim, by implication if not directly, that their status was the same as the Roman emperors of old. Of course, the title did not change the reality on the ground: although Michael greatly expanded Russia’s territory, his realm was in no sense an empire at this time.

To put Michael’s reign in perspective for Bullers, our family obviously had nothing to do with Russia or with Michael. The earliest ancestor known to us, George Buller, husband of Dina Thoms, lived in Poland and died about 1718 at an old age; if he lived to age seventy, he would have been born in 1648, that is, after Michael’s reign. I mention this only for perspective: the Romanov dynasty began when our ancestors still lived along the Vistula in Poland. Our family would not come into contact with Russia or its rulers until the Romanovs had been in power for two centuries.

Peter I (the Great), 1682–1725

We might write a great deal about Peter the Great, for example, of his joint rule with his half-brother Ivan V (1682–1696), of his determination to build a Russian navy, of his extensive tours of Europe to develop both political and personal relationships with the rulers of that region, of his founding of Saint Petersburg (named after him, of course), or even of his crowning of his second wife, Catherine I (not Catherine the Great), as empress and co-ruler in 1724. However, for our purposes only a few significant observations need to be made.

First, it was under Peter that Russia became recognized as an empire. As note above, Tsar Michael I expanded Russia’s borders greatly, even to encompass Siberia. However, Peter fought wars both on the north (Finland, Sweden) and the south (Ottoman Empire) and established Russia as a force to be respected, if not feared, leading to a proclamation in 1721 that declared him to be Emperor of All Russia. From this time on Russia itself was considered an empire and its tsar regarded as both tsar and emperor. Thus when our family and other Mennonites emigrated to Russia, they were entering the Russian Empire, one of the great powers of that time.

Second, Peter was committed to westernizing Russia so that it was more European than Asian. This passion to learn European ways led Peter to spend eighteen months traveling through Europe, even working within a shipyard for four months to gain hands-on experience that he would later apply to the construction of a navy. Peter also sought to develop close relationships with many of Europe’s rulers, even to the extent that he sought to have members of his family marry into Europe’s royal families. Peter’s initial efforts to turn Russia’s gaze to the west, to Europe, no doubt explains to some degree how within the next half-century Russia came to be ruled by someone who was not a native of the land, someone who played a crucial role in the Mennonite migration to Russia.

We will return to that in the next post; for now we close by contextualizing our family with respect to the reign of Peter the Great. The Bullers remained in Poland throughout Peter’s rule, living within the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth under the rule of Augustus II the Strong; our ancestors probably had no direct contact with Russia or its ruler during this time. George Buller died during the last decade of Peter’s reign; George and Dina’s three sons Hans, George, and Peter were raising their own families. Presumably their lives were largely localized, centered on the village Przechovka and the Mennonite church there.


Thursday, January 23, 2020

Russian History for Bullers 2

As noted at the end of the previous post, our exploration of Russian history will begin by dividing the period of our interest into two smaller chunks. We should admit at the outset that simple explanations and broad generalizations inevitably run the risk of sketching a portrait that is neater than reality, of obscuring the particulars of a situation in our quest for order. This is an important caution to keep in mind as we move forward. Our framework is merely a means of organizing and arranging various historical facts into a meaningful narrative, not a mold into which we must fit every fact we encounter.

The timeline shows two major periods in Russian history over four centuries. The blue bar represents tsarist rule, the red socialist rule. The three dates immediately above the bars are all significant turning points in Russia’s history: 1613 marked the beginning of the Romanov dynasty; 1917 was the year of the Russian Revolution, which likewise entailed the end of Romanov rule; and 1991 was the year when the USSR, or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, dissolved into a number of independent states.




Obviously, many significant changes took place during these centuries, including wars of expansion and defense, assassinations and executions too numerous to count, the emancipation of the serfs and the subjugation of the peasantry, seasons of prosperity and times of famine and starvation, even the building of a transcontinental railroad and the first flight into space. In spite of this great diversity, Russia’s governance was for the most part remarkably stable: the first three centuries saw tsars from a single dynasty in power, after which they were supplanted by a single party of socialist rule. 

With this overarching framework in view, we are ready to fill in a few details about these three crucial years. Starting with the next post, we will be ready to examine more closely various people, events, and times within each of these two periods and to begin correlating those historical particulars with both Mennonite history in general and the history of our larger family in particular.

1. 1613

The beginning of tsarist Russia, more properly the Tsardom of Russia, is generally dated to 1547 and the rule of Ivan IV, or Ivan Vasilyevich, aka Ivan the Terrible. This is when a unified Russia was ruled by a single monarch. As interesting as Ivan may be, we need not say more about him; our interest in Russia begins much later with a different ruling dynasty: the Romanovs.

Michael I, or Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov, was crowned tsar in 1613, thus bringing to an end the Time of Troubles, a period of chaos and anarchy throughout the land. For the next three hundred years, a member of Michael’s family, either by birth or by marriage, would rule over Russia. We have already encountered some of these Romanovs, including Catherine II (the Great), Alexander I, and Nicholas I. We will have cause to become acquainted with others in upcoming posts, as we deepen our knowledge of and appreciation for Russian history during this time.

