April 2002 Sawatsky

Historical Roots of a Post-Gulag Theology

for Russian Mennonites


Abstract: The 200-year sojourn of Mennonites in Russia can serve as a paradigm for Mennonites envisioning a post-Gulag future anywhere. It contains elements of living out early Anabaptist visions, of adapting those visions to changing historical contexts, of a faith and vision tested to the breaking point and of a chastened time of recovery, indeed of resurrection. By following a red thread of faith affirmations from leaders of a variety of sub-groups between 1925 and 1990, as well as corroborating themes from female voices, one can detect a continuing loyalty to a legacy. Central to that legacy was an affirmation of justification by God’s grace, expectation of suffering as the cost of serious discipleship, responding to evil with love and forgiveness, including offering the Good News to the neighbor. Further, the paradigm includes the reality of a dynamic spiritual tradition, an evolving peace theology, a persistent mission theme and a developing theology of church, state and society.


For nearly a generation, the popular image of the Russian Mennonite story has been formed by the film And When They Shall Ask. The film introduces viewers to a people who traced their roots to the Dutch Anabaptist radical Menno Simons-a pacifist people fleeing outright persecution and systemic harassment, a pilgrim people seeking a place of religious freedom where they could live out their simple biblical faith. “Was Russia that place'” the movie asks. The movie’s moment of high drama-the Mennonite exodus out of the Soviet “Red Sea” to Canada between 1924 and 1926-suggests the real answer: God traveled with the immigrants to Canada. The remaining footage about the Mennonites who remained in the Soviet Union, about those who survived the Gulag and prayed to a God who heard them, appears unconvincing.

In this essay I will argue that the two-hundred-year experience of Mennonites in Russia can be seen as a major paradigm for their becoming a Mennonite church that seeks continuing resonance for the coming century. That paradigm contains elements of living out the visions of the early Anabaptist reformers and of passing on that vision as adapted to changing historical contexts. It also contains a seventy-year period when the vision was severely tested, followed by a chastened time of recovery. This latter era may well be instructive for the global Anabaptist-Mennonite churches, even though its meaning for North Americans has become alien. The period of testing and recovery marked a renewed appropriation of the faith, a time of building the Mennonite community in pilgrim contexts, a time of the destruction and death of Mennonite institutions and places, so that the recovery had to be attempted in places of exile. It should be no surprise that the call to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (Jer. 29:7) was cited so often, or that Russian Mennonites no longer view the Ukraine as their homeland.

The Russian Mennonite legacy has directly impacted several hundred thousand Mennonites now living in Europe and both Americas. Indirectly it has affected the South German/Swiss Mennonite tradition as it joined with the immigrant stream from Russia as the major shaping traditions in North America. Further, the Russian Mennonite tradition has affected large bodies of new Mennonites through mission. One significant unresolved question is whether we have sufficiently considered whether the Russian Mennonite theological tradition could provide more help for living with the challenges of modernity in North America than has the Anabaptist Vision school nurtured in the South German-Swiss tradition.[1] Thus far, because of its more nuanced framing of theology and its more restrained emphasis on distinctives, the Russian Mennonite tradition has played a secondary role in shaping North American Mennonite identity.

Two features of the Russian Mennonite story have persisted as negative stereotypes, making it serve as a negative example or undesirable paradigm. One is the notion that the Mennonites in Russia developed their own state church-their own corpus Christianum-in that the colony structure came to represent an abuse of power, especially over those Mennonites resisting conformity to the dominant church by seeking spiritual renewal. American Mennonites had incorporated a strong notion of the Constantinian era as an expression of apostate Christianity; thus it was natural for them to regard Constantinian Mennonites of Russia as apostate, or at least unworthy of providing leadership. Second, during the days of the Russian Civil War the Russian Mennonites had organized an armed self-defense league (Selbstschutz), representing a total abandonment of pacifism.

Neither development has been granted much contextual attention. Indeed, the simplistic tendency to compare the Selbstschutz with American Mennonite pacifism during World War I and the two decades thereafter still persists, despite the more striking fact that a sobered Russian Mennonite community as a whole had returned to a pacifist stance within eighteen months, and sent its leaders to serve with other religious minorities on a review board that approved conscientious objector status-points that are rarely recognized as evidence for the persistent strength of the pacifist commitment.[2] Yet between 1919 and 1935-at the same time that American Mennonites were beginning to develop peace committees and to prepare themselves for their own CPS program within the American state structure-many Mennonite young men in Russia did undertake alternative service under the most trying circumstances.[3] Nor have we taken seriously the possibility that the North American Mennonite shift from a settlement or colony understanding of church to that of a conference structure, focused on purely religious issues in the mode of American denominationalism, might constitute a surrender of Mennonite ecclesiology to a less binding form of discipleship. Nor have American Mennonite scholars ever seriously asked whether the ecclesial practice developed by Chaco Mennonites- integrating community, cooperative and church, sharing a similar structure with Chaco Indians and stressing cooperation (Zusammenarbeit) with European and American partners in holistic mission-might be better than the congregationalist path taken by American Mennonites.

A more implicit stereotype that has served to silence the Russian Mennonite paradigm has been the notion, captured in dramatic form in And When They Shall Ask, that the Mennonite “exodus” that mattered occurred in the 1920s. This notion assumes that the Russian Mennonites had virtually ceased to exist in the USSR, and their most attractive successors in Canada soon adopted the denominational model and fit into Guy Hershberger’s framing of nonresistance and the way of the cross (as avoidance of all coercive settings).[4] The facts that General Conference and Mennonite Brethren Mennonites showed a greater readiness to engage in political life, and had a lower percentage of their young men seeking CO status, were due to the vestiges of the Russian Mennonite experience of compromise that they had not yet fully overcome. Or at least so goes the conventional commentary.

In the final sections of this essay I will demonstrate the creative diversity of pacifism in the long experience of Polish-Prussian and Russian Mennonites and show that pacifism has remained remarkably strong in spite of virtually insurmountable odds. That these comments seem somewhat at variance with my own published record on the subject illustrates the degree to which I earlier conformed to the prevailing American stereotypes that regarded the Anabaptist Vision as normative. Learning to see differently is obviously difficult.

Further, we must ask whether a Mennonite theology for the twenty-first century, deemed relevant for a global Anabaptist-Mennonite communion, can be anything but a consciously “Post-Gulag” theology. That is not to suggest that positing a theology for postmodern America is irrelevant for Mennonites elsewhere in the world, who represent the majority now, but rather to assert that American Mennonite theologizing that does not take seriously the significance of the Gulag for Christians everywhere, including Mennonites, cannot really claim to confess that “God so loved the world.”

What follows is less a research paper and more an essay drawing on earlier research and on the experiences and observations I have made during nearly thirty years of traveling to Russia interspersed with lengthy sojourns among the Umsiedler Mennonites-Mennonites who once lived in the Republics of the former Soviet Union who have now immigrated to Germany.[5] I will begin by delineating the operative theology of the Mennonites in Russia a century ago, by citing a few scholars who attempted such summaries. Second, by using short biographical sketches, I want to highlight the essential theological affirmations of Russian Mennonite leaders from 1925 through the 1990s, following a red thread of confessions in moments of testing. In so doing I will demonstrate several shifts in emphasis before, during and after the Gulag and Spetskomandantura experience, and, by identifying persons from the Kirchliche, Mennonite Brethren, Reform ECB and more isolated Omsk Bruderschaft, seek to point to the common elements that unite these groups across denominational barriers. In the final section I offer some reflections and conclusions organized around five themes: loyalty to what legacy’; the reality of a developing-not static-spiritual tradition; the changing character of an evolving peace theology; a persistent theme of mission; and lines of continuity and change in a theology of church, state and society. Each of these points surely needs to be fleshed out in book form, but this introductory essay may serve to make the points clear.


Remembered Leaders after the Martyr Conference of 1925

When a united and generally representative gathering of Mennonite leaders from the Ukraine, Eastern Russia and Western Siberia met in conference in 1925, the handwriting was already on the wall. The joint committee (of sects and groups, recognized by Soviet authorities) for adjudicating CO applicants had ceased to function, even though the 1919 decree permitting alternative service on religious grounds remained in effect until 1935. Government pressure on leaders of the Evangelical Christian, Baptist and Pentecostal Unions to declare their loyalty to Soviet power and to disavow their pacifism had been excessive during their national congresses in 1923, and all had capitulated by 1926. Opening speeches in the Mennonite conference of 1925 did state a loyalty to the Soviet state, but the well-known eight-point program of demands that followed clearly showed that Mennonites were not prepared to surrender central faith claims, including pacifism. Since most of the participants at this gathering left the country shortly thereafter or disappeared into the Gulag, the experience has become known as the Martyr Conference.

The stories of the subsequent “exodus” to Canada of one group of leaders in particular has been celebrated-particularly as told by Frank Epp and John B. Toews.[6] Probably the best known by now are B.B. Janz of the Ukraine and C.F. Klassen of the Orenburg settlement, both the subjects of published biographies.[7] Other leaders such as Benjamin H. Unruh, A. A. Friesen and C. H. Warkentin, all members of the Study Commission sent to the West in 1920 to secure relief, played major roles by remaining in the West. Included in the immigration between 1923-26, when Janz and Klassen also departed, were many church and school leaders, such as Epps and Thiessens, who subsequently became well known as teachers, church journalists and preachers.

By contrast, much less is known about the leaders who stayed-those who were killed or those imprisoned who eventually survived to “freedom.” A prominent theme in the martyr stories of those leaders who died is how they had been tempted by the immigration option but chose to remain because of their promise to serve the church. Rejecting the immigration option because of a high view of the calling to ministry has remained a persistent theme throughout the subsequent seventy-five years.

