Wealth & Horror: The MHV’s Russländer Exhibit

I am not of Russländer descent, so I didn’t know anything at all about their story… until I met Andrew’s maternal grandmother. Suddenly I was hearing stories of the Bolsheviks invading Mennonite homes in Russia, nailing tongues to tables… and that’s one of the milder tales.

I blinked and stared at her, trying to digest this new information. Why hadn’t I heard these extreme stories before?

Maybe I had, but I just hadn’t paid attention. (HOW?)

If, like me, you’ve somehow managed to make it this far without ever realizing or investigating or finding out what it means to be a “Russländer”, I’ll try to sum up, in a very Manitoba-oriented way. (Whilst simultaneously making any and all educated folk reading this cringe like crazy. Apologies in advance.)

Pretty much, when people talk about “the Mennonites” around here, they’re kinda glossing over the fact that there are some distinctions between groups of Mennonites, based upon when they arrived in Canada. In order to distinguish the Russländer, I’ll briefly explain the term “Kanadier” people: these were the first wave of Mennonites to settle here, roughly from 1874-1876. Their time appeared to be largely taken up with survival, and church. (My people.)

Over the course of the next fifty years, the Mennonites remaining in South Russia flourished, growing fabulously wealthy and educated. When the Russian Revolution hit, suddenly anyone of wealth was a target. The Mennonites were in South Russia/Ukraine were particularly terrorized by the rogue army of anarchist revolutionary, Nestor Makhno. Many thousands of Mennonites managed to escape to Canada before the borders closed.

The Russländer story is excruciating, and extraordinary. It involves mind-blowing wealth, followed by mind-blowing horror. And escape, or death. Mostly. And right now, if you go to the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach, you can see a carefully curated collection of artefacts and stories on display that offer a glimpse of the Russländer experience.

You’ll read breathtaking stories of what’s referred to as the Golden Age, when estates grew, lawns were expansive, and folks frolicked freely in white gowns. Like a dream… which turned into a nightmare.

The Russländer Exhibit is on display now until April 30th at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach. If you haven’t yet been, you should go.