Mennonites are Strongest in Siberia
On the „Omsk Brotherhood“ and other topics
M o s c o w – Someone wandering through a pristine village like Mirolyubovka, 80 km west of the West Siberian city of Omsk, could think that he/she was in Paraguay or Mexico. Little girls in pigtails and long dresses run about; one speaks and laughs in Low German (Plattdeutsch). One gets to hear their surnames if one asks: Reimer, Klassen, Wiens, Wiebe, Schellenberg and Sawatsky. Village life is centred around agriculture: Church services often only begin after the milking is done at 10 p.m. The churches involved are the Mennonite-Brethren – a split off the “Church Mennonites” (called General-Conference Mennonites in the USA) which occurred in the southern Ukrainian region of Zaporozhe in 1860. The first Mennonites of Dutch and Prussian origin had arrived in Ukraine in 1789; after 1890 groups of them moved onward to Western Siberia and neighbouring Kazakhstan. The forced deportation of Germans eastward in August 1941 brought many more Mennonites to the region; others did not arrive until the 1950s.
Most of these Mennonites are gathered in a regional association known since 1996 as the “Omsk Brotherhood”. This organisation’s roots go back as far as 1907; its re-founding in 1957 occurred after three decades of serious persecution. Its lay historian, Peter Epp from Isilkul on the border with Kazakhstan, reports that the organisation had consisted almost strictly of Germans in 1987; a fifth of them though were Baptists. Virtually all of these ethnic-German Baptists have since then emigrated.
Today the Brotherhood consists of roughly 950 baptised women and 450 baptised men – it had been 2.306 in 1987. Surprisingly few of these Mennonites have left for Germany since then – only around half. Perestroika brought with it the beginning of active mission among non-Germans; today the lay preachers preach primarily in Russian. The brotherhood had no church buildings of its own prior to Gorbachev – today it enjoys 17 new chapels and 36 more redone from former private quarters. A “prayer chapel” with more than 200 seats meeting the expectations even of an upscale West German audience is nearing completion in the village of Putchkovo. The informed report that relatives and friends in Germany supplied the required funds. “Patriarch” for most of these congregations is 1929-born Nikolai Dikman (or Dieckmann) from Marionovka, who was forced to spend the years 1951-56 in the mining Gulag of Vorkuta.
A congregation of Church Mennonites located in Solntsevka just north of Isilkul boasted 130 baptised members and 160 children in 2008. That makes it the largest Mennonite congregation in the region of the former USSR. Other small congregations of Church Mennonites are located in Nieudachino to the east of Omsk and in Novosibirsk. None of these belong to the Omsk Brotherhood. In Solntsevka, church elder Philipp Friesen, a retired shepherd and farmer, remains the stalwart force behind the movement for staying home. But his congregation has nevertheless not been totally immune to Western influences: For more than 70 years it has propagated the teaching of universal salvation. Contacts to the Swabian conference centre “Langensteinbacher Höhe“, which is famous for espousing this theology, exist. That teaching has heightened tensions – one hears that a wedding in Solntsevka reaching across inner-Mennonite borders is unthinkable.
Further congregations of Mennonite origin are located around Slavgorod (Altai Region southeast of Omsk) as well as in Shutshinsk near Karaganda/Kazakhstan. The same is true for four or five mission stations in the region of Orenburg/Urals supported by emigrated Church Mennonites in Bielefeld/Germany. Yet it would now be difficult to describe these congregations as German or Mennonite. Alexander Weiss (born 1964), pastor of the still-unregistered “International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (ICCECB) in Slavgorod, does not hesitate to affirm his Mennonite roots. He explains: “When we were allowed to restart church life in the 1950s, there were only grandmothers still around who knew anything about our Mennonite past. But they were afraid to talk.” Only in the 1950s was the old Mennonite identity able to resurface.
But generally speaking, the borders between Mennonite-Brethren and Baptists have become blurred. From Baptists the Mennonite-Brethren had taken over baptism by immersion. It is claimed that the pietistic teachings of Johann Gerhard Oncken (1800-1884), founder of the German Baptist movement and missionary to Russia, contributed - along with the struggle for farmland - to the Mennonite split of 1860. The process of assimilation was expedited by the fact that roughly half of the USSR’s Mennonite congregations joined the “All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” after 1966 in order to become officially registered.
Even the surnames of the present Presidents of the Baptist Unions of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan reveal their Mennonite roots: Franz Tissen (or Thiessen) and Genrikh (or Heinrich) Foth respectively. The German-Russian Canadian Viktor Hamm, a „Billy Graham Evangelistic Association“-sponsored evangelist highly-popular in Eastern Europe, is a member of the Mennonite-Brethren. Even the martyred father of Georgi Vins (or Wiens) (1928-1998), who was himself General-Secretary of the USSR’s unregistered Baptists until deported in 1979, was a Mennonite-Brethren missionary from Canada.