2. 1917

The end of tsarist Russia was concurrently the beginning of socialist rule, and the shift in power took place within a single year. As World War I (1914–1918) slogged on, many workers and especially soldiers within Russia became disillusioned with their leaders, particularly with Tsar Nicholas II, who embodied for them an autocratic form of rule that they rejected in favor of a more egalitarian system of self-governance.

Over the course of a few weeks in February 1917, these workers and soldiers sparked such a rebellion that Nicholas was forced to abdicate his throne and turn power over to a new authority. Unfortunately, Nicholas’s abdication did not lead to the end of a struggle but rather launched a new Time of Trouble, a years-long battle between not only tsarist loyalists and the revolutionary forces but also between various socialist groups who sought to impose their vision of utopia upon the Russian people.

Eventually the Bolshevik faction (later called the Russian Communist Party) led by Vladimir Lenin, among others, crushed all opposition in a brutal civil war. This victory was followed in 1922 with the establishment of the USSR. The USSR was governed by various leaders, the most notorious of whom was Joseph Stalin, but they all belonged to the same ruling party. In other words, although the form of Russia’s governance had changed, the reality remained largely the same.

3. 1991

The socialist experiment did not last as long as the Romanov dynasty, and sixty-nine years after the USSR came into existence it was formally dissolved. Russia, of course, did not cease to exist; recent events demonstrate that Russia is in many ways as vital, in ambition if not in fact, as ever before. For our purposes, the most significant difference is that all, or nearly all, of the Bullers who still lived in Russia in 1991 have since left. In other words, although Russia is a significant part of our past, it it no longer a part of our present.

The dates 1613, 1917, and 1991 mark crucial turning points in Russian history; they also mark off the period of the Buller, and Mennonite, experience in Russia. With this basic framework in mind, we are ready to fill in a number of details within each of the two periods, especially as they relate to either the Mennonite or our own familial sojourn in this great land. To that end, we will pick up with the Romanovs in the following post.


Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Russian History for Bullers

As mentioned several posts ago, our primary goal for the next few months is to identify Bullers who remained in Russia after our ancestors emigrated to the United States and to describe their lives in as much detail as our sources and knowledge of the Russian context permits. Of course, to understand and appreciate the lives of the Bullers who remained, we need to be able to place them accurately in their historical circumstances and contexts, which, in turn, requires us to learn a little Russian history.

That will be the task of this series: to teach us all enough Russian history that we understand how the times and places in which these Bullers found themselves affected or even determined the outcomes of their lives. Consider Peter Buller of Tiege, for example (see here). All we know of him is that he lived in a village named Tiege, in the Zagradovka settlement, until he was killed by a marauding band on the night of 29 November 1919. A number of questions arise:
  • Where in Russia was the Zagradovka settlement located?
  • What was its relation to the other Mennonite colonies?
  • Why was at least one Buller family living in that place?
  • Why were Peter and sixteen other Tiege residents killed?
  • What was the political situation that such a thing could happen?

One could offer a brief answer to all of these questions: Zagradovka, a Mennonite settlement located slightly more than 100 miles west-northwest of Molotschna, was established in the 1870s to provide land for some of Molotschna’s landless families; during the chaos of the civil war between the Red Army and the White Army, anarchist bands of men under Nestor Makhno’s command roved about robbing, pillaging, raping, and killing. Peter Buller was one of their victims.

Helpful as it is, this brief answer may obscure important considerations, such as: Was it, in fact, Makhno’s group who killed Peter, or might it have been vengeful Russian peasants? In addition, because it is so brief, the answer raises as many questions as it answers:
  • When did Russia undergo a civil war?
  • What caused the civil war to break out?
  • Who made up the Red Army? the White Army?
  • Who was Nestor Makhno? Why was he an anarchist? 
  • Why did Makhno command a band of marauders?

In the end, we will be better off not settling for quick answers or brief explanations; we should rather learn enough history that we can genuinely understand, even appreciate, the contexts and situations in which these Bullers found themselves. That is what this series will seek to do.

Our approach will be to begin at a macro-level, dividing the last four centuries of Russian history into two broad periods. With that framework in place, we will progressively fill in the details, add flesh to the bones, as it were, until we arrive at an understanding of Russian history adequate to the task of placing both our immediate ancestors and the members of our larger family within their historical contexts and circumstances. 


Monday, January 20, 2020

Daniel C Buller, 1930–2020

Sad news arrived last week in a text message from Dad that Uncle Daniel had passed on to his eternal reward. He had been preceded in death by Marie, his wife of sixty-three years (the photograph to the left was taken in 1990; see here for the post on Marie’s passing).

Daniel was born 26 September 1930, the third child but first son of Grandpa Chris and Grandma Malinda. Like all of his brothers and sisters, Daniel was raised on the Buller farm a mile south of Lushton (see here). According to his obituary (here), he graduated from Lushton High School in 1948. 

In the aftermath of the severe blizzards of 1948–1949, I am told, Daniel wanted to help with Operation Haylift, in which U.S. Air Force cargo planes dropped hay bales to cattle stranded on the plains. Grandpa overruled that idea, but it may well have been a hint of things to come.

