Pilgrimage to the Ukraine: Revisioning History through Restorative Justice

If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A LONG AWAITED PILGRIMAGE to southern Ukraine last month provided me an extraordinary opportunity to explore the secret and complex history of my Russian Mennonite ancestors and those who did violence to them almost a century ago. This story is deeply personal and particular, yet has universal implications for restorative justice.

On the auspicious date of 10/10/10, my oldest sister Janet Regier and I took a side trip from the main tour to the former Mennonite village of Osterwick where our grandparents once lived. As we walked up to the Schulz Fabrik (above, left), we could see that the factory was once a magnificent building, with intricate brick work around the windows and an impressive archway for horse and buggy to enter the compound. To our left was our great grandparents’ home, and beyond that the house where our Grandma Schulz grew up. Though the latter was surrounded by a 10 foot fence, we knew we would probably never be here again, and got on our backs in the mud and slithered under.

It was clear no one currently lived there, and the back door of the house was ajar, so we made our way in. Straight ahead was a stair case leading to the grand room. We picked our way up rickety stairs, and as the last few of which were missing altogether, we stretched out on our bellies, straining to see the second floor. It was nothing like the grand room we had been told about as children. The roof and most of the floor was gone (we learned later that a few years ago a homeless man had perished in a fire he had started to keep warm, which gutted the building). As I gazed upon this blackened skeleton of what had once been the heart of a Mennonite household, the weight of what happened almost a century ago seemed too much to bear…

FROM ITS BEGINNING, THE ANABAPTIST MOVEMENT—the radical wing of the Reformation centered in Switzerland and the Netherlands—suffered continuous displacement, heavily persecuted by both Catholic and Protestant authorities. Mennonites were chased all over Europe, and by the 17th century many had settled in Prussia. The late 18th century saw a major migration of Prussian Mennonites to southern Ukraine, where they had been invited by Catherine the Great, the Tsarina of Russia, because of their reputation as hardworking farmers who had proven successful at cultivating marginal lands. My people come from this wing of the Mennonite movement, and they flourished in Ukraine and Russia for almost 150 years, living in relatively autonomous, German-speaking villages. Catherine granted them religious freedom, including exemption from military service, in exchange for their pioneering and settling the step lands of Southern Ukraine.

The Schulz family (my maternal grandparents) were entrepreneurs who in the late 19th century built a machine factory manufacturing farm equipment that was used all over Russia. But the prosperity of the Mennonite villages contrasted starkly with the lot of both the majority of Russian peasants (who had been liberated from serfdom only one generation earlier) and the emerging urban industrial working class. The profound disparities between the landed gentry and the poor throughout Russia resulted in an aborted revolutionary coup in 1905. World War I further exacerbated social and economic tensions throughout the archaic Tsarist regime. All of these contradictions came to a head in the October Revolution of 1917, lead by Vladamir Lenin.

After the Tsar was overthrown by the Bolsheviks, three years of civil war ensued throughout Russia. In Ukraine the fighting was the bloodiest, raging back and forth between three armed forces: the Red Army of the Soviets; the White Army of Tsarist supporters (backed by the West); and the irregular but formidable forces of Ukrainian nationalists and anarchists. These battles raged right through the yard we were now standing in.

MENNONITE VILLAGES WERE RAVAGED during this time for three basic reasons: their German language, culture and often sympathies; their relative material prosperity; and the fact that as pacifists, Mennonites generally did not fight back. As a child, I learned the name of Nestor Makhno. A Ukrainian peasant, Makhno had reportedly worked as a youth on Mennonite farms. At age 17 he was arrested for anarchist political activity, and spent 10 grueling years in a Moscow jail. Freed during the 1917 Revolution, Makhno returned to his home village of Gulai Polye, in the heart of Southern Ukraine, where most of the Mennonite settlements were. He emerged as a leader of peasant dissatisfaction, and built the most successful anarchist army in history. The Makhnovists fought brilliant guerilla campaigns, and redistributed wealth throughout Ukrainian villages. But they were often irrationally brutal and violent, and had a habit of commandeering Mennonite estates as their headquarters. In one notorious example at Eichenfeld in October 1919, Makhno’s forces wiped out most of the men, murdering 136 people, and raped many women.

Two months later, during Christmas, Makhno and his men came to the Schulz Fabrik. The men of the house fled into the nearby forest, while the girls and young women were hidden away. My 15 year-old grandmother along with her sister and six girl cousins, were secreted up in the attic for two weeks. Though difficult to comprehend, according to the stories passed down in my family, none of those young women were violated. Meanwhile, my great grandmother Anna (left) and her young boys served Makhno and his men meals. In the face of terror, she practiced hospitality. After two weeks, Makhno and his men expropriated all of the remaining resources and horses, and left.

As I lay on my stomach viewing the remains of the great room, I imagined my 15 year old grandmother listening through the attic floor boards as her mother met the demands of these rough peasant soldiers. And I wondered how great-grandma Anna, at age 48, endured this terrible ordeal, still mourning her sister and her four children who had earlier been murdered by the Makhnovists. She somehow coped with their crude language and gestures, their drunkenness, and the illnesses they brought with them. Her response to this violent home-invasion was to feed, clothe and attend to the wounds and fevers of her captors.

