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Mennonites seek answers through Soviet records

By: Dave Baxter

Posted: 03/25/2018 9:00 AM

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Yuri Fast of Mitchell holds up photos of four of his family members that he believes were taken by Soviet agents not long before all the men were executed. Fast’s grandfather from his dad’s side of the family is pictured bottom left.

DAVE BAXTER | THE CARILLON Enlarge Image

Yuri Fast of Mitchell holds up photos of four of his family members that he believes were taken by Soviet agents not long before all the men were executed. Fast’s grandfather from his dad’s side of the family is pictured bottom left.

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Yuri Fast hopes that one day he can finally find out for certain what happened to both of his grandfathers who were both taken from their own homes in the 1930s, and who would both never come back home.

"I want to know what happened," Fast said. "I want to know where they died, how they died and maybe there is even more information than I don’t even know about.

"Other than the little bits of info we have been told, we just don’t know."

Fast, who was born in Russia and now lives with his family in Mitchell, recently reached out to University of Winnipeg chair of Mennonite Studies Royden Loewen after hearing that Loewen and others with the program were working to get their hands on Soviet records that currently sit in Russia.

Those records give detailed accounts of what happened to millions of people rounded up during Stalin’s Great Purge in the late 1930s.

"Both my grandfathers from my dad’s side and from my mom’s side were taken during the Stalin-era purges," Fast said.

Fast said Soviet agents would often come to homes in the middle of the night and take people away as part of the purge which lasted from 1936-38, typically focusing on certain ethnic minority groups.

"A black SUV came to the door and then everyone knew what was going to happen next," Fast said.

He added one of the ethnic groups that were rounded up was Mennonite men including both his grandfather on his dad’s side who he believes was executed, and his grandfather on his mom’s side who he believes passed away in a Russian labour camp.

Some of the only records Fast has that show some of his family members after they were taken are photos that were obtained of his grandfather and other family members on his dad’s side. He said he believes those pictures were taken by the Soviets just before the men were executed.

What now gives Fast hope that he can get more information on the fate of his grandfathers and other family members is the fact that Loewen and others at the U of W are now on a mission to get their hands on those records, and to give answers to people who have no idea what happened to their ancestors.

"These are records kept by the secret police in Russia and Ukraine," Loewen said. "A lot of people know about Stalin’s arrests but a lot of times they don’t know the details."

"Up to half of all Mennonite men were arrested in the middle of the night from their own homes and typically charged with trumped up charges.

"They were often either sentenced to death which would happen almost immediately or sentenced to the Gulag, and in either case they were rarely ever heard from again."

Loewen said the Mennonite Studies program now has an endowment fund they are using to raise funds and they hope to raise enough money to send historians to Russia to "mine those records."

"There are lots and lots of people out there that do not know what happened to their fathers or grandfathers or great-grandfathers, and a lot of those people are living in the Steinbach area," Loewen said.

Loewen said since making the program’s plans public he has been contacted by a number of Manitobans letting him know they are interested in seeing if they can get access to records to find out what happened to their family members.

Loewen said that anyone interested in learning more about what these records or how they can help support the cause can contact him at 204-786-9391, or send him an email at r.loewen@uwinnipeg.ca.

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