The Russlander by Sandra Birdsell


This book covers a little-known aspect of Ukrainian history – the lives of the Mennonites in what’s now Zaporizhzhia Oblast, and the destruction of their communities during the time of the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic at the end of the First World War.  I have to admit that I knew very little about this.  I associate the Zaporizhzhia area with Cossacks, because of the Zaporizhzhian Sich and I associate German/Dutch immigration into Catherine the Great’s Empire with Volga Germans, because of Gabriel Heinze.  That’s Gabriel Ivan Heinze, formerly of United, who is descended from some of the many Volga Germans who emigrated to Argentina.

Anyway, in 1789, a group of Mennonites, of Dutch heritage, living in Danzig in the Kingdom of Prussia, which is now Gdansk in Poland (keep up), moved to the Chortitza area.  The Chortitiza area is near Ekaterinoslav, in the Russian Empire … which is now Dnipro, formerly Dnipropretovsk in Ukraine.   Again, keep up.   And I’m well aware of the pogroms carried out against Jews during the Ukrainian People’s Republic, but I have to say that I didn’t really know how bad the attacks on Mennonites were.

That makes the book sound really miserable.  The first part of it is really quite uplifting.  If anything, it’s too idealised – although the Mennonites have been in Ukraine for over a century, there’s a sense of being pioneers, being settlers, but with none of the struggles and setbacks that you might expect in a book about pioneering.  Even when the Great War breaks out, we don’t hear that much about it.  The men volunteer, not as soldiers but to offer medical assistance – like some Quakers did in Britain – but we don’t see anything of life at the front, because our focus is on the women at home.  But then everything changes.

I’m a little bit confused with the timeline, because the book shows the attack on the community in question as being in 1917, under the auspices of Simeon Pravda.  Pravda was a real person, an anarcho-communist who was one of Nestor Makhno’s lieutenants.  Makhno, who was based in the Ekaterinoslav area, and led an anarchist army in Ukraine during the time of the People’s Republic.  There was utter chaos – the Red Army and the White Army were fighting each other, there were German and Austrian troops who hadn’t yet retreated, there was the Ukrainian People’s Army, and there were gangs of bandits.  Everyone’s accused everyone else of banditry.  And the people who came off worst in all of it were the Jews and the Mennonites.   Views of both Makhno and Pravda differ, but that the Mennonite settlements came under these horrific attacks is a fact.  However, the attacks mostly seem to have taken place in 1918 and 1919, so I’m not quite sure why the author’s got this one as being in 1917.  But anyway.

The Mennonite colony in the book, like those in the Chortitza area in real life, is attacked by bandits, who, all too similarly to Putin’s army today, murder many of the men still at home and rape many of the women.  They also, although the book doesn’t really show this, stole most of the grain stores, and manage to spread typhus all round the area.  A lot of the survivors subsequently emigrated to Canada, which is what Katya Vogt, the protagonist of this book, does.  We see her and other survivors trying to carry on, but finding life very difficult under the new communist regime.  And then, at the end, we see her as an elderly lady in Manitoba, having married another survivor and with many children and grandchildren.  We hear that a friend who remained was deported to Siberia during the Second World War: Stalin deported almost all the Chortitza Mennonites.   A few returned later, but most who survived either moved to cities or emigrated to Germany.  The old colonies, like the old Jewish shtetls, are either empty or else inhabited by other people who’ve moved there.

It’s not the most cheerful of books.  If you want a bit of light reading, this is not the book for you!  But it’s an interesting tale of a small group of people who were just trying to live in peace and fell victim to other people’s hatreds and conflicts.



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