Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
An estimated 55,000 practicing Mennonites, or about 100,000 ethnic Mennonites, lived in the Soviet Union, a vast country that became a nuclear superpower second only to the United States. The Mennonites constituted about seven percent of the world population of Mennonites. If during the second half of the 19th century the Russian Mennonites were leaders in the Mennonite world in education, wealth, in conference organization, and even in missionary vision, their condition during the Soviet period was in sharp contrast. Soviet Mennonites were unorganized, poorly educated, dependent on other groups, and uncertain of their identity.
The USSR was initially quite restricted geographically and politically. Many Mennonites found themselves within the borders of the Ukrainian Republic which was considerably independent of Moscow until 1923. Other Mennonites in the Asiatic part of the former Russian Empire encountered a variety of political administrations before Soviet power could gradually extend its reach. During the first decade of Soviet power, the major impact on the Mennonites was the experience of the civil war at close range. During the famine of 1921-1923, many Mennonites suffered privation and death. For those living in the Ukraine, the USSR had come to mean the triumph of anarchy, the senseless destruction of property and people, and disregard for civilized values.
During their first decade in the new USSR, Mennonite leaders were preoccupied with helping their people adjust from being a special people with the privilege of self-government, to one of equality with the rest of the Soviet population, and to finding an acceptable future there, particularly by emphasizing Mennonite expertise in agriculture. At the same time, those leaders were negotiating with Soviet authorities to secure permission to emigrate. At first emigration was envisioned for the relatively small number of displaced persons. The Soviet authorities were taken aback when B. B. Janz, key organizer in the Ukraine, informed them that 20,000 Mennonites wished to emigrate. About 20,000 did indeed emigrate, mainly to Canada, from 1924-1926, with an additional 6,000 (out of a much larger number gathered at the gates of Moscow) leaving via Germany in 1929. This emigration represented a major loss of leadership.
Mennonites had developed some experience in cooperation across denominational lines through the forestry service (Forsteidienst), broader evangelical efforts at evangelism (sometimes sharing the services of a full-time evangelist with Baptists and Evangelical Christians), and the review boards for conscientious objectors (1919-1930). In 1925 Mennonites met at an all-union conference, where they approved an eight-point appeal to the Soviet authorities, spelling out the minimum requirements for religious liberty: (1) undisturbed religious meetings and discussions in churches and private homes for adults and children; (2) unrestricted religious societies, choirs; (3) unrestricted erection of new church buildings, and tax exemption for churches and ministers; (4) unrestricted creation of Christian orphanages; (5) undisturbed acquisition of Bibles and other Christian literature, including periodicals; (6) undisturbed Bible courses for the training of ministers; (7) recognition of schools as a place for neither religious nor anti-religious propaganda; (8) exemption from military service and training, and granting of useful alternative service. This appeal was, of course, rejected by the Soviet authorities, who at that time were engaged in a concerted effort to secure the loyalty of religious bodies. The conference came to be known as a "martyrs' conference" since so many of the delegates disappeared in the prisons and camps later. In 1926 the Baptists, the Evangelical Christians, and the Pentecostals all met in national congress to approve a declaration of loyalty to Soviet power and to reject pacifism as a doctrinal position. The following year the Orthodox church's acting Patriarch Sergei issued a statement of full support for Soviet power. Since the Mennonites were never able to meet in conference again, they were never able to issue such formal statements, although in practice it made no difference then. Subsequently it prevented their legal recognition as a denomination.
The new legislation on religion of April 1929, together with the renewed stress on ideology necessary to carry out large scale collectivization, represented the beginning of the worst attack on religion that all religious confessions experienced in the USSR. The Stalinist purges came in waves, that of 1937-1938 (the so-called Yezhovschina) probably having the most devastating impact. By 1938 virtually all leaders, whether clergy, teachers, or other civil leaders had been killed or imprisoned.
Mennonites experienced the second major campaign to eliminate religion, the Khrushchev campaign of 1959-1964, with less severity than did the Orthodox and Baptists because few Mennonite congregations had been registered by then. Nevertheless, Mennonites were affected by needing to choose between two conflicting unions—the *All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians - Baptists (AUCECB) and the *Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians - Baptists (CCECB). Many Mennonites took this antireligious campaign as further impetus to move either to the Baltic Soviet Socialist Republics, or to the Kirgizian Soviet Socialist Republic (Kyrgyzstan), where the antireligious pressure was less severe.