Working from Germany, mission societies with Mennonite roots such as „Bibel-Mission“, „Friedensstimme“, „Hoffnungsstrahl“ und „Janz-Team“ continue to influence events in Russia. One of the two founders of the mission “Light in the East”, Jakob Kroeker (1872-1948), was a Ukrainian Mennonite. Around 10% of the 2,2 Mio. Russian-Germans now living in Germany are of Mennonite descent. (At the outset of WW I, the number of baptised Mennonites in Russia had peaked at 120.000.)
Even today, the small flock of Mennonites to the west of Omsk reflects the pacifism, pietism, Arminianism and separatism prevalent within the historic Russian Baptist movement. One could consequently claim that these Mennonites remain closer to the theological heritage of Russian Baptists than those new, heavily-Calvinistic groups from North America which have been active in Russian Baptist circles since 1990.
Yet despite this theological proximity, one cannot maintain that current relations between Mennonites and Baptists in the villages of Siberia are harmonious. Insiders attribute this to an unwanted, forced competition. Nearly all Mennonite and Baptist congregations to the west of Omsk (also Slavgorod) are unregistered, non-legal entities. This means that church buildings remain officially the property of private individuals. If the owner of a church property decides to transfer his allegiance to another denomination, only his conscience can keep him from taking the church property with him. So in certain instances, Mennonites could accuse unregistered Baptists not only of sheep-stealing (proselytism), but also of property theft.
North American Mennonites – and a Closing Commentary
The North American relief agency „Mennonite Central Commttee“ was active in the Soviet Union as early as 1920. After 1955 it belonged to delegations which frequently visited congregations throughout the USSR. During the Cold War, MCC was involved along with the Quakers and some Brethren denominations (Church of the Brethren for ex.) in attempts to foster understanding between the rival world blocs.
After 1990 MCC belonged to the large cloud of Western missions and agencies setting up shop in Moscow. There it rented space at the historic Central Baptist Church not far from the Kremlin. Yet the competition between missions and soaring living costs forced this organisation to reconsider: In 1998, MCC transferred its office for the former Soviet Union to Zaporozhe/Ukraine. For Mennonites that location was in a territory of major historical significance – but it was also remote. Thanks to the offspring of Ukrainian Mennonites from Canada, roughly five small church plants have occurred in this vicinity. Yet number-wise they cannot compete with the 2.000 Mennonites (including children) of Western Siberia.
Canadians with Ukrainian roots have – largely without the aid of their mission societies – organised church and humanitarian efforts around Zaporozhe. It can no longer be considered impossible that a similar interest group might be formed for Western Siberia. That would have the support of some, for the 220-year history of Mennonites on Russian soil makes them – after the Lutherans – the second-most “traditional” of all of Russia’s Protestant denominations. Not all regard the time as too late to reconnect to that heritage. Somewhat within this context, Canadian Mennonites sponsored an initial history symposium in Omsk on 2 to 4 June.
Walter Willms, a large-scale Mennonite farmer from British Columbia, has begun to invest In the village of Apollonovka to the west of Omsk. A large farm and grain mill are active; a bakery is nearing completion. As in the wilderness of Paraguay, a “Mennonite” road grader is bringing the public roads of the area up to par. That machine is a donation from British Columbia, shipped over by container.
Could a revised model of the Mennonite and Protestant settling and “colonisation” of Russia in 1789 prove to be an alternative to the expensive and frequently ineffective “mission tourism” of today? Such “tourism” consists of whirlwind tours lasting somewhere between five days and five years. The invitation already exists: In a Moscow meeting with Neville Callam, General-Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, in Moscow on 17 June 2008, Alexander Torshin, Vice-Chairman of the Council of the Russian Federation, called on Western Protestants to replant the wide expanses of Russia. Perhaps such an endeavour would not be hampered by the fact that Harry Giesbrecht, a Mennonite construction contractor from Winnipeg, is said to be a long-time friend of Vladimir Putin. But one should guard against undue enthusiasm: An initial goal could be the resettling of 200 Protestants. That would be 0,1% of the persons with Mennonite roots who moved to Germany in recent decades.
After 125 years of relative prosperity, the Russian experiment suffered total shipwreck for settlers of German origin during and after WW I. Assuming that all involved parties have learned from their past transgressions, a future experiment could be of significantly longer duration. The first settlers have already returned.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 29 June 2010
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance
Release #10-17, 1.605 words, 10.535 keystrokes and spaces.
Note from August 2020: A few persons mentioned in this article, such as Alexander Weiss, have passed away. I was told later that the road grader used in Apollonovka was a gift from British Columbia, but that it had been built in Chelyabinsk/Ural. See our article from 14 June 2018.