International conference explores Siberian Mennonite story

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FPU one of three institutions to sponsor Omsk event

By Aileen Friesen

New scholarship on the history and culture of Mennonite in Siberia was the focus of an international conference held June 2-4 in Omsk, Russia. This event built on the tradition of international scholarly exchange on Mennonite history established by Dr. Harvey Dyck through conferences held in Chortitza, Ukraine in 1999 and in Molotchna, Ukraine in 2004. The 2010 conference was co-sponsored by F.M Dostoevsky Omsk State University, represented by Dr.Tatiana Smirnova; the University of Winnipeg, represented by Dr. Royden Loewen; and Fresno Pacific University, represented by Dr. Paul Toews.

In the last several years, there has been a renewed interest in the Mennonite Siberian story. In 2002, Marina and Walter Unger, Paul Toews and Olga Shmakina established a relationship with Dr. Andrei Savin of the Russian Academy of Sciences with the result being two books of document collections, with a third still to be published, related to Mennonites in Siberia. These types of initiatives reflect a deep interest in the Mennonite community to explore the neglected history of the Mennonites who settled this vast region both voluntarily and involuntarily.

Dr. Peter Penner, currently residing in Calgary and who was born in Siberia, played an inspirational role in pushing forward the agenda of holding a conference in Siberia. Like the previous conferences in Chortitza and Molotchna, conference organizers aimed to bring together scholars from diverse linguistic, methodological and cultural backgrounds. This type of international event allows for the cross fertilization of ideas about the Mennonite story in Siberia.

Participants from Russia, Canada, the United States, Germany and Kazakhstan presented papers which illustrated various aspects of Mennonite religious, familial, social and political experiences in Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union and current-day Russia. Presentations on Mennonite settlement in Siberia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries challenged the dominant image of Siberia as a place of exile and suffering.

These papers demonstrated that the first Mennonite settlers, such as Peter J. Wiens, arrived in Siberia with great hopes—for themselves, their families and their communities. These papers also showed the commonalities between Mennonite settler life in Siberia and in other parts of the world. Weather, land, gender roles, families and faith shaped how Mennonites envisioned and experienced Siberia, which parallels Mennonite resettlement in places such as the Canadian prairies. These similarities encourage a comparative approach to foster an understanding of Mennonite migration in a global context.

The majority of the conference presentations addressed the experiences of Mennonites during the Soviet period. A number of Russian scholars, such as Andrei Savin and Alexei Gorbatov, utilized archival sources from the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, to uncover the treatment and the responses of Mennonites to the state's repressive policies. Gorbatov spoke about how Mennonite took on leadership roles in interconfessional organizations, which brought them to the attention of Soviet authorities. Repression followed, and Mennonites lost their homes, employment and freedom.

Scholars from the former Soviet territories have advanced researcher’s knowledge of archival sources, which in some cases are the only remaining record of events and people targeted by the Soviet regime. Unfortunately, due to changes in the political climate in Russia, some archival files that previously were available are now no longer accessible to scholars working in the archives. At the conference, a resolution was proposed to protest against this trend. Fortunately, the publication of document collections from Russian archives in recent years has ensured that at least some of these documents are now a part of the public record.

Many presentations focused on how Mennonites as individuals and as communities experienced life under the Soviet regime. The atmosphere of repression and uncertainty influenced the relationship between Mennonites, Baptists and evangelicals in Siberia. Dr. Iraida Nam described how the loss of religious leaders during the Stalinist repression created religious bonds and cooperation between different religious groups. In the case of the Tomsk region, the release of Mennonite ministers from prison after Stalin's death briefly revitalized Mennonite identity, until the start of Khrushchev's anti-religious campaign saw the exile of their leaders once again.

Participants in the conference had the opportunity to view many of the themes presented firsthand, as the cultural program of the conference included a visit to a number of Mennonite communities west of Omsk. Rev. N.M Dikman gave an emotional account of the persecution he experienced for his religioius beliefs, in which he called the gulag “his Bible study.”

Religious leaders such as Dikman confirmed that the persecution of religious communities lasted into the 1980s, with many leaders being arrested numerous times throughout their lives. In spite of this persecution, Mennonite religious and cultural life survives in Siberia. In villages such as Apollonovka, children still speak plattdeutsch to their playmates. Participants also witnessed the wonderful musicality in Mennonite religious services.

While not all Mennonites experienced and responded to the Soviet regime in the same way, the interest of scholars from the former Soviet Union in Mennonites as a ethno-confessional community confirms the historical significance of this story to a wider audience. It also confirms the importance of building bridges between scholars from different countries and extending these bridges to the communities that these scholars try to understand and describe.

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This article is part of the CL Archives. Articles published between August 2017 and July 2008 were posted on a previous website and are archived here for your convenience. To report a problem with the archived article, please contact the CL editor at editor@usmb.org.

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