Historian Henry Paetkau, now conference minister for the Mennonite Church Canada, recently assessed the pastoral theology of three such ministers who remained behind-Hans Rempel, Heinrich Winter and Aron Toews-by drawing on their published letters, memoirs and biographies.[8] In each case the imprisonment and exile of these leaders forced them to confront the theme of suffering in a pastoral manner. Paetkau has highlighted four aspects in particular. First, all of these leaders looked on suffering “from the perspective of faith in a God who was in control of the present, and in light of the eschatological hope offered in Scripture.”[9] Second, suffering was understood to be a divine judgment on past failures as a people. Toews, for example, spoke of the need to confess: “Our iniquities are the reason [for suffering] . . . our people have fallen deeply, ethically and morally.” Toews went on to identify wealth, business practices and trendy education as elements of corruption. Winter pointed out the need to seek forgiveness not just from above: “we also needed to forgive each other.” Third, the leaders also spoke of suffering as testing and purification. As in the following decades, hymns were the best means of responding positively to the purifying fire: “So Nimm Denn Meine Hnde” (“Take Thou My Hands, Oh Father”) was Hans Rempel’s frequent resource. Winter cited “Befiehl Dem Herren Deine Wege” (“Thy Way and All Thy Sorrows”). Finally, analogous to earlier Babylonian captivities, the leaders sought to read the prophetic element, to see the signs of the times. Hence the calls to faithfulness, to be found ready when the Lord would come.

The biographical vignettes compiled in the Mennonite Martyrs collection[10] suggest three recurring themes for making sense of this period of suffering: (1) Was God still in charge'” many leaders asked in the midst of their severest trials; invariably they concluded that God had indeed led them, even through the deepest pit; (2) A second theme was the recognition that God intended the imprisonments and exiles as opportunities for Christian witness. Philip Cornies, for example, seized numerous opportunities to communicate the message of the love of Christ when negotiating with authorities, including with his interrogators; (3) Finally, suffering leaders held a persistent hope that out of the testing would come a renewed church, a deeper commitment to faithfulness.

Although historian John B. Toews once concluded that the theological preoccupations of the Mennonite schoolteachers who went to Germany to study did not help to prepare the Russian Mennonites for suffering, the first decade of Soviet power provided major opportunities to reflect on suffering. Evident in the writings of ministers who faced Soviet atheist hostility was their association of the Mennonite heritage of suffering in the sixteenth century, and the later forms of suffering that forced them to flee to Russia, with the suffering of the present moment. Many recalled the remark in 1 Peter 4: “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you.” The Gulag experiences provided the occasion to test whether God would indeed protect the faithful in suffering, and whether one should protest loudly or enter into the stillness of suffering. Yet another link to this theme was the many temptations that the suffering forced upon them: the temptation to doubt; the temptation to surrender to the demands to renounce their ministry; the temptation to seek flight somewhere.

Finally, not only did the Anabaptist legacy of the way of love persist, but it developed the deepened dimension of a theology of “nevertheless”-nevertheless, You Lord are love. Visitors to Russia are always impressed to see how persistently Mennonite and Evangelical Christian-Baptist churches prominently displayed the logo behind the pulpit-“God is Love.” This testimony is fundamental to the heritage of nonresistance. It claims that God approaches humans in love, that God did so most completely in the Incarnation of Christ and that to be “in Christ” therefore means to approach the other, most consciously the enemy, with love. Estate owner David Dick, founder of the Mennonite Tract Society who was shot in 1919, had a strong reputation for charity and Christian unity. In fact, all tracts issued carried the logo “God is Love.” In 1932, from distant exile, J. J Toews asserted that “all the leadings of our Father in Christ are only and definitely only love. My exile is love, only love . . . pure love will only gain through such testing.” In that same letter Toews included the option that “when after all the prayers . . . all the waiting, the Lord in love answers with death, then this answer is a Hallelujah for us.”[11] Such language may seem unreal-a refusal to face hard realities, as the persecutors often taunted. But this search for a love casting out fear, a love centered in knowing God more deeply, reappears consistently in Umsiedler interviews fifty years later.

Mennonite Leaders in the Gulag

With the end of Mennonite church administrative offices, at least by 1928 when the American Mennonite Relief administration (AMR) was dissolved, and the ending of local worship gatherings (between 1930 and 1936 for local Mennonite groups), members continued to look to their leaders for guidance. Finding substitutes for formal worship was essential. The Mennonite practice of family worship survived, even when parents carried it our secretly so their innocent school children would not inadvertently betray them. Repeatedly in interviews and memoirs memories surface of moments of worship that call to mind what once was a richer life of worship. Most crucial was the way experienced leaders modeled what could be done.

Kirchliche Mennonite Leaders

When D. B. Wiens and H. S. Bender managed to establish contact with Russian Mennonites during a trip in 1956, the first such contact in more than twenty years, they met Philip D. Cornies and Heinrich P. Voth. Cornies had been a teacher since 1902, served as a medical orderly during World War I, then returned to teaching and preaching, joining the MB Church in Tiege. After losing his teaching position and experiencing several arrests, Cornies began working with B. B. Janz and the Landwirtschaftlicher Verband (Agricultural Union of Mennonites of Dutch origin, the entity that organized the emigration and post-famine development) in Ukraine. When under arrest and tortured in Melitopol prison, he had promised that he would not emigrate but help with economic reconstruction. When Janz and others left the region in 1926, he said, “I am bound by my promise. I have to stay.” As a result, the Verband was dissolved, its staff tried, condemned and sent into exile. In the 1930s Cornies spent five and half years in exile on the Solovki Islands in the north. Yet he survived, retained his sense of ministry, and when the North American delegation came in 1956, he risked a visit despite the fact that it cost him further imprisonment.

The second leader that Wiens and Bender met, Heinrich P. Voth, had also been a teacher with pedagogical training from Halbstadt and had been elected to the ministry in 1921. At his ordination Elder Jacob Rempel addressed the five candidates with the words: “Five men dare to spring into the flood to rescue souls, five men want to work for the Lord with all of their strength.”[12] Four years later Voth was already the elder of the Nikolaifeld church, and for the next four years he maintained an active program of holding conferences, training younger ministers and evangelists and leading Bible study with the youth. Facing new restrictions in 1929, Voth reflected that their forefathers had always left their homes for new lands when the authorities threatened to take the children. Now, however, he insisted, “God is showing us new directions.”[13] Exiled to the north in 1931 for five years, Voth and his family then relocated to Polovinka in the Urals, where he worked in the forests. But in 1938 he received another ten-year sentence. Bender and Wiens learned that, upon his release, he had begun to search out the Mennonite remnant in eastern Russia. In 1957, encouraged by Bender as president of the Mennonite World Conference, Voth and several other Kirchliche leaders organized a meeting to work toward the re-formation of a Mennonite church union. After authorities arrested him and the others, the de facto leadership of the Kirchliche proceeded more casually. Like Cornies, Voth was remembered in later years for his steady spirit of encouragement. Eventually (about 1961) he settled in Tokmak, Kirgistan and, though blind for some of his final years, continued to provide inspiration for younger leaders.

Other ministers such as Johann Penner, Cornelius Epp Sr. and Hans Penner can only be named. These leaders, ordained before the closing of the churches, traveled when they could to hold services, baptize secretly and move on. They in turn ordained men like Bernhard Sawadzky in Novosibirsk, Jacob Siebert in Karaganda and several in Kirgistan (Johann Schellenberg and Jasch Doerksen), who became the activists in securing the construction of church buildings, the registration (after 1967) that required submitting a confession of faith. None of these men were formally trained, so they looked to the earlier generation for mentoring.

Mennonite Brethren Leaders

Johann Rempel, minister since 1910 in the MB church in Klubnikovo (Orenburg), was largely self-taught, with the help of several correspondence courses. He not only served as local minister but also traveled extensively in Siberia among Germans and Russians. Rempel too came to Moscow in 1929, seeking exit visas, but was forcibly returned to Orenburg and began a life of prison and exile that included Sol Iletsk, Moscow, Arkhangelsk and even Zaporozh’e. In the mid-1930s he moved with his family between Ukraine and Orenburg to escape GPU notice. To no avail. Arrested again in 1938 he disappeared, “trusting that God would give him the strength to walk this pathway as a witness to Christ.”[14] His son Hans Rempel shared a cell with his father in 1930. What he remembered most was his father’s “quiet, trusting, courageous, hopeful sufferance.” Rempel rejected the notion of escaping prison, saying, “I am here because of my service in the church of Christ: I cannot and must not flee.”[15]

Decades later “Onkel” Rempel from Orenburg reappeared in the sharp memories of younger leaders of the Mennonite community in Orenburg, that territory where anti-religious persecution in the Khrushchev years was unusually intense. Johannes Rempel had survived the Gulag as a physically weakened being and finally returned home in the early 1950s. To spare the community trouble, he did not preach, but younger men went to see him and he became a mentor of the Word of God to them. Rempel had learned to listen long and patiently, so that when the embittered school teacher Peter Engbrecht, also a Gulag survivor, came home and tried to provoke the old man with his blasphemy, Rempel responded kindly. Then came the day when Engbrecht surrendered to the love of God and thereafter could not contain his joy. Engbrecht went on to become a traveling evangelist during the revivals of the early 1950s, once baptizing more than seventy persons, among them Daniel Janzen, the eventual leader of the Orenburg MB churches in the 1980s during the final wave of emigration to Germany.[16]

A new generation of leaders emerged during the Spetskomandantura years (1944-1964), men who had little church experience and whose faith stories started with the day they first saw a Bible or heard one of the traveling ministers speak about the grace of God offered freely to sinners. Jacob Fast began attending a legally registered Evangelical Christian Baptist church in Novosibirsk, where his talents were recognized. Soon he was preaching and also becoming a link to more isolated Mennonite communities in the region. Not until the late 1960s did Fast finally participate in the Bible correspondence course offered by the church union in Moscow. Fast rose to be the spokesperson for the Mennonite Brethren who joined the All Union Council of Evangelical Christian Baptists (AUCECB) after 1963. Western Mennonites heard him assert in public speeches that there was no essential difference between Baptists and Mennonites, hence their close union. What uninformed listeners could easily fail to appreciate was the degree to which both Mennonites and Baptists held the essential orthodox Christian doctrines in common; that the Russian evangelicals had been deeply shaped by Mennonite mission and theology since its beginnings; and that adaptations of that Mennonite legacy of distinctives had taken place. Mennonites were now more open, no longer practicing closed communion with foot-washing. No one was able to secure CO status as an alternative to military service-the new ethnic groups and other Germans were not conscripted until 1956 when the worst of the Spetskomandantura restrictions were eased-yet the love and discipleship ethics were stressed both in terms of relationships within the church and in many acts of random kindness to the needy, as opportunities and the blind eye of the state allowed.

