It has recently come to my notice that a number of Mennonites have dropped the “Russian” from their identity.
This is not, as might be supposed, because they have finally succumbed to the relentless pressure from Churchy Mennonites to cease considering “Mennonite” as something of an ethnic identity. In fact, the word Russian added on to the word Mennonite might be seen as a way of distinguishing the ethnic identity — so offensive to some — from the religious identity that should in no ways have a nationality attached to it.
Well, maybe not in no ways. A person who attends a Mennonite Church in Russia could conceivably call themself a Russian Mennonite without facing down the ire of the leaders and other curmudgeons in North American Mennonite Churches. According to Mennonite World Conference, there are 3,000 baptized Mennonites in Russia but no congregations so I am not sure how that works. But they should all know that we would all happily recognize any of those baptized members as Russian Mennonites should any appear and wish to claim the title.
But over here in North America, the term “Russian Mennonite” has typically been used colloquially to refer to those Mennonites who lived in Ukraine from 1789 or later until 1874 or 1922 or 1943 or various years in between those when they moved or were forced out.
I have identified as a Russian Mennonite for many years, as have all the members of my family. This was because my father’s grandparents immigrated in 1874 and my mother’s parents sailed across the ocean in 1922. And both families saw themselves as having come from Russia. I remember as a child telling my grandmother that she had come from Ukraine and she gave me the side-eye and corrected to “South Russia.”
You can hardly blame her — even if today we all prefer Ukraine to Russia, she still remembered the Ukrainians as the people who followed Nestor Makhno and reigned terror on their villages. Russia, on the other hand, was the empire run by the Tsarina who had so graciously invited the Mennonites to farm the land along the beautiful Dniepr River. Well, my grandmother didn’t literally remember Catherine the Great but she did love that land by the shores of the Dniepr.
Admittedly, she talked about the river and her island home more than she talked about either Russians or Ukrainians. Even when she talked about how it all ended, she rarely blamed one people or another. It was simply war or “the bad times” that took away her well-loved home and sent her and her family and so many others over here to Canada. I thought that a politically unsophisticated understanding when I was young, that my grandmother simply did not grasp the larger historical historical forces that shaped her life. I no longer think so. War, I was taught, was a force that followed its own paths, that caused spirals of terror turning neighbours into enemies and strangers into monsters. The more I have studied history and the more I have seen of the world, the more I see merit in this assessment.
It might have made sense for us — those of us who are uncomfortable with nationalism and the wars that people fight for it — to have dropped the “Russian” from our name a long time ago since that name is attached to a nation-state. None of us were ever all that comfortable with it; we’re not slavic, few of us can speak more than a spattering of Russian, and I know very few Mennonites who have even worked their way through more than one tome by Dostoyevsky or Tolstory (a few more, however, have sat through more than one concert featuring works by Tchaikovsky and/or Rachmaninoff). I have not seen caviar at all favoured in Mennonite circles and know from experience that whiskey is, in general, preferred over vodka.
I am pretty sure we only held onto the name “Russian Mennonite” because we couldn’t think of anything better, naming not being one of our particular skills. Some people tried on “Low German Speaking Mennonites” for awhile but many of us dropped the language a generation ago so that doesn’t work. And all the gluten-free Mennos objected when I suggested we all start calling ourselves the Tweeback Eaters.
And so we have been stuck with the moniker “Russian Mennonites.”
Which didn’t really bother anyone too much until about seven weeks ago.
That was when I started noticing that my friends and family and strangers on Twitter had started rebranding our people as Ukrainian Mennonites. I assume they are doing this lest anyone imagine that having “Russian” in our name means that we are Putin’s pawns and all in favour of wars of aggression. It is the Mennonite equivalent of not ordering a Moscow Mule at a cocktail bar. (for that second problem, I have a solution but never mind about that right now).
It’s a bit more than that. I haven’t heard of any former Russian Mennonites actually hopping on a flight and creating a new Mennonite selbstschutz to help defend our old homeland but I wouldn’t be all that surprised to hear of one or two doing just that. There are, of course, Mennonites currently in Ukraine (not nearly as many as in 1920, but some) who have faced, again, the dilemma of a commitment to pacifism put to the test of a threat to one’s very home. It’s an echo from our past that most of us would prefer not to witness, though I suspect we are a little less prone to judge those today than we are our antescendants.
It is not for lack of sympathy that I mock the urge to identify ourselves as Ukrainian rather than Russian Mennonites. My heart, too, has broken over and over again as I follow the news and read the updates from the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk. I find myself wondering if my great grandmother’s house on Chortitza Island has managed to remain untouched by the war, ridiculous though it is to care about an old house in the face of human tragedy.
And, of course, the people. I expect I was not the only Mennonite on a Heritage Tour to be surprised by the warm welcome we received from the descendants of those neighbours who had turned into enemies in 1918. We thought they would have hated us. We thought that they considered our ancestors to have been rich, unfeeling capitalists trampling them under their greedy heels and deserving all that they suffered. And maybe they did, but had moved passed that. Or maybe they didn’t remember.
Or maybe they also knew that our histories were all tied up in tragedies that were bigger than all of us — Russians, Mennonites, Ukrainians — the ethnicity didn’t really matter. And we all loved that Insel Chortitza and the wide open steppes, whether we called it Ukraine or South Russia or just our grandparents’ home.
So, whatever. You can call me a Russian Mennonite if you like. You can call me a Ukrainian Mennonite. You can even call me a Canadian Mennonite.
Or, well, you can just call me The Drunken Mennonite, and be done with national identities.
Just don’t call me late for cocktail hour.
image: Henry B Pauls, Mennonite Migration to Russia from the author’s collection
Black Russian Soil
This cocktail is featured in Menno-Nightcaps in honour of our migration to Russia from Prussia. It should be noted that the soil in question is properly considered Ukrainian. I advise using local, apolitical vodka.
- 1 1/2 oz vodka
- 1/2 oz gold rum
- 1/2 oz cold brew coffee
- 1/4 oz vanilla syrup
Measure all ingredients into a mixing glass filled halfway with ice. Stir until chilled. Serve on ice in an old-fashioned glass. Drink as is or garnish with chocolate which hails from neither Russia nor Ukraine.
Raise a glass to the land you call home, and the land that others have called home before us, whatever raging nations lay claim to it.