Ukraine: rich history, vibrant witness

Where Mennonite ancestors prospered and suffered, Ukrainians and MCC still serve

Mennonite Central Committee staff and partners raise 100th anniversary balloons after a worship service on June 23, 2019, in Khortitsa, Ukraine, at a “house of culture” where a Mennonite congregation met until 1935 — Paul Schrag/Mennonite World Review Mennonite Central Committee staff and partners raise 100th anniversary balloons after a worship service on June 23, 2019, in Khortitsa, Ukraine, at a “house of culture” where a Mennonite congregation met until 1935 — Paul Schrag/Mennonite World Review

Correction: The Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Ukraine has about two dozen churches.

Ukraine holds a special place in Mennonite history, but today’s Men­nonite presence there is less well-known.

It is a small presence. There are 520 members in 11 congregations, by Mennonite World Conference’s count.

But the impact of Mennonites in Ukraine exceeds what the numbers suggest.

Ukraine is the place where Mennonites enjoyed some of their greatest prosperity and endured some of their worst suffering.

With Ukraine bracing for a Russian invasion as Anabaptist World went to press on Feb. 22, we highlight Mennonite ministry and history there.

One Ukrainian Mennonite worth knowing is Sergey Panasovich.

He is the pastor of New Hope Mennonite Church in Zaporizhzhia. In June 2019, he told a visiting group of Mennonite Central Committee board members about his congregation’s ministry in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where an eight-year war has claimed 14,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands.

The North Americans had traveled to Ukraine, the country where MCC’s work began in 1920, to get an early start on celebrating the agency’s centennial.

More than two and a half years later, Panasovich is still ­doing what he described then, say Rob and Rebecca Hessenauer, MCC’s country representatives in Ukraine.

Sergey Panasovich, pastor of New Hope Mennonite Church in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. — Paul Schrag/Mennonite World Review
Sergey Panasovich, pastor of New Hope Mennonite Church in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. — Paul Schrag/Mennonite World Review

Twice a week, Panasovich said, he drives four hours to Avdievka to coordinate peacebuilding and material aid programs supported by MCC. In 2019, Avdievka was less than two miles from the front that divides Ukrainian-­controlled territory from the region held by Russian-backed rebels.

Panasovich’s congregation belongs to the Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Ukraine. The association is one of MCC’s partners.

In 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and instigated fighting in Donbas, New Hope launched war-­relief ministries. Members opened their doors to people who fled the shelling and fighting. Elderly women donated chickens.

Delivering food to the war zone, Panasovich saw “strong men cry because there were people who didn’t forget about them,” he said.

After eight years of conflict in the east, living under the shadow of war is not new, the Hessenauers said. In a Feb. 4 email, they expressed concern, but not alarm, about Russia’s buildup of troops at the border. As the crisis escalated, they and two other North American MCC staff evacuated the country on Feb. 13.

MCC’s programs of relief, peace, health and education in Ukraine include working with partners to assist people displaced by war in the east.

Among other North American Anabaptist organizations serving in Ukraine, Christian Aid Ministries gives food, firewood, literature and other aid to people affected by the fighting.

As Russia’s mobilization threatened a wider war, the MB asso­ciation sent a letter to European Mennonites requesting prayer. “We see with our own eyes a large number of weapons,” said the writer, Roman ­Rakhuba. Pastors were making evacuation plans for believers and nonbelievers because “this is our calling as Christians.”

Panasovich and others are writing a new chapter in the Ukrainian Mennonite story.

“We tell people the Mennonites are not indifferent to the place where their ancestors came from,” he said in 2019.

Mennonites have lived in Ukraine since the 1780s, when they answered Catherine the Great’s call for ­German farmers to settle the Russian Empire’s southland. Migrations continued for decades as Mennonites built prosperous colonies. Incentives to settle in Ukraine included self-government and exemption from military service.

Even after living for generations in Russian-ruled Ukraine, the Mennonites never assimilated. When the government threatened to end their military exemption, a Mennonite delegation traveled to St. Petersburg in 1871 to plead their case.

The minister of war was aghast when he discovered the Mennonites only spoke German.

“You have been in Russia for 70 years and still cannot speak Russian? That is a sin!” he exclaimed, according to Testing Faith and Tradition, the Europe volume in MWC’s Global Mennonite History.

Eventually, the Russian government agreed to provide alternative service for Mennonite conscripts under military authority. But that was not enough to stop a third of the Mennonite population — some 18,000 people — from pulling up their roots in Eurasia’s southern steppes and starting new lives by breaking sod on the remarkably similar landscape of North America’s central plains.

Settling along a corridor from Kan­sas to Manitoba, many of the immigrants joined the General Conference Mennonite Church, transforming it from a small movement into the second-­largest Mennonite denomination in North America — and a 21st-century merger partner with the Mennonite Church.

