Abstracts: Siberia 2010

see also: Event Details, Program, and post-conference Tour Detail

Abstracts: ‘Mennonite Experience in Siberia’ Consultation

Omsk F. M. Dostoevsky State University, 2-4 June 2010


(Note: North American and Western European Paper Abstracts only, Russian, Ukrainian and Kazakhstani Abstracts to Come)


Table of Contents:

1) “Tante Tin’s Gift: Family, War: Exile, Trauma and Memory in Katharina (Hildebrand) Krueger’s Memoir,” Sarah Carter, University of Alberta, Edmonton (Canada) and Mary Hildebrandt, Edmonton (Canada).

2) “Dutch in the Steppe? The Plautdiitsch Language of the Siberian Mennonites and their Relation with the Netherlands, Germany and Russia,” Tjeerd de Graaf, Fryske Akademy, Ljouwert/Leeuwarden (The Netherlands)

3) “‘Writing Through the Flowers’: Masked Messages in Letters from Siberian Special Settlements, 1930-38,” R. Derksen Siemens, University of British Columbia, Vancouver (Canada)

4) “Root of Dry Ground: Revival Patterns of German Free Churches in the USSR after World War II,” Johannes Dyck, Institut für Theologie und Geschichte am Bibelseminar, Bonn (Germany)

5) “Economic Narratives Revisited: Female Contributions to Family Sustainability in Omsk,” Linda Earl, Strathclaire, Manitoba (Canada) and Kathleen Wiens, University of California, Los Angeles (United States)

6) “The Transnational Labour of Mennonite Midwives in Siberia, Asiatic Russia, and Canada,” Marlene Epp, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo, Waterloo (Canada)

7) “Memories of Violence and Migration: Recent Kazakh German Immigrants in Canada and Their Narratives of War and Displacement in the 20th Century,” Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg (Canada)

8) “Confronting Diversity: ‘Germans’, ‘Russians’ and the Colonization of Western Siberia,” Aileen Friesen, University of Alberta, Edmonton (Canada)

9) “The Journey of a Journal: Heinrich P. Wieler, A Mennonite Teacher in the Omsk Region of Siberia, 1916-1918,” Lawrence Klippenstein, Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg (Canada) and Bert Friesen, Winnipeg (Canada).

10) “Gulag Ethics: Russian and Mennonite Prison Memoirs in Siberia,” Travis Kroeker, McMaster University, Hamilton (Canada) and Bruce Ward, Laurentian University, Sudbury (Canada)

11) “‘Siberia’ in the Writings of North American Mennonite Historians,” Royden Loewen, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg (Canada) and Paul Toews, Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, (United States)

12) “The Experience of Mennonite Kulaks in Spetsposeleniein the Omsk, Tomsk, and Narym Regions during the First Five-Year Plan, 1928-1932,” Colin P. Neufeldt, Concordia University College of Alberta, Edmonton (Canada)

13) “The Inter-Relationship between Mennonites and Slavic Evangelicals in Siberia and Central Asia,” Walter Sawatsky, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana (United States)

14) “Land, Weather and Markets: Siberia in the Mennonite Imagination,” Hans Werner, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg (Canada)




1) Tante Tin’s Gift: Family, War: Exile, Trauma and Memory in Katharina (Hildebrand) Krueger’s Memoir  

Sarah Carter, University of Alberta, Edmonton (Canada) and Mary Hildebrandt, Edmonton (Canada).

Released from the Soviet Union in 1976, as an Aussiedler in Heidelberg, Germany, Katharina “Tin” (Hildebrand) Krueger wrote a remarkable, candid memoir of her life entitled Schicksal einer Russlanddeutschen first published in 1991. Born in 1908 in the Mennonite colony of Orenburg, Dorf Dolinovka, Krueger experienced the dislocation, separation and fragmentation of her family and community. She negotiated multiple identities as a Mennonite, ethnic German and Soviet citizen, and as a woman, widow and single mother of an “illegitimate” child. Like the women in Marlene Epp’s Women Without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War, Krueger’s life was characterized by an absence of men, as brothers, father, husband, lover and son die or disappear, many swallowed up by Siberia. Krueger herself spent 14 years in work camps including one is Siberia where her two sisters and her mother were also inmates. She demonstrated tremendous strength and resilience in the face of overwhelming loss and tragedy, as did many of the other women coping alone described in her book.

But Krueger departs from patterns Epp identified and focused on. Krueger was “left behind” and did not become a refugee to Canada unlike others in her family and community. She turned away from many aspects of her Mennonite heritage and did not convey the religious beliefs, cultural practices and language to her son and his family. She felt profoundly that she had no home; when she returned to see her childhood home in Orenburg for the last time in the summer of 1953 she said after twenty four years absence: “fuehlte ich mich…nicht mehr heimisch”. Yet kinship ties to the vast but dispersed Mennonite and German diaspora continued. Often Krueger felt more “at home” abroad, such as in the German re-settlement camps in WWII Poland, and in Tselinograd, Kazahkstan in the late 1960s, where she lived in ethnic-German communities. Her last years were spent among other Mennonite Aussiedler in Heidelberg, including relatives, where she died in 2002. She was never comfortable with the affluence of Germany, compared to the deprivation of those she remembered and left behind, and this haunts her memoir. Through the memoir Krueger sought to knit her dispersed family together, back from the fragmentation and loss, and it is a gift to her Canadian relatives who lost touch with their Mennonite past and family history.

Katharina Hildebrand was the fifth of nine children of farmers Johann Hildebrand and Anna Froese who were originally from the Chortitza Mennonite settlement. Her childhood and youth were spent during World War I and in the aftermath of the October Revolution. “Deprivation and disappointment” characterized her early years with frequent bad harvests in the thin, mountainous soil and water shortages of the Ural Mountains. There was a complete crop failure and starvation in 1921, accompanied by malaria and typhus. Yet the Hildebrands became relatively prosperous, but their land, cattle, machinery and outbuildings became the property of the collective in 1929. Rations for the family were not adequate, nor was there enough fuel for heat. Krueger was sent to live with her married sister in the Mennonite colony of Arkadak, in the oblast of Saratov. In 1935 Katharina married David Krueger, born in Orenburg, Dorf Nikolaijewka. He was a physics and math teacher in Halbstadt, Ukraine and there Katharina also took teacher training. In 1941 her husband was arrested, rounded up with all the males aged 16 – 65, and sent to a logging camp in the north Urals where he died that same year. Cold, exhaustion and hunger led to his death, although she did not learn the fate of her husband for many years. All of her immediate family experienced persecution and almost all were sent to camps including her younger brother Gerhard (Mary’s grandfather) who was in a work camp in Siberia for two years.

Fleeing with the retreating German army, Krueger traveled to Poland, (Kirschberg) where she was to be one of the “re-settlers,” occupying land and homes forcibly vacated by Poles earlier in the war. She worked as a teacher with Russlanddeutscher children. There she had a relationship with a man who fathered her son Gerhard, but she learned he was married and they could not begin a life together as she hoped. The ambiguity of her marital status as a single mother and widow complicated her life. In May 1945 with her infant son she was ordered to leave Poland. They were sent to a lumber camp in Archangelsk oblast where she worked in a kindergarten until 1953 when she was transferred to a livestock camp in west Siberia (Tyumen oblast) where her mother and two sisters were. In 1959 after she was released from the Siberian camp Krueger went to Russian Kameshkir (Penza oblast) where her brother Jakob and family lived, then in 1966 to Tselinograd in Kazakhstan, then to Ukraine. Krueger became one of the nearly one hundred thousand Mennonites who relocated to Germany. She hoped her son would join her but he died in the Soviet Union. She wrote that her son gave her a reason to persevere throughout all of the difficulties and challenges of her life and after his death she devoted her life to her memoir.

The paper is based on a critical analysis of the memoir, recognizing that memory is not entirely reliable, that the book was written by an elderly woman drawing on fragmentary evidence who wanted to pen her story against an oppressive regime, but who also was uncomfortable with Germany of the 1970s and 1980s. Our analysis also draws on other Hildebrandt family papers and photographs (personal collection). It is situated within studies of Mennonite women’s narratives, Mennonite life writing, and the wider context of women’s autobiography of war and trauma


2) Dutch in the Steppe? The Plautdiitsch Language of the Siberian Mennonites and their Relation with the Netherlands, Germany and Russia

Tjeerd de Graaf, Fryske Akademy, Ljouwert/Leeuwarden (The Netherlands)


In 1992 during a fieldwork trip our research group visited the newly formed German National Region (Nemetskij Rayon) in the southwes­tern parts of Siberia, near the border with Kazakhstan, where many of the small villages scattered around the steppe and their inhabitants have German-sounding names, since this was an area popula­ted mainly by Mennoni­tes. The first day of our stay one of the villa­gers gree­ted us with the words: Gndaach, wii zene uk fon Holaunt ('Hello, we are from Holland, too'). Since the begin­ning of the 20th centu­ry, the Mennoni­tes living in this part of Russia have been quite isolated from the other Mennonites in the country, and in Soviet times it had been very difficult for them to find any reliable informa­tion about the history of their own countrymen. They might know that their ancestors came from the Ukraine, but there the certainty ended. Some people did remember, however, that their history is linked with Poland, Germany, Holland and Friesland.

            Most Mennonites in the former Soviet Union are officially considered to be Germans, but a minority claims to be Dutch. In a few cases people told us they were Frisi­ans. The langu­age they spoke there, Menno­nite Plautdiitsch - which means 'Low German' in their own language - is the des­cendant of Low-German dia­lects differing consi­de­ra­bly from the High-German dialects spoken by their neighbors - often people who have been deported from the Wolga German Republic. The absence of a common language, which leads to mutual misunderstanding, was the reason why the Mennonites were never considered to be 'real Ger­mans' by the (other) Germans but they were always treated as a special group, and this is also the way they saw themselves. The Soviet authori­ties consi­dered the Mennonites to be just as German as the other more than two million so-called 'Volksdeutsche' (eth­nic Germans) in the former Soviet Union and refused to accept their histo­rical, ethnic and other differen­ces.

