Little-Venice is No Longer Drenched
Regarding the Achievements of a Once-Mennonite Community in Western Siberia
L a d u s h k i n – Several years ago, Russia’s „Channel One“ broadcast a partially-humorous report on the flooding in the West Siberian village of Apollonovka. But today, the harmful “fun” in this very flat region is history: Hardworking Mennonites and Baptists have heightened the road surfaces, deepened the ditches and diverted the excess water into a swamp. Two-thirds of the costs were covered by the economically-vibrant "Willock Farm" and a grain mill.
In the nearly 900-seat building of this unregistered Baptist congregation completed in 2018, one is confronted by the world of both yesterday and tomorrow. On 18 April 2021, I experienced a completely mask-free service with wonderful, traditional choral music. A senior member explained: "A year ago we all fell ill with Covid and all its symptoms; an elderly woman also died. But after 10 days, all had recuperated and we restarted our daily lives."
The people in this congregation – it is actually a Mennonite-Brethren one with an average attendance of 300 - know something about hospitality. One is handed from house-to-house; a guest can by no means assume he/she will be consuming both the appetiser and the dessert in the same household.
Perhaps there is a fly in the ointment: The foyer of the church displays a large diagram explaining the doctrine of dispensationalism. The church historian Peter Epp from Issilkul, a son of the village, is no adherent of this view. He points out that a founding father of Russian Baptism, the ethnic-German Johann Gottlieb Kargel (1849-1937), had already pushed this eschatological doctrine.
Apollonovka (once Waldheim) has experienced an economic miracle. Willock Farm, founded 16 years ago (see our report from 14 June
2018), still cultivates "only" 6.000 hectares of land. But its industrial branch is flooded with orders, even without advertising. For some agricultural implements there is a waiting period of
more than six months. In the last three years, the staff has been boosted from 40 to 50; more buildings are under construction. This is no modest success for a remote village of 850 in the
deepest province not far from the Kazakh border.
The owners of the firm, Jakob Dirksen and David Epp, find it convincing for the customer that their products are first tested in the company's own fields. This includes the elaborate seeders manufactured under the scrutiny of Epp.
The two owners see only positives emanating from the sanctions against Russia - they have only increased demand for domestically-produced products. The company has even gotten on-board for the budding China trade. Dirksen reports that a myriad collection of regulations need to be observed. Even the composition of the genes in the seeds is determined by the Chinese buyers.
Interestingly, the major lender in the initial start-up, the Mennonite Walter Willms from British Columbia, was not welcomed with open arms when he first arrived in 1997. Some were worried about the Charismatic tendencies of his theology; others leaned toward the old ways, preferring bare survival to taking high financial risks. It speaks very much in Willms' favour that he did not immediately pack his bags, but instead continued to insist that locals dare to make a fresh start.
A grain mill in the village run by Ivan Dirksen was also financed by Walter Willms. This company has 4.000 hectares, 15 employees and equally impressive machinery. It runs a bakery in another village. Ivan is a lay church leader and Jakob Dirksen's uncle.
A successful sawmill with 40 employees is run by AndreyTevs, a son of the well-known hobby pilot Jakob Tevs.
Jakob Dirksen reports that these new farms own relatively little land - Russian history indicates that arable land can be easily expropriated by the state. They prefer to rent land from the villagers, who received a portion of the collective farm’s land as compensation decades ago. The neighbours welcome the extra income and so the whole village benefits from the economic success of the young enterprises.
Thanks to their impressive machinery, Willock Farm could guarantee decent roads and thus put an end to the historical plague of rural Russia. But Dirksen argues that the state is an unreliable contractor. The government might provide decent contracts one year, then move its business for the very next year entirely elsewhere.
Economic success is clearly visible on the outskirts of these once-German villages. Apollonovka features no less than 20
recently-built private houses. Except for one house built by a Low German-speaking Russian, all the houses belong to ethnic Germans. Local Kazakhs, however, are also involved in construction.
Obviously, it is mainly the ethnic Germans who continue to harbour a vision for rural life. Impressive new houses can also be seen in Solntsevka, a village of German origin 30 km further south.
It is apparent that not all ethnic Germans are packing to leave.
Peter Epp argues that Baptist and Mennonite congregations in this area are much larger than the Lutheran ones "because the spiritual revival that broke out after World War II bypassed the Lutheran congregations. They have therefore become congregations of older women."
When I arrived in the village of Nieudachino, east of Omsk, I was shocked to discover that its huge collective farm had been liquidated by an investor five years ago. All the barns are empty. A cheese factory started up with money from North American Mennonites has been lying idle for 10 years. Work is to be found largely on the railway and "Gasprom". This has been a primary recipe for emigration.
Even Apollonovka lost more than half of its ethnic-German inhabitants - only one-third of the village is still of German origin. The topic of departure is still a lively one; Ivan Dirksen, reports that he and his wife brought their parents to Germany in the early 1990s, but returned home soon thereafter. For them it was a matter of conscience: "We were experiencing a spiritual revival at home and we had no freedom to abandon new converts."
Up until the end of the Soviet Union, preaching in Apollonovka was still done in German. But since then, High German has suffered a rapid decline. Now the services are held in Russian; only the children's stories are told from up front in Low German (Plattdeutsch). This is due to the fact that many small children only speak Low German initially - this is jokingly called "po-plettski". Since I only speak a south-German dialect, they preferred to converse with me in Russian. Roughly half of those attending church in Apollonovka are minors.
I remember the politically-incorrect parting words of a Mennonite from Nieudachino: "After the major travail of our grandparents and parents, it would be a grave sin to remain ungrateful regarding the immeasurable blessings that have befallen us over the past 30 years."
Although one had suffered more than a little in the past, people are saddened and appalled by the fact that the West cannot desist from taking pot shots at the country’s patriarch in Moscow. They feel they are being treated unjustly by the West. This displeasure is undoubtedly associated with the expectation that a new Cold War would curtail the major exchanges with relatives in Germany. But for the time being, travel with Germany is resuming - those with passports from both countries can now move back-and-forth.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Ladushkin, Kaliningrad region, Russia, 2 May 2021
A journalistic release for which only the author is responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #21-09, 1.203 words.