Previous | Next

Fall 1999 · Vol. 28 No. 2 · pp. 268–69 

Book Review

Journeys: Mennonite Stories of Faith and Survival in Stalin's Russia

John B. Toews. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1998. 226 pages.

Reviewed by Keith L. Sprunger

The themes of “faith” and “survival” aptly describe John B. Toews’s new book about Mennonites during the Stalin era. He has collected, edited, and translated the stories of four Mennonites who came through—survived—the Russian Revolution. The book begins with an introduction about the Russian Revolution and its effect upon Mennonites. Although we have heard a good deal about the earlier events of the revolution, this highlights a less well-known part of Mennonite history, the thirties. During the twenties, more than twenty thousand Mennonites managed to emigrate, but at least 80 percent remained. If the past years had been terrible, the worst, with Stalin in charge, was still to come. The history of the Stalin phase of the revolution is not pleasant reading; a great number of citizens—including Mennonites—were caught in a “series of complex and gruesome events” (5). Professor Toews is well known for his writings on twentieth-century Russian Mennonite history; many readers, for example, will know his Czars, Soviets, and Mennonites (1982) and his Letters from Susan (1988), also on the Stalin period.

The bulk of the book is the four memoirs, mainly dealing with the period from about 1925 to 1945, and ranging through many Mennonite communities. First are the words of two women, Anna Kroeker and Justina Martens. Their stories were oral history accounts, although the situations in which they were transcribed or recorded are not given. The other two accounts are from Abram Berg and Aron Warkentin. They composed them as written, more polished, memoirs. There is hardly a page in the book which is not grim and brutal as we move through the {269} collectivization of farms, the destruction of the Mennonite communities, the rounding up and arresting of the men, and the Gulag camps.

“Survival” is the right term, since one can hardly call it more than that. Sometimes religious faith was the core of survival, sometimes sheer will power. “Only those who clung to life with every ounce of energy and strength, who sacrificed their last possessions for two or three hundred grams of bread, who struggled every second and minute and grasped at every straw of hope, only those saw the distant dawn of morning” (214).

Stalin, “Man of Steel,” pushed Russia ahead with a combination of idealism about a bright future and harsh coercion. The Mennonite experiences reveal nothing of idealism and only the coercion and terror. The women’s memoirs described the home and work front; the two men told about the concentration camps. Three of the persons often spoke of their faith in God as essential in dire times; the other memoir is more matter-of-fact. For all of them, communism was a cruel fate. “Righteousness and justice did not exist” (182).

The classic, all-encompassing book on the Stalin system and the camps is Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973). I recently reread it. Many of Toews’s stories fit perfectly into Solzhenitsyn’s larger Russian account, but with the Mennonite faith perspective. This book is aimed at the general reader but will also be useful for historians. I consider Journeys to be an excellent and valuable addition to our library of Russian history and Mennonite history.

Keith L. Sprunger
Prof. of History
Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas

Previous | Next