Daniel and Marie married on 25 April 1951. Shortly thereafter Daniel enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, serving from 1951 to 1955 in the Korean Conflict. Upon his return, he and Marie and their growing family farmed first in the Lushton area (they lived down the street from us in Lushton for a while) and then north of Bradshaw (see here); in the early 1970s Daniel and family moved to a large farming operation north of O’Neill. 

Upon his retirement, Daniel and Marie moved to Torrington, Wyoming, where they both lived until their respective deaths.

The memorial service for Daniel is taking place even as I write; a second memorial will take place in the Lushton Community Bible Church later this year, followed by burial of his ashes in the Mennonite (Buller) Cemetery north of Lushton.

Our thoughts are prayers are with Daniel’s sisters and brothers, his children Sheryl, Stan, Brenda, Debbie, Denise, Michael, and the twenty-five grandchildren and twenty great-grandchildren he leaves behind. 


Sunday, January 5, 2020

Bullers Who Remained

A little more than a century ago, on 29 November 1919, Peter Buller, resident of a Russian village named Tiege, was mutilated to death in the middle of the night (Lohrenz 2000, 109). Sixteen of his fellow villagers, all Mennonites, met a similar fate. 

Thousands of miles away, another Peter Buller enjoyed a life of security and growing prosperity on a farm 4 miles east of Henderson, Nebraska. As far as we know, Peter and his wife Margaretha Epp Buller and their eleven children—including thirteen-year-old Cornelius, or Chris—slept through the night of 29 November without incident.

Although these two men shared a name, a common ancestry and religious heritage, and likely even a vocation (farming), their fates could not have been more different. One Peter died violently at the hands of a lawless mob; the other lived to age ninety-five and passed on peacefully after a full, rich life. How, one might wonder, could two men with so much in common meet such different ends?

The answer lies not with the men themselves but with their locations. Peter Buller of Tiege lived in Russia in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution; Peter Buller of Henderson, our own ancestor, enjoyed the stability and security of life in the United States. The determining factor of each man’s fate was simply whether his family had emigrated from or remained in Russia.

Since we already know, in general if not in every detail, the story of the Bullers who left Russia, this series will focus on those who remained. Our goal will be to identify as many Bullers who remained in Russia as we can and to describe their lives in as much detail as our sources and knowledge of the Russian context permits.

Unlike many other Buller Time series, this one will not involve systematically sifting through a body of evidence; rather, this series will, I expect, find bits of information, pieces of evidence, that we will then place within their historical, geographical, social, and, if possible, genealogical contexts so that we learn not only about other members of our broader family but also about the worlds in which they lived. To use a cinematic analogy, Bullers Who Remained will not be a feature length film but rather a series of independent short clips with a common interest.

We should realize at the outset that we will not be able to locate genealogically some of the Bullers whom we discover. Peter Buller of Tiege, for example, is certainly a member of our larger family, but thus far we cannot even hint at where in the family tree he might fit. At present we cannot even say if he was married and had children and, if so, what happened to them after his murder that night. It may be that, over time, as we collect and then connect the puzzle pieces of the Bullers who remained, we will be able to locate Peter Buller of Tiege more precisely or even put flesh on the bare bones of his life. However, it is also possible that we will never learn anything more of Peter Buller of Tiege; should that be the case, let us take heart in the fact that Peter has at least been named, that his story has not been forgotten, that a memory of him still lives on this earth.

Finally, understanding the contexts of the Bullers who remained requires a working knowledge of Russian history. Therefore, before we proceed with this series, we will lay the foundation by briefly surveying the high points of Russian history from the mid-nineteenth century on, roughly from the time of the Crimean War through the reigns of Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholas II and then on to the Russian Revolution and the consequent formation of the Soviet state. Our survey of Russian history will be kept separate from the Bullers Who Remained series for the sake of simplicity, but it will be crucial for our explorations in the latter series, so I hope readers give the historical context its proper due.

That is the broad plan for the first part (or more) of 2020: to begin with history, then turn to a search for all the Bullers who remained in Russia.

Work Cited

Lohrenz, Gerhard. 2000. Zagradovka: History of a Mennonite Settlement in Southern Russia. Translated by Victor G. Doerksen. Echo Historical Series. Winnipeg: CMBC Publications and Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society.


Wednesday, January 1, 2020

New Year’s Resolution

I resolve (hope) to write more regularly in 2020 than I did in 2019.

Although writing has been nonexistent the past six months, I have continued to read and research in areas related, even if loosely, to our broader family history. Since September, for example, I have been reading biographies of the Russian tsars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

I began with Alexander I, the tsar who ruled Russia when our ancestors first moved to Molotschna colony. Marie-Pierre Rey’s Alexander I: The Tsar Who Defeated Napoleon is both an engaging read and a reliable source of insight into this peculiar man. Rey’s account of Alexander I’s spiritual side may even shed light on the Przechovka party’s encounter with him outside of Warsaw (see here). From its account of Alexander’s childhood under the care of his grandmother Catherine the Great through the events surrounding the killing of his father Paul to the shock of his abrupt death, not to mention the possibility that he faked his death in order to abdicate, Alexander I: The Tsar Who Defeated Napoleon clearly deserves the high praise that it has received since its publication in 2012.

