FROM ITS BEGINNING, THE ANABAPTIST MOVEMENT—the radical wing of the Reformation centered in Switzerland and the Netherlands—suffered continuous displacement, heavily persecuted by both Catholic and Protestant authorities. Mennonites were chased all over Europe, and by the 17th century many had settled in Prussia. The late 18th century saw a major migration of Prussian Mennonites to southern Ukraine, where they had been invited by Catherine the Great, the Tsarina of Russia, because of their reputation as hardworking farmers who had proven successful at cultivating marginal lands. My people come from this wing of the Mennonite movement, and they flourished in Ukraine and Russia for almost 150 years, living in relatively autonomous, German-speaking villages. Catherine granted them religious freedom, including exemption from military service, in exchange for their pioneering and settling the step lands of Southern Ukraine.
The Schulz family (my maternal grandparents) were entrepreneurs who in the late 19th century built a machine factory manufacturing farm equipment that was used all over Russia. But the prosperity of the Mennonite villages contrasted starkly with the lot of both the majority of Russian peasants (who had been liberated from serfdom only one generation earlier) and the emerging urban industrial working class. The profound disparities between the landed gentry and the poor throughout Russia resulted in an aborted revolutionary coup in 1905. World War I further exacerbated social and economic tensions throughout the archaic Tsarist regime. All of these contradictions came to a head in the October Revolution of 1917, lead by Vladamir Lenin.
After the Tsar was overthrown by the Bolsheviks, three years of civil war ensued throughout Russia. In Ukraine the fighting was the bloodiest, raging back and forth between three armed forces: the Red Army of the Soviets; the White Army of Tsarist supporters (backed by the West); and the irregular but formidable forces of Ukrainian nationalists and anarchists. These battles raged right through the yard we were now standing in.