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From Russia to America: In Search of Freedom (Deputationsreise von Russland nach Amerika vor vierundzwanzig Jahren)

Book review by Marion Mertz

Sudermann, Leonhard. From Russia to America: In Search of Freedom (Deputationsreise von Russland nach Amerika vor Vierundzwansig Jahren). Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada: Derksen Printer, 1974.


At a meeting in his home in Berdyansk, Russia, on August 1, 1872, Leonhard Sudermann, minister of the Berdyansk Mennonite congregation, urged the Mennonites of his church and the Alexanderwohl church to consider leaving Russia, to escape Tsarist repression. Nearly a century earlier the Mennonites, because of their expertise in farming, had been invited to Russia by Catherine II to cultivate the lands of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, being granted, in exchange, religious freedom, self-government, and exemption from the Russian military. However, an imperial order in 1870 revoked these privileges. The Mennonites, who had remained culturally German though living on Russian soil, felt their future was jeopardized and decided to send a delegation to America in search of a new homeland. Their need for religious freedom was great.

They had heard that America was “a haven for criminals” and that “one needed a pocket full of loaded revolvers...to live there." However, necessity forced them to consider the move. Jacob Buller and Sudermann were chosen to head a delegation to investigate. Sudermann was fifty-two years of age at the time. Paul and Lorenz Tschetter and Tobias Unruh were included in the group.

In a meticulously organized account of the journey, Sudermann records fastidious notes on the beauty of the terrain, of the flowers, the trees, the shrubs, and the river, but becomes very practical in recording the temperature, the rainfall, the condition of the soil, the grasshopper plagues, the buffalo, the antelope, and the growth of wheat, oats, and vegetables.

It is interesting to see the Midwest through the eyes of an early Mennonite: “...our eyes were locked in the vision that the New World had opened to us." Interspersed among the comments on the terrain and the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, are pleas and prayers for God's help.

Twenty-four years after his trip of 1873 Sudermann notes that Mennonites had settled in Manitoba, Kansas, Minnesota, Dakota, and Nebraska. He recognizes the help of a merciful God and ends with, "Praise be to his glorious name!" Sudermann died in 1900.
The book is translated into English by Elmer F. Suderman, who is not related to Leonhard Sudermann. It is reprinted as a paperback with rather small print but is well-spaced.

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