According to a news release from the Russian Evangelical Alliance (REA), little girls in pigtails and long dresses run about. Village life is centered around agriculture, and church services often only begin after the milking is done at 10 p.m.
REA said the churches involved are the Mennonite-Brethren – a split off the “Church Mennonites” (called General-Conference Mennonites in the USA). The split occurred in the southern Ukrainian region of Zaporozhe in 1860.
REA reported the first Mennonites of Dutch and Prussian origin had arrived in Ukraine in 1789; after 1890 groups of them moved onward to Western Siberia and neighboring Kazakhstan. The forced deportation of Germans eastward in August 1941 brought many more Mennonites to the region. Others did not arrive until the 1950’s.
Most of these Mennonites are gathered in a regional association known since 1996 as the “Omsk Brotherhood.” The organization’s roots go back as far as 1907. Its re-founding in 1957 occurred after three decades of persecution.
REA said today the Brotherhood consists of roughly 950 baptized women and 450 baptized men – down from 2,306 in 1987. Surprisingly few of these Mennonites have left for Germany since then – only around half. Perestroika brought with it the beginning of active mission among non-Germans; today the lay ministrs preach primarily in Russian.
The Brotherhood had no church buildings of its own prior to Gorbachev – today it enjoys 17 new chapels and 36 more redone from former private quarters. REA said a “prayer chapel” with more than 200 seats meeting the expectations even of an upscale West German audience is nearing completion in the village of Putchkovo. There are reports that relatives and friends in Germany supplied the required funds.
According to REA, the “Patriarch” for most of these congregations is 1929-born Nikolai Dikman (or Dieckmann) from Marionovka, who was forced to spend the years 1951-56 in the mining Gulag of Vorkuta.
REA said a congregation of Church Mennonites located in Solntsevka just north of Isilkul boasted 130 baptised members and 160 children in 2008. That makes it the largest Mennonite congregation in the region of the former USSR. Other small congregations of Church Mennonites are located in Nieudachino to the east of Omsk and in Novosibirsk. None of these belong to the Omsk Brotherhood.
In Solntsevka, REA reported, church elder Philipp Friesen, a retired shepherd and farmer, remains the stalwart force behind the movement for staying home. But his congregation has nevertheless not been totally immune to Western influences. For more than 70 years it has propagated the teaching of universal salvation.
REA said there are connections to the Swabian conference center “Langensteinbacher Höhe,” famous for promoting this theology. REA said that teaching has heightened tensions. There are reports that a wedding in Solntsevka reaching across inner-Mennonite borders is unthinkable.
Further congregations of Mennonite origin are located around Slavgorod (Altai Region southeast of Omsk) as well as in Shutshinsk near Karaganda/Kazakhstan. The same is true for four or five mission stations in the region of Orenburg/Urals supported by emigrated Church Mennonites in Bielefeld/Germany.
REA said it would be difficult to describe these congregations as German or Mennonite. Alexander Weiss, pastor of the still-unregistered “International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (ICCECB) in Slavgorod, did not hesitate to affirm his Mennonite roots.
REA reported he said, “When we were allowed to restart church life in the 1950’s, there were only grandmothers still around who knew anything about our Mennonite past. But they were afraid to talk.”
Only in the 1950’s was the old Mennonite identity able to resurface. REA said generally speaking, the borders between Mennonite-Brethren and Baptists have become blurred. From Baptists the Mennonite-Brethren had taken over baptism by immersion.
It is claimed that the pietistic teachings of Johann Gerhard Oncken, founder of the German Baptist movement and missionary to Russia, contributed – along with the struggle for farmland – to the Mennonite split of 1860.
The process of assimilation was expedited by the fact that roughly half of the USSR’s Mennonite congregations joined the “All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” after 1966 in order to become officially registered.
REA said even the surnames of the present Presidents of the Baptist Unions of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan reveal their Mennonite roots: Franz Tissen (or Thiessen) and Genrikh (or Heinrich) Foth respectively.
The German-Russian Canadian Viktor Hamm, a Billy Graham Evangelistic Association sponsored evangelist highly popular in Eastern Europe, is a member of the Mennonite-Brethren.
REA said even the martyred father of Georgi Vins (or Wiens), who was himself General-Secretary of the USSR’s unregistered Baptists until deported in 1979, was a Mennonite-Brethren missionary from Canada.
REA said working from Germany, mission societies with Mennonite roots such as “Bibel-Mission,” “Friedensstimme,” “Hoffnungsstrahl” and “Janz-Team” continue to influence events in Russia.
REA said even today, the small flock of Mennonites to the west of Omsk reflects the pacifism, pietism, Arminianism and separatism prevalent within the historic Russian Baptist movement. One could consequently claim that these Mennonites remain closer to the theological heritage of Russian Baptists than the new, heavily-Calvinistic groups from North America which have been active in Russian Baptist circles since 1990.
Yet despite this theological proximity, REA said, it cannot be claimed that current relations between Mennonites and Baptists in the villages of Siberia are harmonious. Insiders attribute this to an unwanted, forced competition. Nearly all Mennonite and Baptist congregations to the west of Omsk (also Slavgorod) are unregistered, non-legal entities.
That means, REA said, that church buildings remain officially the property of private individuals. If the owner of a church property decides to transfer his allegiance to another denomination, only his conscience can keep him from taking the church property with him. So in certain instances, Mennonites could accuse unregistered Baptists not only of sheep-stealing, but also of property theft.
Jeremy Reynalds, Assist News Service