Genealogists and school children often use flags to indicate ethnicity or cultural origin. Persons of Mennonite descent have long depended on other symbols such as the MCC service-for-peace dove as a unifying cultural symbol. But, the dove is a privately-licensed symbol for a particular group and while formerly serving as a unifier of the various Peace Churches in the past, to be a member of the MCC is no longer dependent on being Mennonite. Yet few alternatives exist.
Instead of proposing a unified Anabaptist flag, maybe it is time to adopt a cultural and ethnic symbol more pertinent and exclusive to Russian Mennonites – one that could be modified by other similar ethnic groups to more specifically reference their own individual cultures.
While the Anabaptists have not had a unifying symbol or flag for almost 500 years (there is some room for debate over the use of the “lamb of God” or “peaceable kingdom” banners of the early Reformation), Russian Mennonites do have recourse to the official Russländer flag – a Soviet relic bestowed upon the German, Jewish and Dutch speakers of German in Russia-Ukraine between 1923 and 1941. Politics aside, it is an overly simple and more-or-less unappealing banner of Soviet red with the name of the republic in gold block lettering (both Cyrillic and German) in the upper left-hand corner. While Moscow intended the flag to be a useful and effective cultural identifier for the Russländer or German Republic, the politics and cultural destruction that the Soviets and their flags represent to the Russländer makes its effective modern adoption unpopular and problematic. Apart from the Holodomar, the forced migrations, the purges, the religious persecution and two World Wars, the red flag of the Soviets represents a secular society that fails to reflect the core values of the majority of Russländer cultures, serving only to remind their descendants of the pain, loss and cultural destruction of Stalin and the Soviets.
Dutch Russländer, at least, have a surprisingly appealing alternative to the Soviet-era banner. In 1693, Tsar Peter the Great designed the modern Russian flag based on that of the Netherlands and France as a symbol of his vision for a new Western-oriented Russia. To communicate his intent, to modernize Russia along Dutch lines, he simply took the Dutch flag and changed the order of the “Liberal” or democratic tri-colored stripes – originally the famed French tri-colours, to form the modern Russian flag.
Thus one might simply and effectively express the notion of Dutch-descent Russländer by placing the flag of the Dutch Republic, embodying many of the Liberal social and political values having their birth in the Radical Reformation of the Anabaptists, over that of Petrine Russia.
The appropriateness of this arrangement is even more apparent by the fact that after Catherine II established the original Russländer colonies in Ukraine, Alexander II convinced many more Dutch Mennonites of Prussian and Polish nationality to migrate to these colonies.
The resulting outer stripes match aesthetically (both being red), but they also remind us of the legendary ruby ring legend Alexander purportedly took from his finger and gave to a young Mennonite immigrant girl trekking in from Prussia to the Ukrainian colonies. The ring was said to indicate his approval of, appreciation for and benevolent protection towards his new Mennonite subjects.
As more of a stretch, the far fields of red are also reminiscent of the bounding bands of red in the Canadian flag – an important Mennonite refugee and immigration destination, while reflecting the basic structure and colors of the United States' and Paraguayan flags.
One would be tempted to appreciate the simple design of such a banner as described – and such a banner could easily represent the experience and identity of the Russländer cultural diaspora as a whole. But – since this is meant as an ethnic and not simply a political banner, it might be useful for certain Russländer groups to modify the design individually by attaching central symbols or motifs to it. For instance, the Tri-angle Lutheran Russländer could easily place a triangle on the flag to represent the historic truth and experience of their forebears in the Crimea. For Russian Mennonites, I would recommend something a bit more intricate.
The major cultural division amongst the Mennonites of Russian Ukraine was geographic. Culturally and politically, the Mennonite colonies of Little Russia drew their identity and cultural fellowship from either the first colony called Chortitza (est. 1754) or the second, and much larger group of colonies to the east, Molotschna (est. 1780). When the first Mennonites arrived at Chortitza, they grouped under a particular large oak tree, now understood to be over 700-years-old. Organizational meetings, church services and other gatherings were first shaded by its branches. It is understood that this same oak had performed the same protective or sheltering service to generations of successive settlers beginning with the Saracens and Attila to later hordes of invading Magyars and Turks. The tree symbolized stability and durability for many Russländer, not just the adjacent Mennonites. I would recommend that a branch of oak be used to represent the story and memory of the first Chortitzan Mennonite pioneers.
