Saturday, 19 March 2016

The Effects of Communism on the Identity of Russian Mennonites

I wrote the following essay for my final assignment for my "Mennonite History" class at Steinreich Bible School.


Communism had detrimental effects on Russian Mennonites, turning their peaceful, prosperous lives into lives defined by persecution, pain, heartache and intense suffering.  I decided to write about the persecution of Mennonites in Russia during communism because I was sure to find a wealth of information.  However, I discovered it to be a heavy and depressing subject.  The documentary “And When They Shall Ask” describes the lives of the Mennonites prior to communism as “a long, soft summer evening.”  However, in the early 20th century, their economic progress, well-developed educational systems, churches, culture, and family life were slowly snuffed out by the Marxian philosophy adopted in a nation for the first time.  The goal was to change not only the face of the nation, but also the face of the individuals.  And it did.  For the majority, the face of the Mennonite was not transformed into the “communist man” that was hoped for, but it did transform the Mennonite face into one of pain, hardship, grief, and, starvation; a face robbed of its freedom of religion, education, culture and prosperity.  Moreover, it robbed untold faces of their existence and left behind a trail of broken families.  Those who survived were indeed changed.      

            The years before the introduction of communism were the Golden Years for the Mennonites.  They had increased in numbers, wealth, and had built a good life in a new home with their own public institutions. It was a time of growth, peace, and prosperity.  Leaders in agriculture, Mennonite farmers developed new methods and machinery and also became involved in industry.  Motivated to be well-educated, they governed quality schools with their own curriculum.  Some respect was given by the government to their pacifist views, and alternative military service options were made available.  It was a culture admired by Tsar Nicholas I, a culture that was able to contribute to the nation, but was also able to remain independent with freedom of language, education, culture, and religion.       

“Communism” is defined by Merriam-Webster simply as “a way of organizing a society in which the government owns the things that are used to make and transport products (such as land, oil, factories, ships, etc.) and there is no privately owned property.”  It made its way into Russia shortly after the turn of the century.  Dissatisfied peasants rose up in 1905, World War 1 began in 1914, and the Russian Revolution followed in 1917—the year that communism was fully established.  Civil war ensued, as the Red Army, made up of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, fought against the White Army, those resisting communism.  In 1924, Lenin died and Joseph Stalin began his rule in Russia.  He introduced the Five Year Plan in 1928, demanding rapid industrialization (supposedly to defend against invasion) and large collective farms; the plan resulted in a severe famine from 1932 to 1933.  Furthermore, churches were shut down and schools forced to adopt Marxian philosophy. Throughout Stalin’s life, countless people suffered under his communist rule.

            During the earlier communist years, from 1918 to 1921, one of the greatest terrors to the Mennonites was an anarchist named Nestor Makhno. Makhno led a huge army, comprised mainly of peasants under the motto “anarchy is the mother of all order.”  Every land owner was viewed as an enemy, and thus, the wealth of the Mennonites made them a prime target.  The army invaded villages where they robbed homes, murdered innocents, burned property, and raped women and children. They took food, livestock, and anything else that could be taken; what was left was destroyed.  When the German army entered the Ukraine in April 1918, the Mennonites were able to experience a brief time of peace and security.  The soldiers came with a familiar language and background and became welcome guests in the homes of the Mennonites.  However, with this also came some conflicting feelings.  Children were curious over the weapons that accompanied the soldiers, which made it more difficult for parents who held strong pacifist values.  Nevertheless, the peace was short lived.  When the war ended in November 1918, the German army retreated and the Mennonites’ security went with them.

            With the German army gone, Makhno returned to terrorize the Mennonites once again.  The Germans had left weaponry behind, and with it a great struggle of faith and values, particularly for the younger generation.  As young men watched their mothers and sisters get raped by the anarchist army, they became angry and questioned their non-resistance philosophy.  Many became convinced they had to take up arms with their roles as men and protect the ones they loved.  Thus the “Selbstschutz” was formed, meaning self-defense. However, this defense only provoked further attacks.  Hundreds were killed by the army in the fall of 1919, including 245 in Chortitza alone.  Some villages lost all their men.  (A severe famine also affected the Mennonites between 1919 and 1920, and approximately 2,200 Mennonites lost their lives during these two years.)  In later years, the “Selbstschutz” was regretted by many members of the Mennonite community.