Skipping over Alexander I’s brother and successor, Nicholas I, I then read a biography of Alexander II, who was tsar when our family ancestors left Russia for the United States. Edward Radzinsky has written extensively on Russian history and many of its key figures; his Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar puts his literary talents and deep knowledge of Russia on full display. Alexander II is commonly referred to as Russia’s Abraham Lincoln, since he was the tsar who finally freed Russia’s serfs from centuries of bondage and servitude: Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863; Alexander beat him by two years, issuing his Emancipation Manifesto in 1861. The similarities do not end there: like Lincoln, Alexander II fell victim to an assassin. In fact, assassins attempted to end Alexander’s life and reign on multiple occasions; they finally succeeded in 1881, two years after our family had emigrated to the United States.

Skipping once again over the next tsar, Alexander II’s son, Alexander III, we come to Nicholas II, eldest son of Alexander III and Russia’s last tsar. Edward Radzinsky also authored a biography of Nicholas II: The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II. I have not yet finished this work, but I do know how the story ends: after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Nicholas and his family were placed under house arrest, then executed in a basement in the middle of the night and hastily buried in a forest, all so that no Romanov heir would ever again rule over Russia. Interestingly, their graves were discovered in the late 1970s and finally exhumed in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Several other tsar biographies await, but reading is not the only way to learn about the Romanov dynasty. Posted on Youtube is a series of eight hour-long documentaries about the Romanov rulers (see here). The documentary was produced in Russian by Star Media, but the episodes have all been dubbed in English and are easy to follow. The Romanov dynasty began with Mikhail, ascended to great heights under Peter the Great, reached another high point with Catherine II, the Great, the ebbed and flowed through the last century and a quarter with her successors: Paul I, Alexander I, Nicholas I, Alexander II, Alexander III, and, finally, Nicholas II. I know of no better source for gaining a significant understanding of the Romanovs and their times than this Star Media production, which is expertly produced in every detail.

I find the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russia interesting all on its own, but adding to this the recognition that our ancestors lived through many of the events recounted makes the search and discovery all the more satisfying. In the spirit of the new year, then, I do resolve to (try to) record more of my discoveries in writing so that others can share in the enrichment and the fun.



Saturday, June 15, 2019

Buller Time Turns Five

On 15 June 2018 we celebrated the anniversary of Buller Time’s launch by looking back over the first four years of the blog’s existence (see here). There is no need to repeat that information, although it is worth several paragraphs to update what was written there, before we rehearse the territory covered over the past twelve months.

Counting this post, Buller Time published 101 posts after the one on 15 June 2018, which brings our total to 679. Using our previous estimate of 860 words per post, this represents an additional 86,860 words, leading us easily past the half-million mark, since last year we estimated 497,080 words. If all Buller Time posts were assembled into book form, the total page count would exceed 1,450 pages. The material published just within the last twelve months would make for a nice 200-page book.

Over the past year, Buller Time enjoyed a modest increase in popularity. Since 15 June 2018 the blog has had 8,688 distinct page views, for an average of 724 per month and 23.8 per day. By way of comparison, the totals on this date a year ago were 682 page views per month and 22.6 per day. The majority of visitors are located in the United States: 66 percent. Canada accounts for the next largest portion, at 12 percent, with Germany adding another 5 percent of the audience. The remainder of users live in a wide variety of countries.

The posts of the past year ranged widely in terms of geography, chronology, and genealogy. Late June 2018 found us located in central Nebraska with pictures of Johann Siebert and Sarah Siebert Buller and their descendants (here and here) and photographs of Peter P and Margaretha Epp Buller’s house on the farm where Grandpa was born; in fact, the picture in question is the earliest photograph known to us of Grandpa himself (here and here). 

Most of our attention was given toward an earlier time and a distant place: the mid-nineteenth century and even earlier in Molotschna colony. Our long-running series on the village Alexanderwohl turned to the 1848 Gemeindebericht (community report), as we offered a translation and commentary on it in order to increase our understanding of the life experiences of our forebears and their neighbors (see here for the first post in the Gemeindebericht sequence). An unexpected finding along the way raised significant doubts about the Alexanderwohl claim to primacy as the heirs of the Przechovka church in Poland. In fact, we discovered that a substantial number of Przechovka church members had emigrated to Molotschna in 1819, the year before the arrival of the group that established Alexanderwohl.

The Przechovka Emigration series that followed confirmed our hunch that the Alexanderwohl group was not the first from Przechovka to resettle in Molotschna (see here for the initial post). We also learned during the course of this investigation that the earliest Przechovka members founded and took up residence in the Molotschna village known as Franztal. This, of course, led us to learn what we could about that Mennonite village, including translating and commenting on its 1848 community report (the Franztal series begins here). 

In addition to nineteenth-century Molotschna, we explored a twentieth-century Siberian village named Konstantinovka (begin here). This originally Mennonite village experienced profound change during the decades of Soviet rule, so much so that it today it has no Mennonite presence. In the late 1980s, however, a member of our larger family, one Heinrich Buller, still called the village home. 

Heinrich of Konstantinovka was not the only distant family member we covered. For example, we devoted considerable time to a Heinrich Buller and family who settled in South Dakota in late 1875, four years before our own immediate ancestors took up residence in Nebraska (see here for the first post in the series). Other Bullers we mentioned were more closely related, both brothers of Grandpa Chris Buller: Peter E Buller and Klaas P. Buller (see here).

