It was a rugged, flat prairie as far as the eye could see. The ground was covered in tall, feathery grass and in some areas the grass was so tall a horse and rider waiting to ambush an enemy could be easily concealed. A relentless wind blew straight from the east; one of the few constants of the prairie. The seemingly barren land initially fooled those who traveled the area but it didn’t take long for them to notice the wildlife teeming in the grass; badgers, gophers and foxes along with bears and many kind of pheasants and birds.
This land lay in what was then southwestern Russia, the Steppes or Black Earth region of the country. Czarina Catherine the Great had won this open prairie from the Turks in the early 18th century and then it was mostly populated with nomadic tribes whose civilization left the land strewn with burial mounds and crudely carved stone sculptures that were either representing a god or their ancestors. Russia was on its way to being one of the biggest empires in the world and Catherine had to protect the land from being taken back.
In the land of Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, the freedom to worship as one chose was disappearing. There once was a time when the Kaisers believed in this freedom, when the teachings of Martin Luther were still remembered, but with each new Kaiser, these freedoms shrank. Laws were being made to prohibit particular religions such as the Mennonites and Lutherans, from buying land for their young families to start a life. Other laws were being made that kept people from even joining the congregation of their choice or current members from worshiping as they chose. The Mennonites were bristling under this control and wanting to find a place to move.
Catherine, who was born in Prussia, had known about the plight of the Mennonites who were being pushed out of her former country. Her intentions were to populate her newly acquired land with people, first loyal to her and second, who would make the land prosperous for Russia. The Mennonites were just what she needed. From her time living in Prussia, she had seen what these farming, hard working and industrious people were capable of and, as she had a common heritage, knew they would be loyal. Catherine offered the leadership of the congregations freedom of religion and no conscription into the military, as they Mennonites were pacifists, if they would come and colonize the Steppes and make the area flourish for Russia. The leaders took her offer and the Molotchna Colony was settled along the Molotchna River and eventually became extremely affluent. During the first century in which the people settled the area, the villagers not only become prosperous farmers but built large businesses manufacturing agriculture equipment, hand tools, solid bricks (that are even known today as some of the best bricks in the country), home roof tiles, threshers, and flour. At one time, a village named Halbstadt in the colony had the largest flour mill in the country!
Some of the Mennonites remained in Prussia during this century, feeling that so many had left earlier that life would be better for them. The optimism proved to be nearly their downfall as the hand of the Kaiser slowly attempted to choke them out of existence. In desperation, a group of thirty-eight families requested permission from the current Czar of Russia to relocate in the uninhabited areas east of the Molotchna Colony. Permission was granted on January 10, 1834. These Mennonite families, including the Russo family, left their homes in Prussia six months after that day in January. Czar Nikolai I had granted each family 175 acres to farm and a plot of land to build a home, no military conscription and the freedom to worship as they chose. No amount of struggles, hard work or fear of the unknown would keep them from traveling by wagon over the wide expanse of land, hills and cities that lie between persecution and freedom. In thankfulness to God, they named their new village Gnadenfeld; Field of Grace.