One of the most tragic periods in the life of Russian Mennonites were the years after the 1917 Revolution. Not only did the Mennonites of Russia lose their traditional social, cultural, and religious existence, but also their possessions and in many instances their freedom and life. In the 1920s some 21,000 Mennonite emigrants were able to escape the Soviet Union and find new homes in Canada and South America. Those who remained in the Soviet Union after 1930 experienced first the terror of Stalin's rule and, after 1941, the difficulties of the Second World War: flight to the West, separation from loved ones, exile and hard labor in the Gulag, and often death in the northern and eastern regions of the Soviet Union.
The new book by the late Professor David G. Rempel (1899-1992), edited by his daughter Cornelia Rempel Carlson, deals primarily with the first quarter of the twentieth century. David Rempel was not only an academically trained historian, one of the first among Russian Mennonites, but one who himself experienced as a student and young teacher in the Mennonite colonies the turbulent times after the First World War. The interesting autobiography begins with the history of the author's relatives who resided in the "Old Colony" villages of Nieder-Chortitza and Rosental. David's father was a store owner and grain merchant in Nieder-Chortitza and his mother, nee Pauls, came from well-to-do Mennonite landowners in Rosental. The author traces the tragic circumstances of the two families during the periods of Revolution, Civil War, the Makhno terror, typhus epidemic, famine, and, in the end, emigration for some and exile for other members of the extended families.
Russian Mennonite history has been largely written by lay historians, many of whom were preachers and other congregational servants. Their interpretation of Mennonite history was thus church-oriented and to a certain extent triumphalist, meaning that they not only wrote from within their religious tradition but also saw their history through rose-colored glasses. According to their interpretation, Mennonites, desirable farmers and craftspeople, were invited to Russia by the Tsars and granted many privileges; they lived peacefully for over a hundred years, contributing significantly to the Russian economy and welfare of the Russian state and society. In this view, the 1917 Revolution and the following Civil War were seen as the destruction of the "Mennonite Commonwealth," including their religious institutions. Especially the banditry, plunder, rape, and killing under Nestor Makhno, followed by the exile and execution of many Mennonite leaders were seen as the height of Mennonite tragedy in that country and they continued to haunt the memory of twentieth-century Russian Mennonites. This view of Mennonite history is generally correct, but the reality, "wie es eigentlich gewesen" (as it really was), includes many shades of grey and requires a more nuanced approach to and interpretation of Russian Mennonite history.
David G. Rempel, while he too laments the eventual destruction of the "Mennonite state" in Russia, portrays the historical events fairly objectively and does not shy back from critiquing the Mennonites and their failings where necessary. He shows, for example, that Mennonites, an ethno-religious people, did not always live up to their religious ideals and principles. They often failed to be social and economic models for their Slavic neighbors, something the Tsars expected of them; they often mistreated not only their Slavic employees but also took advantage of the less-well-to-do among their own landless brethren; and they fought each other over religious and ideological views and practices. Rempel describes the class struggles between the rich farmers and estate owners on the one hand and the workers and cottage dwellers on the other. Sometimes the Russian government had to intervene to establish peace and justice among the warring factions in Mennonite society.
For some readers it will come as a surprise that after 1917 there emerged among Mennonites rebels who not only renounced their Christian faith, but also joined either the Soviets, the Makhno bandits, the White Army that tried to bring back the Tsars, or the Selbstschutz (self-defense) which sought to protect the colonies from the bandits. For example, one Abram Loewen, who during the German occupation in the First World War had joined the Selbstschutz, caused much embarrassment and grief among Mennonites. He dealt most brutally with Ukrainian peasants who had stolen goods from Mennonites and even killed four among them with his own hands (p. 210). In the end Loewen too was badly mistreated by the Makhnovites and brutally murdered (p. 229). There were also Mennonites who joined the Makhno bandits. One Petia (Peter) Thiessen, as Rempel writes, "was a Makhnovite, and many residents of both the Khortitsa and Molotchna settlements recall other Mennonites participating in bandit raids" (p. 242). Examples like these one finds seldom in Mennonite history books.
The chaotic times, as described by Professor Rempel, also brought out the good among men and women. Young people like David Rempel and members of his family helped the oppressed, suffering, and sick villagers wherever they could, disregarding the imminent danger in which they found themselves. When the entire Rempel family lay sick with the dreaded typhus disease, it was Mother Rempel who sacrificially and at great risk to herself took care of her own family and others who needed assistance. Moreover, there is a human touch in how Rempel describes how some Makhnovite "guests" in Rempel's house asked Mrs. Rempel to pray and sing for one of their sick women. Since Mrs. Rempel was unable to pray in Russian, she prayed in German and sang the well known German folksong, "Have oft in the circle of loved ones / rested in the fragrant grass, / and sang me a songlet / and worries would quickly pass." ("Hab' oft im Kreise der Lieben …) (p. 231). "These [spiritual] sessions," according to Rempel, "not only quieted the woman, but also revived Mother's spirituality and quiet confidence" (p. 232).
One reviewer of Rempel's book feels that the author does not stress sufficiently the spiritual aspect of Russian Mennonite life (Harold Jantz, MB Herald, September 19, 2003). The criticism is reminiscent of earlier Mennonite writings by religious leaders who generally emphasized faith issues and congregational matters rather than the mundane aspects of Mennonite life. Rempel's book is not a history of Russian-Mennonite religious life, to be sure, yet he appreciates the religious aspect of his people and gives credit to the strength that faith gave them in time of need. For example, when Rempel's mother, after her husband and a son had died, in the end also succumbed to typhus and soon thereafter lay dying herself, she found comfort in the hope that many Christians have. As Rempel writes, "In her feverish condition she tried to hum snatches of favorite songs, sometimes the opening lines of 'There above the sea of stars, there is a lovely land' (Dort über jenem Sternenmeer…)." At other times she managed a few lines from the hymn: "Take, Jesus, my hands and lead me on / to my blessed end. / I cannot walk alone, / not one step…. (Nimm Jesu meine Hände und führe mich) (p. 246).
It was Rempel's mother who urged her children to leave the Soviet Union for the West as soon as possible. Her last words in Low German were: "Boys, if you can emigrate, then go, even if you have to leave everything behind" (p. 247). In 1923 David Rempel was among the first emigrants to leave the Soviet Union for Canada, later making his home in the United States where he pursued his historical studies and teaching.
Rempel was not a prolific writer of books and articles, but what he published in journals and magazines such as the Mennonite Quarterly Review, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Mennonite Mirror, Der Bote, among others, is solid historical work. As a historian and mentor of history students he remains an inspiration and model of the historical craft. James Urry, an expert in Russian Mennonite history, acknowledges the profound influence of Rempel upon his own interpretation of Mennonite history: "[Rempel] humoured me, chided me for youthful impetuousness, forgave my impertinence, and gently guided me towards a richer and fuller understanding of Russian history and Mennonite life" (Journal of Mennonite Studies 11 (1993).
Professor Emeritus of History and Mennonite Studies
Kelowna, B. C., Canada