The Russian Mennonite Story: The Heritage Cruise Lectures
By Paul Toews with Aileen Friesen
Centre for Transnational Studies
Reviewed by Aaron Bartlett
I do not approach this book from a Mennonite from a heritage standpoint; I have only started working as a pastor in the MB conference recently. So, I come to this review with an “outsider” first impression on this brief history of the Russian Mennonite story. With a limited knowledge of the overarching historical narrative of Mennonite history, I offer these observations as though looking through a small window into a vast room.
The Russian Mennonite Story is very helpful in offering a glimpse into the struggles and challenges – political and physical – that “Russian Mennonites” faced while they lived in Ukraine. The coffee table book contains nearly 100 historical photographs while presenting the best of Paul Toews’ lectures presented on the Mennonite Heritage Cruises to what is now Ukraine, compiled by Aileen Friesen (assistant professor of history at the University of Winnipeg, executive director of the Plett Foundation, and co-director of the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies.
To my surprise, I learned that not all Mennonites immigrated for the reason of avoiding being drafted into the army (my previous understanding). In some instances, they even took up arms to defend their colonies – at times with the approval of religious leaders.
Like all histories, this one is complex. We can’t understand all the intricacies of it, however I believe we can still learn much from this history.
A part of this narrative that surprised me was the significant political involvement of the Mennonite people in Russia as well as their great wealth, innovation, and contribution to the development of the country outside of the colonies. Their agenda, according to the authors, was “largely, but not exclusively, to protect their arrangements for alternative military service.” I think this is something that we as the members of the church can learn from today. To realize that being involved in our current context can have positive outcomes. Could these Mennonites in Russia have had even more success if the objective was to influence those in government and outside the Mennonite community with the gospel rather than to simply preserve their rights within it?
I had no idea the deep level of suffering and misfortune the Mennonite people suffered at the hands of the Soviets, bandits, Nazis and others throughout the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. I found it amazing reading stories of how the people banded together to survive and escape the hands of the Soviets. Particularly interesting was the conference that formed the Union of Citizens of Dutch Lineage (aka Verband) who negotiated an agreement with the Soviets allowing for the eventual escape of more than 20,000 Mennonites through emigration.
One critique of the book itself is how much the role of religion/God was not touched on. Religious faith has held the Mennonite people together to this day. Most of the material regarding the Mennonite religious convictions in the book was minimized to short lines regarding various denominational splits and the families within them.
I also wish that Toews would have driven deeper into emotion. At most times, it feels as though the narrative is held at arms length. It is difficult to become attached to the story as it is written in a very “matter of fact” and broad manner. I would have loved to hear some excerpts of specific family accounts or journals to get a better sense of the heart of the people throughout various times and circumstances.
For me, the biggest take away this book is that those of Mennonite heritage should not allow the ghosts of their ancestors pasts to stop them from engaging in the world around them today. Once a people of great prestige and innovation in Russia, only to suffer under the oppressive hand of the Soviets, I think they should focus be on what is good and influential that can come when we as Christians strive to make a difference in the world around us.
Yes there will be times of persecution, but we should not fear to step into places of prominence in politics and government. It reminds me of how God used Daniel to influence Babylon. We are to shape our world with the gospel by being in the world, not away from it (John 17:14-19).
A final thought: the blurring between religious categorization/denomination vs. heritage is confusing to those not in the Mennonite community. I often find myself struggling in conversations to know what people are referring to when using the word “Mennonite”. Is calling ourselves as a denomination Mennonite Brethren, with such strong family heritage implications, hindering our ability to be accessible and evangelistic to all, by using this terminology interchangeably?