With a somewhat more moderate revision of the basic legislation on religion in 1975, and the new emphasis on Soviet legality, as well as an apparent desire by local authorities to dampen emigration fever, Mennonite congregations began obtaining state registration as local autonomous societies. In 1988 there were 25 independent Mennonite Brethren and 21 Kirchliche Mennonite congregations with either full registration, registration as a branch of another group, or merely verbal permission to act as if registered.
Under the tsars there was a clear sense of difference between (German) kolonisty and Mennonity. During the Soviet period Mennonites became fused with other Germans through common experiences. Like all Soviet Germans Mennonites experienced the forcible deportation to the east in 1941, or the forcible repatriation after the war. Together with all Soviet Germans they submitted to the Spetskomandantura (Deportation Regime) until it was lifted in December 1955, and the subsequent three stages of gradual rehabilitation. Together with the Germans they experienced thoroughgoing russianization. Since educational and literary opportunities were so drastically restricted during the Deportation Regime, their knowledge of language and culture declined greatly. When Harold Bender visited in 1956 he predicted the loss of many Mennonite young people, some of them to other groups, if the Mennonite churches did not embrace the Russian language and culture. In 1986 another Mennonite World Conference delegation voiced concern not only about the lost generation, recognizing that the churches would soon be required to adopt Russian as language of worship in order to survive, but also voiced concern about the general loss of a sense of Anabaptist-Mennonite distinctives. Yet the congregations revealed spiritual vibrancy, active children and youth programs (though not yet legal), and committed leaders handicapped due to lack of training and literature.
Soviet Mennonites confronted an identity crisis in several ways. With somewhat over half of the practicing Mennonites part of an integrated union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (the new common name for Soviet evangelicals including Pentecostals and Mennonites), there was uncertainty about a separate identity, yet a desire to retain links with Mennonites abroad. Loss of theological uniqueness (all registered independent Mennonite congregations were unable to include the nonresistance clause in their constitutions) meant that Mennonite uniqueness was expressed culturally through language, and to a less tangible degree in a deliberately more eirenic style of decision-making.
Still another approach to retaining a separate identity was to seek emigration to Germany. Many Mennonites were among the 40,000 Germans who applied for emigration when that was rumored to be possible in 1956. A modest program of reunification of families separated during the war developed from 1970-1985, during which time more than 13,000 Mennonites came to West Germany (Umsiedler). A second such movement began in February 1987, including more than 1,000 Mennonites and Baptists (mainly ethnic Mennonites) within the first 12 months. Once again leadership ranks were decimated and families were uncertain what to do. The majority of Mennonites were likely to remain in the USSR after their second century of sojourn in the Russian lands, but the challenges to new and younger leaders were certainly daunting.
The Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, and the successor states are part of fifteen independent countries. Some have retained ties to one another; others such as the Baltic states, moved toward the European Union.
See also: Russia; Kazakhstan, Republic of; Kyrgyzstan; Baltic Soviet Socialist Republics; Moldova; Soviet Central Asia; Ukraine; German Language; Orenburg Region; Pleshanov Settlement; Russian Revolution and Civil War
Kraybill, Paul N., ed. Mennonite World Handbook. Lombard, IL: Mennonite World Conference, 1978: 63- 71, 310;
Mennonite World Handbook Supplement. Strasbourg, France, and Lombard, IL: Mennonite World Conference, 1984: 126.
Sawatsky, Walter. "From Russian to Soviet Mennonites 1945-1985." Mennonites in Russia, 1788-1988: essays in honour of Gerhard Lohrenz, ed. John Friesen. Winnipeg, MB: CMBC Publications, 1989.
Sawatsky, Walter. Soviet Evangelicals Since World War II. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981.
Stricker, Gerd. "Mennoniten in der Sowjetunion nach 1941." Kirche im Osten, 27 (1984).
Toews, John B. Czars, Soviets and Mennonites. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1982.
Urry, James. None But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia, 1789-1889. Winnipeg: Hyperion, 1988.
Wölk, Heinrich and Gerhard Wölk, A Wilderness Journey. Glimpses of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia 1925-1980. Fresno: Center for MB Studies, 1982. Also published in German, Fresno, 1981.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 896-898. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Sawatsky, Walter W. "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 19 June 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/U540.html.
APA style: Sawatsky, Walter W. (1989). Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 June 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/U540.html.