            At the begin­ning of World War II, the Germans living in the European part of the Soviet Union not occupied by the Nazis were depor­ted to Siberia. Siberi­an Mennonites over the age of 15 were taken to labor camps where many of them perished of starva­tion and exhausti­on. After the war the ethnic Germans of the Soviet Union were still labeled as traitors and e­nemies of the Soviet people, and until 1955 they did not have the same civil rights as other Soviet citizens. This meant that deported Germans were not allowed to return to their homes, seldom had access to higher educa­tion and were generally subjected to discrimi­natory treatment by local autho­ri­ties. At the beginning of the war the Menno­nites tried to prove that they were of Dutch, rather than of German descent, but this Holländerei was ridiculed and for most Mennoni­tes, labor camps and deportation were inevita­ble. Only those who alrea­dy lived in Sibe­ria could return to their homes a few years after the war. Their freedom of move­ment, however, was very limited until 1955 and they were not even allowed to visit relatives in the next village without written consent from local authorities. No less threatening was the hosti­le attitude of the neighboring Russi­ans, who had been brainwashed to believe that all Ger­mans, inclu­ding the Mennonites, were collabora­tors and fascists. It was hazardous to speak German in public outside the German villa­ges. This, of course, is another reason why the Menno­ni­tes repeatedly stated explicitly that they were not Ger­mans.

            The fact that the Plautdiitsch language was an important factor for the ethnic identity was often used to prove that their status differed from Germans'. Some Mennonites insisted, that their language was a Dutch rather than a German dialect, others even called it Frisian. Since Menno­nite history started in the Nether­lands and many of the first Menno­ni­tes came from areas in the North and East of this country, it must be possible, so it was thought, to find linguistic ties with the Netherlands proving the Dutch or Frisian charac­ter of the language. In any case, the status of this ethnic group is strongly related to the language use. In the following we shall describe some details about the Plautdietsch language (see also Gerlach, 1992, Mitzka, 1968, Nieuweboer, 1999 and Penner, 1984).

            The Plautdiitsch language used today in Mennonite communities all over the world is the descendant of West Prussian varieties of Low German. The two-century isolation in a non-German speaking environment has resulted not only in a considerable amount of loanwords from the surrounding languages, but also in a somewhat different and partly accelerated development of a few elements already present in the Weichsel delta dialects. The resemblance between Plautdiitsch and Dutch, or rather the Low Saxon dialects as spoken in the province of Groningen in the Netherlands, sometimes used to 'prove' the non-German origin of Plautdiitsch, are often exaggerated. In reality, the existing resemblance shows the close relations between Low German dialects in general, not between Plautdiitsch and the Low-Saxon dialects spoken in the Netherlands in particular.

            During our fieldwork in Siberia we made recordings of the Plautdiitsch language and found many cases of code switching between Plautdiitsch and Russian. In his dissertation Nieuweboer has reported on the phoneme system of Siberian Plautdiitsch, its contacts with other languages and many other interesting details (De Graaf and Nieuwboer, 1994, Nieuweboer, 1998 and 1999). Many words in Plautdiitsch were borrowed from a Slavic language spoken by the surrounding population. So the words blot ('mud') and en prost ('simple') were introduces from Polish in the time they lived in the Vistula delta. In the last centuries many new words and concepts were borrowed from Russian, such as arbuz ('melon'), mesjien ('car'), kolchos sobranie ('kolkhos meeting'). Interesting is the use of this last concept as an example of code switching: a religious meeting in the home is fesamling of fegadering (Dutch 'vergadering'), whereas in the 'outside world' people meet in a sobranie.

After the Russian revolution of 1917, the Mennonites could not longer avoid intensive contacts with the authorities. Russian was introduced as a compulsory subject at school and men had to serve in the regular army or face severe punishment. Therefore at the present time, Russian may be considered as the second native language of all Mennonites in the Altai region. Only a few (female) members of the oldest generation do not speak Russian fluently, whereas many young people have become monolingual in Russian. The migration of large numbers of Mennonites to Germany and of Russian speaking people to their villages has led to a rapid increase in the use of Russian in everyday life, and Russian is no longer the language of more formal or out-group contacts, but also of informal contacts with people in the village.

In the framework of a special research project The Language of the Siberian Mennonites, we have investigated this language. This has resulted in a number of publications (De Graaf and Nieuweboer, 1994) and a dissertation, which also appeared as a book (Nieuweboer, 1998, 1999). During a visit to Novosibirsk in 2003, the author of this article has learned from the local linguists that the German character of the Nemetskij Rayon (in particular the use of German and Plautdiitsch) has practically disappeared as a result of massive migration to Germany and the ongoing process of assimilation. Therefore it has been important that just in time we could visit the Mennonite villages and make recordings of the Plautdiitsch language, which are now kept in a sound archive and described in publications as this one.


3)Writing Through the Flowers’: Masked Messages in Letters from Stalin’s Russia, 1930-38

R. Derksen Siemens, University of British Columbia, Vancouver (Canada)


The letter has long been explored and valued in pragmatic and aesthetic ways: as a means of communication; as a cultural artefact; as a historical record; as a literary genre; and as an autobiographical document. Regardless of its value, the epistolary form has been understood as a particular genre, with boundaries that define it and also parameters that limit it.

Letters have also had a variety of metaphors associated with them. A letter is most commonly perceived as a document that forms a communicative bridge between a sender and receiver. This bridge is often able to span great distances. However, the writer cannot necessarily choose or predict the journey of a letter. Some writers, despite their desire to bridge the distance, are impeded by hostile readers, limited by censors, restricted by betraying neighbours, and constrained by a perilous system of mail delivery, all of which expose a chasm – not the bridge. The writers’ circumstances can impede their word choice, limit their use of epistolary conventions, and increase their anxiety. Certain writers, in a corpus of 461 letters written by 33 family groups from within the former Soviet Union between 1930 and 1938, explain that they are “writing through the flowers”: they are masking their messages and ignoring certain epistolary conventions in order to bypass a hostile reader and increase the likelihood of their letters reaching their intended readers in Canada.

This paper examines the corpus of letters written by Mennonites who were Russian citizens who were categorized as kulaks during the first decade of Stalin’s rise to power. The letters originate from two regions: approximately one third of the letters are written from various corrective labour camps in the Ural Mountains near Perm; two thirds are from Mennonite villages near Zaporizhzhya (Zaporozhe) in present-day Ukraine. The letters begin in 1930 and culminate in the era of Stalin’s purges, commonly known as “The Great Terror.” Almost sixty years later (in 1989) the letters were found by the son of the recipients (Peter Bargen) in a Campbell’s soup box in an attic in a small Canadian town. Anne Peters Bargen translated all 461 letters into English to form the present, privately published corpus. Most of these letters are presently archived in the Mennonite Heritage Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and published in Peter and Anne Bargen, eds, From Russia with Tears: Letters from Home and Exile – 1930-1938 (1991).

In particular, this paper conducts an analysis of these letters and the ways that the circumstances of the writers affect their words. Philosophical assertions and linguistic principles offered by Mikhail Bakhtin, Valentin Voloshinov, Karl Bühler, M. Halliday, Ruqaiya Hasan, Stephen Levinson, R. Fowler, H. Paul Grice, and others provide a guide to understanding the way in which the writers communicate and intentionally mis‑communicate their messages. As one writer explains, they are “writing through the flowers as if two are present.”

Other sources also assist our understanding of this corpus of letters: interviews with survivors of the Holodomor in present-day Ukraine and with survivors of Gulag labour camps, as well as other letters (published and unpublished) written under similar circumstances during the same decade.

Significant to this investigation are the attendant risks of sending letters outside of the former Soviet Union. The writers express their fears, which are not unfounded. According to NKVD documents, having “contacts abroad” gave authorities the occasion to arrest “all remaining elements expected of not being reconciled to the regime” (Conquest, 1990, p. 257). As Conquest explains, these categories “automatically made those listed as natural suspects automatic victims when an NKVD branch was called upon to show its merits by mass arrests” (p. 258). While we cannot be sure how many letters were successfully delivered, the fact that 461 letters written in the 1930s from corrective labour camps in Siberia and from home villages in present-day Ukraine reached their destination in the West is both surprising and somewhat mysterious. Many questions about the journey of the letters emerge. How did the letters reach their destination in Canada? Was an official postal service used? Did an operative alternative system exist? Or did the writers use a subversive network of mail delivery?

Despite the journey, it is evident that the anxiety-laden, precarious, and unpredictable journey of these letters would have had a distinct affect on the way the writers chose their words. Letters are complex genres to being with, but a close examination of this particular corpus and the writers’ words reveals ruptures and absences in the text. It exposes some of the strategies the writers used to circumvent a hostile, unwelcome reader. Most significantly, it is evident that the primary relationship is not that between the writer and intended reader in Canada, but it is between the writer and the hostile reader. The writers’ intent is to negate the power of the informer or the censor. Thus this analysis does not deal exclusively with letters, but with linguistically constructed subversions – those words that slip between “the flowers” in order to send a desperate message.

4) Root of Dry Ground: Revival Patterns of German Free Churches in the USSR after World War II

Росток из сухой земли: закономерности возрождения немецких евангельских общин в СССР после 2-й мировой войны

Johannes Dyck, Institut für Theologie und Geschichte am Bibelseminar, Bonn (Germany)

Beginning with 1929, the church life in the Soviet Union was stepwise destroyed. During the war, a quiet revival of faith began. After the war, this revival obtained contours. During the period of political changes in the mid-1950s, the revival got definite confessional forms that became the frame for certain theological developments. This is true for the Mennonites as well as for the German Evangelical Christian-Baptists.

