World news hits close to home

Writer and husband’s ancestors were among those who immigrated from Ukraine

Staff writer

With so much of world news these days focusing on Ukraine and Crimea, many residents of this area of Kansas are reminded of our ancestors who came from that area in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Ukraine was largely undeveloped in the late 1700s when Catherine the Great, the Russian empress, invited Mennonites and others from Europe to settle the area, promising freedom from military service.

My husband’s ancestors, the Klaassens and Pletts, were among those who made the move. The Klaassens were relatively well to do and established a large sheep and cattle ranch in the Molotschna Colony, a settlement consisting of 60 villages. The Pletts also settled in the Moltoschna Colony.

In 1872, the Russian emperor decreed universal military conscription. Mennonite and Lutheran Germans living in Russia were opposed to participation in the Russian army. Many of them decided to move to the United States.

Jerry’s maternal great-great-grandparents moved to Kansas in 1875 after first migrating to Canada. They settled one mile west of present-day Hillsboro in the Mennonite village of Alexanderfeld.

His paternal great-grandparents moved to the Lehigh area in 1876 after they first immigrated to Nebraska.

My ancestors were Lutherans. My paternal grandfather, Conrad Seibel, was born in Crimea, which was annexed to Russia by Catherine the Great in 1861. His parents moved there that same year from a village just east of the Molotschna Colony in Ukraine. Grandfather immigrated to America in 1903 as a single young man and settled in North Dakota, where he joined the Mennonite Brethren.

My maternal grandfather was born in Ukraine and came to America with relatives in the late 1880s, as did my maternal grandmother. They met and married in South Dakota and later moved to North Dakota, where they, too, joined the Mennonite Brethren.

The people who stayed behind in Russia enjoyed continued prosperity until the Bolshevik Revolution began in 1917. In following years, many of their villages were devastated by civil war and roving bands of outlaws who took everything they had. That, combined with severe drought, resulted in starvation for many from 1920 to 1922. Survivors later were forced to work on collective farms or were sent to Central Asian labor camps. More devastation occurred during World War II, when Russia and Germany vied for control of the region, almost putting an end to the Mennonite presence in the region.

One breadbasket to another

The Turkey Red winter wheat brought to Kansas by Mennonite immigrants was grown in Crimea. This wheat helped Kansas become the breadbasket of the world, even as the Ukraine was the breadbasket of Russia.

Ukraine reportedly has 25 percent of the world’s rich black soil. The land lay largely desolate for a long time, but in recent years, Ukraine has become a leading exporter of wheat. It had a record harvest in 2013-14.

Nikita Khrushchev annexed Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. The country became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Russia’s President Putin annexed Crimea to Russia two weeks ago. There is much controversy over the legitimacy of the move even after Crimean citizens approved a referendum on the issue. What will happen in the region remains to be seen.

Several Mennonite relief agencies provide food and medical services in Ukraine.

 

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