This small book has a complex structure. At its center is a series of photographs of Mennonites serving in the Forestry and related units before World War One and later on the hospital trains during the War, especially on the Turkish front in Central Asia. These come mainly from the collection of Abram Dück, the father of the co-author Jacob Dick, and his friends and relatives. The photographs are connected to the memoirs of one of the group, Johann Mathies, who served both in the Forestry Service and on the trains with Abram Dück. Jacob Dick links his account with a narrative of his own and supplies an epilogue concerned with his own journey to Georgia in 2002 where he searched out and discovered some of the sites in the photographs. Finally the book is properly contextualized with an introductory essay on "Mennonites and Military Service in Russia" written by Lawrence Klippenstein who wrote his PhD thesis on alternative service in Russia and the Soviet Union and is a recognized expert on this subject.
Although complex, the book is easy to read and provides a fascinating insight into the different forms of Mennonite alternative service. Klippenstein's introduction sets the scene well. Dick then takes the reader from the pre-war forest camp at Azov and on into war service in European Russia and then on the Asian front. Details of camp life are linked to the photographs depicting the working conditions, camp life, initiation rituals for recruits, and music groups, picnics etc.. Mathies's account, obviously written long after the events he describes (although Dick mentions a diary), has a certain charm in itself. It is somewhat typical of many such accounts with its sudden jumps from topic to topic and reflective asides all delivered in a matter-of-fact manner. Many interesting points are not developed or clarified although the authors have included a set of useful maps that assist in tracking the movements of Dück and Mathies.
The photographs, a mixture of personal snaps of individuals, groups, work units, and postcards of places, are reasonably well reproduced given the format and price of the book. But they are dark and lack the detail and clarity that perhaps they deserve. And while the interesting reverse comments on many of the pictures are included, there is little consideration of the style and purpose of the photographs. While many are of groups involved in work-somewhat artificially posed no doubt to cope with the speed of the camera lens-others are more formal. These include groups no doubt on high days and holidays posing together, including a brass band complete with special uniforms. Others consist of studio shots with groups or individuals sitting or standing in front of improbable landscape backcloths occasionally leaning on chairs or oddly decorated plinths. A series of studio shots show individuals squashed in a fake rock cavern complete with stalactites!
What was the purpose of such photography? And what part did it play in Mennonite life? From the surviving comments on the reverse of some, the pictures were obviously intended for friends and relatives back home in the Mennonite settlements. Others were taken by men serving in the same units, most likely at a time when they were due to return home or join another unit, and presented as gifts for each other. The comments on the reverse indicate these are gifts from friends and greetings are accompanied by the home address of the gift-giver.
The photographs also reveal the militarization of Mennonite men, irrespective of the fact that they were serving in "alternative" units outside military control. This process began in the camps with the uniforms, drill, and discipline but the photographs hint that this tendency increased once the men volunteered for hospital service. The uniforms then become more militaristic and more importantly are worn with more dash than in the camps. Not only were Mennonites now beyond the remote world of the forestry camps, but during the war most young men wore military uniforms, indicating they were serving their motherland. Of particular interest is the sporting of moustaches-full and handsome with the occasional upward twist at the ends. In fact, so many of the men are dressed in identical uniforms and sport the same style of moustache that in some pictures they look almost identical. Uniformity has taken over in more than just dress!
Yet there are indications that Mennonites attempted to remain separate from the militarization of society, even during the war. Their epaulettes carried crosses as did their hat insignia, clearly indicating their hospital roles and connection with civil, not military, units. And Mathies records an interesting episode when an elderly general takes control of a train and begins to treat the men like army recruits, ordering that they cut their hair short and observe military discipline. Some Mennonites resist and are arrested. Mathies records that after the intervention of a nursing sister of noble descent the general revokes his orders and apologizes once he realizes that the Mennonite orderlies are "intelligent people." This reveals a great deal about military life, the attitudes of officers to peasant soldiers, and the anomalous place of Mennonites in Russian society.
There are a few inconsistencies and errors. The spelling of place names is inconsistent Khortitza/Chortitza (it should be Khortitsa anyway), Azov/Asov, Ekaterinoslav/Jekaterinoslav (or Jekaterinoslaw? ), Sagradovka (Sagradowka/Zagradovka) etc. The picture on p. 71 dated 1912 is obviously from 1917 and belongs to s series of portraits taken on the same day (see p. 111). Otherwise this is a very interesting addition to the limited literature on alternative service in Russia and raises a number of interesting questions which require further interpretation and analysis.
Dr. James Urry
Anthropology, School of Social & Cultural Studies
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand