In March 2014, troops from Russia occupied and annexed Crimea, escalating a civil war in Ukraine that has left thousands homeless and thousands more facing extreme shortages of food, fuel and medical supplies. For some Mennonites in North America — particularly those whose ancestors once lived there — the crisis triggers a deep emotional response.
For more than a century, Mennonites flourished in Ukraine, expanding from their earliest settlements in Molotschna and Chortitza to establish numerous colonies across the steppe lands of South Russia. By the early 20th century, Mennonites in Russia were known for their impressive churches, orphanages and hospitals. They developed a fine educational system and were among the leading industrial entrepreneurs, specializing in agricultural innovations.
All this abruptly changed in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The civil war that ensued turned South Russia into a war zone, devastated by armies and roving bands of anarchists. Many Mennonites fled the Soviet Union as refugees. Others were executed, interned, sent to work camps or forcibly relocated. The few who remained in Ukraine tended to look on the arrival of the German Wehrmacht in 1941 as liberators, even as Nazi death squads purged the region of its Jewish occupants. After World War II, the region reverted to the U.S.S.R. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine became an independent state.
Though almost no Mennonites live there today, Ukraine continues to occupy a central place in Russian Mennonite memory. Since the opening of the Iron Curtain, thousands of Mennonites have participated in heritage tours to Ukraine, seeking contact with distant relatives or retracing the lives of their parents and grandparents. In 2000, a group of Mennonites in Canada formed an association called Friends of the Mennonite Centre in the Ukraine to both remember the Mennonite presence and provide material assistance to locals facing extreme hardships. Their newsletter, edited by Ben Stobbe, director of the organization, provides a useful window into the organization’s work.
One of the group’s first initiatives was to purchase the former Mennonite Girls School in the city of Molochansk (formally Halbstadt) as the base for their operations. Since then, the center has worked closely with local archivists and historians to memorialize the Mennonite historical presence through museum displays, plaques, brochures and historical scholarship.
But the primary focus of their work, echoing the beginnings of Mennonite Central Committee nearly a century earlier, is to respond to the immediate physical needs of Ukrainian people and to be a model of reconciliation in a highly polarized context. According to the most recent newsletter, staff members of the Mennonite Centre are from both Ukrainian and Russian background, representing Orthodox, Baptist, Mennonite and other religious traditions. Since its founding, the center has provided hundreds of refugees in Molochansk, Zaporozhye (formerly Chortitza) and elsewhere with food, medical supplies and fuel, while also supporting summer camps for children, educational scholarships and assistance to children with special needs.
Though Mennonites are mostly gone from Ukraine, their presence continues to be felt. More information on Friends of the Mennonite Centre and their newsletter are at mennonitecentre.ca.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.