            From a theological point of view, in this story stable patterns could be observed. First is the pattern of a pietistic colored fellowship without explicit confessional indications. It was followed by restoring of church structures after the traditional Free Church pattern introduced by early Anabaptists. Here a strong Mennonite church tradition was decisive.

            The subsequent theological development of re-established or new churches followed patterns that were established more than a generation earlier with holiness and discipleship as most important ones.

            The described patterns give a better understanding of theological positions of German Mennonite and Evangelical-Baptist Churches during their last decades before the big changes in the USSR.

            Relevant biographic data includes the following details. I was born 1955 in Eastern Siberia during the Commandant’s Office (Komendatura) time and grew up in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, where in 1972 I became member of the Evangelical Christian-Baptists church. 1972 I became lay preacher in that church. In 1981-88 I was a member of the Historical Committee of the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists and contributor and co-editor of a book on Baptist History in Russia and USSR. In 1989 my family and I emigrated to Germany where I was ordained in 1991 as a teaching minister (Prediger) in the Mennonite Brethren Church. In 2007 I earned an MTh in Baptist/Anabaptist History.


5) Economic Narratives Revisited: Female Contributions to Family Sustainability in Omsk 

Linda Earl, Strathclaire, Manitoba (Canada) and Kathleen Wiens, University of California, Los Angeles (United States)

Our presentation focuses on the experiences of one Russian Mennonite family often cited as the first Mennonites to settle in Omsk, the descendants of Peter J. Wiens (1848-1927) and Justina Janzen (1850-1926). The presentation assumes the presence of “normative” gender roles among Russian Mennonites, regarding expectations of male and female behavior within private and public domains. However, it shifts focus from male figures as primary contributors to economic stability and is interested in female contributions to economic life in areas typically thought of as “male” domains.

Mennonite history is often presented in terms of institutional life: business, church, and community service. A typical narrative is as such: “A dealership for agricultural implements was established in 1897 by P.J. Wiens who was the first known Mennonite to have moved to Siberia.”1 Documentation connected with institutions has provided a wealth of information from which we piece together our historical memory. From one perspective, this has resulted in histories focused on male figures as primary contributors to Mennonite religious, social, and economic life. We recognize that this seems a natural outcome when the key public figures of business, church, and community were male.

In keeping with contemporary approaches to scholarship, Mennonite researchers have been enriching existing histories which, while not inaccurate, are often narrowly conceived. Royden Loewen’s 2001 Hidden Worlds explores Mennonite life from varied perspectives such as class, gender, private, and public domains. The picture of Mennonite life is revealed as complex, and our categories of analysis are forced to become flexible. From a more markedly gender-studies perspective, Marlene Epp’s Women Without Men (2001) examines the triumphs and challenges encountered by women who find themselves inhabiting what are usually thought of as male roles. These two works indicate an inclination towards evaluating existing interpretations of Mennonite history, and our project contributes further to this vein.

Research for the project was conducted by Linda Earl and Kathleen Wiens, members of the Wiens family. Our interest is informed by our position as female members of a family with a history of matrifocality. Sources include family letters, published or unpublished personal narratives, and research by family historians. We focus attention on family members who lived in Siberia and present cases in which females took responsibility for their own education (when educating women was not a priority) and took initiative for their own job training and small business ownership. Key figures are Helena (Fast) Wiens (1875-1963), her daughters Helena J (Wiens) Wiens (1899-1984), Agnes (Wiens) Fast (1907-1997), and daughter of Helena J, Mary (Wiens) Hoeppner (1920-), among others.

We found that ratio of participation between male and female members ranged from partial contribution by females to that of primary provider. If dichotomies of female/male, private/public are increasingly understood as flexible and the line between them often blurred, under what circumstances were they blurred? Our research supports that families attempted to maintain “normative” gender roles when times were good, but that these expectations were reworked when warranted by economic circumstances. Circumstances that led to females acting as primary income earners included illness or death of husbands and fathers, Soviet state and civilian attitudes towards German businesses, and dominating personalities of female family members. Forms of income depended on the condition of the surrounding population: hard currency when times were financially favourable, or the exchange of goods in unfavourable periods. We also found that changing roles was not uni-directional: while women turned to “men’s work” such as threshing and hard labour, men also participated in “women’s work,” for example involving the production of garments. We found that female contributions to economic stability both did and did not involve monetary transactions, and often (but not always) took place in households, not in public spaces. In histories that evaluate activity in monetary terms and construct economic narratives through property and commercial space ownership, these contributions are challenging to engage with.

From our findings, we conclude that there were cases of public and domestic-based commercial activity participated in by both men and women. When establishing home-based businesses, the “private” domestic realm became a public space. As well, the idea of “agency” could be useful to apply to women who were behaving in a-typical manners within structures that are viewed as male-dominated. If we assume a level of “normative” gender roles in the wider Mennonite community, we could interpret the actions of women in the Wiens family in terms of “agency.” However, we cannot make the assertion that family-level structures ascribed to traditional gender roles. Leadership-oriented personalities caused women to re-work gender roles in the Wiens family, and under these circumstances female members of the Wiens family thrived economically.


[1] Rudy P. Friesen with Edith Elisabeth Friesen, Building on the Past (Winnipeg: Raduga Publications, 2004), 80.


6) The Transnational Labour of Mennonite Midwives in Siberia, Asiatic Russia, and Canada

 Marlene Epp, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo, Waterloo (Canada)

             This paper discusses the careers of several Mennonite midwives whose lives intersected with Siberia and Asiatic Russia in different eras of twentieth century history. In some cases they obtained and / or practiced their midwifery skills in that setting, while in other cases they became professional midwives elsewhere in the Soviet Union, but spent a portion of their lives in exile in Siberia. All of the women under investigation eventually immigrated to Canada – in different migration waves – where they continued to use the professional skills obtained in Russia.

            In Mennonite historical writing, Siberia often looms as a place of loss, death, and despair. Given that it became an involuntary destiny for so many sent into exile in the 1920s and 1930s, and also for those who were repatriated from Europe after the Second World War, it is understandable that it holds a place of “unspeakable sorrow” in the memories of many Mennonite families. However, Siberia was also a region where Mennonites chose to settle and develop successful community life in the nineteenth century. It also became a place where ‘sent back’ Mennonites created new livelihoods after the Second World War. The dichotomies of life and death that Siberia became for Mennonites is embodied in the lives and professions of women who provided midwifery and other healing services to Mennonites and their neighbours throughout the Mennonite sojourn in Russia/Soviet Union.

            Professional nursing and midwifery training was common amongst Mennonites in Russia, whether obtained at institutions in such cities as St. Petersburg, or Riga, Latvia or at Mennonite healthcare institutions that were established beginning in the nineteenth century in present-day Ukraine. In contrast to North America, the tradition of Mennonite midwifery in the Russian/Soviet context was shaped by the ancient and generally unbroken practise of midwife assisted childbirth in that national context. Mennonites, as an ethno-religious minority, were able to utilize this vocational environment to enhance the role of such service providers in their own communities.

            An example of this pattern is Sarah Dekker Thielman, who was born in the Mennonite settlements in Ukraine in 1878, educated as a midwife in St. Petersburg, and who moved to Barnaul, Siberia in 1911. There she recorded the births at which she assisted in a midwife’s journal, until she immigrated to Canada in 1929. During that 18- year period, she attended hundreds of births, not only of Mennonite women, but also women of other ethnic identities. She continued practicing as a midwife in Canada, first in the isolated regions of the middle Prairies, then in southern Ontario. A very different example is that of Mary Klassen (not her real name) who, as a child, was repatriated in 1945 from Poland to a region east of Moscow where she grew up and later obtained midwifery training. She practiced her vocation in Kazakhstan and then Estonia before immigrating to Canada in the 1970s where she continued to work as a nurse. Yet another example is Aganetha Schmidt (not her real name) who was raised in Arkadak, but whose entire family was sent into exile east of the Ural Mountains in 1929. After escaping with her sister, Aganetha found her way to Dnepropetrovsk where she too entered a medical college and obtained professional midwifery skills. After the Second World War, Aganetha took those skills with her to Paraguay, where she served the refugee community there, before she immigrated to Canada in the 1950s.

            The paper explores the way in which these women appropriated a long and continuous tradition of professional midwife-assisted childbirth that existed in Russia/Soviet Union which then became an essential service for isolated Mennonite settlement communities and for populations that lived alongside the Mennonites. The discussion investigates the location and type of professional training obtained by these midwives, the nature of the services they provided within Russia and the Soviet Union, and then compare this with their labour after migrating to Canada. Primary sources that I use for the paper include the following: oral interviews (done by the author): family histories and Mennonite settlement histories (in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo; and Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg, as well as the associated historical libraries connected to those archives); obituaries and other articles in Mennonite newspapers (such as Der Bote and Die Mennonitische Rundschau); and the midwife journal of Sarah Dekker Thielman (Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg).

            An examination of their lives and careers can enhance our understanding of women's work within and outside of Mennonite communities, the manner in which they bridged their Mennonite and Russian contexts (in their training and services), and the transnational nature of professional midwifery. The fact that they could carry their training across between continents and across oceans meant that certain essential health services were maintained and community strength thus reinforced. I argue that illuminating Mennonite women’s work as midwives allows us to view the Siberian and Asiatic Russian experience as much more than a place of sorrow, but rather as a place where specific labour skills obtained in the Russian context enabled women to play crucial roles in maintaining community security and ethnic cohesion especially through the process of migration and settlement in Canada and elsewhere.


7) Memories of Violence and Migration: Recent Kazakh German Immigrants in Canada and Their Narratives of War and Displacement in the 20th Century

 Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg (Canada)

Migrants in Canada and around the world have drawn on memories of their homelands, their various homes within their group’s diaspora, and their own lived experiences to make sense of the changing world around them and their changing place within it. Violence, wars, and displacements of people throughout the 20th century have made it ever-more difficult for forced and voluntary transnational migrants to maintain and re-create stable identities. Under such trying circumstances, memories have become both, a burden of the past and strategy for integration in the present and future.

