Our young children, ages three and five, have recently become enamored with the old photo albums that document their parents' childhoods. Why were your glasses so ugly, Dad? Why are you dressed like an angel in your wedding picture, Mom? Hey, there's the birthday picture where you got that cement truck we still play with, Dad. Many things have changed in our family, a few have stayed the same. Rightly dividing those two categories is not only the passion of our preschoolers.
Adina Reger and Delbert Plett are especially interested in what has remained as a result of the Mennonite sojourn in Russia. These Stones, the title of their volume, alludes to the editors' view that the life of each Mennonite who lived in Russia represents a monument to God's faithfulness to a chosen nation (1, 7). Thus the focus of the book, like a photo album, is to gather and record the significant snippets of daily life. Most of the material in this book was reprinted from other volumes of Mennonite history, from Plett's journal Preservings, or from the German Mennonite Encyclopedia (Mennonitisches Lexikon). The book consists of seven parts: Historical Background (52 pages), Chortitza Colony (161 pages), Molotschna Colony (106 pages), Daughter Colonies (204 pages), Exile and Resettlement (56 pages), Emigration (79 pages), and For Faith and Intellect (36 pages). The sections on the colonies are further broken down by individual villages. Nowhere is the selection criteria for the material explained, although one goal seems to be to provide comprehensive coverage. Even so, not every village is included. The book concludes with a reprint of the 1801 Census of Chortitza Colony, bibliography, and index of names.
The overall tone of the book reflects Plett's concern with the impact of "outside" influences on Mennonite theology and tradition. Thus the judgment of others, for example, that the Pietist and Mennonite Brethren movements were detrimental to Mennonites are given some space (251, 260, 284, 509, 537). The inclusion of an essay on the history of Christianity in the "For Faith and Intellect" section highlights the seductive power American Fundamentalism holds over conservative Mennonites who are uninformed about their own history and church history more broadly. Other articles in this section by J. C. Wenger and David Schroeder emphasize the value of conservative, non-pietist expressions of Mennonite faith. The views of Plett's co-editor, Adina Reger, who was born in Kazakstan in 1950 and emigrated to Germany in 1987, are only identified in a few places (9-10, 515-7).
The book shares some of the weaknesses of photo albums as historical records. Any photo album can hold some interest for the reader if he or she finds a recognizable photo in it. Thus those people who have some memory of their time in Russia will undoubtedly find that one of the many photos or some snippet or other of story in this book will affirm their personal memories. For those outside this "family" of personal memory, the book has less draw. Reprinting from such a variety of sources means that some repetition results. We are told, for example, of Potemkin's role in bringing the Mennonites to Russia in three different places (36, 46, 227). The social and economic roles of the Mennonite family in relation to Russian society receive only indirect coverage and hence the larger forces which shaped the Mennonite experience are not fully conveyed.
Questions could also be raised about the definition of the Mennonite family. Is it cultural, ethnic, or theological? As is more typical for the German-speaking world, the definition the editors settle on seems to be largely ethnic. Thus they include the story of John Denver, a descendant of a Russian Mennonite, and leave out the story of Indonesian Mennonites, whose churches were in part planted by missionaries from Russia. The attachment to German culture and language is clear and deep, although as is true of every emigrant community, the German is a bit dated or Anglicized at places (Großsohn instead of Enkelsohn, 251, Anabaptistische Mennoniten instead of Täufer 622). This older style of German perhaps also explains the reference to the activities of the German military in the summer of 1942 -- at the height of the mass-murder of Jews, Soviet POWs, and others deemed undesirable -- as "Nazi stupidity" (Nazi-Dummheit) (332) instead of Nazi crimes, the prevalent usage in Germany today.
The book has a number of strengths in addition to its attempt to preserve the memories, if not the history, of the Mennonites in Russia. The German village names are generally accompanied by their modern Russian equivalents and several bilingual maps of former Mennonite colonies are included. The organization of the colony sections into village units makes it easy for those looking for information on specific villages to find an overview quickly without having to hunt through a variety of different monographs. The same can be said of the index of names, which broadens the scope of the Mennonite story beyond a few key leaders.
Assistant Professor of History