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MHV exhibit delves into Russländer migration

By: Jordan Ross

Posted: 06/2/2019 7:25 AM

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Senior curator Andrea Dyck adjusts a lace dress featured prominently in The Russländer, a new exhibit that has opened in the Gerhard Ens Gallery at Mennonite Heritage Village. The dressed belonged to Maria Heese, who settled in Grunthal.


Senior curator Andrea Dyck adjusts a lace dress featured prominently in The Russländer, a new exhibit that has opened in the Gerhard Ens Gallery at Mennonite Heritage Village. The dressed belonged to Maria Heese, who settled in Grunthal.


A new exhibit at Mennonite Heritage Village drives home a hard but important lesson: the only thing black and white about history is the photographs.

The Russländer opened last Saturday in the Steinbach museum’s Gerhand Ens Gallery. The exhibit chronicles the years preceding and following the second wave of Mennonite migration to Canada. Between 1923 and 1930, nearly 25,000 Mennonites fled violence that erupted in the Soviet Union.

Senior curator Andrea Dyck acknowledged the lack of clear-cut answers available for those willing to look back on one of the most traumatic and controversial chapters in Mennonite history.

"This is a very difficult history," she said. "It is not a happy story."

Though it’s often thought of as a "pioneer museum," MHV has a substantial stock of items from the Russländer era that represent about four percent of its total collection.

Several of the artifacts selected for display by Dyck and assistant curator Jenna Klassen unsettle common assumptions about the period, and the narratives built up around it over the past century. Most were grabbed while families fled, and range from practical (colanders and recipes) to sentimental (Christmas ornaments, delicate porcelain teacups).

The Russländer (the phrase means "the Russians" in German) uses four interpretive panels to orient visitors: "Golden Age," "Flight," "Arrival," and "Legacy."

Visitors first learn of the economic upswing that saw Mennonites branch into the professions, expand their social institutions, don fashionable clothing, and begin to view themselves as part of the larger world.

Economic success allowed some to become wealthy landowners, Dyck said.

"How Mennonites deal with money, how Mennonites deal with wealth, those are things that we still talk about today as a people group, and don’t agree on, so those are uncomfortable things to think about."

The exhibit then traces the successive waves of political upheaval that pounded Mennonites’ daily existence into something unfathomable just a few years before. The First World War, Russian Revolution, and a civil war left Mennonites trapped between rival armies striving for control of a nation-state in flux.

Anarchist leader Nestor Makhno emerged and put the wealthy, German-speaking Mennonites in his crosshairs. They suffered brutal raids involving robberies, rapes, and murders.

Scholars debate the extent to which Mennonites were targeted for their faith, their wealth, or their sometimes questionable treatment of the labourers in their employ, Dyck said.

She and Klassen seized on the violence of the period to create an especially striking recreation: a ransacked kitchen with debris on the floor and furniture strewn about.

"It’s clear without having to explain anything," Dyck said of the exhibit, which was painstaking to construct.

The Mennonites’ response to the raids was to organize into Selbstchutz, or armed self-defense groups. A photo of proud, gun-toting villagers defeats attempts to square the Selbstchutz with the traditional commitment to nonviolence.

"It was a hugely controversial thing, and today how we talk about it is still very controversial," Dyck said.

"It’s so easy to judge what people did in the past, because you know how it turned out. But they were living it."

By 1921, Mennonites received permission to leave the Soviet Union. Arriving in Canada they faced many challenges, including famine, disease, and cultural tensions with Kanadier, the Mennonites who emigrated in the 1870s.

A unique agreement with the Canadian Pacific Railway allowed penniless Russländers to travel to Canada on credit, in order to farm more land along the rail line. Many struck out for neighbourhoods near urban areas.

To illustrate this era, Dyck amassed a small collection of artifacts from one industrious family whose four sons each established a successful manufacturing business in North Kildonan, on the outskirts of Winnipeg.

The final portion of the exhibit encourages visitors to reflect on how the Russländer era has been passed down.

"This exhibit is about how we remember, but also, what does it say about us about how we remember?" Dyck explained.

Because there are still lessons to learn about how people endure trauma, and because MHV operates in an increasingly diverse city, the exhibit also includes a contemporary component.

Dyck partnered with Eastman Immigrant Services to highlight five local stories of displacement and settlement from a Syrian refugee and immigrants from Ukraine, Germany, and the Philippines.

A display case holds the artifacts they selected to symbolize why they left their homeland. The items range from a painting of flowers to a compact disc of wedding photos.

"I hope that it will get us to be more outward-looking," Dyck said.

The Russländer is on display through April 2020. Admission and membership information is available on the MHV website.

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