            This paper is based on a project that surveys the history of one particular group of migrants: some 10,000 Russian and Kazakh Germans who, together with two million other so-called ethnic Germans, left the former Soviet Union and other East European countries after 1989 to go “back home” to Germany and who eventually decided to move on to Canada. Most have settled in rural towns in Southern Manitoba, such as Winkler, Morden, Altona, and Steinbach because of these towns’ German-speaking, evangelical heritage and culture. Canadian companies recruited these immigrants for low- and semi-skilled agricultural and manufacturing jobs because of their assumed hard work ethic and discipline. Like many refugees and migrants from post-Soviet countries, these people brought with them intense, at times traumatic, memories of the violence and the migrations they and their ancestors had experienced throughout the 20th century.

            This paper presents an exploratory case study of Mennonite immigrants who came along with other Russian German immigrants to Manitoba. As such, it explores the project’s overarching question: How have these migrants’ experiences and memories of forced resettlement, the Gulag, combat, war crimes, the home front, and the repression of their language, culture, and religion in the Soviet Union; and how have discrimination, disappointment over the “imagined homeland,” and their failed integration in Germany during the 1990s shaped their settlement in Canada?

            The paper is based on interviews with members of different generations of recent Kazakh-German immigrants to Manitoba, Canada. These are life story interviews that allow narrators to tell their life story as completely as they wish, unconstrained by the research questions of the interviewer. Specific questions addressing the topics of this project are raised in a second half of the interview.

            So far, we in Canada know next to nothing about these recent immigrants to Manitoba. Thus, as a pilot project, the presentation focuses on a description rather than an analysis of the life topics. The analysis focuses on the main topic and interpretive patterns in the narrators’ stories.


8) Confronting Diversity: ‘Germans’, ‘Russians’ and the Colonization of Western Siberia

 Aileen Friesen, University of Alberta, Edmonton (Canada)

This paper explores the contradictions of the colonization process of western Siberia in the early 20th century. The Russian government viewed colonization as both an opportunity to improve the economy of the empire by utilizing Siberia’s vast resources and to prove the civilizing prowess of Russian colonists. The relocation of German settlers to western Siberia complicated this vision. On the one hand, Mennonites and other German colonists demonstrated their agricultural skills and ability to adapt quickly to their new surroundings, which helped the region’s economic development. Yet, as the empire slowly moved towards categorizing groups based on ethnicity, the government and Russian educated public worried about the conquest of Siberia by those of “German” origins and the influence that German ethnicity would have on unsupervised “Russian” colonists. By the early 20th century, Mennonites had acquired the labels of Germans, sectarians and able farmers. This multiple labelling illustrates the importance of ethnicity in the settlement of Siberia, but also its limitations for understanding and describing settler life.

By the late 19th century, the Russian government increasingly classified its diverse population in terms of ethnicity. According to Charles Steinwedel, the government attached political labels to this system of ethnic classification and “consequently, the population began to identify itself by ethnicity in political life.”1 While this paper does not explore the validity of the second half of Steinwedel’s thesis, the notion that the government’s politicization of ethnicity created common political interests and bonds among diverse groups is an important argument to consider. Instead, I reflect on the contradictory role of ethnicity in the expansion of the Russian empire, as ethnic classification could support both a nationalist interpretation of the empire, which elevated Russians above other ethnic groups and, a more imperial interpretation, which recognized Russia’s diversity and attempted to utilize this difference in strengthening the empire. The absence of a coherent definition of the ethnic terms such as “Russianness” and “Germanness” complicated matters even more and these terms continued to be under debate in government circles and among the educated public. Religion, sometimes interpreted as an essential element of ethnicity, sometimes interpreted as less relevant than language and culture, illustrates one issue that contributed to the greyness in the way in which ethnicity was understood. The movement of millions of settlers to the expansive fields of Siberia intensified the government’s consideration of these issues and brought the empire’s multi-ethnic status to the forefront.

The participation of Mennonites in what could be arguably described as one of the greatest imperial undertaking of the Russian government, the colonization of Siberia, offers an opportunity to study the development and limitations of ethnic classifications in the Russian empire. Although the Russian government tended to use simplified categories of “Russians” and “Germans”, it was aware of the diversity that each term obscured. The term “Russian” for instance, concealed the large numbers of Ukrainian peasants who relocated to Siberia. The term “Germans” camouflaged the confessional difference between German speaking groups, even though religion played a large role in the structural organization of these communities and in the relationship of different groups to the government.

This paper uses a variety of primary source materials including government documents and publications, journals and newspapers. For newspapers and journals, I use Golos Sibiri, Odessaer Zeitung, and Omskie eparkhial’nye vedomosti. Other important sources are P. P Vibe’s published collections of government documents and Nemtsy v Sibiri. Sbornik dokumentov i materialov po istorii nemtsev v Sibiri. 1895-1917.


9) The Journey of a Journal: Heinrich P. Wieler, A Mennonite Teacher in the Omsk Region of Siberia, 1916-1918 

Lawrence Klippenstein, Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg (Canada) and Bert Friesen, Winnipeg (Canada). 

Primary documents, crucial for historical and other research, can grab our attention in unexpected places and circumstances. In part this presentation is about such an event. Since the document discussed here is biographical, it is also about a man, Heinrich P. Wieler, his family, and people who lived and worked with him during the years of World War I in the Omsk region.

            In five ledgers totalling about 1500 pages Wieler shared his thoughts and discussed experiences that cover his earlier life from 1912 on to 1924, about the time he left Soviet Russia and resettled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The Wielers’ time in Western Siberia is reflected in the writings of the first two ledgers of this series.

            The owners these journals believed that the Siberian experience might be of interest to readers today. That led to the decision to have the material translated from German and seek their publication. A Canadian translator, Bert Friesen of Winnipeg, Canada, agreed to translate all entries for the years 1916-1919, a time in which Wieler was devoted to the work in several Omsk area Mennonite schools. This led to the publication of a slim volume titled The Quiet in the Land: A Volga German’s Christian Journals: Russian Revolution Years 1916-1918 It was edited by Arthur Pavlotos, a retired school teacher from Pennsylvania (who now possesses the entire journal), and his friend, Michael Upton, a journalist from New York, who provided literary expertise and assistance. It was published by the editors in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1905.

            Some background for Wieler’s story is useful. By 1900 Siberia was fast becoming a new settlement frontier for the Russian Empire. The construction of the Transsiberian Railway enabled a vast interior migration of people anxious to exploit the beckoning opportunities of this Russian Eldorado. In due time hundreds of Mennonite and other German families took part in this historic trek. The beginning of permanent Mennonite settlement is usually traced back to Peter and Justina Wiens’s business in Omsk itself, together with several farming families, and a somewhat larger group, which included several Friesen brothers, who set up a community around 1899 at Tshunaevka, southwest of Omsk. Soon other families created a small settlement around 1900 at Peresilevka, known locally as Friesenhof. Families from Alt-Samara, the area from which Wieler came to Omsk, were in this group also.

            Wieler was born in about 1891 in the Ukrainian Mennonite settlement of Khortitsa on the Dnieper River. He began teaching in 1911 in the community of Neuhoffnung, in Alt Samara (Alexanderthal Colony). A year later he began his journal. In 1916 he took his wife Suse to Siberia, to continue teaching at Alexandrowsk in the vicinity of Omsk.

            Several of their children, including Harry who inherited the journal, a family treasure, were born here. Journal records available for this study begin at that time. After a year he transferred to Hoffnungsthal to take up a school there. Times were very unsettled and Wieler with his family encountered various problems and frustrations. His salary was paid in kind or in services rather than cash. Being an artist also, he sold sketchings and took on photography assignments for extra income. Suse helped with family support through her work as the midwife in the community.   Anti-German feeling generated in Russia by the war were a problem also. As well he had to deal with parental dissatisfaction with student performance in his school. By 1917 he decided to leave the area, indeed Russia itself, as soon as possible. Before emigrating he took on another teaching stint back in the Volga region, in Lugowsk of the Pleshanova colony

            In 1921 the Wielers were able to arrange a departure from Soviet Russia to reach New York, USA, and from there moved on to a permanent home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1923. The undoubtedly highly-prized five volumes of his journal remained in his possession and intact. After Heinrich’s death in 1984 they were preserved by his son Harry. In 1991 they came to light when Harry passed them on to others in the family in Lancaster, where they are held today..

            Access to the journals as a whole remain somewhat restricted but The Quiet in the Land has opened the door to its contents significantly. Further volumes have been promised along with more access for scholarly research when the series is completed. The 126-page pathbreaker of this series focuses on what could be called the devotional portions of these writings, with brief notes for each chapter on non-religious political, economic and social facets of Wieler’s experience touched on in the translated World War I entries of the journals.

            A sampling of these themes provides a look at Wieler’s style, some idea of his intellectual and other concerns, and illustrations of the literary and artistic expertise for readers today.


January 1916: The wind of a fierce storm, which roars through the forests, splinters hundred-year-old oak trees and uproots the tallest fir trees. The wind disturbs the sea so it sends its spray to the heavens; the sea toys with the steel enforced warships at the docks. The wind is praise of God and a voice of the Almighty. Just as the rolling thunder echoes through the land so does the voice of the A lmighty, speaking earnestly to the hearts of men about the omnipotence of the Creator and preaches that we are but dust and His creation.


March 1916: As a people we are a tiny population of Russia and there is little hope in our future. There are storm clouds gathering on the horizon for our people. One does not have to step into an observatory to see that our stars are paling and will soon be falling. For a long time we counted on the blessings of our forefathers and believed in our security…who is our enemy? Who is so hostile minded against us, the “quiet in the land”? Who would want to destroy our privileges? Is the enemy even strong enough to harm us? The law protects us. The Charter of Privileges which was granted our forefather cannot be enfringed upon now!....We have been wronged. We the faithful servants of His Majesty the Czar of all Russians will be badly handled. We feel deeply vexed that so little attention is given to the good we have done….


