Marlene Epp

The Conrad Grebel Review 18, no. 2 (Spring 2000)


This thematic issue of The Conrad Grebel Review contains papers given at the consultation, “Living with a History of Suffering: Addressing the Repercussions of the Soviet Mennonite Experience,” sponsored by the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre in the fall of 1999. The consultation was prompted by and followed a series of events in Mennonite communities across Canada in 1998 that marked the fiftieth anniversary of the height of the Stalin purges (1937-38). For many Mennonites living in the former Soviet Union during that era, those years saw significant numbers of men in particular arrested and either executed or sent into hard labor, most never to be seen by their families again.

A bit more historical information is necessary to place in context the articles that follow. The century-old Mennonite settlements in south Russia were radically transformed by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the First World War, and the Civil War and anarchy that followed. Prior to the upheavals of war and revolution, Russian Mennonite society was characterized by a fair degree of administrative autonomy, a strong religious orientation, and economic prosperity relative to neighboring villages. By the early 1920s, however, the violence, destruction, and death wrought by revolution, world war, anarchy, and famine prompted the departure of about 25,000 Mennonites for North and South America. For those who remained, Stalinism introduced a new era of terror.

Soviet Mennonite society of the late 1920s and 1930s was shaped by collectivization, de-kulakization, forced famine in Ukraine, the closure of churches and cultural institutions, and several waves of arrest and deportation of alleged subversives to Asiatic Russia. During the purges of the mid-1930s, entire truckloads of men were taken from a village in any one night. Several sources state that by the outbreak of the Second World War, an average of fifty percent of Mennonite families were without a father. When the Soviet Union entered the war, Mennonites, along with the Ukrainian population, found themselves in the midst of the shifting battle lines between Soviet and German armies. Considered as ethnic Germans, Mennonites were subject to further repression by the Soviets and thousands were evacuated eastward as the German army advanced into Ukraine. When German forces began their westward retreat in the fall of 1943, they took with them 350,000 Soviet Germans, of which about ten percent were Mennonites.

Of those who left Ukraine on the so-called ‘great trek’, approximately 23,000 went missing in the war or were repatriated to the Soviet Union. Most of the remaining 12,000 Mennonite refugees scattered throughout Europe eventually emigrated to Canada and South America. But extreme hardship continued for the thousands who remained or were sent back. The prisoners, the exiles and those repatriated were sentenced to hard labor in work camps and gulags, or were simply dropped off freight trains to eke out an existence in remote, sparsely populated areas. Within a few years, many had died of illness or starvation. Over the past three decades, some 100,000 individuals of Mennonite background have left the former Soviet Union and settled in Germany.

The devastating loss of life, identity, and culture experienced by Mennonites in the Soviet era has been documented and analyzed by historians from a number of angles.1 The theological meaning attached to that suffering has received minimal attention, however. The consultation sought to address theological questions that arise out of these particular historical events and also responses that might assist Soviet Mennonites, their pastors, and their children to interpret the past within the context of their contemporary religious lives.

Biblical scholar Waldemar Janzen, himself a Soviet Mennonite who immigrated to Canada with his mother after the Second World War, was asked to write a position paper outlining biblical and theological perspectives. Using Janzen’s presentation as a springboard, three other papers addressed similar issues from different angles. Henry Paetkau, a Mennonite pastor, profiles and analyzes the writings of three ministers who lived through imprisonment and exile under Stalin in the 1930s. Historian Walter Sawatsky, who has studied and worked with Christian groups in the former Soviet Union over several decades, uses the theological paradigm of martyrology to compare the Mennonite story under Stalinism with that of sixteenth-century Anabaptists and also with other Soviet Christian groups. Arnold Neufeldt-Fast suggests that the primary contribution of the Soviet experience to a contemporary Mennonite theology lies in a focus on the nature of truth that emerges from a context of atheism.

Two respondents to these four papers offer alternative ways to think about Soviet Mennonite history and its theological repercussions. Carol Penner responds to the issues raised by Janzen and others with a new understanding of the Noah’s ark-like character of the Mennonite church in which she grew up. She also makes crucial comparisons between the suffering of Soviet Mennonites and that of contemporary victims of torture and survivors of domestic violence. From his vantage point as a historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, Len Friesen proposes the revisionist interpretation that Mennonites did more than simply endure suffering; rather, they found ways of actively resisting and subverting the policies that tried to break them.

It is important to remember that abstract ideas are informed by and interact with lived experience. With that in mind, we are also including excerpts from the personal life story of Werner Fast, whose poignant reflections moved many people attending the consultation.

The literary refraction in this issue is a piece of reflective prose by author Rudy Wiebe, introduced by literary editor Hildi Froese Tiessen. An eclectic assortment of book reviews rounds out the issue.


1 See for example, “Mennonites in the Soviet Inferno,” a special issue of Journal of Mennonite Studies 16 (1998); John Friesen, ed., Mennonites in Russia, 1788-1988 (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1989); John B. Toews, Czars, Soviets, and Mennonites (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1982).

Cover photo: The westward trek of Soviet Germans, including Mennonites, from Ukraine in the fall of 1943. Courtesy of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg, Manitoba.