            The Mennonite church continued to suffer greatly under Stalin’s rule which began in 1924.  Gradually their freedom to practice their faith was snuffed out. In 1925, the General Conference petitioned the government for eight rights for the Mennonites which they felt critical to their survival; the appeal was denied.  In 1929, laws were introduced forbidding churches from helping one another materially and having organized meetings or events. When the Marxian philosophy was forced into schools by 1930, Mennonites could no longer educate in accordance with their faith. Teachers unwilling to adapt were exiled and the well-developed educational system fell apart.  Churches were closed down and ministers arrested and exiled.  Also, military service exemption now required an application from each individual.  Some young men who applied were imprisoned, while others who refused to participate in service were sent to forced labour camps.  Eventually, almost no exemptions were made and many were forced into regular military service.  Communism had made a direct attack on their faith and cultural practices.

            According to Stalin, communism was not a choice, and those unwilling to conform were sent to forced labour camps or exiled to remote areas of Russia, like Siberia.  The Black Raven became another terror to the Mennonites.  The term referred to black vehicles used by state police (the NKVD) during Stalin’s rule.  Families would lie awake at night in fear.  Would the knock come at their door that night?  The car would arrive in a village at night and men would be arrested, never to be seen again.  This left many homes without a father; women now had to care for their families.  In some cases, mothers would work long days on collectives, leaving young children alone at home.  In their desperation to survive, their children suffered emotional neglect and only distanced themselves from the parent they had left.  Women often minimized their difficulties and loss and they became hardened by their experiences.  The effects of their pain remained until the later years of their lives, as well as those of their children.

            Persecution during the communist years divided families as well as dispersed the Russian Mennonites across the globe.  Many had left Russia prior to the introduction of communism.  23,000 left Russia between 1922 and 1927, settling in the Americas.  In 1929, 13,000 attempted to escape, but only 5,677 succeeded. Prior to Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the Ukraine in 1941, nearly half of the Mennonites in Russia were sent to Siberia, forced labour camps, or uninhabited areas of the country.  Many were dispersed to Germany and the Americas again during World War 2.  Following the war, many tried to escape with the retreating German army, but Stalin ordered all the escaped Russians to be returned, so most were captured and returned to their homeland, now a prison.  After Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, no Mennonites were left in Molotschna or Chortitza, although some returned later on.  Similar to the effects of persecution in the early church of Acts, communism caused the Mennonites to be dispersed around the world.

            Communism had a direct effect on approximately 120,000 Mennonites, the majority of whom experienced loss of homes, property, and/or family members.  It also had direct effects on their church life, educational systems, and presence around the world.  Years of peace and growth were followed by years of destruction and suffering.  Communism sought to take away the identity of individuals and cultures and replace it with the identity of a “communist man.”  Although the identity of many or all Mennonites in Russia changed, for most, it did not change to a “communist man.”  Some Mennonites became stronger in their faith while others turned away and abandoned their heritage.  What communism did do was further spread the face of the Mennonite around the globe and spread its influence, especially to the Americas.  Now scattered in numerous countries were the faces of Mennonites that carried untold pain, many suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses.  Some opened up and shared their experiences while others remained closed.  Although church meetings did resume again in Russia in the 1950s, surely the people that met there were different from the ones who met fifty years earlier.  As of 2012, only about 3,000 Mennonites remained scattered throughout Russia, many located in Siberia.  They no longer possess the wealth or recognition they once did, but many continue to possess the faith of their forefathers.  It was a faith that remained despite persecution and the loss of all they held dear.  It was a faith that endured through the fires of communism.

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