A de facto community of Mennonite Brethren did develop, whose boundaries of fellowship even included both the AUCECB and the independent Mennonite Brethren in Karaganda and Omsk. Their leaders, like Jacob Fast, Traugott Quiring and Peter Ens (of the AUCECB), met with Heinrich Woelk and Willie Matthies of the large independent Mennonite Brethren church in Karaganda. Given their training before the collapse of all church life in the early 1930s, the Karaganda leaders consciously tried to teach Mennonite distinctives, including encouraging their young men to resist induction, in which several succeeded. They held in common a concern for the remnant Mennonites and other Germans, who were scattered to the farthest reaches of the USSR, and took turns visiting them. Though this was fundamentally a risky missionary task of re-introducing Christ to people of Mennonite origin, it did not deliberately reach out beyond them. A generation later, when Viktor Fast addressed the Mennonite World Conference Assembly in Canada (July 1990), he stated that his predecessors had taught him that they felt they had failed to find the vision and courage during the worst Stalin years for sharing the Gospel with the surrounding community. Since 1990 Fast and colleague Erwin Warkentin have headed a systematic outreach program in north central Kazakhstan, heavily supported by volunteers from the younger generation of Karaganda immigrants, now living in Germany.

Indeed, in the 1990s the mission theme that was rather prominent in the 1920s became the central focus of church life. Representatives from the separate countries of Central Asia (after 1991) continued to meet together for missionary conferences. At the 1998 conference held in Karaganda, leader Frants Tissen presented a joint mission program of cooperation between the ECB Churches, the Independent Mennonite Brethren and the new Mennonite ethnic groups forming that spoke local languages. Listening to the sermons of Tissen, Heinrich Vot of Bishkek, Kirgistan and Jakob Ens of Tokmak, Kirgistan foreign guests pointed out to me the way in which the “Mennonites” were leading, both by using the resources of literature from sister churches in Germany and America and by emphasizing the importance of the way of love (Vot), the transformation of life in Christ (Tissen) and a holistic concern for the physical and spiritual needs of people.

Mennonite leaders in the Reform Baptist Union

In 1961 the Soviet evangelicals split into the All-Union Council and the Council of Churches of ECB-or, as perceived more popularly in the West, the “registered” versus “unregistered” (or underground) churches. As information about the unregistered or dissident groups became better known, especially through lists of prisoners of conscience, the disproportionate number of prisoners of Mennonite origin was striking, as was the fact of their prominence in the leadership within the Council of Churches. As in previous renewal movements in Russia and America that were referred to as “old Mennonites” versus “new Mennonites,” so too the Mennonites among the Reform Baptists avoided the designation “Mennonite” to escape being tarnished with the brush of spiritual laxity, for theirs was a much stronger commitment to being a missionary church.

Yet the Mennonite impact continued at several levels. In one sense they saw themselves within the lineage of radical Anabaptism, in their stress on the authority of scripture, discipline in the church community and commitment to witness. Yet supporters such as the Omsk Brotherhood, to name only one of several groups, were uncomfortable with those in the Reform Baptist ranks who seemed strident. They sought instead a more peaceful way to deal with persecuting authorities and preferred the stillness and silence of suffering and martyrdom.

When one reads the memoirs of Mennonites in the Reform Baptist movement, such as Johann Epp of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, reminders of these common Mennonite themes are evident. Isolated in prison camp, Epp asked God the reason for his imprisonment, since “nothing happens without God’s will, and God is love.”[17] The answer soon came when another prisoner sought him out to talk about God. A few pages further into the story, Epp added that he had discovered that he had been sent not only to bear witness, but also to stay to nurture those of new-found faith toward fuller biblical knowledge. Characteristically, when finally released, Epp took leave of all by asking for forgiveness for any offences he might have caused, wanting to part with them as reconciled persons.

Omsk Bruderschaft

The Mennonite settlement stretching along the railroad east of Omsk began at the end of the nineteenth century. This was frontier territory, the soil and climate good for agriculture. The Bolshevik revolution made its impact here less immediately; indeed, the entire state infrastructure was slow in coming. As recent scholarship has shown, Mennonites took unusual measures to establish their own schools, in order to teach their faith and have places for worship.[18] As schools and churches became increasingly separated elsewhere, the Mennonites in the Omsk region and in Pavlodar (now known as the Shchuchinsk region in Northern Kazakhstan) long resisted massive pressures to secularize the schools before they finally capitulated.

Nikolai Dyckman, leader of 26 churches and numerous mission “stations,” may not know the entire story, but his personal explanations fit the larger patterns. Converted in the early 1950s following a lapse in public worship of nearly two decades, Dyckman soon encountered official harassment and imprisonment for evangelistic activities. The churches supported each other and, presumably in light of their earlier independent history, chose not to join the competing evangelical unions. Dyckman sympathized with the Reform Baptists, such as Kornelius Kroeker of Novosibirsk, David and Rudy Loewen of Karaganda and others in Slavgorod-all a day or two distant. But their style in Omsk was to take counsel together as a “brotherhood,” which included systematic Bible study. They lacked trained leaders, so they simply assigned Bible passages to each other for study, then sought clarity on the issues they faced. Dyckman did recall the spiritual literature that had found its way to Omsk, including the catechisms and P. M. Friesen’s History of the Mennonite Brotherhood, so that they appreciated the influx of Anabaptist-Mennonite literature from the West, after visiting became possible in 1990, because it rang true to what they knew.

Tested to the Limits-Mennonite Women as Model of Faithfulness in Suffering

While worshiping with Russian Mennonites who had immigrated to Germany in the late 1970s, I often noted the emotional intensity they expressed on Mother’s Day. The usual morning and evening services consisted of singing, a time of prayer, a meditation from the Psalms, perhaps choral or congregational songs between two longer meditations on a text and a time of prayer by the congregation concluded by the leading elder (Aeltesten). On Mother’s Day, however, Umsiedler services inevitably had more singing and many more recitations of poetry or stories about mothers, and the sermons frequently focused on the unconditional love of mothers who had given their last piece of bread so the child could survive. Not only were the speakers emotional, in contrast to their usual stiff demeanor, but the audience responses, with weeping and verbal affirmations during the prayers, were noticeably more pronounced. Clearly, a core memory or a central nerve was being tapped. Frequently, too, when I listened to someone’s faith story, the backdrop to their conversion was the fact of a mother, an aunt or other women already meeting for worship while others were still too afraid.

To focus on ordained male leaders in the story of a post-Gulag theology for Russian Mennonites would miss this central role of the women. The “witness from below” has always been crucial for the continuity and spread of Christianity, particularly so in the Anabaptist-Mennonite story that so often was the story of the powerless becoming agents of change. Invariably, when a renewal movement among Russian Mennonites resulted in a separate group organizing itself, ministers, deacons and elders (bishops)-the classic three-fold ministry categories of episcopus, diakon, presbyteros-were eventually chosen and ordained. But even though women may have been instrumental in the renewal movements as background characters, women were never the candidates. During the Soviet era, particularly in times of intense persecution when eligible males were either in prison or too fearful to lead, women stepped into leadership positions, even leading biblical meditation or preaching. Within the Reform Baptist movement, where persons of Mennonite origin and theology were disproportionately evident in leadership, the survival of the movement and worldwide agitation for the release of prisoners of conscience would not have been possible without the work of the Council of Prisoners’ Relatives, an organization led by Lydia Vins and other women. Participants in the work of the Council have consistently affirmed that this female ministry was clearly blessed of God. When normalcy returned, however, male leaders insisted that the Pauline instructions for women to keep silence and to be subordinate to their husbands was the preferred biblical hermeneutic. So the ministry and accompanying theology of women was surrounded by ambiguity.

A serious study of the lived and taught theology of such Russian Mennonite women from the Gulag era remains to be done. By examining the memoir of one woman, Lena (Hamm) Fast, we can obtain at least some glimpses of a tested faith that left its mark on many people.[19] Lena married Heinrich Fast in 1935 and their son Willi was born in 1936.[20] Two years later on July 1, 1938 baby Helene was born, but on July 11, 1938 her husband Heinrich and her father were arrested as part of the major Yezhovschina Purges of 1937-38 which included several thousand Mennonites. Though Lena traveled to a prison three times-a three-hour ride one way-she could make no contact. After five and a half months Heinrich managed to mail a letter from Solikamsk (Ural mountain region), signaling in cryptic language that she should not expect him to return until his ten-year sentence had expired. Together with her mother and sisters, Lena tried to make ends meet. On her birthday in May of 1939 they ate the gruel from their last bit of flour at breakfast; the same day a former employer delivered a sack of flour to the family. Yet by mid-August little Helene had died and news of the death of her imprisoned father Cornelius Hamm reached them early in 1940. Lena’s response was to treasure the slip of paper found under her father’s pillow: “God is faithful. His heart-His father’s heart-does not abandon his own.” From a Psalm he had quoted: “His mighty wings cover me. Dash down you mountains, fall down you hills, God is faithful.” The other response, so common in the memoirs of others as well, was to take comfort from the expectation that “not much longer and we will see each other again, on the golden shore in the everlasting homeland.”

