Women in Odessa, Kherson, Zaporozhe, Dnipro and Kiev adorn themselves in the colors and fragrances of happy gardens that belie Ukraine’s brutal history. Men without shirts in the villages of what had been the Mennonite colony of Molotschna greet busloads of camera-laden pilgrims with welcoming smiles and generous offerings of honey from their hives.
I want to bow to these women and men for their unpretentious beauty and generosity. They are not Mennonites, these generous people, and don’t know much about the Mennonites who built and first occupied their homes and villages except for what they have gleaned from our buses of Mennonite pilgrims.
I embarked on this pilgrimage to Ukraine out of curiosity. I wanted to develop a visceral impression of the homes, fields and industries of my ancestors, who after a longer sojourn in Prussia during the 17th and 18th centuries came to southern Russia. I wanted to learn why my people were always running. I did learn why, and those impressions became visceral in and beyond my dreams.
I learned that we began running in the 16th century, chased out of Holland by Christian inquisitors who did not tolerate our Anabaptist separation of church and state, voluntary faith and baptism, and pacifism. Our inquisitors stretched us on racks, drowned us in rivers and burned us on pyres for these differences, so we ran (just as our Swiss Anabaptist counterparts did from the Protestant reformers Zwingli and Calvin). I had always heard that we were persecuted for our Christian faith, but that was not so; we were persecuted by Christians for our distinct Anabaptist practices.
From the Christians of Holland we ran to Prussia, mostly to what is now Poland, then under German control. In Prussia during the 17th and 18th centuries we were offered tolerance of our Anabaptist distinction and land in exchange for adopting a German language and identity and our expertise in dikes, mills and agriculture.
By the 19th century our privileges and exemption from military service in Prussia collapsed, so we were running again. At that time, Catherine II was inviting people from all over Europe to help develop and strengthen Russia, and Mennonites in Prussia negotiated privileges with her agents, including exemption from military service, autonomy of rule within colonies, land and rights to build factories, mills, breweries, German-speaking schools and churches. So, we ran to southern Russia and flourished there for a time in what is now Ukraine.
In the 1870s, however, Czar Alexander II began to retract the privileges of immigrants from Europe under policies of Russification. This retraction included exemption of military service, so many of us ran to Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba. To our horror, in the 20th century Lenin and Stalin far exceeded Alexander II’s Russification in genocides to wipe out all traces of privileged European immigrants who stayed behind, including Mennonites (along with Lutherans, Catholics, Jews and Muslims), so we continued to run, and even after World War II we ran.
In this diaspora we ran to China and other lands south and east of Russia. We ran to Germany yet were returned to Russia per the Yalta agreement to certain death. We ran to South America. We ran to Canada. (The U.S. refused us in the 1920s.) We ran again even in the 1940s and late 1980s.
I, too, am running — in a nightmare. As I pondered what I had learned in Ukraine, and after hearing the tragic story of an African exile to contemporize those old stories, I suffered a nightmare. In my nightmare the guards of the regime are faster than me. Their clubs are the same deadly steel of those that Putin’s thugs wielded to break the skulls and bodies of Ukrainian protesters in Kiev’s Maidan Square in 2014 — devils like those who under the anarchist Nestor Makhno in southern Russia raped and slaughtered our people during the Russian Revolution. For Makhno, the Red Army, the White Army and Communists afterwards, it was no longer about Anabaptist distinction but our Germanic identity and our prosperity.
And just like those devils, the devils who chase and bring me to the ground now in my nightmare have no idea of and no consideration for my Anabaptist underpinnings. All they know is that I do not bow to the regime.
In my nightmare, I am not running in Kiev’s Maidan Square where 1 million protesters held out for 90 days in 2014 until Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych resigned. I am not running in Tiananmen Square, where on June 4, 1989, it took 300,000 troops with tanks and machine guns to kill free speech. I am not running in a thousand other squares throughout the centuries and the globe where clubs and tanks crush those who have had enough and no longer bow to the regime. I am not running back then along the Limat River in Zurich or among the caves in the mountains of the Jura until Zwingli’s reforming thugs beat Anabaptists into martyrs. I am not running back then in segregated restaurants in the U.S. where police beat protesters into pioneers of civil rights. And I am not running out the back door then in the villages of Molotschna or Chortitza.
Can it happen again?
Mennonites today ask if it could happen again. If by that we are asking “could it happen again somewhere in the world?” there is ample evidence to confirm that it is, indeed, happening in multiple places now and always has. Even in our own time and along U.S. borders, refugees running from south of the U.S. are turned back to possible death or separated from their children.
If by that we are asking “could it happen again to Mennonites?” the answer is yes. In the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere there are more Mennonites than those whose ancestors ran from southern Russia and countries in Europe, and they indeed in our own time run or disappear if they protest or simply live in the way.
But perhaps what many who ask that question really want to know is, could it also happen to Mennonites with a legacy of running in and from Europe, in our own time and place?
In my nightmare, I am such a Mennonite running. I am running as fast as I can toward the highest symbol of the freedoms announced by the Statue of Liberty: the Washington Monument. In my nightmare I, a Mennonite with a legacy of running, am pursued and brought to the ground at the foot of the ultimate monument to our democratic government — a government that today threatens to undermine the essential tools of democracy such as free speech, the press, separation of powers among the branches of government, the rule of law — pursued and brought to the ground by agents of the regime that won the hearts of 81 percent of evangelicals, including Mennonites whose ancestors escaped from brutal regimes in Ukraine.
I awaken grateful not to endure the first blow and determined not to fall back into the nightmare. But I cannot leave steel hanging over my head. I must make up an ending that resolves my fear.
One of my favorite theologians, Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest (as was our own Menno Simons) confessed on behalf of us all that “the human heart is compassionate but willing to kill when afraid.” But what Nouwen focused on during his noted career as Yale professor and pastor to those with disabilities, is what happens when the heart fears not.
There was another square, this one in Romania on Dec. 21, 1989, where thousands gathered to hear their brutal autocrat Ceausescu utter specious pronouncements and lies from the balcony above. Eight minutes into his speech, one person below the balcony had had enough and feared not. He cupped his hands to raise a singular cry above the lies. “Boo!” Another near him also feared not and shouted, “Boo!” And then another, and more, until the entire square and the masses in the streets way beyond the square who had come expecting to again bow in loyalty to their autocrat feared no longer and erupted into a cacophonous “Boo!” The lying and brutal autocrat retreated from the balcony in dismay and was deposed.
If I must complete my nightmare and can choose how, I choose the Romanian story. In my nightmare, one bystander who has had enough and fears not screams “Boo!” and within seconds steel retreats from a cacophony of shouts all up and down the Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol.
In place of steel appears a luminous apparition of my granddaughter adorned in a white dress covered with bright and happy patterns of Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor, Triceratops and Stegosaurus. She with her laughing dinosaurs, pristine in an innocence and happiness that belie the evil now in retreat, offers me a jar of honey. I bow as I receive it. I no longer fear the nightmare.
Phil Kliewer is retired from a career in management of aircraft maintenance at FedEx, now living in Fresno, Calif., where he associates with Willow Avenue Mennonite Church. The tour he participated in this summer was arranged by Mennonite Heritage Cruise.