Descendants watch Ukraine with eye to history
The Russian empire stood on the brink of decline and fall when a group of students from Tabor and Bethel colleges in Kansas visited a Mennonite church in a far corner of the Soviet Union on Jan. 12, 1986.
“The future belongs to you,” an elderly man said in German to the students after a worship service in Frunze, Kyrgyzstan.
The shape of that future would change quickly and dramatically. But on that Sunday afternoon in a humble meetinghouse in Central Asia, guests and hosts alike would have found it hard to imagine today’s post-cold war world. Rule by Moscow seemed the permanent fate of even a distant Soviet outpost like Kyrgyzstan, a province bordering China.
Yet within five years the Iron Curtain would collapse, the Mennonites of Frunze (now Bishkek) would emigrate to Germany, territories on the Soviet periphery would gain independence, Eastern Europe would reject communism and Russia would fall from great-power status.
Now the geopolitical ground is shifting again. President Vladimir Putin seeks to revive Russian prestige by reasserting its regional power and reclaiming former Soviet land.
Annexing Crimea and supporting secessionists in eastern Ukraine hardly constitute the restoration of an empire. But the actions defy the U.S. and Western Europe, whom Putin believes humiliated Russia by treating it like a vanquished country after the cold war. By expanding Russian territory and influence, he stirs the pride of those who long for the days when the nation stood tall on the world stage. Putin’s land grab and militant nationalism have earned him popularity at home and condemnation abroad.
Descendants of the Russian Mennonites — scattered to Germany, Canada, the Midwestern U.S., Mexico, Paraguay and beyond — watch the unrest in Ukraine with special interest. From Oklahoma to Manitoba, as the wheat harvest approaches, a reminder of Ukrainian heritage surrounds Mennonite churches and farms. Fields of winter wheat — varieties developed from the Turkey Red the immigrants brought — turn from green to gold. The crop thrives on the prairies as it did on the steppes, though drought may yield disappointment.
Ukraine is also a spiritual home. The Mennonite Brethren Church was founded there in 1860. The General Conference Mennonite Church, now part of Mennonite Church USA, owed its vitality to the thousands of immigrants from Ukraine who joined.
Today the Mennonite presence in Ukraine is small — 300 members in eight congregations. Mennonite World Conference reports the Kutuzivka Mennonite congregation is building a new church in Molochansk. Meanwhile, in Snegurovka, another faith tradition picks up the torch as Greek Catholics restore a former Mennonite church for their own use.
God’s work goes on in times of trial. The Ukrainian crisis has turned thousands of North American Mennonites’ prayers toward a land of historical memory, for some only a generation or two removed.
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