When the Nazi attack came in the fall of 1941, their group of Germanic-origin colonies near Samara (Volga region) were deported eastward, in her case to the steppes of Kazakhstan. After a long trip on cattle cars and a long trek through the snow, Lena’s family ended up living in a sarai, a Kazakh dwelling with dirt floor, no stove, no windows and inadequate fuel for heating. So at Christmas time she went “outside to cry to the sky above. It seemed to me that God had turned away from us.” The family dwindled in size that winter, with the death of a sister and a brother, leaving only her mother, seriously ill, one sister who lived another two years, and her small son Willi. In January of 1943 Lena was conscripted, together with all other German girls and women, into the Work Army (Trud Armii), and ended up in Betshchevo, Kirov Oblast, felling trees. In her quiet loneliness, she often sang the song “Does Jesus Care.” By January of 1945 her mother had died, an aunt who had assumed care for Willi was arrested, and on January 16 her youngest sister Selma died, leaving Willi, for all practical purposes, orphaned. The comfort that came with the death notice was a letter from Willi, now nine years old, quoting Psalm 23:1 and the final lines from Matthew 28: “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”

On the day that the war ended, their work brigade was moved to the Tatar Autonomous Republic, assigned to dig ditches. A few months later they were informed about the new Special Regime for Soviet Germans (Spets-komandantura).[21] For Lena, the news meant that they were to be exiled forever as labor conscripts; they were to forget about their spouses, if they had any, and seek a new partner. Lena remarked, “I would rather be silent about the anguish this called forth. . . . My great comfort was that here on earth there is nothing that lasts forever, so I need not get so worried about this.”

A year later she received a short letter from her son Willi, begging her to come to him near Karaganda in Kazakhstan. Unable to get permission from the Special Command to travel, she set out on her own in June 1946, persuading ticket agents to sell her tickets without the prerequisite papers. A month later she arrived on foot in the village where she hoped to find her son, yet afraid to enter in case she would be arrested and given the usual twenty-five year sentence. After praying to God for help, she immediately encountered a Cossack woman, who informed her that Willi was staying in her hut. Willi had virtually no clothes; he shared his clothes with other children as they took turns sleeping in bed and going to school.

Within a few days they started the return trip to her place of exile. Yet the difficulties continued, and Lena’s heart “was often heavy to the point of despair,” hardly eased by news from her husband in early 1948, following the completion of his ten-year sentence, that he was now being sent into permanent exile in Siberia. A year and a half later Lena was finally permitted to leave her work place in order to join her husband, but was only allowed to travel as a prisoner, which turned out to be a six-week horror trip. United with Heinrich, Lena and Willi moved into quarters “somewhat better than the prison.” In her memoir addressed to children and relatives, Lena remarked that this was her story of the ten years without her husband. What about Heinrich’s story? Since all had read Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, she simply said that “Papa had 3745 such days.”

Thereafter, Lena Fast’s story began to improve. Sons Viktor and Heinrich were born in 1951 and 1954, and Willi caught up with his schooling, then set off for university studies in Tomsk. Willi did well, completing a doctorate in mathematics, marrying and having children. But Willi’s faith was a casualty to this childhood trauma. Viktor, who grew up under more normal circumstances, which included church fellowship with Russian Baptists and finally living in a larger Mennonite Brethren community in Karaganda, became a computer programmer. Later he became a minister, then the elder, or bishop. Younger brother Heinrich, by contrast, went to the university in Tomsk, also obtained a doctorate, then lost his post when he converted to Orthodoxy. He ended up completing the Orthodox seminary course and became a priest. Having watched the way his younger educated brothers integrated faith and learning, Willi also joined the Orthodox church around 1985 and promptly lost his teaching post, not regaining it till after 1989. His daughters married men of Russian Mennonite origin, both of whom have now also been ordained to the priesthood in Orthodoxy.

How might Lena Fast reconstruct this story theologically? When reporting on events in 1951 she recounted in somewhat vague terms that she had lost her peace with God years earlier, and was now quite depressed when reading Hebrews 6:1-8. That passage counseled “going on toward perfection” and asserted “it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened . . . have tasted the heavenly gift . . . and then have fallen away. . . .” Although she would experience God’s peace periodically when looking up to the night sky in appeals for God’s mercy, the heaviness stayed with her. Apparently the “thorns and thistles” mentioned in the passage from Hebrews, her memories of bitterness when God had seemed so distant, caused her to doubt. She finally wrote a letter of repentance to bishop Johann Fast in Karaganda and then found peace. At another moment of turning, in late 1955 when more prisoners were granted amnesty and two Russian preachers were sheltered in their home for some weeks, she recalled the impact that one of V. A. Miloradov’s sermons had made on her. The text was from Ezekiel 37 about dry bones restored to life by the word of God. Lena remarked:

As the bones begin to move and a sound arises-O, how wonderful it seemed to me. The lost ones went into the wilderness in an unknown region where there was no place for them. Hungry and thirsty their souls perished, but he sent his word and made us healthy, that we should not die. We will thank the Lord for his goodness and for the miracles he does for us his children.

As in the reactions of the men, one consistent theme is that God is faithful-God does not abandon God’s own. But the story also makes it clear that such a faith claim was severely tested by a temptation to move from feeling abandoned by God to assenting to that abandonment. In Lena’s case, and surely in that of many others, the long legacy of being called to the way of perfection so troubled her that she began to doubt her salvation when hearing the text of Hebrews 6:4 because she knew that she might not have kept the faith continuously. Here is evidence of a tradition that understated the grace of God. It is also striking to note the impact of the image of dry bones taking on new life (Ez. 37). As in other Christian confessions, the theme of new life springing up where spiritual life had been quite dead was a constant discovery during the period of the resurrection of the Russian Mennonites. It is a key insight of the ongoing Mennonite theological story-to turn away from the Mennonites who have grown spiritually dead and to seek ties only to the living tradition of the Anabaptist movement and earlier radical groups is in tension with the prophetic tradition of Ezekiel, or of Paul’s hope for his Israelite people.

The big question asked in Russia in 1988, when the religious renaissance took on serious proportions, was “Is forgiveness possible'” A positive response to that question remains a central claim of the Gospel, and is a claim that Russian Mennonites have re-affirmed out of a new sense of the depths from which they had called to the Lord.

Leaders for Exodus and for Mission

Between 1987 and 1993 about 100,000 persons of Mennonite origin left the Soviet Union to settle in Germany-the largest Mennonite migration ever. That immigration not only overwhelmed airports along the way, it left decimated churches in its wake in Central Asia, the Orenburg region and central Siberia. In the much smaller territory of Germany this diverse community found itself struggling to develop yet another church identity. Daniel Janzen’s story typifies some of the dynamics.

Born in 1929, in the year of collectivization in Orenburg, Janzen experienced village life in Orenburg under Soviet control, a life dramatically different from the former self-sufficient Mennonite colony. One of his early vivid memories was the night in 1937 when his father was arrested, never to return. During and after the war Janzen spent his teenage years in the village of Donskoe, where German and Mennonite refugees from the Ukraine were resettled under the special authority of the Spetskomandantura. After the war there were a few occasions for Christian worship where he heard the simple Gospel and responded with repentance and faith. Within a few years, he was already expected to lead as preacher. Even in rural territories distant from Moscow it was still imprudent to meet for worship too publicly in the 1960s, so the congregation rotated from house to house. Finally in 1973, with some trickery, they managed to construct a building that served them for public worship.

Although no Mennonites from the West were able to visit the congregation until 1985, Daniel and others from Orenburg met Mennonites when they attended conferences in Moscow. Following the visit of a Mennonite World Conference delegation in 1986, leaders in North America resolved to assist in the recovery of an Anabaptist vision in that region by sending literature, visiting teachers and preachers. Yet the Orenburgers insisted they were already Mennonites and were not certain that the American help would be true to their own understanding of the tradition. I recall an official visit in late 1987 when guests observed a strong tradition of Bible reading, even though the educational level was low, and noticed the large numbers of children and youth present in worship, especially compared with other regions of the Soviet Union at the time. As host, Janzen reviewed the common Mennonite story-one of suffering for the faith during the Reformation, then stories of God’s protection during the difficulties in later centuries and finally the separations of the past century. The main themes of a common faith were the belief in being born again, holy living, church discipline and teaching the children in home and church. To be sure, there was little here of a programmatic peace commitment, but its Soviet variants emerged in the conversations during the day-stories of love of neighbor and kindness to enemy.

When Daniel Janzen visited the U.S. in early 1989 his public remarks and private plans were in contradiction. He told American Mennonites an eloquent story about many marvelous answers to prayers-especially the prayers of his mother, who had died without glimpsing an answer but entrusted her son to keep on praying. Everywhere in the former Soviet Union people now wanted to see a Bible and wanted to come to faith. Even the Mennonites of the Orenburg villages who had left the Christian faith were converting. At the same time, however, Daniel was already making preparations for “exodus.” In the summer of 1989 he traveled with a large delegation by train to Zaporozh’e, Ukraine to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of the Mennonite sojourn in Russia. There he heard the appeals of neighbors to stay and help rebuild the new Russia and Ukraine. But Daniel returned to Orenburg only for the farewell service-he was going ahead to northern Germany to prepare the new church community, which the rest of the Donskoe congregation would join within four years.