One final member of our extended family, albeit by marriage, offers a segue to upcoming posts: Oma Buller (see here). This Mennonite grandmother also lived in a Siberian village, although much earlier than the Heinrich of Konstantinovka mentioned above. In fact, the photograph that we discovered of her (below) places her squarely in the late 1930s, during the Great Terror or Great Purge, a time of unprecedented oppression of anyone deemed an enemy of the state led by Joseph Stalin. 



As we will learn in the posts to come, Oma Buller was not the only one of our family to live through the events leading up to the Russian Revolution and the rise of the communist state during the first half of the twentieth century. It will be interesting to look back a year from now and see the ground that we have covered and the discoveries we have made. 



Friday, May 31, 2019

Bullers in the Soviet Union 2

Only a few hours remain in May, so it is time to get writing, lest the month end up a complete void. Although there are no posts to prove it, Buller Time has been active throughout May researching the topic of this series. This post will begin to lay out the broad strokes of what has been learned so that, as we proceed, we can understand the lives and experiences of the Bullers and other Mennonites we encounter within their proper historical contexts. We start with several clarifications.

First, the term Soviet Union is not relevant for the entire period we will cover, nor should the term evoke the same image throughout this entire period. Strictly speaking, the Soviet Union—or, more properly, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—did not come into existence until late in 1922; our examination will begin well before that date, during the years that led up to the creation of the Soviet Union. 

Further, even after 1922, the Soviet Union was not a static entity: like all governing bodies, the Soviet Union evolved and changed to meet the demands of a dynamic internal and international situation and to conform to the personal desires of various leaders, whether Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, or someone else. Consequently, those of us who grew up during the height of the Cold War, when children and parents alike feared nuclear war between the US and USSR, should not impose our memories of the Soviet Union in the 1960s and beyond on the earliest Soviet state of the 1920s and 1930s. There were similarities and continuities, to be sure, but each period should be examined on its own terms, so that our understanding of life in the Soviet Union at any particular moment is true to the facts as we know them.

Second, although the series refers to Bullers in the Soviet Union, the scarcity of family-specific data will frequently require us to discuss the Mennonite experience in general, then apply what we learn to any Bullers who may have been under Soviet control at that time. We will, to be sure, seek to identify specific Bullers in the historical record, and we will also attempt to place them on the family tree. 

We will begin, I imagine, with David Buller and his son Heinrich, during the last days of the Russian monarchy. However, we will also touch on other Bullers we can identify, including Katya Buller’s family in Kleefeld, a family of Bullers we discovered earlier seeking to escape Soviet control, and, I believe, even one Buller member of the Soviet Communist Party. With any luck, other Bullers will step out of the mists of history and take their rightful place in our larger family story.

The investigation will be informed, of course, by various resources, but two deserve special mention. First, Russia: A History (Freeze 2009) offers a scholarly but highly accessible account of Russian history from Kievan Rus in the late ninth century through Vladimir Putin in the early twenty-first century. Our general history of the Russian/Soviet context will be heavily informed by the narrative offered there. Second, our understanding of the Mennonite experience within the Soviet context will depend greatly on a series of lectures by Terry Martin on “The Russian Mennonite Encounter with the Soviet State, 1917–1955” (Martin 2002). Martin’s three lectures on this topic are freely available for anyone to read, and I encourage those who wish to understand the Mennonite experience in the first half-century of Soviet rule to read these lectures more than once.

With this background set, we are ready to begin the series proper. Our approach will be to describe as fully as necessary the historical context of a particular moment in Russian/Soviet history, then locate the Mennonite community and any Bullers known to us in that time and place. Our goal in all of this will be not only to learn both the names and lineages of members of our broader family but also to appreciate the challenges they faced during the waning of the Russian Empire and the rise and growth of the Soviet Union.

Sources Cited

Freeze, Gregory L., ed. 2009. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Martin, Terry. 2002. The Russian Mennonite Encounter with the Soviet State, 1917–1955. Conrad Grebel Review 20:5–59. Available online here.



Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Bullers in the Soviet Union

My recent reading has focused on two topics: Mennonite life in Siberia/Kazakhstan, and Mennonite life during the early decades of the Soviet Union, particularly during the time of Joseph Stalin’s reign of brutality and terror. The two topics overlap to some extent, since Mennonites were numbered among the millions of foreign residents and other enemies of the state either executed or exiled to the east, to Siberia/Kazakhstan, during the 1930s and 1940s. 

Our natural interest in these topics increases when we consider that members of our broader family lived in different areas of the Soviet Union, from present-day Ukraine in the west to Kazakhstan in the east, throughout this entire time. Several years ago, for example, we read of three Buller children living in Kleefeld in 1930 (see here). We wondered then, and we ask still today: Whatever happened to Katja Buller, her siblings, and her parents? What was their fate within the Soviet state?

More recently (here) we revisited David Buller’s youngest son Heinrich and his son Heinrich, who moved with David’s widow (his second wife after Helena Zielke) to Kazakhstan in 1908, nine years before the Russian revolution that eventuated in the formation of the Soviet state (see further here). Evidence leads us to conclude that the family remained in the area, which means that they still lived there when the Soviet authorities began exiling Mennonites and other people classified as German to this area in the 1930s. 

