You Should Read ‘The Russian Mennonite Story’!

There seems to be a lot of information about the Mennonites who immigrated to Canada in the 1870’s…and very little about the Mennonites who remained behind. Or at least, I knew very little.

I did know that there were extreme circumstances: first extreme wealth, and then extreme terror, and then a disappearing of the people and culture from the area altogether. But really, what happened to the Mennonites who remained in Russia at the end of the 19th century?

Enter The Russian Mennonite Story. This extraordinary book is actually the illustrated print version of a series of lectures given by Paul Toews on Mennonite Heritage Cruises in Ukraine, from 1995-2010. Those must have been a spectacular experience, I’m jealous of the people that were able to go on such a cruise!

Thankfully, Toews’ lectures have been published by the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies in this beautifully compiled book, with foreword and editing by Dr. Aileen Friesen.

So, while I sit here feeling very sad that I’ve missed my opportunity to embark upon a Mennonite Heritage Cruise featuring lectures by Professor Paul Toews, I can comfort myself by reading this thoughtfully published compilation of his work.

I like how focused this book is. It’s called The Russian Mennonite Story, and that’s precisely the story it tells. None of this origin-of-the-Mennonites stuff, nothing about Menno Simons, nothing about Prussia, and nothing about the Mennonites who left South Russia in the 1870’s. (Well, not much anyway.) Rather, the lectures printed here quite clearly take us through the Mennonite experience in 20th century Ukraine/South Russia; this is an opportunity to trace the path of the Mennonites who were left behind.

It’s a stirring experience to read about this history, then gaze at these carefully selected photographs. The photos that Friesen selected for this book enhance the story significantly. As I read, I’m able to imagine the scenes unfolding, thanks to her brilliant selections.

The images of the Mennonite Golden Age are far more grand than I had imagined; almost royal. Many of these estates appear to be literal palaces. However, you don’t have to turn too many pages before the images become strikingly different. Suddenly we’re reading about the series of events that led to the Mennonites’ suffering: famines, attacks, disappearances. We see photos of abandoned churches, factories, estates…starving people, displaced and fearful.

The Russian Mennonite Story explores themes such as fractured memories, irony, and how our choices affect our lives in ways we often can’t foresee.

This is also a book about identity; as we read, we learn about the circumstances surrounding the Mennonite’s decisions, and they chose new narratives for themselves, and chose which people group to identify with…and assimilate into.

This book is a gift. Those descended from the Russian Mennonites may peer into the past, and discover the “lost world” (as Friesen puts it) of their parents and grandparents that has tantalized their childhood imaginations.

Purchase your own copy and meet Aileen Friesen at the book launch this Wednesday, June 6th, 7pm at the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg! (I’ve heard there will also be brownies provided by Archivist Conrad Stoesz, so you also won’t want to miss that.)

If you can’t make it to the book launch, you can order it here: