FRESNO, Calif. — The Mennonite experience in the former Soviet Union is more than family history — it is a way to understand the relationship between a state and its people.
This was one of the themes of “Mennonites in the Soviet Union,” a series of lectures March 27 and 29 at Fresno Pacific University. The speaker was Andrej Savin, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“For a historian of the Soviet period, Mennonites represent a truly unique subject that offers an opportunity to study a wide range of key issues of the domestic and foreign policy of the U.S.S.R.,” Savin wrote in an email interview.
Mennonites came to Russia beginning in the late 1780s at the invitation of Tsarina Catherine the Great to farm, mainly in Ukraine. They were persecuted by communist leader Joseph Stalin as part of his repression in the 1920s and 1930s. Many Mennonites were killed. Others were imprisoned or escaped to North and South America.
In some ways, the story of Russian Mennonites mirrors that of other Christian groups under Stalin.
“Mennonites, like other religious minorities during Soviet times, were outcast,” wrote Savin, who has also published research on evangelicals and Germans in the U.S.S.R.
As the Russian Orthodox Church increasingly worked with the communist regime, however, Mennonites and Protestants were seen as more dangerous.
“If the Orthodox church was willing to compromise with the government, the Protestants were actively trying to defend their rights,” Savin wrote.
The lectures were:
- “The Religious Policy of the Soviet State and Mennonites, 1917-1991”;
- “The Ethnicization of Stalinism: ‘German Operation’ of NKVD, 1937-1938”;
- “Pacifists in a Military State: Mennonites and Conscription, 1917-1941”; and
- “The Brezhnev Era Through the Eyes of Brezhnev.” This lecture was sponsored by the FPU History Department. Savin is an editor of the papers of Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982.
The Siberian story
Another highlight of the visit was the launch of volume three of Ethno-Confessions in the Soviet State: Mennonites in Siberia, a collection of documents concerning Mennonites that Savin found in Siberian archives. Previous volumes are an annotated list of files, published in 2006, and another collection of documents, published in 2009. All documents are in Russian, with a table of contents in English.
The Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, located in Hiebert Library at FPU, began working with Savin on the Siberian Mennonite Research Project in 2004, according to Paul Toews, professor emeritus of history.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, historians such as Toews and Harvey Dyck of the University of Toronto have visited many archives in Ukraine, Moscow and St. Petersburg.
“But who was going to wander around all those archives in Siberia?” Toews asked — not to mention Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan and other Central Asian nations that once were part of the Soviet Union.
Enter Savin, senior researcher with the Institute of History, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Savin visited archives in areas where Mennonites had lived and identified more than 1,000 files, ranging in size from one page to thousands.
“Because of his position with the Russian Academy of Sciences, he has gotten into archives no foreigner would have access to,” Toews said.
The project is funded by Walter and Marina Unger with assistance from the estate of her father, Peter Dick, and the Kroeker Foundation of Winkler, Man.
Savin spoke in his native Russian, while an English text was shown on a screen. His wife, Tanya, translated during question-and-answer periods.
The lectures were sponsored by the California Mennonite Historical Society.
The legacy of Mennonites in the Soviet Union is one of faith under pressure and survival.
“Mennonites had a daunting experience,” Savin wrote. “But at the same time, Mennonites have demonstrated that even a small community of believers is able to resist effectively the dictates of the state.”