We have also encountered other Bullers in Kazakhstan, such as Oma Buller and her granddaughter Katharina Heinrich Buller (here) and Heinrich Buller of Konstantinovka (here)—all of whom are in some way related to us. No doubt other Bullers can be identified in various regions within the Soviet Union during this time, if one looks hard enough and long enough and is blessed with good fortune in the search, and each discovery of a previously unknown Buller can lead us to wonder what life was like for that subject of the Soviet state.

The various strands just mentioned have converged into an idea, or at least a hope of an idea, for a series of posts on Bullers in the Soviet Union. The series has two goals: (1) to identify members of our broader family living within the Soviet Union roughly from 1917 through the end of the twentieth century; and (2) to learn more about the early years of the Soviet Union and especially the Mennonite experience within that polity. I do not know how successful we will be in discovering Bullers within the Soviet Union, but we will try just the same. If nothing else, our exploration of Mennonite life—and death—in that context will give us empathy for what so many faithful endured and appreciation to Peter D and Sarah Siebert Buller for making a life-altering decision that has given to many of us the opportunity to enjoy life within a reasonably free society.


Monday, April 29, 2019

What’s Next?

With the Franztal series at an end, the question arises: Where now? I am open to suggestions, if any come to mind; you can use the Click Here to Contact Me link in the upper right to send your ideas. Although Buller Time has been quiet the past several weeks, reading and thinking about matters Mennonite and Buller have continued.

For example, we have heard from several members of the broader family. A son of Peter E Buller (see here), who was Grandpa Chris’s younger brother, emailed to make contact and fill in some blanks on that branch of the family. His memory, since confirmed by Dad, is that Pete and his wife Elsie Fast Buller took over the family farm after Peter P and Margaretha moved to California in 1936 (see here). Dad recalls that several years later when Uncle Pete and family were preparing to move to Iowa, they held a farm sale, and he believes that a Farmall (F20?) was sold by lottery at that sale.

According to Pete’s son, the family moved to “Salix, Iowa, due to the dry years, to Chicago for Moody Bible Institute, back to Iowa because of WWII, and to Omaha for Grace Bible Institute in 1945.” Chris and Pete had a good relationship and traveled together at least once: “In February 1957, I got to go with them and Matilda (and Esther?) to visit Grandpa PP Buller and Aunts Sarah and Marie in Upland, CA.  … We traveled in Uncle Chris’ 1956 Ford sedan (six adults and me as a seven year-old boy sitting on a little folding stool).”

Many of you will recall that Pete and family owned a nursery for many years in Omaha. If anyone has memories (or photographs!) of that family branch that you would like to share, please contact me.

Buller Time was also contacted by a granddaughter of Klaas P. Buller, Grandpa Chris’s older brother (see here). I know less about this family (which means more room for readers to contribute their own memories), but Dad’s recollection is that Klaas lived south and east of Peter P and Margaretha. This is consistent with our earlier suggestion that Klaas and family lived on 120 acres of section 13 of the Henderson Township in York County (see the map here). Dad remembers that place well because he broke his leg there jumping off of a feed bunk; he still had the cast on his leg on the third birthday in 1936.

He also recalls that Klaas and family moved to Lushton for a while and had a shoe repair shop there a block west and a block south of the post office. Eventually Klaas moved to York, I believe, and one of his daughters remains there. Again, if anyone has further information about Klaas’s family, please share it with the rest of us.

In the meantime, I will continue to read and explore and think about what topics might be of interest to Buller Time and its readers.



Sunday, April 14, 2019

Franztal 23 and (probably) last

In 1846 the Danish author, philosopher, theologian, and critic Søren Kierkegaard published a work titled Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Although I highly recommend reading that work, this post is not directly concerned with it, except for the fact that Kierkegaard’s title hints at the volume’s role as not only a wrapping up of what he had initiated earlier (the full title is Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments) but also an extension, an unscientific, even subjective and impressionistic, postscript to that work.

In the same spirit as Kierkegaard’s book, this post offers a concluding unscientific postscript to the Franztal series. Instead of rehashing the historical data in orderly fashion or revisiting the community report to see what details merit a second look, this postscript will recount (coherently, I hope) some impressions made along the way.

1. The Przechovka Church

We began the series because we had discovered in an earlier series (Przechovka Emigration; see here for the first post) that the widely accepted claim that the church at Przechovka in West Prussia had emigrated to Molotschna in a single group in 1820, then founded the village of Alexanderwohl the following year, was not the whole story. In fact, a larger group had emigrated to Molotschna in 1819, and many of them had established Franztal. To my knowledge, the Przechovka-Franztal connection has not been widely discussed, if at all, prior to this point. Why?

On the one hand, the Przechovka-Franztal group did not establish their own village church that might have claimed the Przechovka mantle. Rather, they attended the nearby Rudnerweide church led by Elder Franz Goerz; in so doing, they lost any obvious identification with the Przechovka church. On the other hand, the Przechovka-Alexanderwohl group not only claimed to be the legitimate heirs of the West Prussian church (see their Gemeindebericht here) but also held the visible symbol of that claim: the church book. 