March 1917: School is to close on the 24 of March and during the days of 10-15 April there are to be graduation exercises. A few days ago we received a letter from the inspector about obeying the new government’s laws and regulations…..H. Friesen and J.Epp came to invite me to a teachers’ meeting. The purpose of the same is , as a vote of confidence, to prepare a statement and send it to the inspector…teachers in Omsk have divided into camps. The one aim is to dismiss the inspector…the majority want to keep him. Now he has let it be known that it would help him if the Mennonite teachers would send in a vote of confidence…In the afternoon ( of March 22) I drove to the teachers’ meeting.in Margenau. The vote of confidence statement was prepared….and signed. There were eight signatures. Colleague (J) Epp was chosen to personally hand over the statement of the vote of confidence.


October 1917: Thanksgiving Service in Margenau was held on October 15 and I had the pleasure of attending. In the morning a friend preached about the fire where Peter had warmed himself – a strange fire! In the afternoon there was a wedding. Heinrich Franz Neufeld married Mr. Janzen’s daughter, Marie. After the ceremony the bride and groom came to us and allowed themselves to be photographed for portraits.


June 1918: They tell us that trains are once again moving from Issyl Kul, tickets are being sold to Cheliabinsk and from there you can buy a pass to Samara. There was also news that Omsk has fallen yesterday . Who knows if all this is true? The day before the secret police were here about the founding of a welfare committee to maintain a self-defense commando unit. The Maximalists (Bolsheviks?) are to be punished and destroyed . The men who were here said that the railway on the other side of Cheliabinsk was not yet free of fighting….it would be advisable for us to wait before leaving on our journey…


July 1918: Finally we arrived at the train station in Petropavlovsk. We disembarked. How now further? That was our first and burning question. It seemed we should go to the Czech commandant. He grants passes but only to residents of the gouvernement of Samara and the places along the way as the train passes. We had a pass which showed that we were residents of Samara, because we belonged to Old Samara (Alexanderthal Colony). We just had to travel a stretch on the Tashkent railroad in order to get to Soroginsk. …..


Wieler’s teaching term in the Omsk region was quite brief, his experiences not all positive, and the general impact of his work not easily assessed. One can discern in his writings that he was a deeply religious person, an intellectual, a man of high ideals and considerable talent, but deeply distressed at times by the war, his particular work conditions, and his separation from his home community in the Volga region. It is understandable that he decided to return to the Volga region, and also that he took his family to another environment altogether in the aftermath of World War I and the revolution.

            The full story of Heinrich Wieler awaits telling. Only a small glimpse of its Russian portion is offered here. The translated section of the journal for the years 1916-1919, which has been utilized for this brief sketch is at best an introduction. It is hoped that a complete copy of the journal in its original Gothic handwritten German and calligraphically decorated, will be available for deposit at this university, a centre of the community in which much of the journal originated. Here the author carved out a significant portion of his teaching career, and, no doubt, left a bit of his heart.


10) Gulag Ethics: Russian and Mennonite Prison Memoirs in Siberia 

Travis Kroeker, McMaster University, Hamilton (Canada)

Bruce Ward, Laurentian University, Sudbury (Canada) 

This paper examines several Mennonite memoirs (fictional and nonfictional) related to the gulag experience in Siberia and does so in the context of the Siberian prison memoirs of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  In particular it engages a comparative analysis of the relationship between Christian faith and ethics in these Siberian prison memoirs in order to discern and interpret what is distinctive or of particular importance in the Mennonite Siberian gulag experience and literature.

Part I: Russian Prison Memoirs in Siberia

            As a young man, Dostoevsky spent four years (1850-54) as a political prisoner in a prison camp at Omsk, an experience that was religiously transformative for his life and the development of his thought and art. His vivid and detailed portrait of his experience in the Tsarist version of the “Gulag” is given in his semi-autobiographical The House of the Dead, which became the literary model for subsequent exposes of Siberian prison camps, including the famous work of Solzhenitsyn on the Stalinist gulag in which Mennonites were also imprisoned (Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel-winning work, The Gulag Archipelago is also responsible for the entry of the term “gulag” into the western lexicon). This section of the paper, with attention to the writings of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn (including also his fictionalized gulag memoir One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), reflects upon Siberian prison memoir writing—the conditions and obstacles, strategies for overcoming the obstacles, the intentions and motives. It also reflects upon the prison memoir as transformative—tracing an inner process of conversion from one perspective to another, in Dostoevsky’s case from vague humanism to Christian faith and in Solzhenitsyn’s case from Marxist communism to Christianity. This section of the paper examines the spiritual challenges and conditions of gulag life: inhumane treatment and punishment, the need to defend and manifest human dignity, and the place of religious practices and observances in this process.

Part II: Mennonite Memoirs in Stalinist Russia

            This section focuses on two published “literary” memoirs: 1) Hans Harder’s novel, No Strangers in Exile (Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1979), which, while fictional, is closely based on German Mennonite colonists from the Alexandertal settlement in which Harder was born and their experience of Stalin’s campaign of “dekulakization,” including exile in the Siberian prison camps. 2) Dietrich Neufeld’s three part journal, The Russian Dance of Death (Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1977), which recounts the author’s experience of the Russian civil war and Mennonite martyrdom during the Russian revolution. It also considers the Siberian Diary of Aron Toews (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1984), written in conditions of solitude and hard labour during his exile in 1936-38 (and sent to his family before he disappeared without a trace); various memoirs and stories of Mennonites in the prison camps taken from Gerhard Lorenz’s Stories from Mennonite Life (Steinbach: Derksen Printers, 1980)and Sarah Dyck’s edited volume, The Silence Echoes: Memoirs of Trauma and Tears (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1997) and the selected sermons and papers (including a diary) of Johann J. Nickel, Hope Springs Eternal (Nanaimo, BC: Nickel Publishers, 1988), which offers insight into Mennonite teaching, exhortation and preaching during the Revolution and Civil War period in Russia.

            The focus in this section is comparative, in that, while these writings bear witness to the conditions of the Stalinist gulag, they do so from the perspective of the larger Russian Mennonite community and its spiritual traditions and practices. These memoirs are less “conversionist” than “martyrological” and this section of the paper reflects on the implications of this for “gulag ethics.” It also analyzes the relationship between Mennonite faith and ethics in these writings in relation to classic Anabaptist religious texts and contemporary Mennonite theological ethics in order to discern and interpret what is distinctive or of particular significance in the Mennonite Russian gulag experience for Mennonite faith and ethics.


11) ‘Siberia’ in the Writings of North American Mennonite Historians 

Royden Loewen, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg (Canada)

Paul Toews, Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, (United States)

Siberia holds a special place in the imagination of North American scholars. No shortage of articles by American and Canadian historians highlight encounters between Siberia and North America: they recount events from the travels of 19th century US scientists to the “invasion” of early 20th century Canadian military forces off of Vladivostok. Others have speculated on what Siberia has meant for Russia. U.S. historian Mark Bassin has seen in Siberia a “frontier” that has shaped the very character of the Russian nation, not unlike the affect the American frontier has had on the United States. More recently Claudine Weiss has argued that while Russians themselves may have been ambivalent about Siberia, from a global perspective “Siberia…made Russia an empire.”

            Mennonites have also seen Siberia differently at different times. Often they venture from the a strictly geographic definition – that is the vast land region east of the Urals and bounded by the Pacific ocean – to a more inclusive and amorphous definition, in to include those places east of the Volga River, central Russia, and the places of Asiatic Russia or Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. But always the term “Siberia” has invoked a powerful, people-shaping imagination. For Mennonites the term “Siberia” reflects Arjun Appadurai’s 1991 notion of a “global ethnospace,” a place that beyond strict spatial boundedness or cultural homogeneity to include a symbolic landscape and place that evokes historic consciousness. The published writings of Mennonites over the last 120 years have cast Siberia sequentially as a place of banishment, a frontier of messianic or economic hope, a land of exile and repression, or a place of purification and survival.

            These literary constructions are apparent in the large 20th century Mennonite corpus of writing on Siberia. These works today fill the libraries of any one of the dozen Mennonite universities in North America, but especially those institutions -- Bethel College (Kansas), Pacific Fresno University (California), Conrad Grebel College University (Ontario), Canadian Mennonite University (Manitoba) – located in regions that drew the highest number of so-called “Russian” Mennonites, that is, Mennonites of Dutch and North German descent who sojourned in the Russian empire and Soviet Union and came to North America in the 1870s, 1920s and 1940s.

            The earliest of the publications on Mennonites in Siberia stemmed from the Russian Empire itself, but a very significant body of writing, beginning in 1919, came from North America. The first of these writings appeared in the United States, focused on the plight of co-religionists following the Russian Revolution. A generation after the arrival of the so-called Russlaender Mennonites in Canada in the 1920s, numerous accounts in the immigrant language of High German told of ill fated Siberia. The last generation of the 20th century saw post World War II refugees and their children produce a plethora of personal narratives of suffering, at first written in the German language by survivors themselves, then in English by the children of the survivors. Always the works were meant to inform youth of the lost worlds of grandparents. Academics too considered the time of mid 20th century suffering and pondered its affect on creating a North American Mennonite community. Finally, a few voices focused on the most recent chapter of the story, the survival of the Mennonite community in Siberia, its religious life and diasporic culture.

            This paper’s first focus is on those early 20th century writings that made passing reference to Siberia as a place of banishment. The mammoth 1911 history by P.M. Friesen, for example, shows how the threat of “Siberia” was used to reign in nonconformist Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites in 1812 and Mennonite Brethren in 1860.

