According to popular lore, the sojourning Mennonites in Europe found refuge in Russia, where they flourished until 1917, when the Russian Revolution unleashed horrific persecution of these peaceful, faithful people. But The Russian Mennonite Story, a new collection of lectures by the late historian Paul Toews, demonstrates that not all is as it seems.
For example, on April 19, 1918, as World War I was moving toward its conclusion and socialism was on the rise in Russia, Mennonites in the Molotschna colony joyfully welcomed German soldiers occupying the region. While Ukraine was staunchly anti-German, the Mennonites heralded their arrival as fellow German volk.
“The entire cohort — some 700 to 800 men — was put up for the night [in private homes] in [the villages of] Halbstadt, Neuhalbstadt and Muntau,” one church member reported, “and we showed them all of the love and friendliness of which we are capable.”
By embracing the invaders, the Mennonites drew the ire of their Ukrainian neighbors. As a result, Toews argued, the Mennonites became not simply unfortunate victims of persecution but contributed to their own troubles.
“To think of the story in terms of pathos is comforting to us,” he said. “It reinforces the notion of Mennonites as martyrs. . . . And yet we need to acknowledge that Mennonites were not simply hapless victims; choices engender consequences.”
Toews’ willingness to push beyond the historical comfort zones makes The Russian Mennonite Story: The Heritage Cruise Lectures a valuable contribution. A longtime history professor at Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University, Toews gave the lectures annually between 1995 and 2010 on Mennonite heritage cruises up the Dnieper River to the sites of the Chortitza and Molotschna colonies. He died in 2015. The lectures were prepared for publication by Aileen Friesen, who holds the J. Winfield Fretz Fellowship in Mennonite Studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont.
Toews’ explorations of Mennonite interactions with Russian society also make the book valuable. The popular image of the Russian Mennonites as isolated, pastoral separatists is misleading. Their success in business, agricultural manufacturing and flour milling is already fairly well-known. Less commonly known is Mennonite participation in politics. Mennonites held the highest positions — including mayor, in various cities — and two church members even served in the Russian Duma (parliament) in the years leading up to the revolution.
One Mennonite in 1905 started a political party with the cumbersome name, “The Union of Freedom, Truth and Peace: Forces Against All Violence, Proponents of Unceasing Civil, Economic and Moral-Spiritual Progress.” It was usually shortened to “The Union of Freedom.”
Russian society affected Mennonites in various ways. Many church members left their villages for major metropolitan areas for university or seminary education or for work. Upon returning home, they would often push for change, as well as introduce new fashions and understandings of Mennonite relations with the Russian environment. Some advocated for land reform, a key issue for the Bolshevik revolutionaries and one that hit close to home for Mennonites, who owned more than 3 million acres, including a number of large estates.
Toews takes the Russian Mennonite story into the 21st century, touching on a renewed church presence in Ukraine and new interest in the Mennonites by Ukrainian and Russian scholars. Much new research has been facilitated by the opening of former KGB archives in Ukraine, a cause Toews enthusiastically promoted.
Another strength of the book is its marvelous use of photos, capitalizing on a priceless trove of archival collections in the United States and Canada. The ample number of photos gives The Russian Mennonite Story a coffee-table-book quality.
Maybe the only problem with The Russian Mennonite Story is that it leaves a reader wanting more. Though the book packs a great deal of information and insights into fewer than 100 pages, Toews didn’t produce a general survey of the Mennonites in Russia. His lectures were just one part of a larger program. And he died before the lectures could be updated or prepared for publication.
As a result, The Russian Mennonite Story underscores the need for a more comprehensive history. In the meantime, Toews’ lectures are indispensable for understanding the story of Mennonites in Russia.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.