Ancestral land

Descendants watch Ukraine with eye to history

May 26, 2014 by

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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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  • berryfriesen

    Try as I might, I can’t avoid it: this is a very disappointing editorial. Why editorialize at all if you are unwilling to mention the leading characters who precipitated the crisis and their crucial contributions to the mess? The mainstream media have been telling us for months now that Putin is at fault for
    Ukraine’s crisis. Now MWR comes along and parrots the same line, only in gentler Menno-speak and with a frothy layer of philosophical blather.

    Want to read the perspective of a Mennonite who thinks facts are important? Go to the Canadian Mennonite online and read “How to heal a nation divided?” by William E. Yoder. He’s an EMU grad (1973) who earned his Ph.D. from Free University of Berlin in 1991and currently resides in Moscow.

    Over the years, I recall many discussions trying to fathom what the German church was thinking during the early-to-mid 1930s when Germany’s propaganda machine was starting to roll and the authoritarian and imperialist goals of the fascist government were beginning to show themselves. We have those same realities now in the USA, but again, one hears little from the church. It’s simply astonishing.

    • berryfriesen

      As noted in my previous column, “How to heal a nation divided” by William E. Yoder is essential reading for Mennonites wanting to understand Ukraine’s crisis. It is published by the Canadian Mennonite online and I assume in its print edition. MWR would serve its readers by re-publishing it

  • Berry Friesen

    I hope we’re still praying, as Paul said we were. The downing today of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine will make a very violent situation there even more dangerous.

    The airliner was shot down at 30,000 feet; previous shoot-downs of Ukrainian aircraft by refuseniks have been 15,000 feet or less. The refuseniks haven’t had equipment to reach 30,000 feet, although they may have captured pieces of such a system from abandoned Ukrainian government depots. But the BUK system is highly sophisticated with multiple pieces, including state-of-the-art radar.

    The downed flight was 200 km north of its usual flight path. That’s right, its usual flight path would have taken avoided the area where the refuseniks are in control.

    Ukrainian government forces moved BUK anti-aircraft system into southeastern Ukraine over the past few days.

    The U.S. media is behaving very oddly. Immediately, we have nonstop coverage, immediately we hear insinuations that Russia did it. Is this how the media usually behaves when there is a plane crash? How do they know it wasn’t a bomb on board the flight that blew the plane apart? Why are they hyping a crisis with Russia, when everyone knows that is a very dangerous game? Usually, the behavior we see on the network would be regarded as irresponsible, yet today it is unabashed.

    Obviously, I don’t know what happened. But I don’t like the smell of this at all, and I’m on alert for this being a false flag event, designed by Russia’s enemies to precipitate much greater pressure on Russia.

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