            The paper next examines those historians who emphasized “Siberia” as a place of hope. In the story of Klaas Epp’s “end times” prophecy in 1880 and 1881 linked Siberia to messianic relief, religious purification and the return of Christ. While Franz Bartsch’s 1907 Unser Auszug nach Mittelasien was published in Halbstadt (Russia) it was reissued in Winnipeg (Canada) by EchoVerlag in 1948. A century-long debate over the meaning of the Klaas Epp story ensued. It attained a substantive scholarly level in Fred Richard Belk’s The Great Trek of the Russian Mennonites to Central Asia, 1880-84, published in Kitchener (Ontario) in 1976. It solicited other responses by leading Mennonite historians: Waldemar Janzen in 1977, A. J. Dueck in 1985, James C. Juhnke in 2007. Part of the debate served to normalize the Klaas Epp story by contextualizing it in the greater history of Mennonite migrations generally, seeking military freedom and land. Still the mystique of the story lingers, evidenced in Dallas Wiebe’s 1997 novel, Our Asian Journey, and Walter Ratliff’s recent docu-drama, "Through the Desert Goes Our Journey," sources that also speak to Christian-Muslim relations.

            The economic promise of the early Siberia settlements that took off between 1907 and 1914 became a focus of several mid-20th century Mennonites in Canada. Gerhard Fast’s 1952 In den Steppen Sibiriens published in Rosthern (Saskatchewan), for example, described the origin and development of Slavgorod Colony, before proceeding to descriptions of its catastrophic end. Fast’s book became an authoritative source for North American historians, frequently cited in the 1955 edition of the Mennonite Encyclopedia by US Mennonite historian Cornelius Krahn and others. In 1952 as well, Winnipeg’s J.J. Hildebrand published his two volume account titled Sibirien, the first part a settlement history, the second an examination of religious life. That Siberia held promise in the early 20th century was later demonstrated in various pieces by historian James Urry, most explicitly in his 1985 Journal of Mennonite Studies article, “Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth and the Mennonite Experience in Imperial Russia.”

            A third chapter in the ‘Mennonites in Siberia’ story by North American writers has also been by far the largest; it is a story of suffering and exile. These works include early accounts by U.S. Mennonites of assistance to victims of the Russian Revolution. Reedley (California) resident Martin B. Fast, for example, wrote Geschichtlicher Bericht in 1919 to describe North American Mennonite assistance to “impoverished co-religionists in Russia” and his own trip to Siberia via Japan. A 1929 piece served as a chapter in Mennonite Central Committee’s history Feeding the Hungry; it told how in this “a wild region, a frontier wilderness” one could find 17,000 Mennonites suffering “drought and heat waves” and repressive government directives.

            But the first sustained analysis of suffering of Mennonites in Soviet Siberia came with the “Historische Schriftenreihe” (Historical Series) of the Echo Verlag in Canada which published fourteen historical monographs between 1945 and 1965. Among these works was Die Flucht über den Amur by Abram Friesen and Abram J. Loewen, a short 66 page account of the flight of a Mennonite village from Siberia across the Amur River into Manchuria and on to South America. Many other books in the German language were published at about the same time. P.A. Rempel’s 1946 Ältesten J. A. Rempel’s Lebens- und Leidensgeschichte was a short biography of a Mennonite bishop, including his Siberian exile. The most detailed of these various post-war histories of suffering was Aron A. Töws’s two volume Mennonitische Märtyrer, a total of 897 pages of edited biographies of Mennonite leaders, especially their banishment, and accounts of flight from Russia after World War II.

         The volumes written by immigrants of suffering in the Soviet Union continued with rigor. By the 1970s the works increasingly appeared in English. Anita Preiss’s 1972 Verbannung nach Sibirien appeared as a bilingual text, Aron P. Toews’s personal account of prison in Siberia published in German in 1979 was translated into English within five years. The chapter on suffering gained even greater vibrancy as the survivors of World War II themselves began to write in English and tried to capture the magnitude of Siberia for the next generation. Gerhard Lorenz’s 1982’s The Lost Generation makes this attempt: perhaps the most poignant phrase in the book describes how “for two months the train dragged us through the endless stretch of the Soviet Union.” Harry Loewen’s 2000 Road to Freedom moves beyond personal encounter, to feature 70 first-person accounts, complete with a rich array of photographs.

         In time the story of suffering came to be told by Canadian-born observers. Sometimes, as in Rudy Wiebe’s 1970 Blue Mountains of China, it was a part of an epic story of migration, of “human dignity and human endurance” by a member of Canada’s emerging literary elite. Oftentimes the more educated took on the task to tell the stories on behalf of others: Canadian historian John B. Toews’s Journeys: Mennonite Stories of Faith and Survival in Stalin’s Russia and US physician Wilmer A. Harms’s The Odyssey of Escapes from Russia, both published in 1998, were efforts to help others tell their stories and thus “affect…forever the lives of those who follow.” Often too the stories were told by the children of the immigrants. Among dozens of such works is Ernie Harder’s 2009 Mostly Mennonite, a work that arises from “privilege and joy found in the hours spent listening to Mom and Dad’s stories”; it recounts his grandparents’ 1907 move to the Altai Steppe near Slavgorod, but also of impending doom on those steppes.

            At century’s end the suffering chapter took on an additional, and decidedly, academic turn. A 1997 symposium at the University of Winnipeg (Canada) saw Harvey L. Dyck outline three decades of upheaval – from the 1920s to the 1950s – under the rubric “Mennonites and the Soviet Inferno.” Conference proceedings published in the Journal of Mennonite Studies included Colin Neufeldt’s work on “Dekulakizationn and Collectivization” and Marlene Epp’s piece on war-time women refugees who fled with the fear of Siberia on their minds. In the same issue, Krista Taves showed how stories of suffering from Siberia and elsewhere helped shore up the patriarchy of an immigrant Russlaender Mennonite church in Canada. In 2002 Harvard University Professor Terry Martin’s talks at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo (Ontario) advanced the debate; in part he argued the forced Mennonite diaspora in Siberia marked a “savvy and united subculture,” at least until 1955 when the 100,000 individuals of Mennonite descent in “internal exile” in Siberia lost any sense of a Mennonite ethnicity so carefully honed during the 19th century.

       A fourth and final chapter of the North American account of the Mennonite sojourn in Siberia focuses on survival, especially from about 1960 when conditions began to ease somewhat for sectarian Germans in the Soviet Union. Mennonite historians from North America increasingly traveled to Soviet Siberia or welcomed guests from Siberia. In a 1979 article in Canada’s Mennonite Historian, Lawrence Klippenstein described a visit by Novosibirsk minister Bernhard Sawatzky, hopeful of congregational renewal in Siberia, despite rocky relations with the Baptist union. Other articles in the Mennonite Historian by Peter Letkemann (1980), Paul Kraybill (1982) and Peter H. Rempel (1986) drew similar perspectives. Historian Walter Sawatsky was especially influential in this conversation, arguing in several pieces that Siberian Mennonites had developed a “post-gulag” theology strengthened by participation in the AUCECB (All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians, Baptists, Pentecostals and Mennonites).

            In recent years some historians have taken the story up to the near present time. Again “survival” and even renaissance is a central theme. In a 2007 Mennonite Historian piece, for example, Paul Toews describes the “Centenary Anniversary of the Omsk Bruderschaft”, a celebration attended by 2500 people. Other articles in North America have introduced the work of German “Aussiedler” historians Johannes Dyck, Jakob Penner, Viktor Fast and others who have helped interpret Siberian and Kazakhstan church history. A paper presented at this conference, by Alexander Freund, points out the yet-to-be written chapter on the migration from Germany of many Kazakhstanis of Mennonite to the western Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan between 2000 and 2010.

            These various writings demonstrate just how strong a hold Siberia has had on the Mennonite imagination. For North American Mennonites the very word “Siberia” conjures up not only a massive territory, but the full variety of emotion that infuses itself in the human experience. It represents hope for purity or wealth in one generation, loss and suffering for another, survival and faithfulness for another. In Siberia, Mennonites evolved from a favored, cohesive ethnic group to a scattered religious community. In the minds of North American Mennonites, Siberia is a story that assists an immigrant people to become cohesive and it is a liturgical script that shapes religious faith. Siberia has become an “ethnospace.” North American Mennonites historians may debate the meaning of “Siberia” in the Mennonite experience; what they do not debate is the significance of the word in the history of the Mennonites.


12) The Experience of Mennonite Kulaks in Spetsposeleniein the Omsk, Tomsk, and Narym Regions during the First Five-Year Plan, 1928-1932  

Colin P. Neufeldt, Concordia University College of Alberta, Edmonton (Canada)

Soviet Mennonites were very familiar with the spetsposelenie (“special settlements”) that Stalin established across the USSR. In the late 1920s and early 1930s thousands of Mennonites from Ukraine and other regions of the Soviet Union were dekulakized and transported to the spetsposelenie where they toiled under adverse conditions and many succumbed to premature death. My paper focuses on the experience of Mennonites who lived and died in the spetsposelenie in the Omsk, Tomsk, and Narym regions during the First Five-Year Plan (1928-32).

            In researching this topic, I have relied on primary and second sources. The primary sources include personal documents and autobiographies of Mennonite exiles, as well as letters written by Mennonites in the Omsk, Tomsk and Narym spetsposelenie that were published in North American Mennonite newspapers (including Die Mennonitische Rundschau, Der Bote and Zionsbote) in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I also made use of documents that I collected from Ukrainian archives (Tsentralnyi derzhavnyi arkhiv hromadskyx obednan Ukrainy, Kyiv; Oblpartarkhiv Zaporizkoho obkomu KPU; and Derzhavnyi arkhiv Zaporizkoi oblasti), as well as Canadian archives (Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Canada, Winnipeg, Canada; and Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg, Canada).

