CTMS Event

The Russlaender Mennonites: War, Dislocation, and New Beginnings

Jul 14-15 9:00AM-5:00PM

A Conference Hosted by the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies
at The University of Winnipeg
In-Person and Livestreamed

Between 1923 and 1929 some 21,000 Mennonites from the Soviet Union left a land decimated by violence, famine, and epidemic. They found shelter in far-off Canada, where government, church communities, and private businesses supported their immigration. These migrants, popularly known as the Russlaender Mennonites, made Canada their home. For the past hundred years, they have influenced the shape of Canadian Mennonite communities through their family networks, churches, economic pursuits (as labourers, professionals, and entrepreneurs), and in the world of politics, faith, arts, and service.

This centenary conference presents papers that explore the development of the Russlaender, from late imperial Russia, through war, revolution, and upheaval in the early Soviet Union, to their relocation to Canada. It also features conversations with noted authors of fiction about the Russlaender experience.

Video recordings of the entire conference can be viewed on our YouTube channel.


Friday, July 14

9:00–9:15 a.m.
Welcome and Introduction
  • Welcome: Tracy Whalen, Dean of Arts, University of Winnipeg
  • Opening Remarks: Ben Nobbs-Thiessen, Chair in Mennonite Studies, University of Winnipeg
  • Conference Introduction: Aileen Friesen, Co-director of CTMS, University of Winnipeg
9:15–10:15 a.m.
Feature Conversation with Sarah Klassen
  • A conversation with the award-winning author of The Russian Daughter, moderated by Sue Sorensen (Canadian Mennonite University).
10:15–10:45 a.m.
Coffee Break
10:45 a.m–12:00 p.m.
Neighbours, Revolution, and Civil War
  • Chair: Peter Letkemann, Winnipeg
  • Naemi Fast, Alice Salomon University in Berlin, “A Work of Faith: The Grossweide Orphanage”
  • Jonathan Dekel-Chen, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “Mirror Images? Russlaender Mennonites and their Jewish Farming Neighbors”
  • Alfred Eisfeld, Göttinger Arbeitskreis, “Mennonites at the Turn of 1917-1919”
  • Aileen Friesen, University of of Winnipeg, “Surviving the Abyss: Mennonite Women during the Civil War”
12:00–1:00 p.m.
Lunch Break

(restaurant options on and off campus)

1:00–2:15 p.m.
Exodus and Accommodation
  • Chair: Ben Nobbs-Thiessen, University of Winnipeg
  • James Urry, Victoria University of Wellington, “Before and After the Time of Chaos: The Wider Contexts of the Mennonite Emigration from Russia and Immigration to Canada, 1900-1926”
  • Nataliya Venger, Dnipro National University, “The Mennonite Verband and Soviet Power in the 1920s: A Game on a Razor’s Edge”
  • Ad van de Staaij, The Hague, “Doopsgezinden, Refugees, and Colonists, 1924-1938”
  • Olena Khodchenko, Dnipro National University, “Emigration of Mennonites during the New Economic Policy: Causes of the Exodus”
2:15–2:45 p.m.
Coffee Break
2:45–4:00 p.m.
The Soviet Promise
  • Chair: Nataliya Venger, Dnipro National University
  • Johannes Dyck, Bibelseminar Bonn, “Soviet Religious Policy and Mennonite Concerns in the 1920s”
  • Edward Krahn, Winnipeg, “The Faithful 77: The General Conference of Mennonite Congregations in Russia”
  • Colin Neufeldt, Concordia University of Edmonton, “‘It Will Get Better’: The Case for Mennonites Not to Emigrate from Soviet Ukraine”
4:00–4:45 p.m.
Documentary Presentation

Screening of the film I Have Nothing to Add (dir. Tanya Stefanenko) and presentation by Maria Lotsmanova on her GULAG research in Russian archives. Chair: Stephanie Stobbe, Menno Simons College (Canadian Mennonite University).

5:00–7:00 p.m.
Dinner Break
7:00-8:30 pm
Feature Conversation with Sandra Birdsell
  • A conversation with the award-winning author of The Russländer, moderated by Sarah Ens. Reception to follow.

Saturday, July 15

9:00–10:15 a.m.
Immigration, Deportation, and Encounters
  • Chair: Jeremy Wiebe, University of Winnipeg
  • Hans Werner, University of Winnipeg, “‘Becoming a Public Charge’: The Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization and the Threat of Deportation”
  • Marlene Epp, Conrad Grebel University College, “When the Clemmers Met the Dicks: The Russlaender Encounter the Swiss in Ontario”
  • Josephine Braun, Burlington, ON, “Did It Have to End This Way? Isaac J. Braun Under the Shadows of Bolshevism”
10:15–10:45 a.m.
Coffee Break
10:45 a.m.–12:00 p.m.
An Immigrant Culture
  • Chair: Hans Werner, University of Winnipeg
  • Werner Toews, Winnipeg, “Dietrich Epp: The Rußländer Who Founded Der Bote
  • Royden Loewen, University of Winnipeg, “The Agriculture of Knowledge: Farmers from Soviet Ukraine Cultivate Canada, 1920-1930”
  • Liz Jansen, York University, “Unsettling Colonialism: Race, Ethnicity, and Class at Namaka Farm”
12:00–1:00 p.m.
Lunch Break

(restaurant options off campus)

1:00–2:15 p.m.
Education and Identity in Canada
  • Chair: Brian Froese, Canadian Mennonite University
  • Bruce Guenther, MB Seminary, “The Russlaender Mennonite Contribution to the Bible School Movement in Western Canada”
  • Janis Thiessen, University of Winnipeg, “Necessary Idealism: The Origins of Westgate Mennonite Collegiate”
  • Victor Kliewer, University of Manitoba, “The Struggle for a German-Canadian Mennonite Identity: Mennonitischer Sprachverein, 1952-2003”
2:30–4:00 pm
Feature Conversation with David Bergen
  • A conversation with award-winning author of Away from the Dead, moderated by Aileen Friesen. Reception to follow.


Major Contributors: Paul Toews Professorship Fund, the Riley Fellowship in Canadian History, MCC Canada, and the University of Winnipeg.

Planning Committee: Aileen Friesen, Ben Nobbs-Thiessen, and Jeremy Wiebe.

Special Thanks: University of Winnipeg student volunteers and the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada

Journal of Mennonite Studies

Selected, peer-reviewed papers from this conference will be published in 2024 in the Journal of Mennonite Studies.

Our Next Annual Conference

Subjects, Settlers, Citizens

The 1870s Mennonites in Historical Context

University of Winnipeg and Livestream