Janzen’s rationale for the exodus explained the meanings of it for many. During the recent era of change toward greater religious freedom, their spirits had lifted, and they had also taken greater note of the missionary needs about them. But there were also always those moments reminding them of the heavy hand of the security police; of the times of suffering so profound that they could only focus on strength for the moment, rather than on the building of a full life of faith in the community. So the longing for escape from their “slavery in Egypt” had long been present, though the Orenburgers had kept it suppressed because so few had managed to emigrate until it became possible around 1987. Janzen’s answer to the question of whether to emigrate or remain to minister was that he would continue to lead the church in the new place. That had indeed been the way of the earlier immigration leaders.

The new Mennonite leaders emerging during the past decade have names like Johannes P. Dyck, Viktor Fast, Herman Hartfeld, Johannes Reimer, Heinrich Klassen, Peter Penner. All of them have emigrated to Germany. All have obtained a theological education. All are regular missionaries to the former Soviet Union. All have published on Mennonite history. None of this could have been expected, but it confirms a continuing, living legacy.


In both of his articles on the Russian Mennonite legacy of suffering, Waldemar Janzen cited the preoccupation of sufferers everywhere to wrest meaning from their suffering.[22] To break the grip of “a meaningless present,” Janzen listed seven major questions that needed to be addressed: to explore what must be remembered; to examine what needs memorializing and ritualizing; to sort out what analogies from history to draw on; to address the issues of repenting and judging; to resolve how to forgive the enemy and who has the right to do so; to help cope with emotional overload. Finally, he addressed the task of projecting, on the basis of this legacy, a suffering-based missiology. My own appreciative and also critical response to Janzen has advocated creating a broader ownership of the twentieth-century martyrdoms, uncovering the hiddenness of those martyrdoms and acknowledging how our failure to do these things has hindered our own peacemaking in America. We need to linger longer over the crushing powerlessness of God’s silence and the absence of happy endings. Above all, I have sought to show that the necessary theological framework for addressing Janzen’s questions required a penitential stance, not the triumphalism so often evident in Anabaptist-Mennonite discourse of expecting that serious Christians will necessarily become Anabaptists.[23]

When Canadian Mennonite theologian Arnold Neufeldt-Fast addressed the future of a Mennonite theology that “had seen the precipice,” perhaps his most disturbing comment was that Harold Bender’s Anabaptist Vision statement, used as teaching material by C. F. Klassen and Peter J. Dyck, with its emphasis on radical discipleship, had “failed utterly to meet the moral and spiritual plight of those refugees.”[24] Refugee Mennonites from the USSR were now “challenged to process their experiences without a doctrine of justification, without a mature doctrine of God’s forgiving grace, without a careful Mennonite articulation of Luther’s simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and a sinner).”[25] Neufeldt-Fast concluded by asking how central to Mennonite theology is the God who identified with suffering humanity and death.

Loyalty to what legacy?

In his classic book on Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries Robert Friedmann advanced the argument that the Mennonite church that had survived the persecution of Anabaptist times gradually fell prey to the more individualist piety of continental Pietism and Anglo-American revivalism. The so-called “Friedmann thesis” of 1949 contrasted a good evangelical Anabaptism with the harmful influences from Pietism.[26] This interpretation of what had happened by the eighteenth century has served several generations of Mennonite scholars and other church leaders since then, especially in North America, to attempt a “Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision” that deliberately dissociated Mennonite theology from Pietism and evangelicalism. Instead, the central concerns to be recovered, according to conventional wisdom, were three Anabaptist characteristics highlighted in Harold Bender’s famous “Anabaptist Vision” essay of 1943: namely, a concept of the church as community, discipleship and an ethic of love in all human relations.

When I ventured an assessment of the Russian Mennonite legacy at its bicentennial in 1989, I made a major issue of the fact that the Soviet Mennonites had lived through a time warp, since they had not experienced the recovery of the Anabaptist Vision. North American Mennonites visiting them in the late 1980s were measuring Soviet Mennonites against that “recovery” standard, and found them wanting. I argued that the Soviet Mennonites were a people so profoundly reshaped by the Spetskomandantura, including a nearly complete amnesia about their Mennonite identity, that it would be a while before they might feel included in the label “we Anabaptists.”

The fiftieth anniversary of the Anabaptist Vision in 1993 may have elicited several conferences advocating new recovery strategies, but it has become more common to reject the Friedmann thesis as too insensitive to historical development, to acknowledge the shadow sides of Anabaptism that can account for the welcome reception Pietism experienced among Mennonites and to recognize that Mennonites provided helpful leadership in devotional readings and hymnody for continental pietism. Indeed, Friedmann’s stereotype of Pietism turned out to be inaccurate, in particular because Pietism had a strong praxis orientation, a social concern, a missionary concern and was not as inattentive to ecclesiology as its critics claimed. Yet Mennonite Piety helped Mennonites to understand the ways in which their loyalty to heritage persisted amidst changing spiritual contexts. Friedmann may have disliked how that loyalty to the legacy was articulated, but it did indeed persist.

And that is a key point. Instead of referring to Anabaptist martyrs or a three-fold vision statement, observers of Russian Mennonites living in South America, Canada and, until recently, the former Soviet Union have noted a high regard for their Mennonite heritage and a desire to explain how they are seeking to be faithful to it. In the spiritual renewal movements within the Russian Mennonite colonies of the nineteenth century, each group appealed to its understanding of the essentials of sixteenth-century Anabaptism. In the case of the Kleine Gemeinde, for example, this took the form of an appeal to new ethical rigor, and they cited Menno’s writings to make their point. The appeal of the Templar Mennonites to eschatology and the appeal of Mennonite Brethren to the Holy Spirit were also couched as a recovery of themes that had been important in early Anabaptism but which, in the 1860s, seemed to be slipping. Similarly, the Klass Epp group treking across the Kazakhstan desert in the 1880s were sensitized to the impending apocalypse and were driven to find a place to practice a more pure form of pacifism than was offered by the negotiated forest service under the Tsarist imperial structure or than was to be found among the uncertainties of religious freedom in an aggressive American republic or a British colony.[27]

Were one to delineate the common convictions of these renewal movements, they would have to include the central affirmations of the Lutheran Reformation, as Bender had also stated in the opening of the Anabaptist Vision, although this fact is often ignored in the recent revisiting of his work. Justification of sinners by grace was a prominent conviction among Anabaptists. Their experience of suffering in the sixteenth century and in the centuries of pilgrimage to find refuge was seen as a demonstration of Christian discipleship. The norm they had learned from scripture and from their own history was to expect suffering. Their Lord did not resist evil; neither could they. The response of love and forgiveness included offering the Good News to the neighbor.

Looking back on the Russian-Soviet Mennonites now, one is struck by the fact that they, together with the vastly larger number of Catholic and Orthodox Christians, lived through suffering to a degree not known before in history. Those Mennonites who survived and provided leadership for their churches have approached that suffering as something they expected because they were Christians.

The caliber of this acceptance of the normativity of suffering emerges through noticing other themes that pervade the Gulag “literature”-the prolonged silence of God and the failure to see prayers answered, along with a profound sense of being alone and abandoned by God in a sea of unbelief. They had learned better than ever before to understand the cry of the Psalmist “from the depths.” In a famous poem penned in exile, Johann Toews imagined the depths of the testing of his own faith as a descending spiral.[28] The materials I have seen, as well as heard in conversations and interviews, make clear that doubt had been a major temptation.[29] When hope came-and if the person was not to stay frozen in their state of depression, some hope had to be found- it was an eschatological hope that offered light not here but in the hereafter or in the impending eschaton. Like others, Mennonites hoped to be rescued from the Bolsheviks during those early years. Then they hoped for salvation through the Nazis. But after 1945 such external human reasons for transforming their situation had grown slim. Only hope in Christ could provide sustenance. They experienced the contents of the oft repeated song “Nur Mit Jesu will ich Pilger Wandern” (“I want to wander as a pilgrim only with Jesus”) with an intensity that Americans cannot imagine.

Perhaps above all therefore, Russian Mennonites developed a profound focus on scripture, traveling for miles in search of a Bible or at least a Bible portion, laboriously copying scriptures to share with others, and memorizing for the coming time in prison when only scripture’s memory could sustain them.

A dynamic, not static, spiritual tradition

Friedmann traced a flow of literature from Dutch and North German leaders to Mennonites elsewhere, including Russia. In particular the Elbing Catechism of 1788 (following the Ris Confession of 1766), van Duehren’s Geschichte der Maertyrer (1782) and the 1834 van Riesen translation of the collected works of Menno Simons were widely used in Russia.[30] An alternative way of reading the Friedmann thesis in the Russian Mennonite experience is to recognize that the strong emphasis on the New Birth present at the time of the revolution did not slip into an inner self-indulgence (i.e., Pietism) during the testings of the 1920s, or the difficult years of 1937-38, or during the recovery after World War II. Instead, the New Birth became a public mark of nonconformity to societal atheism. The related theme of discipleship was indeed focused on personal morality, but in the Soviet context that too was socially nonconformist. Regularly, the exercise of congregational discipline for violations of personal morality-sexual, use of alcohol, birth control-was viewed as upholding Christian integrity in a Soviet society critical of Christianity. In 1989 the witness of Christian lifestyle was the most prominent reason for so many Russians turning to the churches for the new spirituality and new thinking being sought in the Perestroika era. Soviet scholarship consistently reports that the Mennonite sectarians, even more so than the Baptists and Pentecostals, manifested such a close knit sense of Christian family and Christian congregation, and provided such unusually thorough Bible knowledge to their children, that they required the special attention of atheist missioners.[31] Their stress on the way of love and their general refusal to foster patriotic defense of motherland made clear that their pacifism had not disappeared, even if their eligible sons were forced into military service.[32]

Over the past thirty years the immigrants to Germany from the Soviet Union have become increasingly articulate about their own experience. Memoir literature began appearing in German Mennonite papers, especially in the quarterly journal of Aquila, the relief committee sponsoring missionary work in Siberia and Kazakhstan. The journal, also called Aquila, has become more than a set of travel reports to solicit prayers and financial support. Writers have been reflecting on the life of churches, printing long essays on the history of Mennonites in Kazakhstan, and publishing excerpts of documents from a growing archive. The number of master’s theses devoted to aspects of the Soviet evangelical experience has grown beyond footnote size, as have doctoral studies. They range from Heinrich Klassen’s book reviewing Mennonite-Baptist relations as “relationships that have been forgotten,” to efforts to contextualize a Slavic evangelical theology in reaction to renewed efforts by western missions to transmit an American theology.[33] The contours of a post-Gulag theology are not yet sharply defined, but they will surely be directed in some way to a missiology of suffering in continuity with the longer Mennonite and Christian story.