            The paper is divided into four parts. Part 1 examines which Mennonites were relocated to the Omsk, Tomsk and Narym regions during dekulakization. More specifically, this section examines Mennonite deportations to Siberia in the late 1920s, and how the Mennonite flight to Moscow in 1929 impacted the deportation of Ukrainian and Siberian Mennonites to the Omsk, Tomsk, and Narym areas. This section also endeavors to identify the regional identities of Mennonites exiled to the Omsk, Tomsk and Narym spetsposelenie in the early 1930s. While most Mennonites from Ukraine were exiled to spetsposelenie in the Northern Territory, Komi and Western Urals regions 2 and 3 during the first dekulakization campaign in early 1930, there were also some groups of Ukrainian, Crimean, and Siberian Mennonites who were sent to the Omsk, Tomsk and Narym work camps at this time. In fact, Siberian Mennonite kulaks from the Slavgorod and Omsk areas were some of the first deportees in the Omsk, Tomsk and Narym camps. It was after the second dekulakization campaign, which began in the late summer of 1930, that increasing numbers of Mennonites from Ukraine and Crimea were sent to camps in the Omsk, Tomsk and Narym regions.

            Part 2 of the paper examines the transportation of Mennonite kulaks to the Omsk, Tomsk and Narym spetsposelenie. More specifically, it outlines the treatment of Mennonite kulaks who were transported to Siberia by rail, horse and sled, or other means of transportation. Part 2 also discusses the traveling conditions (including food and water rations) that Mennonite exiles had to endure enroute to the camps, their punishment at the hands of guards, and the factors that led to high rates of illness and mortality among Mennonite exiles before arriving at the spetsposelenie. This part of the paper also sheds light on what happened to the Mennonites exiles once they reached Siberian hinterland; it examines why some Mennonites were immediately incarcerated in makeshift holding cells while others were forced to march into the Siberian forests. It also details what happened to Mennonite exiles who survived the marches, only to be forced to construct their own barracks and perform forced labour.

            The day-to-day experiences of Mennonites in the Omsk, Tomsk, and Narym spetsposelenie are examined in part 3 of the paper. In particular, this section analyzes:

a) the living conditions, food rations and wages of Mennonite exiles; b) the daily work regimens; c) the guards’ treatment of injured Mennonite workers and those who failed to meet work quotas; d) the treatment of Mennonite women exiles at the hands of guards and fellow inmates; e) the life-saving benefits of food parcels and money from Mennonite relatives and relief agencies in the West; f) the varied practice of Mennonite faith in the camps; g) the escape strategies and the punishment of those Mennonites who were captured; and h) illness and mortality factors.

            The last section of the paper includes my observations and conclusions. It reviews the political, economic, social, familial, religious, psychological, educational and demographic consequences of the Mennonite experience in the Omsk, Tomsk and Narym spetsposelenie. It also addresses the issue of whether Mennonite exiles, who were routinely identified as “ethnic Germans”, received harsher treatment at the hands of their captors as a result of the pervasive ethnic hostility to German minority groups. Finally, there is brief discussion of the stigma that Mennonite exiles had to endure because of their status as “German exiles.”


13) The Inter-Relationship between Mennonites and Slavic Evangelicals in Siberia and Central Asia 

Walter Sawatsky, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana (United States) 

            In recent years as an emerging generation of newly trained Slavic historians (with advanced degrees) have examined the 150 year history of Russian and Slavic evangelicalism, it is striking to observe how naturally the German and Russian Mennonites are integrated into it. This contrasts with a long established tendency to tell a separate Russian Mennonite story, heavy on achievements in agriculture and related industries to demonstrate the worth of that German ethnic-confessional minority community to Russian developments in the 19th and 20th centuries. The spiritual/religious dimension has also been told usually as a separate story, including the separation into two traditions (denominations in an American sense) - Brethren and Churchly (Tserkovnyi) Mennonites. The continuous history of the Russian Mennonites, as church tradition and as people, during its second Russian century (1889-1989) is, however, less well known, especially in English speaking circles. Monographs in German and Russian provide a fuller picture, as well as numerous articles in journals (more so in English until recently) on parts of that story, but it has not shaped global Mennonite theologizing.

            That is particularly troubling, when thinking as theologian, since the theological reshaping Russian Mennonites underwent during its second century, seems a more suitable paradigm for self-understanding among Mennonites around the world, than does the rather thin “core values” framework, now widely used in the Mennonite World Conference network. It seeks to extrapolate foundational ideas from beginnings in the 16th century, drawn mostly from a Swiss/south German context. That context differed from the larger Anabaptist movement in the Low Countries, which is the primary historic tradition of the Russian Mennonites. Some of the reasons for that tendency to overlook the northern “Anabaptist” tradition, and the resistance to think through a 500 year history of changing contexts and theological adaptations, reflects an American culture of “historical amnesia”, the current shaping context for Mennonite theological discourse.

            It is when we ponder the broad social and religious trajectories of 500 years, specifically the modernity project, that key elements of the inter-relationships between Mennonites and Slavic Evangelicals, and their significance for Russian religious history in general, come into clearer focus. The Mennonites who survived the early persecution years of the Reformation, especially those in Flemish regions, entered into a tradition of migration for the sake of survival, both economic and religious. Even the Russian Mennonite experience of its last century was a pilgrim story, following the advancing frontiers of settlement, then came further moving, thanks to deportation and other involuntary migrations.

            Hence the historic trail of migrations involved developing skills in reclaiming land, and the inventions/production of tools for modernized agriculture. It has also been a constant setting for developing the character of a free church tradition. The religious features, and the social-economic characteristics were intertwined. For example, Bonch-Bruevich was only one of the more prominent and influential observers among Marxist revolutionaries to value the industrious, moral qualities of sectarian villages (including Mennonites) and to seek to utilize them for the grand Bolshevik project, only to discover that efforts to free them from their religious superstitions, undercut the foundations of their social character.

            Although this paper does not develop the broad modernization arguments, it is nevertheless essential to keep in mind those broad features of the modernity project, and to take note of which religious communities seemed more adept at negotiating the ensuing centuries. Recent writing on the Reformation era has drawn attention to ways in which the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition, starting already in its second generation, turned out to be more influential than did Lutheranism. In general terms, this includes what Max Weber observed, when arguing his thesis for the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. My point here is to draw attention to the fact that the Anabaptist traditions emerged in areas where the Reformed (Calvinist) emerging tradition was finding its way, Anabaptists demanding more rigorous communal disciplines, greater distancing from state or civil authority interference, but nevertheless, it was a theology that took lived ethics seriously. Since the Baptists celebrated their 400th anniversary in 2009, it is worth noting that their first leaders had been associating with Dutch Mennonites before returning to England, and drawing their converts and theology from the increasingly more prominent Calvinists in Britain. That affinity to the Reformed traditions, both for Mennonites and Baptists, helps account for their close affinity to Moravian Brethren settlements. Parts of its Hussite tradition had also adopted the Confessio Helvetica in the 16th century - key leaders of the 20th century Russian Baptist Union (of which a large wing of the Mennonites became a part) declared their historic theological roots with the Hussites, a Slavic and Germanic mix. Those are among the longer linkages that enable one to notice the commonalities Mennonites and Slavic Baptists discovered during the 20th century.

            When considering the 20th century of Siberian history, several distinctive developments force a modification of the frontier thesis, even though the steady process of establishing agricultural settlements eastward, compared to the westward move across USA at the same time, must be kept in mind. The settlement process involved the steady expansion of the tsarist governing system until 1917, a centralized approach to management not as suited to settling the frontier as was the democratic and localized government forms developed in USA. At the same time, the intent was imperial dominance, and the approach involved incorporation of local tribal groups and minority ethnicities, whereas in USA the native population was largely cleared out as the settlers moved westward. A key factor for this was the missionary approach of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was much more open to allowing cultural adaptation as natives were converted to some form of Orthodoxy. But with the Russian Revolution came an all out attack on the structures of Orthodoxy, which included ending its missionary relationships. Thus with the onset of the massive industrialization of western Siberia and further east past Lake Baikal, an industrial working class began to constitute the major demographic shift. The industrial cities that emerged, or that transformed grain elevator towns into manufacturing centers, did not include the presence of Orthodox churches. Instead what emerged was what Filatov has referred to as the Atheist belt, a citizenry living with religious amnesia.

            Two observations are relevant for our purposes. It turned out that the sectarians, including the Slavic Evangelicals, but also the Mennonites, were more resilient in the face of systematic destruction of a hierarchical church structure, since their structures were democratic and not dependent on state support. Given the many involuntary migrations that served to make the Stalinist industrial explosion a success, the new population can readily be described as the disinherited, which have been the seed bed for sectarian growth. Throughout the century, the region around Omsk in particular has been an unusually active center for Slavic evangelicalism.

            Generally speaking also, the Reformation traditions (Reformed, Anabaptist, Baptist and Hussite) reflected a primary feature of modernity, namely a rejection of a Christendom mentality. Yet they were not spiritual escapists, but sustained a lively emphasis on social ethics, on a social vision. It is in fact this social role of the protestantizing sects, that has been their major contribution to the modernization processes of Russia, in particular in Siberia and central Asia. In religious terms, these traditions expected their voluntary adherents to adopt a moral life style that indicated they were already lining within the mindset of the Kingdom of God, as Jesus had announced it. They expected an eschatological coming of the kingdom in its fullness in the future, but were not, as a general rule, millennial escapists into pure spirituality. Where ever the Mennonites or Moravians settled, they were quick to establish schools, to organize social/economic relations within their communities, and the new Slavic evangelical communities also settling Siberia stressed moral living, using magazines and similar didactic literature to maintain contacts across large territories. The Bible that was a primary source of reading was viewed as source of teaching for how to live, Bible studies or teaching were applied to issues of building good communities.