In time, the Alexanderwohl group came to be identified as the continuation of the Przechovka church. In one sense they were: they carried the history and traditions of that church from West Prussia to Russia and even beyond, to the plains of Kansas. However true that story may be, it is not the full story. An larger body of Przechovka members emigrated to Russia a year before the more famous group, and their stories should neither be forgotten nor omitted from the larger Przechovka narrative.

On a more personal note, although the Buller family became prominent within the Alexanderwohl church, the first Przechovka Buller to enter Molotschna (Jacob Jacob Buller) resided first in Franztal. Ironically, however, he lived there only two years before moving to join family and church friends in, you guessed it, Alexanderwohl.

2. The 1835 Census

As a novice only beginning to work with this primary source, I approached it with some unrealistic expectations. Having seen that the census recorded the movements of people within the colony (e.g., Jacob Jacob Buller is listed in Franztal and Alexanderwohl) and the deaths of those who had passed away before 1835, I assumed that it would be a relatively comprehensive source for reconstructing the history of Franztal. Unfortunately, I learned otherwise.

As we discovered in the previous post, the census does not contain evidence regarding the identities of five or six of Franztal’s twenty-three founding settlers. Think about that. In 1835, a mere fifteen years after the founding of the village, roughly a quarter of the founding settlers were either forgotten or omitted from the official record. If this is correct, and at present I see no other explanation, then we (or at least I) should temper our expectations when using the census or any other primary source. Even when the source is accurate, it may be incomplete, and we should keep an open mind until we know that we have all the facts at our disposal, not just some of them. 

A second realization that this exercise produced was the absolute necessity of checking the primary sources themselves. I confess that thus far I have been working strictly from the English translation of the 1835 census, which is several steps removed from the (incomplete) original source: someone first transcribed the census material from a microfilm of the census; someone else then translated what had been transcribed and recorded it on the English translation. 

Not surprisingly, mistakes entered the document all along the way. For example, Gerhard Heinrich Dirks of Franztal 1 is said to have moved to Rudnerweide in the English translation, but, in fact, he moved from Rudnerweide to Franztal, a correction first noted by Steve Fast (see here for his list of corrections). Therefore, not only is it imperative to approach the census with realistic expectations, but one should remain open-minded about any conclusions drawn from secondary sources; needless to say, one should also prefer consulting the primary sources whenever possible.

What I discovered through the Franztal series is how much I have to learn about the 1835 census and other similar resources. Reading Glenn Penner articles about Russian censuses in general (here) and the 1835 Molotschna census in particular (here) is valuable, but it is no substitute for working with the actual record, even in microfilm form. My understanding is that all LDS Family History Centers provide access to this and other primary sources. It may be time to visit the center 7.5 miles up the road.

3. The 1848 Gemeindeberichten

The Franztal community report gives the same impression as the Alexanderwohl report: although it contains a mistake or two (Johann Cornies was not head of Molotschna colony), it is largely accurate in historical terms. However, the value of the Gemeindeberichten extends far beyond their providing historical information. Their true value, I think, lies in their insider perspective. 

These community reports were written by residents with firsthand knowledge of life in the village. They knew which events were important to the village’s history because they had often lived through those events themselves. They remembered, for example, the droughts, the swarms of locusts, and the devastating blizzards because they had experienced them. They were well equipped to describe the village gardens, orchards, fields, and pastures because they walked past them and worked in them every day. The value of the Gemeindeberichten, in order words, lies in their immediacy, their intimate connection to the village itself. One might even suggest that their unscientific nature is their greatest strength.

The biggest problem with these reports is that they remain largely inaccessible. They are all posted online, to be sure (see here), but few are available in English translation. Even when they have been translated (see, e.g., Alexanderwohl, Friedensdorf, Gnadenfeld, Rudnerweide, Tiege), details within the accounts may remain obscure due to our geographical and chronological distance from them. 

It is because of these obstacles that Buller Time has now translated and commented upon three of the community reports: Waldheim, Alexanderwohl, Franztal. Only forty-one remain for Molotschna, plus many more for Chortitza and other non-Mennonite (generally Lutheran) German colonies in Russia. I trust that someday all the Gemeindeberichten will be available in English translation, so that as many researchers and readers who wish can wrestle with this primary source material for themselves.



Saturday, April 6, 2019

Franztal 22

The previous post compared three lists—the 1835 Molotschna census, our list of 1819 immigrants from Przechovka, and Peter Rempel’s list of 1819 settlers—in order to begin to identify Franztal’s founding settlers. A comparison of the names in these sources revealed thirteen of the twenty-three landowners in Franztal, including Wirtschaften 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 22, 24. This post will work through the remaining Wirtschaften to see if we can identify the other ten owners.

Our procedure will be straightforward. We will identify the Wirtschaft by number and give the name of the person who lived there according to the 1835 census. We will survey the available evidence about that person—and any others listed at the same location—and draw whatever conclusions we can about who first settled that Wirtschaft.

1. Gerhard Heinrich Dirks (GM 61557) moved to this plot from Rudnerweide in 1828, so we know he was not the original settler. The census does not list any other inhabitants, so we cannot suggest who first owned this Wirtschaft.