A Peace Theology with a History, Still Finding Its Way

By 1917 the Russian Mennonite record already included a major immigration of 18,000 (one-third of its number at the time) to North America as a way of avoiding the new military service requirements after 1873. It also included several more thousand seeking to escape that service by an onerous journey to Central Asia, one now deemed disreputable because of its millennialist expectations. Above all, the Russian Mennonites had managed to organize a major alternative service program, had self-financed it and had supplied the service workers with pastoral care. Yet World War I introduced many Mennonites to an outside world of pain and suffering and to such ambiguities as treating the wounded-thereby indirectly supporting the war effort-or refusing to be involved and indirectly supporting the Germans. Then the civil war came to their lands, and for over a year the armed Self Defense League tried in vain to protect the Mennonites. Thereafter leaders confessed their failure and renewed their commitment to pacifism, seeing their way through a troubled struggle with local Soviet authorities increasingly unwilling to grant conscientious objection. While all this was happening, a quarter of the Mennonite population, including very many able leaders, opted to emigrate.

After the 1930s the story of pacifism became more individual and inward, but never disappeared altogether. After all, this was a people still oriented to the plain sense of scripture as binding and still carrying the memory of following Jesus as the one who did not resist but overcame evil with love. There were cases in the 1970s of refusal to serve in the army, but Mennonites did not formally participate in the movement for alternative service that started at the end of the Perestroika years. Still, it is striking that Umsiedler Mennonites in Germany have begun teaching peace to their youth. In fact, the number of their volunteers for Christliche Dienste (an alternative service agency recognized by the government) matches that of German Mennonites. Further, the growing self-consciousness among Ukrainian evangelicals about a theological tradition of pacifism is supported by their reference to earlier Mennonite influences and by noting the common ground still evident with Umsiedler Mennonites.[34]

A Persistent Story of a Church in Mission

One of the misconceptions still prevalent in American Mennonite circles is the belief that the Russian Mennonites had agreed, as a condition for their original official permission to immigrate to New Russia (now a region of eastern Ukraine), not to do mission work. This abandonment of mission therefore was a curse on the Mennonites, which accounted for their punishment at the hands of the Bolsheviks in the 1920s.[35]

In sharp contrast, Karl Fast, a Russian Mennonite refugee from World War II who had recently spent some years in Germany counseling Umsiedler Mennonites, published an article claiming that the Mennonite mission task in Russia had indeed been fulfilled.[36] Mennonites had been a witness in many places, Fast argued. Now Mennonites had earned the right to move on, leaving indigenous Russians with the task of building their church themselves. Hans Kasdorf made a similar argument in his careful review of Mennonite missions in Russia, a book that has served to shape Umsiedler understanding even though English-speaking Mennonites remain uninformed.[37]

Between 1929 and 1989 missionary work was officially forbidden in the Soviet Union, and the punishments for engaging in it were severe. That was not the case during the tsarist era, however. The contract under which the Mennonites settled in south Russia initially contained the common clause that there was to be no proselytizing of Orthodox, but mission among other peoples was acceptable. In fact, within a decade or two of settlement Russian Mennonites were already involved in mission through the Bible society, and they soon were also giving financial support to Dutch Baptist and Mennonite mission societies. Their own active involvement in mission developed after 1860.

In examining the theologies of mission that emerged, influenced by the theological studies of key leaders who went to Barmen or Chrischona,[38] Kasdorf pointed out the way the new Mennonite Brethren were enthusiastic about witnessing to all, took the lead in evangelizing among the Orthodox peasantry, and through that experience developed an interest in foreign mission, especially in India. The larger Kirchliche Mennonite body sent Heinrich Dirks to the Dutch East Indies and sustained a stronger foreign mission commitment, since Dirks believed that one should not seek to convert fellow Christians. The Kirchliche Mennonites were then drawn into home missions through Dirks’ emphasis (shared by others) in cooperation with other Christians in Raduga Press, the tent evangelism program and, by the 1920s, the sending of evangelists on visits to surrounding villages.

As more information comes to light about the Soviet era, the full extent of outreach among the unevangelized tribes in northern Siberia, in central Asia and on the frontiers of the Far East is becoming evident.[39] Stories about Christians sent to the Gulag often include accounts of new converts, such as the formation of the congregation in Vorkuta near the Arctic Circle. Further, the involuntary dispersion of the Mennonites across Russia, Siberia and central Asia had the effect of making them part of fellowship groups wherever they were. No longer limited to the German language or culture, they could more easily reach out to workmates and neighbors. When the decade of mission in the former Soviet Union started in the 1900s, Mennonites responded with intense commitment. Particularly significant were the strategies adopted by Ray of Hope Mission for working with national cultures in central Asia and the emphasis on theological education that characterized Logos Mission from its beginnings. Peter Penner and Johannes Reimer are two better known missiologists, both of whom were shaped by the teaching of David Bosch.[40]

A Theology of Church, State and Society-Some Reflections on Continuities and Change

The Soviet and East European experience of recent decades has made it easier to distinguish between state and society, indeed to view the categories of “church” and “state” as less comprehensive than civil society. The totalist attempt of Marxism to build a new type of Soviet society, the failure of its “state” to wither away and the recent rejection by East European populations of their illegitimate state bureaucracy as they shifted to the rules of a civil society that appealed to truth, trust and nonviolence-all helped to re-frame the old church-state dichotomies.[41]

The first Mennonites had negotiated a special minority status within the Russian empire. They were not quite citizens; indeed, they were not viewed so much as individuals but as a people. The story of the first Russian Mennonite century emerged within an extensive colony structure characterized by its thoroughgoing integration of faith and life. Yet watershed moments, such as the state reforms of 1874, signaled new efforts to achieve a more inclusive identity as Russian citizens. The Bolshevik Revolution initiated yet another, radically egalitarian project to make all citizens equal before the law (shaped by socialist values), equal in an economic sense, and equal in politics. It is not surprising therefore that Mennonites had to re-negotiate the church-state relationship several times, along with their own understandings of the Christian role in society. After 1925, however, the structures for such adjustments had become amorphous.

When the Russian Mennonite immigrants first settled in the Americas, they sought to repeat the colony approach. In Manitoba that structure had already begun to shift before 1900, when private land tenure replaced village land tenure. The church meetings with an elder and elected ministers traveling on a circuit to a group of congregational gathering places gradually disappeared in the first half of the twentieth century, replaced by a more functionalist “conference” structure, with its slow accumulation of paid staff specialists. Other Russian Mennonites moved to Mexico and Paraguay, where they were able to sustain the colony model-indeed, it became the viable way to prosper in agricultural settings with challenging climates. In more recent memory the Paraguayan colonies have begun to demonstrate the possibility of group adaptation to modernization, and of group participation in mission and service, in contrast to the long-held stereotype of colony Mennonites in Mexico as being condemned to spiritual fossilization. When one compares the dissolution of colony settlements in Ukraine, followed by a seventy-year exile in a widely scattered diaspora, with forms of colony equivalence surviving in Kirgizia, Omsk, Orenburg and Slavgorod, then the idea of creative adaptations of the colony model becomes even more interesting. Its application in mission settings in Indonesia, and less directly in West Africa, also points to a creative dynamic.

Currently, the spiritual leaders of still cohesive groups of Mennonites in Omsk region, the city of Slavgorod and around Shchuchinsk collaborate with local civil community leadership through relief and development programs that are intended to bring those deeply depressed regions back on their feet. The emigration fever drastically reduced the capacity of such Mennonite communities to take the Jeremiah 29 admonition to seek the welfare of the city, even in exile, as seriously as some of those leaders had hoped as recently as a decade ago. Nevertheless, even the remnant has seemed to represent a more promising partner for the relief and development efforts from abroad, than was true of the centralized denominational structures during the past decade. One wonders what will yet be possible through those persons choosing to see Russia as their future home.


To ask this question, and to commit oneself to wanting to know the answer, is surely more to the point than to attempt some answers. Whether one’s father was taken, or whether one shares a sense of peoplehood united by a dramatic two-hundred-year story, a distinct dialect and the rituals of cuisine, or whether one is simply part of a larger group who somehow still trace God’s leading back to Menno and other Anabaptists with similar convictions, there is a twentieth-century martyrology waiting to speak-waiting to point us to God. The power of that story is captured well in the shortened life of one of the most respected elders.

Jacob A. Rempel started out as a teacher. After six years of university study in Basel, short of the doctorate by a year, he answered a call to return home to Khortitsa. After various stints of teaching for five years, he was elected and ordained as elder of the Neu-Khortitsa church. For the next nine years Rempel was busy with pastoral tasks, organizing courses for ministers to help replace the rapidly depleting ranks. He spent weeks in Moscow negotiating for the Mennonites with the Central Executive Committee of the USSR, and he devoted considerable time to establishing a Bible school-only to see it fail in the end.

