Seeing Mennonite Villages Through Russian Eyes & Video Game Tech

Look at this map! Just look at it! That detail is incredible!

These are Russian maps from the 1850s that Brent Wiebe has found (through a source he met on social media, I think?) and is sharing with the ethno-Menno-history community. This is particularly significant because Brent is not normal.

Brent and his wife Gail are, as Ernie Braun pointed out, “young” — they’re about me and Andrew’s age. (Actually Gail and I are precisely the same age, and we both married younger men, fun fact.)

Not too many “youngsters” are into this kinda stuff but in addition to that, Brent has a special interest in GPS technology, old maps, and recreating villages using the same programs that are typically used to make violent immersive video games.


Yeah really. It’s amazing.

So when the EastMenn Historical Committee planned an event featuring Brent Wiebe at the MHV this past Saturday afternoon, Andrew and I were so there.

When we first set foot into the event. (Yes, we were a tad late, as usual. Alas.)

EastMenn are my favourite. They’re rare, and feature speakers who approach our history from a different point of view. (When they hosted Ralph Friesen in 2019, he spoke about the intense hellfire-based revivals in the 1950s and 60s that forever changed the cultural and emotional landscape of our region. Yeah, fight me on that.)

So, Brent Wiebe is a Holdeman from Alberta and you should check out his website, Trails of the Past.

Brent’s been digitally recreating abandoned Mennonite villages in Ukraine in great detail for several years now. Like, the detail is so close to real life that many of his images look like photographs. The way he combines precise location details of villages with GPS and video game tech is awesome.

At one point, he played an animation of a Mennonite village he had recreated. The atrium was entirely silent as we watched a man swinging a scythe stroll down a village street, passing orchards, housebarns, and people working in their gardens. It was real, but not. It was like a window into the past.

A more boisterous (and less-Mennonite) crowd would’ve leapt up and applauded loudly.

After a quiet collective gasp, we stared in stunned appreciative silence.

Brent Wiebe speaking. On the screen is a housebarn he has recreated. This site has a specific GPS location. The building is gone but he has recreated it digitally.

Now, these maps Brent brought along with him are incredible. They’re maps from the Russian State Military Archives from the 1850s and he pointed out that these maps give us the outsider perspective of these Mennonite villages. They point out where Johann Cornies lived (they called him “Ivan Cornies the Mennonite”) and depicted the placement of houses, bridges, and taverns.

Yes. Mennonite taverns.

Brent pointed out that in comparing the Russian maps against the Mennonite ones, interestingly he found that in one village the Mennonites added a windmill which the Russians had not… and the Russians added a distillery that the Mennonites omitted.

Other things I learned:

These maps show how Russians viewed this land in the late 1700s they recognized the importance of the difference between the Frisian and Flemish Mennonites.

When they first arrived in Russia, they stayed in a fortress? (I need to learn more about this.)

Learned about the Chumak Way (or, Saltway) — a right-of-way trail that ran through their areas, where sheep were grazed.

A Tokmak mogolia (sp?) burial mounds were located nearby.

Seems sheep farming was important — this is something I never considered before. I’d always assumed Mennonites were dairy farmers (my own experience colours this).

There was a popular tavern called the Three Roses in Einlage.

Boundary pillar columns were huge and marked where each village lands began and ended.

Russian maps showed village streets were often fairy crooked (followed the curve of the landscape, I assume) but when Mennonites drew maps of their villages, their streets were in straight lines. (Mennonite lies?)

These are half-thoughts quickly jotted down. You’ll learn way more at Brent Wiebe’s website, Trails of the Past!

Thanks to the EastMenn Historical Committee for hosting this great event with the MHV!