Fellowship to crack open KGB archives

Historians feel a sense of urgency to uncover stories of lost relatives and ancestors from documents in Ukraine

Mar 5, 2018 by

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WINNIPEG, Man. — In the 1930s, thousands of Mennonites disappeared in the Soviet Union without a trace. The KGB archives in Ukraine has thousands of files on these missing Mennonites.

Paul Toews

Paul Toews

A new fellowship at the University of Winnipeg will seek to crack into these archives to uncover the stories of lost relatives and ancestors.

Through the university’s Centre for Trans­national Mennonite Studies, the Paul Toews Fellowship in Russian Mennonite History will help to mine the archives.

Aileen Friesen, a recent postdoctoral fellow at the center, has undertaken extensive research in Russia and notes a sense of urgency.

“These records are now fully open, but they stand the chance of being closed once again should the political situation in Ukraine change,” she said.

The fellowship will fund researchers in recording, translating and archiving these KGB materials in the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg.

The KGB was the Soviet secret police, whose activities included mass arrests, deportations and executions.

The fellowship will also support other research programs, including history conferences, graduate and postdoctoral fellowships on Russian Mennonite history, funds for visiting scholarships and other research in Ukraine and Russia.

The fellowship is named in honor of the late Paul Toews, a professor at Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University and resident historian of the Mennonite Heritage Cruise, which took more than 3,000 Mennonites on journeys to Ukraine over two decades.

The fellowship is based on an endowment fund totaling $450,000 in pledges and donations. It is part of a broader campaign goal of $3 million to establish a professorship in Russian Mennonite history.

While the wider campaign continues, the Paul Toews Fellowship will guarantee that earnings from donations will go to work at once. It is estimated the fellowship will eventually provide $20,000 per year to support research programs.

“It is great to reach this significant milestone in the campaign, and as a center we are deeply grateful to the fundraising committee,” said Royden Loewen, chair in Mennonite studies and director of the center.

The center is working closely on this project with the Mennonite Heritage Archives, which the center co-owns with Canadian Mennonite University and Mennonite Church Canada.

Toews was a participant in the Mennonite studies program at the University of Winnipeg and co-chaired a Mennonites in Siberia conference with Loewen in Omsk, Russia, in 2010.

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