I GREW UP HEARING THESE HORROR STORIES, referred to by Mennonites as “the days of terror.” All four of my grandparents were refugees to Canada as a result of these events. Yet as a practitioner of restorative justice over the last 20 years, I have learned that the truth of violation is always more complicated. In working with offenders, I’ve seen that they too have a “secret history” of their own pain and violations. I determined to take this pilgrimage in order to make sense of the full and more ambiguous history of my Mennonite ancestors in Ukraine.

The dominant narrative that we in the Canadian Mennonite community still hold to centers on our victimization during the Russian Revolution. The truth of this is undeniable: more than three-quarters of the Mennonite population in Ukraine and Russia either perished or was exiled to Siberia and never heard from again. But political upheavals rarely sort neatly into “pure” victims or offenders. Moreover, if traumatized people remain too long in a place of victimization, healing can be severely jeopardized. One of the questions driving my pilgrimage concerns how people heal from historical violation. For example, I and others have wondered whether post-traumatic stress might explain the disproportionate rate of Alzheimer’s and depression within the Canadian prairie Mennonite community—an epidemic that has greatly impacted my own family even into my generation and the next. 

My conviction, bolstered through our recent involvement with the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project, is that only the whole truth can heal both victims and perpetrators of political violence. Through my research and travel, I am discovering a series of difficult and even inconvenient questions regarding this Ukrainian story. Here are three:

1. To what extend were Mennonite refugees unwittingly complicit in historical violence, and what is our responsibility to this legacy? I learned that Nogai and Cossack peoples, the traditional inhabitants of the Ukrainian steppes, had been forcibly removed by Catherine the Great just prior to my ancestors arriving from Prussia in the 1780s.reight train with about 750 Mennonite refugees from Chortiza at the station in Alexandrovsk-Zaparoshie, 1923Here is a case of complex historical truth: Mennonite emigrants from one part of Europe end up displacing indigenous people in another part of Europe. A people desiring only religious freedom were used in a wider imperial scheme to colonize marginal lands. And it gets even more complicated. The Russian Mennonites who did make it out in the 1920s (including my grandparents) came as refugees to the Canadian prairies (left: freight train with about 750 Mennonite refugees from Chortiza at the station in Alexandrovsk-Zaparoshie, 1923). They were given or bought land in areas that had recently been taken from Cree tribes by the Canadian government. Here again, Mennonite victims in one part of the world, trying only to survive, helped disenfranchise First Nations people half a world away.

How does this legacy illustrate ways in which victims sometimes also become victimizers in the larger political scenario, and how can we sensitively but courageously deal with a more complex history, knowing that, as Longfellow put it, there is “sorrow and suffering enough all around”? And how might our responses to ongoing disparities—land claim conflicts between Mennonite farmers and Cree tribes in Saskatchewan, and the profound poverty that still exists in Ukraine—be part of our healing?

II. What are ways in which Mennonite affluence put them on the wrong side of a social revolution a century ago? 

Lying beneath Ukrainian peasant hostility towards my Mennonite ancestors in Ukraine was a problematic wealth disparity. Moreover, there was disturbing internal economic stratification within the Mennonite colonies. Many landless Mennonites became servants on wealthy Mennonite estates, and some became so disillusioned that they joined the Communists and Anarchists to fight for a more just society. So the same social fault lines that led to the Russian revolution ran right through my grandmother’s yard. In most cases, our people were not targeted because they were Mennonite, but because they were wealthy, along with Ukrainian kulaks, Jews, Baptists and Lutherans. I remember as a child asking my father why this horror had happened in Russia. He replied simply, “We got too rich.” How does middle class Mennonite prosperity today blind us to the cry of our poorer neighbors?

More challenging still, can we Mennonites nuance our interpretation of the Makhnovist movement in order to acknowledge how it expressed peasant aspirations for social justice? Today Nestor Makhno (right) is still revered in anarchist circles, and honored in Ukrainian public monuments. Given that the dominating Soviet State that Makhno fought against proved so severely oppressive to Mennonites, shouldn’t contemporary Anabaptists reconsider some aspects of anarchism?

III. How should we assess the spectrum of Mennonite responses to the crisis of the Russian Revolution, and what lessons can we learn for our contemporary Anabaptist peace witness? 

On one hand, some young Mennonite men, out of desperation to defend their families and communities from the violations of the civil war, abandoned their pacifism and organized a self-defense unit called the Selbstschutz. In some cases they were armed only with their hunting rifles, but in other instances they were resourced and trained by the White Army. Perhaps inevitably, these armed skirmishes only led to more severe reprisals, including perhaps the Eichenfeld massacre. On the other end of the spectrum, many Mennonite women actually nursed sick Makhnovists back to health, a counter-intuitive, but deeply non-violent response. Indeed, the extraordinary way in which my great-grandmother set a table for her enemies may have in fact, warded off worse violence. How can we learn from this legacy in order to better build capacity for creative nonviolent responses to genocide today?

I BELIEVE IT IS IMPORTANT FOR US TO REVISIT these ethical and political dilemmas from our Mennonite past so they can inform the shape of our future Anabaptist witness, as well as the work of restorative justice to heal historic trauma. Recent research suggests that human biochemistry is actually altered through the experience of severe violence. This supports my belief that we all carry the trauma—and the courage—of our ancestors in our bones. “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother, then your mother, and now lives in you,” says II Timothy 1:4. “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of hands” (v. 14). My grandmother watched her mother serve her enemies, and as a refugee in Canada, raised my mother, who made meals for other refugees. These hands held me, and passed on this legacy and this vocation. There is sorrow enough in our world to disarm all hostility—if we embrace the whole of our stories. That is part of what it means to be a peace church today.