The sister colonies to the east were newer – and mostly established by more recent Mennonite immigrants and refugees from Prussia. Molotschna took its name from a near-by Molotchna, or Milk, River and was located not too distant from the famous resorts at Yalta. Unlike Chortitza, Mennonite diarists have remarked that Molotschna was so devoid of trees that not even willows grew along the banks of its river. Truly, the Mennonites found Molotschna to be a flat, treeless prairie, steppe or veldt.
In an effort to provide trees as shelter and to found a new industry based on the Chinese silk-worms that feed on mulberry leaves, the Mennonites of Molotschna established a difficult mulberry tree planting experiment. Nor was the fruit of these trees under-appreciated by innovative Mennonite kitchens who quickly incorporated the berries into many dessert and jelly recipes. A mulberry branch loaded with fruit would recall both an important historical incident in Molotschna cultural history while reflecting the innovative and enterprising technological and agronomical changes brought to Ukraine by capable Mennonite farmers.
While the colonies and villages of both Chortitza and Molotschna are now empty, abandoned or taken over by others, their descendants in the United States and Canada are often associated with a third plant originating in the Mennonite experience in Ukraine – the development and cultivation of hard red winter wheat – the now famous Turkey Red whose descendants have become a commodity staple in North America. Again, legend has it that immigrants (or refugees) preparing to leave for the New World carefully threshed their red winter wheat crops and chose by hand only the largest, plumpest kernels of seed wheat to carry along with them. Wheat should be reflected on the banner to indicate both the successful farming innovations of the Mennonite colonies and the linkage between this crop in the Old World and the successful establishment of daughter colonies in the United States and Canada depending on this crop as a staple.
Of course, the story of the Russländer Mennonites is distinct of that of their Protestant Lutheran and Reformed, and their German Roman Catholic neighbors in that they came to Ukraine not as economic migrants looking for land and career opportunities, but had in fact been driven out of their former homes in the Netherlands and the Germanies by those same Lutherans, Reformed and Roman Catholics as martyrs for the Christian Anabaptist faith. The role of the shared faith, migrations and religious persecution are essential to the formation of the Russländer Mennonite identity. A simple cross coloured red would symbolize both the centrality of that early faith and the blood of thousands of martyrs who died to establish that faith or were displaced in an effort to worship according to their own individual consciences rather than according to various imperial or political edicts and decrees.
Finally, as Christians, the Mennonites or Anabaptists are unique for three reasons – the democratic organization of their congregations, the role of the adult individual in their Christian faith and their commitment to an apolitical pacifism. While the colours of the liberal Dutch and Russian flag serve to indicate the new liberal political order based on individual liberty and responsibility, something should yet be added to reflect the pacifism that drew the communities together, why the Russländer left Prussia and Poland for Ukraine in the first place, and why they eventually had to leave Ukraine for the New World. A simple banner reading Pax Christi or the Peace of Christ could indicate that central core value and communicate it to future descendants.
Another alternative would be to place the former symbol of the German Soviet Republic inside the wreathe of oak and mulberry – continuing the wheat motif and replacing the Soviet-era sickle-and-hammer with a smaller white Latin cross. The inscription could be similarly changed to Pax Christi.
Noting the absence of an ethnic unifying symbol or banner to represent the Russländer or Russian Mennonite cultural identity, I have proposed a simple yet richly symbolic flag that unites various symbols of the Mennonite experience in Ukraine and both the core values and central history that continues to unite their descendants in a common ethnic cultural experience.Have fun and adopt at will – or form alternative suggestions. Times have indeed changed and we could certainly use such symbols to help retain and communicate our cultural and ethnic identities to ourselves and others.