by Peter P. Isaac
Between 1804 and 1845, Doukhobors and Mennonites established neighbouring colonies on opposite banks of the Molochnaya River in the Melitopol district of Tavria province, Russia (present-day Zaporiz’ka province, Ukraine). Relations between the two groups of religious settlers were friendly, cordial and cooperative throughout this period. The following brief account is reproduced from Peter P. Isaac, “Stammbuch Meiner Voreltern” (Prairie View Press, Rosenort, Manitoba, 1979) as cited in Delbert Friesen Plett, “Storm and Triumph: The Mennonite Kleine Gemeinde (1850-1875)” Vol. 2. (D.F.P. Publications, Steinbach, Manitoba, 1986). Based on oral tradition, it recounts how, in c. 1806, Doukhobors came to the aid of a Mennonite girl whose mother and sister drowned in the Molochnaya River. Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.
The Molochnaya River in the Melitopol district of Zaporiz’ka province, Ukraine separated the former Mennonite colonies on the east bank from the Doukhobor colonies on the west bank. A Panoramio photo by Sergei Litvinenko.
“… Great-Aunt Katharina Warkentin, the only daughter of their first marriage, was married to Johann Brandt. They lived in the Old Colony [i.e. Chortitza] in Russia. She died a pitiful death by drowning in the river Molotschna [sic. Molochnaya] on a trip, with her two small girls, to visit her parents in the Molotschna colony, a distance of about 75 miles. I still feel a deep pity when I think of it. It happened this wise: Her husband hooked up the light wagon, a quite tame and as a rule trustworthy horse for the trip.
She was nearly to her destination when she stopped at the bank of the Molotschna River and went down to the water to have a wash. The horse apparently was thirsty and wanted to get a drink so it started down the steep bank and tumbled into the river. The youngest girl was on the wagon with it. The mother immediately rushed to the scene of the accident to save the little girl but together with her she drowned in the heroic attempt.
The older girl stood helpless, looking on, weeping bitterly. She was soon discovered by Dukhobors who lived on the other side of the river. They came over to the girl but could not understand anything of what she said because she could not speak Russian.
The Dukhobors took her to Lindenau where she, sobbing bitterly, told the people that they had been on the way to the grandparents in Blumenort and how the accident had happened. The people of Lindenau went to the place of the accident and found the drowned mother, little girl, and horse and took them to Lindenau.
Apparently the little Molotschna River stood at high water at the time. Sixty-five to 70 years later at the time of my youth, a horse could easily walk through without swimming when it was low.
I cannot definitely state the place where this mother and daughter were buried. I think it was Blumenort. If I could have asked the aged grandfather, Isaac Loewen, long ago deceased in Russia, who was still a youth at the time of the accident and lived with his parents in Lindenau, he would have given me a more detailed account of the accident that overtook this great-aunt Katharina.
Later, I found out from my parents that this accident happened only a few years after the settlement had been accomplished in the year 1804. My second degree uncle Cornelius Fast told me that on one occasion he had worked along the Molotschna River and had come close to the place of the accident an old man had told him: “Here is the place where a woman, her daughter, and a horse were drowned.”
Map of the Molochnaya Mennonite colony. The drownings occurred on the west bank near the Doukhobor village of Bogdanovka, opposite the Mennonite village of Lindenau on the east bank.
Beginning in 1802, groups of Doukhobors from across Russia were permitted to settle along the west bank of the Molochnaya River and its estuary in the Melitopol district of Tavria province (present-day Zaporiz’ka province, Ukraine). There, they were granted 131,417 acres of land on which they established nine villages as well as extensive grain fields and pasturage, flour mills, textile mills, stud farms and enormous livestock herds. By 1816, the colony comprised a total of 2,500 residents.
In 1804, Mennonites from West Prussia were permitted to settle in large numbers along the east bank of the Molochnaya River. They were granted an initial tract of 270,000 acres of land on which they established 18 villages, extensive grain fields, pasturage, flour mills, brickworks, orchards and extensive livestock herds. By 1810, well over 400 families had settled in the colony. They brought progressive farming practices from their homeland, which resulted in their colony becoming the most rich and advanced in the region.
Despite linguistic and cultural barriers, relations between the neighbouring colonies were, by all accounts, friendly, cordial and cooperative. For their part, the Doukhobors eagerly adopted the advanced expertise of their Mennonite neighbours in farming, gardening and cattle breeding, whereas most other Russian and Ukrainian peasants were indifferent to such experience. The Doukhobors also took up some of the niceties of the Mennonites’ lifestyle, incorporated German elements in their clothing and began to build their houses in the German style. From time to time, the Mennonites stepped forward as mediators between the Doukhobors and local authorities, delivering petitions from the people of the Doukhobor settlements and standing as witnesses during court investigations. Business dealings between Doukhobor and Mennonite settlers in the trade of agricultural products was commonplace, and it is known that some Mennonite men served as farm labourers for the Doukhobors, and vice-versa.
The events recounted in the historical excerpt above occurred in circa 1806, “only a few years after” the Mennonite colony on the Molochnaya had been established. At the time, the Mennonite woman Katharina (nee Warkentin) Brandt and her two daughters were travelling there, via horse and wagon, from the distant Mennonite colony of Chortitza. While crossing the Molochnaya, which was at high water, the horse and wagon tumbled into the river, drowning one of the daughters and the mother who tried in vain to rescue her. The drownings occurred on the west bank of the river near the Doukhobor village of Bogdanovka, opposite the Mennonite village of Lindenau on the east bank. Doukhobors working in their fields nearby came to the aid of the surviving daughter, but were unable to discern what happened because she could not speak Russian and they could not understand German. They took her to the Lindenau, where the Mennonites discovered what happened and returned to the Molochnaya to retrieve the bodies for burial.
This incident, as retold through oral history, is one of the remarkably few examples of published information about Doukhobor-Mennonite relations during their four decades together on the Molochnaya. As such, it is a useful contribution to our understanding of this little-known period of history.