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Mennonite Brethren HeraldVolume 46, No. 10October 2007
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Faith survived hard century in Russia: Siberian MBs

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Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin reportedly said it was easy to send agents to close churches, but then the peasants would build churches deep in their souls.

Mennonite Brethren churches long hidden by Soviet-era repression were on public display July 29 as the Omsk Bruderschaft (church association) celebrated its 100th anniversary in western Siberia.

The anniversary specifically marked the 1907 establishment of Tchunayevka Mennonite Brethren Church as an independent congregation and the formation of the Siberian branch of the Union of Russian Baptists.


Photo: Walter Unger

Today the Bruderschaft has 33 congregations and 21 smaller affiliated groups in the Omsk region. About 90 percent of the congregations have Mennonite roots. A large banner imprinted “100 Years Under the Cover of the Almighty” provided the theme for the 2,500 people who gathered in a large tent in a clearing in the birch forests of western Siberia.

They came to remember the triumph of the faith community over a history filled with suffering and persecution. Strong preaching, a 200-voice choir with occasional orchestral accompaniment, a brass ensemble, a 60-voice male choir, small vocal ensembles and many original poems added to the power of the event.

Nicolai Dückman, presbyter of the Bruderschaft, concluded with deep emotion by appealing to his listeners to preserve the “sacred space in our hearts,” which sustained the church through difficult times. Dückman himself spent five years in prison for his religious activities. Others in the audience were also survivors of the Soviet gulag system.

In preparation for the centennial, Canadian historian Peter Epp authored 100 Years Under the Cover of the Almighty: A history of Omsk Evangelical Christian Baptists and their Association. The Mennonite story in the Omsk region began in 1897. The Tchunayevka village church began in 1901 as an affiliate of the Ruckenau, or Molotschna, congregation. By 1913, 36 Mennonite settlements stretched along 200 miles of the Trans-Siberian Railway east and west of Omsk. The Union of Russian Baptists began as a result of German Baptists, Russian Baptists, and Russian evangelical Christians moving into the region in the late 19th century.

Epp noted that historically the “wall between Mennonites, German Baptists, and Russian Baptists was not high.” In the early Soviet period they established joint Bible courses, held “Sanger-fests,” and cooperated in various ways. By 1929, Soviet restrictions on religious activity stiffened, and in 1937–38 all the meetinghouses were closed. “But the churches in our souls survived,” Epp said.

In the same years, 25,000 people in the Omsk district were accused of anti-Soviet activity, and 15,000 were shot. “Many of them were our brothers,” Epp said. A time of reawakening occurred as believers found each other in the Soviet civilian labour force during World War II.

After Stalin’s death in 1953 and the subsequent amnesty for political and religious prisoners, it became possible to begin a more formal association. In 1957 in Isil’kul’, Siberia – towards the western edge of the Mennonite settlements – German Baptists and Mennonites renewed the association established in 1907. Jacob Heide, a Baptist minister, christened it the Evangelical Christian Baptist Association.

Throughout the Soviet period congregations registered with the state and gained minimal rights if they would abide by Soviet laws on religious cults. All the congregations of the Omsk association refused because of restrictions those laws also imposed. As a result, scores of association leaders, teachers, and youth workers were imprisoned between 1955 and 1984.

The period of freedom that began under Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev lifted virtually all restrictions on religious activity. Today, the association’s membership includes people of Mennonite, Russian, Tartar, Kazakh, and other backgrounds. The common language is Russian, and the celebratory services were conducted in Russian. German and Low German, however, could also be heard.

Paul Toews

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Category: General MB Conference

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Last modified: Oct 9, 2007


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