            With that background, the analysis of the inter-relationships between Mennonites and Slavic Evangelicals (free churches of a democratic orientation) proceeds along four areas of inquiry. 1) What scholars more recently have been saying about free church beginnings. Sorting out which were indigenous, which the fruit of western Protestant missions misses the point. 2) One crucial development concerns the period of severe repression (approximately from 1930-1953) that one memoirist spoke of as a boiling cauldron. Even when retaining that image of a fiery hot testing to the core, that era of repressions functioned in effect as “melting pot” for the varieties of Evangelicals who were sovietized in a specific way, becoming more attune to their common central values, less interested in fostering denominational distinctions. 3) Much of the early, but sparse data, about the suffering, the martyrdoms, already conveyed a quality of piety, that the richer source material, now becoming known from archival collections and oral history gathering, represents a common spiritual treasure of the Slavic people. 4) Recent histories by insiders of the Mennonite and Evangelical communities in western Siberia and Kazakhstan, do indeed reflect common themes. The desire to be understood as fully part of the broader Evangelical movement is most explicit in Peter Epp’s detailed history of the Omsk Brotherhood.

            Also of interest when drawing conclusions from a critical reading of the recent literature, is the degree to which Slavic forms of piety, deeply rooted in the long Orthodox tradition, are evident within the Evangelical traditions, whether Russian or German, Mennonite or Baptist, whether more conformist to societal norms (as Soviet atheist scholarship described the official All-Union Council of Evangelical Christian Baptists (AUCECB) in the late 1970s) or persistently nonconformist, such as the Reform Baptists who refused to register their congregations.1

            Further, the free churches, often called believers churches, have long been more suspicious of inter-church relationships, or ecumenism, than was true of the classic Protestant confessions who organized the World Council of Churches in 1948, having encountered each other differently in the previous century of mission around the globe, a process of contextual adjustment of confessional distinctiveness. Steadily throughout the 20th century the process of learning from each other’s traditions appreciatively, necessitated becoming acquainted with Orthodoxy, the ecumenical Patriarch after all had addressed an appeal to all churches in 1920, to assist the Orthodox world threatened by Islam. During the period from 1960-90, the approved AUCECB branch of the Evangelicals together with the Orthodox, Baltic Lutherans and a few other traditions were expected to be active in the ecumenical movement. This turned out to be a time of rich learning for those able to travel to international conferences, including to come to know as true Christian brothers, Orthodox representatives with whom they sometimes shared motel rooms, but its artificial use for Soviet state peace propaganda purposes, caused wings of the AUCECB, especially in central Asia, to become even more suspicious of ecumenism, and to withdraw from such inter-church bodies after 1990.

            The emerging generation of leaders, now also able to read and travel more globally, is learning to notice those inter-relationships differently. It is the widespread interest of such leaders in mission and missiology, that helps account for greater sensitivity to contextualization.


1 The reference is to two Evangelical-Christian Baptist Unions (Soiuz) who split in the early 1960s, as described in Walter Sawatsky, Soviet Evangelicals Since World War II, (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1981, Russian translation 1996 available through the Euro-Asiatic Accrediting Association (Odessa) in CD format.


14) Land, Weather and Markets: Siberia in the Mennonite Imagination

Hans Werner, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg (Canada)

By the end of the 19th century Mennonites began to see Siberia as a possible place for settlement. Between 1900 and 1914 an estimated 7000 Mennonites settled on the West Siberian plain and by 1914 some 18,000 Mennonites lived there. There is extensive memoir literature in which Siberia appears as a place of exile and banishment for Mennonites. There is also a growing body of German language memoir literature about the Siberian experience during and following World War II. Little has been written, however, about Siberia as a place of settlement in the early years of the 20th century. Mennonite writers who had lived, or spent some time in Siberia, notably Gerhard Fast, Peter Rahn, and J.J. Hildebrand published relatively brief histories that offer some glimpses into the early settlement history of Mennonites in Siberia, but they tended to treat the Siberian experience in a way that separated it from the wider Russian Mennonite experience. John B. Toews’s 1973 article in the Mennonite Quarterly Review offers a more critical perspective and sets the Mennonite experience more firmly in the greater settlement history of the West Siberian Plain. It is, however, broad in its approach and focuses particularly on Mennonite pioneering efforts.

This paper seeks to understand how Siberia came to be seen as a place of settlement in the Mennonite imagination. Much like the settlement of the Canadian West required a re-imagining of it from being a savage and wild place to a fertile garden; Mennonites had to re-imagine Siberia as a place where settlement was possible. Doug Owram argues in his book The Promise of Eden that “between 1856 and 1869 the image of the West was transformed in Canadian writings from a semi-arctic wilderness to a fertile garden.” (3) For Russians too, Bassin notes, “the primeval aspect of untouched Siberia was frightening…its extraordinary size … matched by its uselessness to which Nature, it seemed, had condemned it.” (Bassin, American Historical Review, 1991, 771) For Mennonites to consider settlement in Siberia a transformation similar to what had happened in Canada had to happen in Russia.

Mennonites in Southern Russia had gone through a number of cycles of land shortages that had created deep divisions in a community that maintained an ethos that life in an agricultural village was the most desirable expression of their ethnoreligious identity. By the 1890s the possibilities of acquiring large contiguous blocks of land in South Russia had all but disappeared. Land prices were high and competition for land was keen. Mennonites had been exploring possibilities of settlements in the East since the 1860s when Dietrich Rempel made a trip to the far Eastern area near the Amur River in search of land (Odessa Zeitung, 1901). At that time there were too many factors, such as the lack of a railway and the reticence of the state that militated against settlement.

By 1900 all that had changed and the Mennonite imagination began reconsidering settlement in Siberia. There were obstacles that had to be overcome. Weather, land and markets were practical problems of settlement that Mennonites needed to come to terms with. Mennonites were intensely conscious of the requirements of pioneering in an age of the Trans Siberian Railway, a market economy and an industrializing Mennonite economic world. There were also the lingering images of Siberia as a land of exile, as a land where one could encounter wild animals on the primitive roads and trails, and where lawlessness and crime prevailed.

The paper uses articles and letters published in German language newspapers that were read by Mennonites. These included the Odessa Zeitung (hereafter OZ) and Friedenstimme published in Russia, and the Mennnonitische Rundschau published in the United States, but read by Mennonites in Russia. The periodical collections of the Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives and the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg (Canada) have fairly complete microfilm collections of these newspapers and in the case of the Odessa Zeitung and the Rundschau, extensive indexes are available. More limited are memoirs that recall the period leading up to settlement in Siberia. Together these sources provide some sense of the transformation of Siberia in the Mennonite imaginations, from “an unreal land in the eternal snow and ice regions of the north,” to “a beautiful land full of promise” (OZ, 1904) The main themes that emerge from these writings would concern issues of potential settlement: the weather, the land and the markets.

The most difficult theme for promoters of Siberia to address was the market. Repeatedly writers had to acknowledge that prices for grain were low. More importantly, perhaps, grain prices were extremely volatile. Given the distance from markets outside of their immediate area the prices fluctuated wildly with the vagaries of the harvest. The distance from markets was a constant frustration for Siberian writers. They attempted to assure readers, however, that the constant stream of new migrants would ultimately resolve that problem by creating a larger local market and by stimulating branch line construction. In the meantime writers had to acknowledge that grain prices were low.

Other aspects of the marketplace were mixed. The demand for trades people greatly exceeded the supply. Shoemakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and other small tradesmen were often paid more than their counterparts in Southern areas because the demand for their services could not be met. Vegetables were expensive, while potatoes and meat were inexpensive.

Writers to the newspapers addressed the problem of the weather in most of their submissions. They acknowledged that Siberia had cold winters, but took pains to point out that although it could go as low as minus thirty, it did not feel nearly as cold as the thermometer reading suggested (OZ, 1900). In fact the climate was touted as being healthier that of South Russia, particularly the areas that were competing for settlers, such as the Caucasus. Responding to a letter from Saskatchewan that claimed that although the thermometer went lower there than it had in his former home in Russia it did not feel as cold, P. Wiens argued that there was no need to migrate to America, because the climate in the Omsk area seemed to be quite similar (OZ, 1901).

The land was most critical to the Mennonite sense of whether Siberia could sustain a prosperous settlement. The contributors to the newspapers assured readers that the topsoil was fertile and deep. Most accounts in the newspapers went to great lengths to describe the landscape for their southern Mennonite readers. The land was flat with and not well endowed with streams, other than a few large rivers. There were numerous large and small lakes, some with sweet and others with salty water. The aspen and birch forests came as a surprise to the southern settlers and though an impediment to crop agriculture, they were portrayed as a welcome break in the landscape (OZ, 1904).

The land was also available for settlement. The Kirghiz, described as a “half wild shepherd people,” had moved away from the area near the railway, back into steppes and forests and far away from settled areas (OZ, 1904). Most importantly in Siberia landless Mennonites from South Russia could become landowners. As Katharina Hinz notes in her memoirs when her mother objected to the idea of moving to far away Siberia, her father asked her if “the children should always only be servants for other people?” That, he had said he could not bear, and lamented that even for the two of them: “we live in a stranger’s house, have no garden, no land and have to be workers.” Even if the land in Siberia “was only rented land,” it was better than what they had (Hinz, unpublished memoir, 16).

Siberia represented cold, snow, desolation and exile in the Mennonite imagination. The German language press became an important vehicle for the reimagining of Siberia as a possible place of settlement. The main questions that confronted Mennonites concerned the land, the weather and the markets. The early migrants to Siberia aimed to stimulate a changed perception of Siberia. The worked to re-imagine Sibera was a place that while cold, had a healthier climate than that of the south, that had fertile land in abundance, and although markets were poorly developed, it offered the prospect of a bright future.. Invariably they concluded that few Mennonites who had come to settle in Siberia wanted to ‘return to Egypt.’


For More Information call 786.9391 or email r.loewen@uwinnipeg.ca