With the first wave of immigration in 1923, Rempel’s congregation lost 500 members, and the immigration drain did not stop in the subsequent three years. He chose to stay out of his sense of obligation to the Mennonite community. Negotiations in Moscow in 1924 were so stressful that he wrote home: “Our discussions were permeated with martyr thoughts. Each time we went for an audience there was a hallowed surrender to God. We never knew if the return way would lead to freedom or imprisonment.”[42] Rempel represented the Russian Mennonites at the first Mennonite World Conference, held in Basel in 1925. Though he was not permitted entry into Switzerland, he still was tempted to stay in Germany and start life anew. “But what of those suffering back home'” he wrote. “What of the many large congregations! I’m drawn back there.”[43] Rempel returned, had to go to court again “because of our nonresistance” and went as far as Orenburg to hold Bible conferences.

Serious martyrdom began in 1929. Held for eight months in Butyrki prison, he was sent to the Solovki Island monastery prison for ten years. While awaiting trial, Rempel wrote about the destitution of his family, amazed that his wife Sophie could remain strong and say: “No earthly possessions tie us down. . . . Heaven is our home! God is our Father.” It occasioned some remarkable reflections about what makes a martyr:

Everything within me struggles against the notion that I am a martyr. O wretched man that I am [privileged] to suffer for His namesake. I am a sinner and am atoning for my past actions. If God desires that we and the children perish as blood witnesses to our faith in Christ, we will gladly give our bodies as we have given our possessions. But pray for us that we do not falter in the darkest hours. The spirit is willing but the flesh has also not lost its instincts. . . .[44]

Even as this war on religion and Mennonite faith practices proceeded, Rempel kept trying to understand. He reportedly often repeated the observation that “our people are experiencing something great which they have not experienced before, but very few are really aware of what we are experiencing.”[45]

Several times Rempel managed to escape from his captivity, which resulted in his travels to far off AkMetchet (Uzbekistan) in the winter of 1934. After another arrest in 1937, he experienced such intense suffering that one report claimed Rempel suffered mental illness during an eight-month stretch in 1939 when so few of his family’s letters were shown to him. In 1941, according to a report after the war, Rempel was thought to be one of the five corpses found shot near Orel as the German front was advancing. If only Rempel had survived the Gulag, to die in old age, perhaps in 1958 at age 75, what might the consequences have been? One imagines the breadth of experience and perspective he might have brought to the struggle to rebuild church life during the revivals of the fifties, and how he might have shaped that attempt at the Mennonite conference in 1957.

Instead the Rempel who lived on was the one of memory: the one who sent letters of encouragement to church and family; the one who taught a few weekend Bible seminars that served as foundation for the ministers who survived; and the one who was always ready to share deep spiritual moments in print. As Rempel was tortured during interrogation, and suffered the loneliness and silence of exile, he wrote how he had asked himself “what Jesus would say about this. When I was inwardly sure that Jesus would have kept silent as He kept silence in his suffering, then I not only became silent but loved suffering above all else.”[46] Rempel went on to answer the question, Where was God? “God led me into suffering, men executed it. God, however, protected and led me out. The deeper the suffering, the quieter the surroundings. I learned silence and suffering.” That was as much advice as he thought possible to give, because “in such great affliction there is no [set] plan. No guidelines. . . .”[47]

The Russian Mennonite martyrologist Aron Toews recalled meeting Jacob Rempel and remembered his recitation of a favorite hymn, one so often sung in Russian Mennonite gatherings. It is a song too easily cheapened by a quick response to the question of whether or not you can give up Christ. The many leaders who were so often admonished to give up Christ-to stop preaching in exchange for their freedom-these are the teachers worthy of joining the refrain: “Mein Gott, ich bin entschieden, Auf ewig bin ich Dein; ich kann ja ohne Frieden und Ohne Dich nicht sein.” (“My God, I am committed to be yours forever. Without peace, without You, I cannot exist.”)