While the immigrants prospered, those who remained in Ukraine fared even better. Some called the four decades between the mid-1870s and World War I a golden age. According to Testing Faith and Tradition, even today people ask “whether there ever really was a such a ‘Mennonite paradise.’ . . . What is clear is that the Russian Mennonites reached astonishing economic and cultural heights.”

After such an ascent, the depths that followed were shocking. When the czarist government collapsed in the wake of crippling losses in World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution unleashed chaos. The Red Army, White Army and forces of the anarchist Nestor Makhno ravaged the land and the Mennonite colonies.

In Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, Anne Applebaum cites the memoir of Heinrich Epp, evocatively titled “The Day the World Ended: December 7, 1919, Steinbach, Russia”: “Epp remembered going from house to house . . . and finding that all had been murdered. At each one, he opened the door and found corpses.”

(The 2019 tour group laid flowers at a memorial in Eichenfeld, where 82 Mennonites perished at the hands of Makhno’s forces on Oct. 26-27, 1919.)

Visitors lay flowers at a memorial in Eichenfeld, Ukraine, where 82 Mennonites were killed by forces of the anarchist leader Nestor Makhno in 1919. — Paul Schrag/Mennonite World Review
Visitors lay flowers at a memorial in Eichenfeld, Ukraine, where 82 Mennonites were killed by forces of the anarchist leader Nestor Makhno in 1919. — Paul Schrag/Mennonite World Review

The worst was yet to come. In the 1920s, as the Soviets rose to power, about 20,000 Mennonites managed to flee to Canada before authorities in Moscow halted the exodus. In the 1930s, those left behind endured the closure of churches, arrests and executions, forced exile to Siberia and elsewhere in the east — and the Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger and extermination.

Fueled by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s paranoia, the Holodomor was an act of genocide — the intentional starvation of the Ukrainian people. It claimed the lives of 3.9 million Ukrainians between 1931 and 1934. Applebaum describes the atrocity as motivated by Stalin’s desire to destroy Ukrainian national identity and crush any challenge to Soviet authority.

But Ukrainians’ national spirit did not die. In fact, it outlived the Soviet Union. In 1991, Ukraine became a sovereign nation for the first time.

Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin, regretting the loss of an empire, covets Ukraine. Repossessing — or controlling as a vassal — the land that some called “little Russia” would empower Putin’s repressive state and deter the emergence of a neighboring democracy allied with the West.

On June 23, 2019, in Khortitsa, site of the first Mennonite settlement in Ukraine, MCC staff and North American board members gathered to open MCC’s centennial celebration.

They met in a “house of culture” that was once a Mennonite church. As they sang “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” the hymn seemed to carry the weight of history’s joys and sorrows.

For several days they had recalled the events that brought MCC into being — the war, terror and famine that led the Mennonites of Ukraine to plead for help from North America.

They had remembered those who lost their lives in Ukraine’s crucible of suffering — including Clayton Kratz, the 24-year-old MCC worker who disappeared after being arrested in 1921 in Halbstadt, staying at his post as the Red Army advanced toward the city.

They had recalled other milestones of Mennonite history, including the founding of the Mennonite Brethren denomination in 1860 in Ukraine, as they visited Molotschna, where the oldest MB church building still stands. It’s now an “oil press,” the tour guide said — a relic of the golden age.

Sheep graze beside the oldest Mennonite Brethren church building, dedicated in 1883, in the former Mennonite village of Rückenau, Ukraine. It is no longer a church. A plaque commemorates the 150th anniversary of the MB denomination, founded in 1860 during a spiritual revival among Mennonites in Ukraine. — Paul Schrag/Mennonite World Review
Sheep graze beside the oldest Mennonite Brethren church building, dedicated in 1883, in the former Mennonite village of Rückenau, Ukraine. It is no longer a church. A plaque commemorates the 150th anniversary of the MB denomination, founded in 1860 during a spiritual revival among Mennonites in Ukraine. — Paul Schrag/Mennonite World Review

The visit to Ukraine reminded us that while worldly powers rise and fall and the works of man flourish for a season, God’s faithfulness endures (Psalm 119:90).

God’s people remain faithful, too. Sergey Panasovich still offers comfort and makes peace in a nation girding for war. He and MCC workers and their partners testify that peace and human dignity are not achieved through military might.

Millions perished as Stalin tried to destroy Ukrainian national identity. But, in the end, it was the Soviet Union — mighty in weapons but empty in soul — that lay in ruins as Ukrainians declared their independence.

The surge of freedom that ended the Cold War brought hope for greater security as the U.S.-Soviet rivalry ended without nuclear war. Since then, many have grown complacent about the dangers of nuclear weapons. With U.S.-Russian relations now at their lowest point since the Cold War, calls are rising to reverse the progress of disarmament and bolster the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Peacemakers need to make their voices heard, opposing the risks and waste of militarism.

MCC and its partners, including the remnant of Mennonites in Ukraine, are working to resolve violence and ease poverty by peaceful means. History teaches that nations should follow their example.

Paul Schrag

Paul Schrag is editor of Anabaptist World. Read More

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