2. Jacob Johann Neufeld (GM 61562) moved to this plot from Grossweide either in 1820 (so his entry under Grossweide) or 1829 (so his entry under Franztal). This discrepancy is at least in the English translation of the census, perhaps also in the original. If Neufeld moved to Franztal in 1820, he was the original settler of this plot; if he moved in 1829, he was not, and we are unable to suggest some other candidate.

4. Peter Jacob Pankratz is apparently GM 43141, since the name of the father, wife, and daughter on the census matches the information given for this individual. Peter was born in 1806, which means he was fourteen when Franztal was founded. Clearly, he was not an original landowner. Interestingly, he had a connection with our family. Peter’s father Jacob (GM 43069) died in 1808, after which his mother Ancke Pankratzen (GM 32957) married Jacob Peter Buller (GM 318737; for a post documenting the confusion that surrounds Jacob, see here). She died in 1813 while still in Prussia, and Peter Pankratz was presumably left with his stepfather Jacob Buller. What is curious is that Peter Pankratz is not listed with Jacob Buller when the latter emigrated in 1820 (Rempel 2007, 172). What happened to Peter Pankratz that he did not emigrate with Jacob Buller? It is tempting to think that this Peter was one of the drivers named Peter Pankratz within the 1819 traveling party (see here). How and when he came to own Franztal 4 is unknown, as is the identity of the original owner of the Wirtschaft.

5. Although we already identified Peter Andreas Richert (GM 48279) as the original owner, it is worth mentioning that he died in 1821. His plot was taken over by Peter Peter Janzen (GM 29972), who moved to Franztal 5 from Rudnerweide in 1822. We should also note that Jacob Jacob Buller (GM 5587) lived at this plot from 1820 until he moved to Alexanderwohl in 1822. This Jacob was the son of Jacob Peter Buller mentioned in number 4 above.

7. The census reports that Jacob Jacob Goerz (GM 61582) emigrated to Molotschna in 1821 and then moved from Tiegerweide to Franztal in 1822. Therefore, he was not among the original twenty-three landowners, and we have no clues as to the original settler of this Wirtschaft

9. Dietrich David Block (GM 61603) left Prussia for Russia in 1818 (Unruh 1955, 360; Rempel 2007, 109). He is not listed at any other Molotschna village, so it is reasonable to think that he settled first in Franztal and was one of the original landowners. 

12. Peter Peter Ratzlaff (GM 47898) was twenty-two in 1835, so he was six when his family moved to Molotschna in 1819. His father Peter Heinrich Ratzlaff was the original owner of Franztal 6, so the most reasonable explanation is that the son Peter took over Franztal 12 when he established his own family. We have no further evidence as to who was the founding owner.

13. Andreas Jacob Pankratz (GM 43136) came to Molotschna late. According to Rempel (2007, 172), he received a passport in 1820 but was unable to sell his possessions and so stayed in Prussia. Later (2007, 194) we read that a second visa was issued in 1824. The English translation of the census states that he moved to Molotschna in 1829, but one wonders if the 4 has been misread as a 9 (Steve Fast’s list of census corrections does not indicate any error; see here). Whichever date is correct, we can conclude that Pankratz was not an original landowner.

16. The census reports that Kornelius Kornelius Siemens (GM 61663) emigrated to Russia in 1817, which is confirmed by Rempel (2007, 106). The census further states that he moved to Franztal from Ohrloff in 1820. The Kornelius Siemens listed at Ohrloff 22 appears to be a different individual (and, contra GM and the index here, I see no Kornelius Siemens listed at Ohrloff 25). Assuming that the Franztal listing is correct, Siemens was an original landowner in Franztal.

20. According to the census, Heinrich Peter Janzen (GM 225175) moved to Molotschna in 1817 (see also Rempel 2007, 105). The census adds that he moved to Franztal from Lindenau 30, where he was apparently landless in 1820. Janzen was thus one of Franztal’s founding landowners.

21. Peter Peter Janzen (GM 61689) is reported to have emigrated in 1819 (neither Rempel nor Unruh lists him in any records). He is not listed in any other village, so we may conclude that he settled first in Franztal and was one of the original landowners. His residency there was short, however, since he passed away in 1822. Franztal 21 passed to his second son, Klaas, who continued to live there at least through 1857, after which the property apparently passed to Klaas’s son Jacob (see the voter lists here). 

23. According to the census (also Unruh 1955, 370), Peter Jacob Schmidt (GM 61708) emigrated in 1822 and resided first in Alexanderwohl; he moved to Franztal 23 in 1824. He was therefore not one of the original landowners.

This exercise has enabled us to identify at least four, possibly five, more original landowners, but five or six remain unknown. In the next post we will recap what we have learned thus far and make some concluding observations about the nature of the sources on which we must rely.


Works Cited

Rempel. Peter. 2007. Mennonite Migration to Russia, 1788–1828. Edited by Alfred H. Redekopp and Richard D. Thiessen. Winnepeg: Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society.

Unruh, Benjamin H. 1955. Die niederlandisch-niederdeutschen Hintergründe der mennonitischen Ostwanderungen im 16., 18. und 19. Jahrhundert. Karlsruhe-Rüppurr: self-published.