David G. Rempel, with Cornelia Rempel Carlson. A Mennonite Family in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, 1789-1923

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David G. Rempel, with Cornelia Rempel Carlson. A Mennonite Family in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, 1789-1923. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Cloth, xxxvi, 356 pp. ISBN 0802036392. CDN$70.00.

One of the most tragic periods in the life of Russian Mennonites were the years after the 1917 Revolution. Not only did the Mennonites of Russia lose their traditional social, cultural and religious existence, but also their possessions and in many instances their freedom and lives. In the 1920s, some 21,000 Russian Mennonite emigrants, the group to which David G. Rempel belonged, were able to escape the Soviet Union and find new homes in Canada, the United States, and South America. Those who remained in the Soviet Union after 1930 experienced first the terror of Stalin's rule and, after 1941, the difficulties of the Second World War. Like many other Soviet Germans, they experienced severe persecution, separation from loved ones, exile and hard labour in the Gulag, and often death in the northern and eastern regions of the Soviet Union.

This well-written new book by the late Professor David G. Rempel (1899-1992), edited by his daughter Cornelia Rempel Carslon, deals primarily with the first quarter of the twentieth century. Rempel, who came to live and teach in the United States, was not only an academically trained historian, one of the first among Russian Mennonites, but one who himself experienced as a student and young teacher in the Mennonite colonies in Ukraine the turbulent times after the First World War.

The interesting biography begins with the history of the author's relatives who resided in the so-called "Old Colony" villages of Nieder-Chortitza and Rosental along the Dnieper River. David's father was a store owner and grain merchant and his mother, nee Pauls, came from well-to-do Mennonite landowners in Rosental. The author traces the tragic circumstances of the two families during the periods of Revolution, Civil War, the Nestor Makhno terror, typhus epidemic, famine and in the end emigration for some and exile for other members of his extended families.

Russian Mennonite history has been largely written by lay historians, many of whom were preachers and other church leaders. Their interpretation of Mennonite history was church-oriented and to a certain extent triumphalist in intent, meaning that they not only wrote from within their religious tradition, but also saw their history largely through rose-coloured glasses. According to their interpretation, Mennonites were excellent farmers and craftspeople who had been invited to Russia by Catharine II in the late eighteenth century and granted many privileges, including religious freedom and advantageous settlement terms. They lived peacefully in their new homeland for over a hundred years and contributed significantly to the Russian economy and welfare of the Russian state and society. According to this view, the 1917 Revolution and the following Civil War were seen as the destruction of the Mennonite communities, including their religious and cultural institutions. Especially the banditry, plunder, rape and killing under Nestor Makhno, followed by the exile and execution of many Mennonite leaders, were seen as the height of Mennonite tragedy in that country.

This rather positive view of Mennonite history is generally correct, but the reality, "wie es eigentlich gewesen" (as it really was), includes many shades of grey and required a more nuanced approach. Professor Rempel has provided such a nuanced revision of the traditional view of Russian Mennonite history.

Like his church-oriented colleagues, Rempel laments the destruction of the "Mennonite Commonwealth" in Russia, but he portrays the critical events fairly objectively and does not shy back from critiquing the Mennonites and their failings. He shows, for example, that Mennonites did not always live up to their religious ideals and principles. …