Saturday, 2 April 2022

Hutterites in Ukraine

 In the time of plenty think of the time of hunger; in days of wealth think of

poverty and need. From morning to evening conditions change;

all things move swiftly before the Lord. Sirach 18: 25-26

With the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, I cannot help but wonder, what if the Hutterites still lived in that part of the world today? I can’t imagine the sound of an air raid siren wailing, let alone hearing them regularly; nor experiencing the horror of having to flee from my homeland. Knowing the hardships the Hutterites endured during the Russo-Turkish war (1768) and that their villages were located in areas which are now directly within the recent Russian invasion, is a sobering thought. But by the grace of God, we’re no longer there. I’m saddened at what the innocent people in both Ukraine and Russia have to endure.

 

Location of former villages in Ukraine
                                  Base map from: https://graphics.reuters.com/UKRAINE-CRISIS/zdpxokdxzvx/

When the Russo-Turkish war broke out, the Hutterites in Wallachia (Romania today) found themselves caught in an area between the two opposing armies, which led to severe plundering and brutal beatings, death threats from soldiers and local robbers, along with constant fear as the conflict raged on. Although the battle site was three miles away from the Presetschain community, “yet they could feel the earth shaking under their feet, and the windows in the houses rattled.” The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren II describes in detail this horrific experience when at times, “The whole community had to take to the woods in the cold of winter.” Though their “sojourn there was full of sorrow, toil and hardships” they “never forgot to thank God for surviving the brutalities and that they were not taken into Turkish slavery.”

These sufferings compelled the leaders to look into moving yet again. A few brothers met with the commander-in-chief, General Sametin, who showed them “sympathy and compassion”. They told him that they’d like to leave Wallachia, but didn’t know where to go. He suggested they move to Russia. After earnest prayer for guidance and protection, they decided to accept the suggestion, “on the one condition that we would be allowed freedom of religion” and were assured that, “every type of creed and religion was tolerated” in the Russian Empire.

Therefore, the Hutterites set out for Russia in 1770. Upon arriving at the Polish frontier they learned that they would not be able to cross the border due to a “widespread pestilence in Moldavia. No one was allowed to cross into the Kingdom of Poland until they had been in quarantine for six weeks.” Thus, with provisions running low, they camped in a wood half a mile from Khotin, where they met Count Rumiantsev, field marshal in the Russian Imperial Army.  Rumiantsev promised them protection from molestation and provided them with bread from the city storehouse. After their time in quarantine, they were escorted through Poland and into Russia by ten Cossacks, guards of Count Rumiantsev.

Five wagons brought sixty Hutterites, a few cows, calves, sheep and their belongings from Wallachia to Vishenka on the Desna River, 192 kilometers northeast of Kiev. The count allowed them to live on his huge estate until they could establish a place of their own. He had a master carpenter, and gave him orders to assist the Hutterites with building a big house, kitchen, carpenter shop and a store room for flour and bread. Since this major undertaking could not be completed before winter set in, they were provided with sleeping quarters on the count’s manor farm near Tschereschenk.

The Chronicle records, “This concludes the account of the wonderful ways and means God intervened to bring the Church of the Lord into the Ukraine.”

Settled in that region, they once again established communities, planted gardens, orchards and took up the trades of spinning and weaving. In 1796 however, after Count Rumiantsev died, there was trouble with his sons, which necessitated the move to Radichev, thirteen kilometers northeast on the Desna.

Around 1819, after struggling through internal conflicts, coupled with a weak economy, community of goods was abandoned. Lacking teachers left their youth illiterate, a stark contrast to the Hutterian Community’s time in Slovakia during 1550-1618 when their communities had included exemplary schools. They suffered spiritually, economically and culturally.

In 1834 Johann Cornies, a well-known Mennonite orchardist and agricultural leader, well versed in agriculture and academics, offered to assist the struggling Hutterites. They longed to resettle, and Cornies pleaded with The Minister of Agriculture on their behalf. Upon receiving permission, he also helped to move them 640 km south of Radichev, on the Molotschnaja River, near the Molotschna Mennonite settlement and placed Hutterite young people with Mennonite families, so they’d learn farming methods from them. Cornies also assisted them in establishing Huttertal, near the River Tashchenack, provided them with saplings and taught them how to plant shelter belts and fruit trees. Some years later another village, Sheromet was established. Their education standards improved when the children attended the village school, while the adults went to night classes. When another Hutterite village was established in 1843 they in honour of Johann Cornies named it Johannesruh.

The Hutterites shared Anabaptist beliefs with the Mennonites, but chose to live apart from them. They elected their own ministers, used their own religious writings, with emphasis on the Pentecost teachings and community of goods. However, by 1856 living communally had been abandoned; when attempts to revive it failed and “inner difficulties arose, splinter groups formed, and the exclusion of various community members took place.” Dedication and unity, key elements for community building, was sadly lacking, which hindered a much needed renewal.

In 1859, after living non-communally for forty years, and being inspired by a dramatic vision Michael Waldner had, community of goods was restored. In this vision an angel showed Michael heaven and hell and pointed out that during the great Flood only eight people were saved. Furthermore, the ark is a symbol of Gemeinschaft, community of goods. Thus, the angel inspired Waldner to resume living according to the biblical teachings in the book of Acts of the Apostles. Thus, the two community leaders, Michael Waldner and Darius Walter worked together in Hutterdorf and re-established community of goods.

By 1879, all Hutterites had left Russia, because the government decreed that all children should attend Russian schools and their exemption from military service was revoked. In 1859, Waldner’s group settled in Yankton County in South Dakota, establishing Bonhomme Colony, Walter’s group established Wolf Creek in 1860. Some from the third group, led by Jacob Wipf and arriving in the late 1880’s, chose to live on individual farms while the rest continued living communally.

Today there are Hutterite communities in the United States, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Oregon, Montana, Washington and in the Canadian provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. 

Residing in a country where we’re blessed with freedom of religion, living comfortable lives, nice homes, more than enough to food and clothing, we have a tendency to take these gifts for granted. Until news of nations at war gives us pause; we hear that people in Ukraine live in fear and are forced to flee – realities that were all too common for our own forebears. Will these horrors eventually affect us and alter the life we’ve become so accustomed to?

Still, no matter what lies ahead, we cling to God and pray: Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. Let me dwell in your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings! For you, O God have heard my vows, you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name. Psalm 61: 1-5.