Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

A Mennonite-Christian View of Suffering: The Case of Russian Mennonites in the 1930s and 1940s

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

A Mennonite-Christian View of Suffering: The Case of Russian Mennonites in the 1930s and 1940s

Article excerpt

Abstract: Historian C. Henry Smith wrote: "Never since the days of the [Anabaptist] martyrs have the Mennonites suffered as much as during the twentieth century in Russia." This essay focuses on the suffering of Mennonites in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s, including their loss of family members and possessions at the hands of the Soviets, their flight west in the winter of 1943, the forcible repatriation of thousands at the end of World War II and their exile to the northern and eastern regions of Siberia. The essay asks questions about personal and corporate forgiveness and argues that Mennonites need to understand their history to make sense of their suffering. Mennonite suffering in the twentieth century adds an important and deeper dimension to Bender's "Anabaptist Vision" and becomes a significant part of Mennonite identity.

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Shakespeare's King Lear, rejected by his family and exposed to the fury of the natural elements, cries out in near-despair: "I am a man more sinn'd against than sinning." (1) In his suffering King Lear admits that he has sinned against his daughters, especially his youngest, but on balance, he feels that the sins of two of his daughters against him were greater than his sins against them. His suffering was out of proportion to his guilt.

The Russian Mennonites in the 1930s and 1940s probably did not think of King Lear in their suffering, but the more thoughtful among them have also asked whether they deserved the pain they had to endure. Some believed that their suffering was God's punishment for their sins, including failings toward Russian and Ukrainian citizens, especially prior to the Revolution of 1917, when the Mennonite world was still intact and Mennonites generally enjoyed a better material existence than their peasant neighbors. I often heard my mother and grandmother ask, "Kinder, wie haben wir das alles verdient?" (Children, how have we deserved all this?) But many Russian Mennonites during this period felt that, no matter what wrongs they had committed in the land to which they had come one hundred and fifty years before, the suffering they now endured at the hands of the Soviets was out of proportion to their past failings. Historian C. Henry Smith was no doubt correct when he wrote: "Never since the days of the [Anabaptist] martyrs have the Mennonites suffered as much as during the twentieth century in Russia." (2) During the sixteenth century about 4000 Anabaptists were martyred because of their faith. In the mid-twentieth century many more thousands of Russian Mennonites--the exact number is not known-suffered and died directly and indirectly at the hands of the Soviets. Many of them lie buried in unmarked graves. (3)

Of course, earlier Russian Mennonites also suffered much. However, the history of Russian Mennonites shows a progression in the intensity of their suffering. The 18,000 Mennonites who left Russia in the 1870s and 1880s endured many hardships: they lost their homes, they were dislocated, they embarked on hazardous journeys across the ocean and they endured difficult pioneering years in Canada and the United States. They were the first to leave Russia, thus escaping the fate of later Soviet Mennonites.

The 21,000 Mennonites who left Soviet Russia in the 1920s suffered greatly during the first decades of the Soviet regime. They experienced the Communist Revolution of 1917 and the civil war that followed; they went hungry in the early 1920s; they suffered at the hands of Nestor Makhno (1889-1934) and other anarchists; many were slaughtered by the bandits and their homes were destroyed; they lost their farms and other possessions to the Soviet state; they were forced into collectivization; and in the end, seeing no way out, they fled Soviet Russia to make new beginnings in Canada, Brazil and Paraguay.

Fortunately, both of these groups came to North and South America with their families more or less intact and with their faith and culture generally preserved. …

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