[1]. In booklet form, Harold S. Bender’s “The Anabaptist Vision” served as teaching tool for conscientious objectors in the Civilian Public Service (CPS) programs, then was used by the peace missioners after World War II who came to Europe to foster a recovery of pacifism among Mennonites. The overall impression gained from Al Keim’s recent biography of Bender makes the preoccupation with conscientious objection during World War II central to the American Mennonite story.-Albert Keim, Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1998). To recognize the very different contexts and ways in which Mennonites in Europe, Russia and Canada were responding to issues of war and peace would help a much broader spectrum of global Mennonites to seek a useful history. Here I am limiting the focus to the Russian Mennonite experience, in part to draw attention to a Mennonite church community leading the way in nearly all respects in 1900, as compared to Mennonites in America. Mennonite decline and disappearance from Russia was not due to inner decay, but to sustained testing. Hence it becomes far more interesting for envisioning a future, than does the American Mennonite experience that is quite tame in comparison to the global developments of the twentieth century.
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[2]. B. B. Janz secured unanimous affirmation of a confession of failure and full endorsement of pacifism when the Union of South Russian Mennonites was formed under his chairmanship in February 1921. He had been “an unswerving opponent of the Selbstschutz.”-John B. Toews, With Courage to Spare. The Life of B. B. Janz (1877-1964) (Hillsboro, KS: MB Publishing House, 1978), 24. Mennonite communities in eastern Russia and Siberia (then constituting half of the Mennonite population) were never part of the Selbstschutz.
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[3]. For details see Lawrence Klippenstein, “Mennonite Pacifism and State Service in Russia: A Case Study in Church-State Relations, 1789-1936,” PhD diss. U of Minnesota, 1984, as well as his essay, “Conscientious Objection in the Mennonite Communities of Tsarist Russia,” in T. A. Pavlova, Dolgii put’ rossiiskovo patsifizma (Moskva: Rossiiskaia akademiia nauk, 1997), 150-71. Also included in the book are several related articles on the United Council, including Walter Sawatsky, “Pacifist Protestants in Soviet Russia Between the Wars,” 262-85, citing numerous files from newly available archives.
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[4]. The reference is to Guy F. Hershberger, War Peace and Nonresistance (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1943) and his more narrowed focus in The Way of the Cross in Human Relations (Scottdale: PA: Herald Press, 1958). See the helpful tracing of his impact in Canada by Abe Dueck, “Canadian Mennonites and the Anabaptist Vision,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 13 (1995), 71-88.
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[5]. With the neutral term Umsiedler (resettler) I am referring to two immigrant movements (1971-83; 1987-1993). It is still useful to sub-divide the Russian Mennonite tradition into Kanadier, Russlaender, Refugee and Umsiedler Mennonites, to highlight the special shaping of major immigrations. During an American lecture tour in 1985 on “ways of telling the Russian Mennonite story,” I asked whose story were we telling, arguing that those who stayed the longest had the best claim to being Russian Mennonite.
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[6]. Frank H. Epp, Mennonite Exodus (Altona: D.W. Friesen & Sons, 1962); John B. Toews, Lost Fatherland (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1967).
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[7]. John B. Toews, With Courage to Spare: The Life of B.B. Janz (Winnipeg: MB Conference, 1978); Herbert and Maureen Klassen, Ambassador to his People: C. F. Klassen and the Russian Mennonite Refugees (Winnipeg: Kindred Press, 1990). More recently also Esther Epp-Tissen, J. J. Thiessen: A Leader for His Time (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 2001).
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[8]. Olga Rempel, Siberian Diary of Aron P. Toews, trans. Esther Klassen Bergen (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1984), Henry H. Winter, A Shepherd of the Oppressed (Wheatley, ON: self-published, 1990), Hans Rempel, Er Fuehret Mich auf Rechter Strasse um Seines Namens Willen: Der Weg der Familie Rempel (Virgil, ON: self-published, 1980).
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[9]. Henry Paetkau, “Suffering Servants: Pastoral Leaders in the Stalinist State,” Conrad Grebel Review 18 (Spring 2000), 19-30, esp. 21.
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[10]. John B. Toews, ed. and tr., Mennonite Martyrs (Newton, KS: Faith & Life Press, 1997). These selections in English translation were taken from Aron A. Toews, Mennonitische Maertyrer, Vol. 1 and 2 (Winnipeg: Christian Press, 1949 & 1950). In my recounting I will update based on subsequent interviews.
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[11] Toews, Mennonite Martyrs, 239.
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[12]. Ibid., 243.
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[13]. Ibid., 245.
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[14]. Ibid., 213.
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[15]. Ibid.
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[16]. More on Daniel Janzen below. The post-war revival is described more extensively in my Soviet Evangelicals Since World War II (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981; Russian tr. 1996), ch. 2; and “From Russian to Soviet Mennonites 1941-1988,” in John Friesen, ed., Mennonites in Russia (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1989), 299-337.
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[17]. Johann Epp, Von Gottes Gnade getragen (Gummersbach: Verlag Friedensstimme, 1984), 84.
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[18]. Irina V Cherkazianova, Nemetskaia natsional’naia shkola v sibiri (konets XIX v.-1938 g.). [German national schools in Siberia (end of 19th century to 1938)] (Omsk: Omsk State Pedagogical University, 1998). Her paper addressing the Mennonite schools is scheduled to appear in the proceedings of the Khortitsa ’99 conference. For a description of recent attempts to resume church schools in that region, see my “Impressions from Traveling in Russia/Ukraine and Central Asia, Spring 1999,” Religion in Eastern Europe 19:4 (August 1999), 9-20.
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[19]. Most readers will not have heard of Lena Fast, so it may help to realize that her relatives included persons like Esther Wenger (missionary to Native Americans), Erick and Peter Sawatzky (seminary professor and pastor)-that is, distant relatives who immigrated to America, studied theology and entered ministry. Linked to her maternal genealogy were the Hamms, a prolific family that included Gerhard Hamm, evangelist and keynote speaker at the two-hundredth anniversary celebrations of the Russian Mennonites, and his son Viktor Hamm-widely known Russian radio speaker and colleague of Billy Graham during the past dozen years. Lena’s son, Viktor Fast, organized the two-hundredth anniversary and was spokesperson for the Russian Mennonite delegation to Mennonite World Conference in 1990, speaking to a raptly attentive audience of several thousand. Viktor had a continuing role in a variety of mission ministries in Central Asia, and was actively involved with other Karaganda emigrants such as his cousin Woldemar Daiker in launching an archive and publishing historical materials on the life of Mennonites and Evangelical Christian-Baptists in Karaganda region. Fast and Daiker have been on the staff of Hilfskomitee Aquila that began around 1990, based near Bielefeld Germany. A quarterly magazine Aquila began publishing documents and memoirs, mostly in German. The first volume of a published history of ECB and Mennonite congregations in Karaganda Oblast appeared in 2001, in Russian, as Viktor Fast, ed. Ia s vami vo vse dni do skonchaniia veka. Kniga I. Tiazhelyi vremena gonenii i repressii 1931-1946 [I Am With You Until the End of the Age. Book I. Trying Times of Persecution and Repression 1931-1946] (Karaganda/Steinhagen: Hilfskomitee Aquila, 2001).
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[20]. “Forty Years-by Lena (Hamm) Fast,” 48a-x of the Kornelius Hamm genealogy, xerox copy in author’s files. Consisting of 48 pages of text, these memoirs are translated copy from the original German. The author acknowledges the generosity of Esther Wenger (Newton, KS) for this material. Other details in what follows are based on personal interviews with her three sons in 1996, when all were in Moscow. Quoted material is from this manuscript.
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[21]. For a brief description of the Spetskomandantura regime, see my article “Spetskomandantura,” ME 5:849-50.
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[22]. Waldemar Janzen, “Time of Terror: Biblical-Theological Perspectives on Mennonites Suffering During the Stalin Era and World War II,” Conrad Grebel Review 18:2 (Spring 2000), 6-18; “What Do We Tell Our Children About the Time of Terror in Russia'” The Mennonite, April 25, 1988.
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[23]. Walter Sawatsky, “Dying for What Faith: Martyrologies to Inspire and Heal or to Foster Christian Division'” Conrad Grebel Review 18:2 (Spring 2000), 31-54.
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[24]. Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, “Gott kann! Gott kann nicht! The Suffering of Soviet Mennonites and their Contribution to a Contemporary Mennonite Theology,” Conrad Grebel Review 18:2 (Spring 2000), 65.
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[25]. Ibid., 66. Neufeldt-Fast had delineated the ways whereby both the progressive and conservative syndromes of thinking hindered anticipations of the coming of God’s kingdom.
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[26]. Robert Friedmann, Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries. Its Genius and Its Literature (Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1949), in particular 72-77. Cf. Theron Schlabach, “Mennonites and Pietism in America, 1740-1880: Some Thoughts on the Friedmann Thesis,” MQR 57 (July 1983), 222-40.
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[27]. The following articles revising conventional, more partisan stories, provide the details for the renewal strategies stated here: Victor G. Doerksen, “Mennonite Templars in Russia,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 3 (1984), 128-37; Harry Loewen, “Echoes of Drumbeats: The Movement of Exuberance Among the Mennonite Brethren,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 3 (1984), 118-27; Al Reimer, “Klaas Reimer: Rebel Conservative, Radical Traditionalist,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 3 (1984), 108-17; Edmund Pries, “Revisiting the Russian Mennonite Trek to Central Asia,” Conrad Grebel Review 9 (Fall 1991), 259-76.
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[28]. Toews, Mennonite Martyrs, 236-37; also printed in German in Julia Hildebrandt, Heinrich Klassen and Gerhard Woelk, eds. Aber wo sollen wir hin. Briefe von Russlandmennoniten aus den Jahren ihrer Gefangenschaft, Verbannung und Lagerhaft in der Sowjetunion (Frankenthal: Verlag Hirtenstimme, 1998), 32-33.
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[29]. Rarely has this theme been articulated so freely and well as in Jack Dueck’s soliloquies in the video recording, “Mysteries of Grace and Judgment. A Joining of Story, Poetry and Song with Jack Dueck, Reflecting the Experience of the Mennonite Sojourn in Russia” (Kitchener: MCC Ontario, 1996).
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[30]. Friedmann, Mennonite Piety, 137-40.
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[31]. Walter Sawatsky, “Religious Renewal and the State Among Soviet Evangelicals,” in Dennis Dunn, ed., Religion and Society in the Soviet Union, Proceedings from the Second World Congress of Slavic Studies (Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Slavic Specialities, 1983), 104-5.
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[32]. Between the time of the deportation of Germans (including Mennonites) in 1941 until the lifting of the initial restrictions of the Spetskomandantura in 1956, such “non-citizens” were not eligible for military service, though they were drafted into the Workers Army and concentration work camps. Thereafter Mennonite young men served, and few were imprisoned as Refusniks; but persons I have interviewed consistently emphasized that they would shoot in the air if forced into actual use of guns.-Cf. Lawrence Klippenstein, “Conscientious Objectors in Eastern Europe: The Quest for Free Choice and Alternative Service,” in Sabrina P. Ramet, ed., Protestantism and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia. The Communist and Post-Communist Eras (Durham: Duke U. Press, 1992), 277-309, especially 308. On post-Soviet struggles for freedom of conscience, see S. B. Filatov, ed., Religiia i prava cheloveka. Na puti k svobode sovesti (Moscow: Nauka, 1996).
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[33]. For example, Heinrich Klassen, In Vergessenheit geratene Beziehungen. Fruehe Begegnungen der Mennoniten-Bruedergemeinde mit dem Baptismus in Russland-Ein Ueberblick (Bielefeld: Logos Verlag, 1989); Peter Penner, Nauchite vse narody . . . Missiia bogoslovskovo obrazovaniia (Sankt-Peterburg: Bibliia dlia vsekh, 1999) [Teaching all peoples…the Mission of Theological Education]; Hermann Hartfeld, “Die Kontextualisierung der theologischen Doktrin und Praxis des AURECHB der Sowjetunion,” PhD. diss. Protestant Faculty of the University of Brussels, 1987; Johannes Reimer, whose doctoral dissertation with David Bosch focused on Russian Orthodox monastic missions, has been particularly prolific, publishing a series of biographies of Russian Mennonite missionaries, editing the papers from a Menno-Simons Symposium-Kein Anderes Fundament. Beitraege zum Menno-Simons Symposium (Bielefeld: Logos Verlag, 1996)-and Auf der Suche nach Identitaet. Russlanddeutsche zwischen Baptisten und Mennoniten nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg (Bielefeld: Logos Verlag, 1996).
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[34]. For a survey of the archival record, see my “Mennonite Sectarians in the Eyes of Russian/Soviet Authorities-What the Official Archives Reveal,” Khortitsa 99 Conference on Mennonites in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, publication forthcoming in conference papers. I recorded additional impressions in my annual trip reports from the region.
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[35]. So argued by Vaughn and Ilona Martin, There is a Way Back. A Prophetic Message for the Mennonite Church (Elizabethtown PA: self-published, 1997). See p. 75 in the chapter “From the Curse Back to the Call.” I encountered such views of charismatic and conservative Mennonites from Pennsylvania at a Mennonite evangelism conference in Indiana in 2000.
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[36]. Karl Fast, “Der Auftrag ist erfuelt,” Mennonitische Rundschau 111:13 (June 22, 1988), 4.
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[37]. Hans Kasdorf, Flammen unauslschlich. Mission der Mennoniten unter Zaren und Sowjets 1789-1989 (Bielefeld: Logos Verlag, 1991).
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[38]. Ibid., 73-95. Kasdorf noted that the beginnings of the Mennonite Brethren movement in 1860 and the impact of World War I circumscribed the period of self-reflection on mission. (I would argue that the self-reflection, especially about mission within the USSR, continued beyond 1925 at least.) The MB mission impulse, more activist and individualist, was related to the exuberance of new converts. An ardor for mission served as the mark of a revived Christian. While Heinrich Dirks, the primary missiologist of the Kirchliche, stressed the need to anchor mission in ecclesiology, inner mission was to become a form of congregational renewal. Dirks stressed a coming kingdom missiology based on Matt. 24:14; its essentials appeared in the minutes of a conference of the Kirchliche held in Halbstadt in 1883.-Ibid., 91.
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[39]. See the biography series on Mennonite missionaries by Johannes Reimer, Bis an die Enden Sibiriens. Aus dem Leben und Wirken des Ostjaken Missionars Johann Peters (Bielefeld: Logos Verlag, 1998); Seine letzten Worte waren ein Lied. Martin Thielmann Leben und Wirken des Kirgizen Missionars (Bielefeld: Logos Verlag, 1997).
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[40]. cf. Peter Penner, Nauchite vse narody . . . Missiia bogoslovskogo obrazovaniia [Teaching all people… The Mission of Theological Education] (St. Petersburg: Biblia dlia vsekh, 1999). Penner developed a biblical theology of mission, reviewed Orthodox and Protestant attempts at forming theological schools, noted the various missiologies encountered from the West and ended with a set of principles grounded in a Missio Dei understanding toward furthering the church in mission.
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[41]. For more detailed development, see my “Truth Telling in Eastern Europe: The Liberation and the Burden,” Journal of Church and State 33 (Autumn 1991), 701-29.
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[42]. Toews, Mennonite Martyrs, 200.
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[43]. Ibid.
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[44]. Ibid.
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[45]. Ibid., 205.
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[46]. Ibid., 208.
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[47]. Ibid., 209.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Post-Gulag Theology for Russian Mennonites
*Walter Sawatsky is Professor of Church History and Mission, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, IN.